The bombing of Gaza

Daniele Archibugi
Daniele Archibugi
6 January 2009

One of the most accredited interpretations offered to explain the launching of missiles by Hamas and the disproportionate Israeli reaction is that both in Israel and Palestine a general election is shortly to be held. While the holding of Palestinian elections is always, like the distribution of water, food, medicines and fuel, highly uncertain, the mandate of the President in office of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, expires on 9 January. Looming over the Palestinians is the risk of a resumption of the civil war between Al Fatah and Hamas, and an electoral competition could avert the resumption of hostilities.

Daniele Archibugi is Professor of Innovation, Governance and Public Policy at the University of London, Birkbeck College and is the author of The Global Commonwealth of Citizens. Toward Cosmopolitan Democracy (Princeton University Press)

What is instead certain is the date of the Israeli election: it will be held on 10 February 2009 and in view of the fragmented political system in the country it would seem that no single party will succeed in winning enough votes to govern the country by itself. Two of the three candidates are playing key roles in today’s conflict: the Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, leader of the Kadima Party, and the Defence Minister Ehud Barak, leader of the Labour Party. The third candidate, the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, currently in opposition, was leading in the polls before hostilities began, perhaps because he is considered a hawk in general and because he resigned as Foreign Minister when Israel began its withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 more specifically. And it is precisely the attempt by Livni and Barak to regain votes and to hinder Netanyahu’s progress that explains the savageness of the Israeli reaction. According to a handful of opinion polls held at the end of December, a significant number of voters are changing their mind.

We are all democratic and bless the moment in which people express their will, particularly when a crisis looms. Vox populi vox dei: elections serve the purpose of confirming old leaders who have proved themselves capable of governing properly or else of voting them out of office in the hope that the newly elected will do better than the old ones. And, more importantly, elections are a form of political agonising which is based on non-violence. However, these conventional predictions of democratic theory are not valid in Israel and in Palestine. This leads to the paradox that the imminent elections are likely to bring war and violence. Why?

When politics gives way to proclamations

As far as the Palestinian people is concerned, years and years of hardship, the lack of any hope of having a future worth living, have reinforced a leadership - that of Hamas - capable of pronouncing high-sounding slogans but quite uninterested in offering a political solution to the conflict with Israel. Never before in contemporary politics has there been such a clear-cut disproportion between the declared objectives and political reality. Hamas denies the right of the State of Israel to exist but completely lacks any credible military deterrent power. How is it, then that the Palestinian people, when allowed to express themselves by voting, as in the last legislative election held in 25 January 2006, actually gave Hamas the relative majority? While more realistic political forces such as Al Fatah have succeeded in wresting only paltry concessions from Israel in dozens of half-baked negotiations, the people have consigned themselves into the hands of the political force that speaks with the loudest voice.

To speak loudly, indeed, and achieve no results. It is sufficient to read Hamas’ decision not to renew the six-monthly truce with Israel brokered by Egypt and which expired on 18 December. For ten days Hamas added to its rhetoric the launching of some sixty or so Kassam rockets. From the military standpoint this missile has proved ineffective, causing the death of one Israeli citizen before the beginning of the reprisals on 27 December and a few after that date. From the political point of view, Hamas has handed on a plate to the Israeli government a perfect excuse for a new and wholly disproportionate reprisal .

Apart from any ethical consideration, Hamas has acted irresponsibly as it triggered an escalation it is unable to maintain. However, this launching of rockets must not be judged by the yardstick of foreign policy, but by that of the internal micro-politics of the lacerated Palestinian political community. Hamas is fully aware that by forcing Israel into responding militarily it will gain increased consensus not only in the Gaza Strip but also in the West Bank and among the population of the Palestinian diaspora. It thus sets itself up as the victim of the conflict, shows that nothing good can come out of negotiations and discredits the negotiations engaged in by the Palestinian National Authority. At the same time, the yet to be sworn-in President elect of the United States will have a much harder task to mediate an agreement. The harsher the Israeli reaction, the more politically victorious Hamas will appear on the domestic front, obtaining a consensus that it can cash in on also when free elections among the Palestinians are held.

