BY CHRIS SZABLA
As Israel’s general elections ended in a dead heat last week, Langdell South filled to capacity to hear a panel of academics speak on the causes and consequences of the most recent outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence, highlighted by Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip. Much of the discussion drew on the topicality of the Israeli elections and their impact on the conflict. The crowded event was also taken as a sort of litmus test on the Harvard community’s opinions on events in the Mideast; Harvard Law Professor Duncan Kennedy remarked that he believed a cultural shift had taken place within the liberal intelligentsia, and that pro-Palestinian positions had become more mainstream among the American elite.
Former Simmons College professor Elaine Hagopian, Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies fellow (and native Gazan) Husain Zomlot, and Kennedy were on hand to offer their explanations, in a discussion moderated by HLS Justice for Palestine co-chair Shannon Erwin ’10.
The discussion began with a brief historical exposition by Hagopian, who described Gaza, a territory one-tenth the size of Rhode Island, as a “powder-keg of bitterness”, and revived memories of early links between Israeli policy and the rise Hamas, which the former nurtured in the 1980s at secular rival Fatah’s expense. Hagopian went on to argue that, while “Israel did not defeat Hamas convincingly”, its strategy vis-à-vis the Islamist party was to hold back aid, much as it did when it wanted to break Fatah once again, in 2002.
“A state of utter madness”
Zomlot’s take on the consequences of the war were similarly ambiguous and resigned. He noted that, even after the end of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead,” Hamas was still firing rockets and enjoying soaring popularity, an “axis of opposition” to Israel’s actions had expanded to include Turkey and Qatar, and Israel’s moral capital had been stretched to the maximum, although Hamas was “still not recognized by the main players in the international community”.
For Gazans, Zomlot said, the immediate consequences were much more clear. Inside the territory, there was an “utter state of destruction. It’s going to take generations to rebuild the infrastructure”. He also described an “unprecedented” state of polarization in Palestinian society, which he saw as an outgrowth of longstanding Israeli policy – as a student at Bir Zeit University, Zomlot was unable to leave the West Bank to visit his mother in Gaza, an hour away. He feared a continuing process of “cantonization” of the West Bank, which would mean that “exactly what happened between the West Bank and Gaza would happen between Ramallah and Nablus”.
Finally, Zomlot defended the use of tunnels underneath the Egypt-Gaza border to supply the territory with food or medicine. It was “a very human act when you are imprisoned…to find alternatives,” to starvation and disease, he suggested.
“I fear Gaza was taken as part of the election campaign”
Zomlot said that he could not deduce Israel’s objectives, nor could he assess the conflict in isolation, because it appeared to be “a state of utter madness”. Still, he asserted, one could look for underlying causes for the most recent outbreak of violence. The first that he identified was Israeli politics. “I fear Gaza was taken as part of the election campaign,” he suggested. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni “was seen during the campaign as the hawk par excellence.” He blamed the conflict, therefore, on “the system, a parliamentary proportional system which allows small, extreme groups like the settler movement” to be directly represented. “A person calling for the elimination of the Palestinians took more seats than [the more mainstream] Labor” Party, he continued. “In Europe, this would be called fascist”.
Zomlot went on to look at a number of other motivating factors, including an economic lobby that wanted to retain control over date farming in the Jordan valley, the fight against perceived Iranian expansion, which many Israelis believed was evidenced in the rise of Hamas, and the vacuum in the American presidential administration. “Only one day before Barack Obama [’91]’s inauguration, the operation ended,” he noted.
Longer-term factors were also to blame, Zomlot suggested. The Palestinian elections of January 2006 were certainly one cause, he said. Although many did not accept the result, which brought Hamas to power, Zomlot argued that it “had to be good news” when a militant group like Hamas entered the political process, and that regional envoy George Mitchell, who played a role in coaxing the Irish Republican Army from militarism to politics, would agree. He said that “a unique opportunity” to support Palestinian democracy “has been missed,” and that Israel prompted the US to boycott the new government.
Zomlot again blamed the Israeli political system for that state’s intervention in Palestinian government. Because small groups have a grip on the Israeli system, he said, there was extremist pressure to eliminate every political movement in Palestine. He added that this contention had been borne out by Israel’s assassination of PLO leaders and its “concerted effort to decompose [the Palestinian] economy. Gaza has no economy,” he added, “and the term ‘private transactions’ [has ceased to] exist”.
“You don’t defeat a society”
The trained economist concluded his portion of the discussion by recounting what he felt were the lessons of the conflict. First, he asserted, there were no military solutions to the problem. “You don’t defeat a society,” he remarked, “I was raised in Gaza. I know that society, and it’s very stubborn.” Second, he noted that there needed to be a restoration of the Palestinian political system, inclusive of all major and minor factions. Third, Israel should match the Palestinians’ 1988 initiative, which offered recognition of Israel’s statehood on “78% of what is rightly ours” in exchange for some other land – and peace.
Finally, Zomlot noted, President Obama was on the right track – he had noted that the Mideast was a priority and appointed someone with clout and experience as his envoy to the region. But what was missing, Zomlot claimed, was a divorce of American ambitions from those of Israel. The President, Zomlot argued, “should say that friendship [toward Israel] comes with advice”.
