Gaza: the "new war"

Mary Kaldor
18 February 2009

Izzeldin Abuelaish is a Palestinian gynaecologist who lives in Gaza and works in an Israeli hospital and runs a free clinic in Gaza on weekends. His specialty is infertility and he helps Israeli women who have difficulty conceiving. He was born and brought up in a Palestinian refugee camp and became a doctor after studying his own medical records when he was ill as a boy.

During the recent war in Gaza, he was frequently interviewed on Israeli television because he speaks fluent Hebrew. This is why Israelis actually witnessed his anguish when a tank shell hit his house, killing three of his daughters and a niece.

Mary Kaldor is professor of global governance at the London School of Economics (LSE), and convenor of the human-security study group that reports to the European Union's foreign-policy chief Javier Solana.The horror of Abuelaish's tragedy did briefly lead to calls for a ceasefire (even though there were also shocking scenes on television of Israeli women attacking him, even in the midst of his despair, for causing their sufferings). But within a couple of days, fabricated pictures were circulating on the internet showing Abuelaish's house packed with weapons. In the end, however, after the war was over, the Israeli Defence Forces have admitted that there were no weapons and that they are investigating what happened.


What "war"?

For Israel, the attacks on Gaza were a legitimate war aimed at the state security of Israel, keeping Israeli citizens safe. In a legitimate war, there is some attempt to minimise civilian casualties and the Israelis did try to minimise casualties by, for example, dropping warning leaflets, telling the inhabitants of places they were about to hit to get out of the way. Since the Israelis could not distinguish combatants from non-combatants and since Hamas, according to Israel, used civilians as a shield, and since there was nowhere for civilians to go, the attacks mostly killed civilians,. Such "collateral damage" as it is anodynely known, can be justified, it is argued, if it can be shown that this was militarily necessary.

For the rest of the world, the attacks on Gaza were a massive violation of human rights. What has changed above all since the wars of earlier centuries is our growing consciousness of what it means to be human. The rest of the world watched aghast as human beings (not enemies) were killed, maimed and displaced from their homes. It is partly that we are able to witness what is going on thanks to satellite TV, internet, or mobile phones. Moreover, many more people travel and migrate so we may actually know friends or relatives of those who are suffering or NGOs active in the area. But also in the aftermath of twentieth century wars, the norms against killing and against wars have been strengthened. The UN Charter prohibited war except in self-defence and human rights law has been greatly developed over the last sixty years. These formal constraints have been underpinned by the growth of peace and human rights thinking and activism.

But what does it mean for Israelis to say they are fighting a "war"? Clausewitz, the great military strategist, defined war as "an act of violence intended to compel an opponent to fulfill our will". For Clausewitz, such a war inherently tends to extreme as each side tries to destroy the other. The only reason that war is limited, according to Clausewitz is political calculation or what he called "friction" - the fog of war that slows down military operations.

Did the Israeli attacks correspond to this definition of war? Was Israel actually trying to compel Hamas to fulfill its will? Certainly, that was what they argued and probably believed - they were "punishing" Hamas. The talks in Cairo focused on preventing weapons smuggling and on guarantees for future ceasefires. Yet, at the end of the war, after over a thousand casualties and the wholesale destruction of homes, schools, hospitals, and huge tracts of agricultural land, Hamas rocket attacks have not stopped. The Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas, has not been released. Indeed, Hamas has used the cover of war to strengthen its position and kill many opponents.


The "new war"

The attacks on Gaza are much better explained as what I call a "new war". A new war can be defined as the use of political violence by organised groups for a range of purposes. For "new wars", what is important is the idea of war as a joint enterprise, which serves to mobilise people and to satisfy certain economic interests. As Daniele Archibugi has pointed out on these pages, for the Israelis, the war helped to shore up the position of Kadima in the run up to the elections. Contrary to predictions, Tzipi Livni's Kadima party won one more seat than the right-wing Likud party. On the other hand, the war also hardened opinion in Israel and the extreme rightist party of Avigdor Lieberman is holding the political balance. The war also provided an opportunity to demonstrate the efficacy of Israeli defence technology, even though, of course, this magnificent technology was unable to discriminate between civilians and military targets. Indeed, it can be argued that the Israeli state has become a sort of war state, in which the Israeli defence industry, Israeli intelligence and the Israeli defence forces are integrated into the fabric of governing institutions and political authority depends on the idea that the state's main role is to protect Israel from its enemies.

