June 27, 2006

What comes next?

A 19 year old corporal was taken into Gaza as the result of an attack on an Israeli outpost that also killed two Israeli soldiers and wounded others. Individuals claiming to speak for a variety of Palestinian groups claim to hold him and deny holding him. One of the Hamas groups insists on the freeing of several hundred Palestinian prisoners for "information" about the Israeli captive. Palestinian families are demonstrating in Gaza, demanding the release of all Palestinians in Israeli custody, numbering some 8,500, in exchange for the soldier.

Ehud Olmert gave a heroic speech in which he refused all negotiations, threatened massive military action if the man is not released, and said that time for the Palestinian response is rapidly expiring. Pictures show dozens of tanks and other heavy equipment, along with lots of troops, assembling on the borders of Gaza. Israel has proclaimed that it will not allow anyone to enter or leave Gaza. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority, will be let out only if he brings the soldier.

The airwaves are filled with commentary by retired military people and others. Speculation ranges from the killing of ministers in the Hamas government, including the prime minister; killing of the Hamas figure in Damascus who seems to be in charge; cutting the electricity and water supplied to Gaza; substantial air bombardments; and artillery strikes on Palestinian neighborhoods to match rocket attacks on Israeli neighborhoods. Reports are that Egypt has put troops on its border with Gaza, to prevent a flow of refugees fleeing from an Israeli assault. So much for Arab unity.

From the Israeli left we hear that Israel should negotiate the soldier's release, and be willing to exchange prisoners for him. From commentators in the broad center of the political spectrum, we hear that Israel has endured enough from the Palestinians by way of rocket attacks from Gaza, and this attack on an IDF outpost outside of Gaza. It is time to stop being nice guys, and to start killing Palestinians.

The Defense Minister seems to be suffering as much as anyone. He is the leader of the left of center Labor Party, but lacks military credentials. He is criticized from the left for caving into his military advisors, and criticized from the right for being naive about the possibility of settling issues with the Palestinians via negotiations. A retired general in the upper reaches of the Labor Party (a member of Knesset who has been upset at not being named a minister by the party leader) has said that the country has been paying the Defense Minister's tuition while he learns the craft of defense.

Will Israel attack? With what force and with what targets? Or will it wait, dither, and eventually agree to a prisoner exchange?

There is a long Jewish history of being willing to pay high prices for Jewish hostages. Israel has agreed to lopsided deals by which it freed hundreds of prisoners in exchange for the bodies of soldiers, and even for a retired security officer who was enticed to Lebanon to buy drugs.

Chances are that a serious Israeli attack will produce the death of the soldier being held captive. We do not want video pictures of his beheading in the name of Islam.

What may complicate this further is a report that there is another captive, perhaps a member of a Hasidic group that insists on praying at what it says is Joseph's tomb in Shechem (Nablus). The IDF has tried to keep them away from that nest of terror, and skeptics say that the tomb most likely holds the remains of a medieval Arab sheikh. If one of the otherworldly Hasidism really is a guest of the Palestinians, there may be a change in the constellation of those demanding action. For some he will be as important as the soldier. For others, he will recall the argument about how much Israel should give up for an unlucky drug dealer.

If you cannot tolerate uncertainty, this is not for you. This is not a time for prediction, or for investing in Gaza real estate. We are already past the 48 hour deadline that Israel is reported to have set for the soldier's release. The buildup of forces is not proceeding with maximum speed, and is said to be another day from being complete.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 03:05 AM
June 21, 2006
What to do?

If someone wants to hear stuttering at its most extreme, I can suggest that you tune into http:\\media.iba.org.il. It is not exactly stuttering. The participants are speaking in fluent Hebrew. But they do not know what to say. Perhaps blather is a better term than stuttering.

The context is the continued rain of crude rockets on Sderot and other Israeli locales, and the raging protest from poor residents who shout and cry that they cannot stand any more. The more immediate background is an Israeli helicopter missile attack on a car filled with the bad guys who fire the rockets. A couple of them were lightly wounded, but three children in the street were killed, and a number of other civilians injured.

The deaths of the children headed the news last night and this morning. A usually hard nosed military commentator said that the attack was justified against the people who fire the rockets; it is known that they operate from crowded residential neighborhoods, but that the IDF must take greater care to avoid civilian casualties. Military and political figures expressed their regrets, and someone may actually have apologized.