“Events of the last few years have undermined the position of the state of Israel”
Professor Kennedy devoted much of his part of the talk to a discussion of the wider historical factors that had led to the outcome of the recent conflict in Gaza. “Events of the last few years have undermined the position of the state of Israel,” he claimed, “and as a result, prospects for a solution have lessened. But in the long term, the possibility of a resolution that would substantially improve the position of the Palestinians has gotten greater.”
The longtime HLS professor cited “subtle modifications of the conditions of asymmetrical warfare in favor of the weaker party” as one such factor – both Hezbollah and Hamas, he noted, survived recent wars with Israel, and have over the last few decades evolved suicide bombing, homemade rocketry, improvised explosive devices and Iran’s nuclear potential as tactics and means to achieve superiority over their old foe. “This looks very threatening to Israelis concerned about civilian and military losses in warfare,” Kennedy said. He also cited the increased manufacturing capacity of states like Iran, which did not produce their own weapons during the Cold War, and which can now supply militant groups across the region.
At the same time, he noted, “technological capacity has been diminished by the ability to monitor war crimes,” which has also decreased the capabilities and advantages of conventional ar
mies to operate in heavily populated areas such as Lebanon and Gaza. Kennedy also delved into the political situation of Palestinians, whose increasingly prosperous exile community, aided by the growth of the general Muslim diaspora in Western Europe, was able to increase pressure on Western governments vis-à-vis Israel.
Still, Kennedy saw there being “no danger” that President Obama would do something to turn the situation around, such as the forced demolition of more West Bank settlements, demanding a rerouting of the security wall around that territory, or being able to negotiate an end to the process of West Bank “cantonization” without Israel losing the perception that it was able to maintain security and control. All these strategies, he noted, would require a confrontation with Israeli political opinion and the Israel lobby inside the U.S. Kennedy felt there was a possibility that Obama might do something in his second term, “if he feels he had a mandate”.
“Dershowitz is going to get you”
Despite such pessimism, Kennedy asserted that Israel’s position was slowly eroding among U.S. elites. When he started his pro-Palestinian advocacy, he said, he was told by colleagues that HLS professor and prominent pro-Israel advocate Alan “Dershowitz is going to get you”. Even after publishing an op-ed on the Gaza situation in the Harvard Crimson last month, Kennedy continued, someone asked him if he was “packing”.
He said that there had been no negative consequences to his position, however. “Something,” he noted, “has changed”. He credited mass media expositions of undue Israeli influence and Palestinian suffering, especially John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s book on the Israel lobby, ex-President Jimmy Carter’s recent books on the subject, and a rare “60 Minutes” story critical of Israel. Many observers, he concluded “are behind in estimating the significance of the shift”.
Drawing one important lesson from these observations, Kennedy said that it was far less efficacious to lecture observers on comparisons between Zionism and colonialism than to simply detail to them on what happened in 1947, or even the specific circumstances of events like the recent Gaza conflict.
“You have been the product of Israeli machine thinking”
In the discussion’s closing moments, Zomlot provided a dramatic answer to an Israeli questioner who asserted that the blame for the conflict’s continuation rested on the Palestinians – in particular, on Yasser Arafat, who famously refused a peace deal offered during talks sponsored by President Clinton at Camp David in 2000. “You have been a victim of Israeli machine thinking,” Zomlot scolded the student.
While there had been a genuinely positive Palestinian reception of the 1990s Oslo accords, he said, the circumstances of the peace deal offered in 2000 would have been unacceptable. While there were no Palestinian attacks on Israel from 1997 to 2000, Zomlot said, Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory doubled. “What Arafat was offered in Camp David was less of an independent state,” he claimed, than “a jail. In a jail, you only need to control 5% of the space in order to control the whole [apparatus]. And that is exactly what was offered. They needed to control just a small area [in order] to ensure it could be cut into three or five pieces at will”.
“Blue hats need to come to the region and impose physical security”
Concluding with a question on Palestinian mistakes in general, Zomlot said he could discuss them for days. When a society sends its sons and daughters to blow themselves up in Tel Aviv’s streets,” he said, something was not right. “That society is unable to give its sons and daughters the ability to think otherwise. It is a collective failure of Palestinian society – but it is always the symptom of the occupation.” Many Palestinian political mistakes were the “product of exile, depression, lack of hope, and dehumanization. There are tunnels, because of the need for food. Rockets, because there is conflict. [Many people] talk about anything – democracy, state building – except the occupation.”
He finished by suggesting that no less than a long term presence by U.N. peacekeepers might make a solution reality. “Palestinian society has always been able to govern itself,” he said, “and the vast majority of Palestinians believe they have no other choice but to live with Israelis. And the vast majority of Israelis believe they must live with the original inhabitants of their territory. The problem is the system, and [its] asymmetry…We can’t sit at the table and negotiate our own freedom out of occupation – [and] Israel [is] not going in the direction of unilateral end to occupation. We need a third party’s physical presence – we need blue hats to come to our region and impose physical security”.