On the other side, the Israeli occupation, the checkpoints and the periodic attacks have prevented the emergence of any unified Palestinian political authority and allowed a state of lawlessness in both the West Bank and Gaza, in which armed factions, militia groups, clans and organised crime have grown in strength and influence. Of course, the Hamas coup in Gaza has led to a crack down on factions but also much greater repression; and in the West Bank, there are areas like Jenin where the Palestinian Authority, spurred by international pressure, has managed to re-establish a more peaceful situation. Nevertheless, the struggle against Israel offers a kind of framework for all these unsavoury networks. Hamas, as a resistance movement, acquires its legitimacy through the attacks on Israel. One of the most chilling sentences of the war was the Hamas spokesman who said: "Every time they attack our homes, mosques and schools, it legitimises our attacks on their homes, synagogues and schools."

The tendency of new wars is not towards the extreme; rather it is for wars without end - a permanent war psychosis. A parallel can be drawn with the "war on terror". Understood as a classic Clausewitzean war, each act of terrorism calls forth a military response, which in turns produces a more extreme counter-reaction. The problem is that there can be no decisive blow. The terrorists cannot be destroyed by military means because they cannot be distinguished from the population. Nor can the terrorists destroy the military forces of the United States. But if we understand the "war on terror" as a mutual enterprise, whatever the individual antagonists believe, in which the US administration shores up its image as the protector of the American people and the defender of democracy and those with a vested interest in a high military budget are rewarded, and in which extremist Islamists are able to substantiate the idea of a global jihad and are able to mobilise young Muslims behind the cause, then action and counter-reaction merely contribute to "long war" which benefits both sides.

In the aftermath of Gaza, the prognosis for peace is not hopeful, whatever the efforts of the new Obama administration. The prognosis is for more rockets and more bouts of violence and for the rise of more and more extreme factions on both sides. Far from recognising each other as human beings, each bout of violence has the opposite effect.

Is there a role for the outside world? At present, the outside world, at official levels, tends to endorse the Israeli perception that this is a war designed to shore up Israeli national security. Even though organisations like the EU or the UN do a lot to alleviate suffering through their humanitarian assistance, this is not reflected in the dominant political rhetoric of the US (even since Obama) and the Quartet (the US, the EU, the UN and Russia), which tends to focus on issues like the rocket attacks, weapons smuggling to Gaza, or Hamas's non-recognition of Israel.


Towards human security

What is needed is a shift in international policy from concern with Israeli state security to concern about the human security of both Israelis and Palestinians. Such a shift of policy would have to mean pressure on Israel to allow Palestinian to lead more normal lives through allowing freedom of movement, releasing Palestinian tax revenues, or freeing prisoners. To some extent, this is beginning to happen in parts of the West Bank where Condoleeza Rice and Tony Blair have tried to achieve limited gains in institution-building and economic development particularly in areas like Jenin. But it needs to involve much more extensive and coordinated external pressure and to be applied throughout the West Bank and Gaza. The pressure could take the form of an arms embargo or conditions attached to EU neighbourhood policy. None of this would solve the problem but at least it could improve every day life for Palestinians a little bit and perhaps create the conditions for engagement with all political (and non-political) actors including Hamas, which in turn is necessary for any possible change of heart. (Of course, the Palestinian Authority should be regarded as the legitimate government).

Ultimately, there can be no end to this new war unless and until Israelis begin to view Palestinians as fellow human beings. Even if peace negotiations bring limited agreements, and there are plenty of proposals for different versions of the two-state solution with complicated arrangements covering such issues as the settlements, the right of return or Jerusalem, there can be no long term solution until Israelis and Palestinians are ready to live together. Unfortunately, each time Israel attacks Palestinians and each time Hamas launch a rocket, this prospect gets more remote.

This is why Abuelaish's story is so important. Nothing will bring back Abuelaish's daughters and niece. But his case has revealed a tiny chink of humanity in Israel.

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