The blather focuses on what to do about the rockets. The prime minister and defense minister (whose home is in Sderot) have threatened responses of increased severity. They have hinted that senior members of the Hamas government may be on Israel's target list. Activists in Sderot have screamed that they no longer respect the promises of politicians. They tried a hunger strike and blockages to prevent cars from entering or leaving their town. Those did not produce any results, and now they are threatening a march to Jerusalem. In the summer?

Ranking politicians who are retired generals and one retired head of the security services have talked around the same circle:

Israel must respond to the people of Sderot.
Serious force directed at the Palestinian population is out of the question; that would violate international norms and Jewish values; soldiers might not push the buttons against such targets; they do not want to be arrested as war criminals when they take their post-military trips outside of Israel.
A massive invasion of Gaza would not end the rocket threat, and would probably result in many more deaths among Israeli soldiers than the rockets have caused among civilians.
There must be a political deal along with military pressure; but the Palestinians are not capable of enforcing a political arrangement on organizations with access to crude weapons and a commitment to keeping up the fight.
Maybe Egypt and Jordan would help; but neither has been inclined to dirty its hands in the chaos of Palestine, where the fighters justify their actions on the basis of religious values that could threaten the Egyptian and Jordanian regimes.
Some suggest that Israel should target the heads of the Hamas government, while others say that the Hamas prime minister is the most pragmatic and moderate figure that Israel can expect to be heading the Palestinian Authority.

The defense minister has so far put his money on keeping his family in Sderot, speaking tough, saying the IDF is planning something big, but seeing the advantage in a moderate policy and hoping that his warning of big things to come will persuade the Palestinians to stop the rockets.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres ridiculed the folks of Sderot yesterday. He said that the people of Kiriyat Shemona had learned to live with rockets coming from Lebanon. Now the people of Sderot should recognize that the rockets from Gaza are not all that threateniing. Presumably their protests will work against his dream of a New Middle East with economic cooperation between Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, and others. Peres could not convince hysterical families. After a short time he issued a clarification of what he really meant, and has since been silent.

For the Israeli majority that does not live alongside Gaza, it is a time to pity those who do, and wonder what the IDF will produce. Something is likely to happen. The Jewish army is supposed to be smart. It may take it awhile to define the priorities and figure out the benefits and costs of each alternative. If it is not better at this than Palestinian gangs who make and fire crude rockets, then we really are in trouble.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:56 AM
June 14, 2006
Different views of the past and present

The story of the Palestinian family killed by an explosion on a Gaza beach will not go away.

Human Rights Watch produced an expert who claims that the explosion came from an Israeli artillery bombardment. Kofi Anan has cast doubt on the IDF explanation that it was not responsible, and is sending his own expert to examine the event.

Neither Human Rights Watch nor Kofi Anan come to this controversy with clean hands. Human Rights Watch is one of those organizations that has signed on to the Palestinian cause, and predictably finds Israel to be racist and in violation of international laws. Anan has signaled his acceptance of targeted assassinations done by the United States in Iraq, but distinguishes them from Israeli efforts to defend its citizens. He was not so quick to condemn mass murder and rape in Darfur, or to send his inspectors to check on reports of genocide in the Congo.

There will be no absolute determination of truth in this case.

The reason appears in an interchange with one of my correspondents. Khalid Amayreh lives in Hebron, writes for the Aljareera English language internet site, and occasionally puts my views into his reports.

He wrote to me:

Don't you think you are exaggerating when you say that the Palestinians want their civilians to be massacred by Israel? Did Jews want their people to be gassed by the Germans? After all, the holocaust, too, generated unprecedented sympathy for world Jewry and was probably a central factor in the creation of the state of Israel? Or do you think Palestinian pain is less real and less genuine than Jewish pain? As to the IDF investigation, do you really trust armies investigating themselves? Doesn't the IDF lie?

I responded:

The Holocaust did not come as a result of Jewish violence and German offers of compromise which the Jews rejected. It's not a fair comparison to Palestinian activity.
I agree that Palestinians suffer pain, no less than Israelis. The problem is with the various clans, individuals, gangs and organizations that make up the Palestinian "regime." At least some of them provoke, and see profit in the deaths of Palestinians.
I do wish for peace when you and I can sip coffee together, more Palestinians can come to Israeli universities, and Israeli and Palestinian children can play together. But it won't come until Palestinian leaders accept Israel, give up some of their own aspirations, and control those who wish to continue with the violence.
No regime is perfect. Israel does not succeed in stopping all of the violence against Arabs; Jordan and Egypt do not stop all of the terrorists who use their territory. But there is a great difference between what each of those regimes manage to do, and what Palestinian authorities do.