The priority of domestic politics

However, the cynical unscrupulousness of Hamas alone would not be enough to bring about a crisis of these proportions. It takes two to have a fight. What interest could Israel thus have had to respond to a salvo of rockets with a crushing aerial bombardment condemned by the whole world? Why did it not realize that by so doing it would simply be strengthening the position of the worst Palestinian factions? Everyone knows what Hamas’ intentions are, beginning with the sophisticated political experts in the Israeli government. Apart from the moral considerations regarding the killing of hundreds of civilians, the Israeli government did not realize that this reprisal has made its own population even more insecure, exposing it to the risk of a new season of suicide attacks? Also in this case, the Israeli response has very little to do with foreign policy. It has instead a lot to do with the 10 February election, in which each leader will have to prove he or she is the toughest against their enemies. The effect is that, instead of having a moderating effect on each other, they have been incited to prove to their electors that they would each be capable of destroying the external threat. And, according to recent opinion polls, it seems that a significant number of Israelis have changed their intentions and are now willing to support again the political parties of Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak.

Peace and democracy

Over the past twenty years, international political observers have discussed at length the theory of peace among democracies. According to this hypothesis it is highly unlikely that two democratic countries will wage war on each other. The conclusion is that a democratic regime acts as a kind of vaccine against war, at least when waged against other equally democratic regimes. Even though Israelis and Palestinians have quite different political regimes (a consolidated democratic system in the first case, an uncertain representative system in the second, also as a result of the absence of an actual state), this would seem to be a case that disproves the theory: the approach of the elections increases the likelihood of violence.

But if those in power can so easily manipulate public opinion and, instead of being punished by the voters, are actually rewarded, it raises some doubts as to the truth of vox populi vox dei. What is the remedy? Many courageous proposals have been put forward in forty years of conflict, by both Israelis and Palestinians. These proposals have all been ignored by the leaders and, at least in the case of Israel, by leaders elected by the people.

A film as a message of peace

In these days we need to pay extra attention to the few wise words that emerge from the belligerents. One of them comes from a recent Israeli film, Waltz with Bashir. As observed by the New York Times, this is a cartoon and a documentary, a film of political propaganda and a study of memory. It is of course based on a true story, that of the director Ali Folman, a young Israel soldier who took part in the occupation of Lebanon in 1982 where he received his baptism of fire. Having lost his memory, Folman searches for his vanished recollections by interviewing his old comrades in arms a quarter of a century later.

Although the images consist of cartoon figures, the soundtrack makes use of the real voices of those who witnessed this war and this unique combination would be enough to justify giving a film genre such a contradictory name – a “cartoon–documentary”. However the film is above all a historical and political document as this is one of the first times that an Israeli artist engages in introspection, not to reconstruct the Holocaust tragedies, but one of the many conflicts with its Arab neighbours. The episode which triggers his trauma is the fact that Israeli soldiers stood by idly, and possibly were complicit, while about three thousand Palestinians were murdered by the Lebanese falangist militants in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. A trauma, in other words, that stems from not being victims but being the assassins’ accomplices. The film enjoyed success at Cannes, London, New York and above all in Israel. The audience was able to appreciate an important message, that of grief linked not only to the violence suffered but also the violence perpetrated.

Today the Israeli army is ready to invade the Gaza strip again. Once again, young soldiers are sent to kill and, if expectations based on the relative military strength of the two sides are confirmed, occasionally also to be killed. They will first of all destroy lives and hopes of peoples living in one of the most deprived areas of the world. But they will also come back to their homes with the trauma of having committed carnage. How is it that as many as 80 per cent of Israelis approve the actions of their government? It will take much more than a film to explain it. Any sensible witness in any other part of the world would seriously doubt that vox populi vox dei.

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