He came back to me:

In the absence of a sovereign state, with authority, security and power, things of this nature are bound to happen. You also had internal problems prior to statehood.
Palestinians, or more correctly most Palestinians are willing to accept Israel if Israel accepts a true and viable Palestinian state.
Palestinians will not recognize Israel in return for pie in the sky. Palestinian violence against Israel is a boomerang effect of the Israeli occupation which is an act of rape.
A rape victim's resistance to her attacker can't be equated with the rapist's crime. Some rape victims even kill their attackers and are exonerated.
I have studied the holocaust very thoroughly. However, it is clear that many Jewish circles have turned into a prosperous industry. Now, does this entitle non-Jews to claim that the Jews wanted the holocaust to happen...
I believe it is wrong to dehumanize people just because they don't subscribe to our way of thinking. Jewish pain and Arab pain are genuine pains..we are no more and no less human than each other.
Have a good day my friend. We can differ on many things and remain friends.

Inherent in Khalid's remarks is the explanation of why we are stuck. We do not read history the same way, so we do not look at the present in the same way. That is not likely to change.

On the other hand, this is not about a debate in a seminar. In all probability, Israel will continue to defend itself despite condemnations from Human Rights Watch and Kofi Anan. More important is what Israelis hear from Sderot, and from the left wing of centrist political parties. Yesterday two technicians came to my home from a company located in Sderot. The young child of one cries every night. Their wives and children want to leave the town, but no one will buy their apartments.

Right wing parties want more action against the Palestinians. The centrist left is important because it defines the outer boundaries of the policymaking establishment. Israelis further to the left often define themselves as off the rails.

Amnon Mitzna led the Labor Party to defeat in the election of 2003. He first came to prominence as a general who criticized Defense Minister Ariel Sharon for his conduct of the war in Lebanon. If anyone deserves the label of accommodationist without being on the fuzzy fringe of Human Rights Watch or Kofi Anan, it is him. Today he is holding forth in support of the IDF's analysis of what happened at the beach, and insisting that Israel continue its attack against those who attack its citizens.

And the beach is not the most recent of problematic incidents. Yesterday the IDF sent a missile against a car carrying a missile, along with one of the bad guys who have been involved in firing them at Israeli civilians. The Israeli missile stopped the car, but did not destroy it. Nearby Palestinians surrounded the car, and several of them paid with their lives when a second Israeli missile finished with the bad guy.

Lesson: Do not play in traffic, especially when the IDF is likely to be there. Israel regrets collateral damage, but when the likes of Amnon Mitzna define the priority as stopping attacks against our civilians, it is likely to be dangerous for Palestinians to be close to their fighters. There is a limit to which we can protect people from themselves.

Meanwhile the conflict between Hamas and Fatah in heating up. Each side in a Palestinian civil war may seek to score points by attacking Israel. But as usual, they are likely to pay the higher price.

We hope for better, but it is best to recognize what is real.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:57 AM
June 13, 2006
War of attrition

It was a great day for the Palestinians when a family of seven died in an explosion on the beach of Gaza. A video photographer filmed a young daughter running, finding her family dead, screaming and throwing herself on the sand. The pictures appeared time and again on television news programs: Arab, Israeli, CNN and many others. The girl appeared in repeated interviews, and received a filmed visit from the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian National Authority proclaimed three days of national mourning and lowered its flags to half-mast.

It was just what they wanted: an Israeli massacre caught on film. In order to be sure that there would be no challenge to the Palestinian story, Authority personnel removed all traces of shrapnel from the beach. They did not respond to Israeli authorities wanting evidence for an investigation as to who was responsible.

The IDF and government authorities expressed their regret, and brought some of the wounded to Israeli hospitals. As usual, they stopped short of apologies. The area of the disaster was one of the places that Palestinians use to fire rockets at Israel. The IDF had warned Palestinians to stay away from what would be an open field of fire.

Now the IDF has concluded that it was not responsible. There was a gap of 8 minutes between the time of the last cannon fire and the explosion; it does not take that long for an artillery shell to fly a few hundred meters. There was no crater in the sand of the type an artillery shell would create. And the Palestinians did not get all the shrapnel in their combing of the beach. Some remained in the people taken to Israeli hospitals. Analysis of the metal found it was not the type used in Israeli munitions.

It was not the first time the Palestinians celebrated an Israeli massacre that turned out to be their own work. The view of IDF personnel is that this one may have come from explosives that the Palestinians had buried in the sand, perhaps to use against an Israeli invasion from the sea. Some time ago a group of fighters paraded with a tender filled with their rockets; they exploded and killed a number of bystanders. That, like the most recent incident, produced a rain of missiles on Sderot and other Israeli sites.

This is a tragedy that goes beyond the death of seven family members on the beach, as well as the fury of Israelis who are living under the threat of primitive missiles. The greater tragedy is that it reveals the Palestinian reliance on deaths among their own civilians to provide them with support in international media and--if there are enough deaths--the intervention of international forces against Israel. This is a piece with encouraging their young people to commit suicide for the sake of Palestine.

With an adversary like this, it is impossible to reach an agreement. Israel has offered compromise. But compromise violates religious doctrines and national pride. Better to kill and to die. The more who die the grander the spectacle.

There is not much Israel can do to break into this cycle. It can use its military power to punish those who are violent. Civilians who do not vacate areas from which the gangs fire their missiles become collateral damage. But civilian deaths are just what the Palestinians want! The more who die the more certain that the world will support them.

We are left with the less heroic actions of targeting the violent, seizing or killing them, and wearing down the Palestinians.

This is not a war that we can fight until the Palestinians surrender. Many of them suffer no less than the residents of Sderot. They are tired of the conflict which has killed and hurt many of them, and made almost all of them poorer in resources, health, education, and other opportunities. But Palestine is not a disciplined society. It is a collection of extended families, some of which provide the basis of official security forces or armed gangs. Their loyalties to themselves and their rivalries take priority. Some owe greater allegiance to the religious and political leaders of Iran or Syria than to the nominal leaders of Palestine. Iran and Syria funnel money and munitions over the border between Gaza and Egypt. Thus they fight Israel directly, and the United States via Israel. The deaths of Palestinians serve them no less than the death of Israelis.

This is a war of attrition, whose current chapter is likely to continue until the Palestinians are sufficiently weakened and tired of their heroism. We have reached a level of violence significantly below what prevailed four years ago. It remains unpleasant, and currently the residents of Sderot are demanding a more severe response to protect them and their children from the fear of missiles. The frequent shrieks of warning mechanisms are no less fearful than the occasional explosions.

More Israelis suffer from road accidents than from Palestinian violence. One set of our officials struggles to reduce the level of road accidents. They have had a measure of success via better roads and vehicles, more policing, and driver education. Another set of officials struggles to reduce the Palestinian violence directed against Israel. There is no final victory on the horizon for either the campaign against road accidents, or the campaign against the Palestinians.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:00 AM
June 09, 2006
Not a way to win a war

The idiots are firing rockets at the Defense Minister's home town.

This is not a way to win a war, especially when the available rockets are weak, and the Defense Minister can arrange a lot a damage. Fortunately, it is the other side doing this stupidity.

They have managed to turn a weak head of the Labor Party, which has been the Israeli organization most likely to accommodate the Palestinians, into what they are calling the worst Defense Minister in recent Israeli history. The man at issue, Amir Peretz, came to this position from a background as mayor of Sderot and then the head of the Labor Federation (Histadrut). He built his reputation as a tough bargainer, especially in behalf of strong unions in the Labor Federation. He had no military experience beyond the time when he was a draftee, and was expected to lend his weight to social and economic reforms in behalf of the poor, and advancing the Labor Party's policy of seeking peace through accommodation. Now he is being quoted as telling military leaders to pursue all possible means--including the killing of Palestinian political figures--in order to stop the firing of rockets on Sderot and other Israeli communities.

Most Palestinian rockets do not make it out of Gaza. And most of those that do splash in the sea or make holes in vacant fields. A small number have landed close enough to Israelis to cause shock; a few have damaged structures, and smaller numbers have caused injuries or deaths. Each loss is a tragedy, and the threat of a rocket is no light matter. Any decent country would do what it could to protect its residents.

Israel has reinforced the roofs of schools and other structures; it has produced a high tech system that usually gives a few seconds of warning about an approaching missile. It has also retaliated, and has inflicted considerably more damage to property and personnel than it is has suffered. It has scattered announcements warning civilians to avoid areas from which the rockets are fired, and has been increasingly active in shelling those areas after scattering the warnings. Houses have been destroyed and civilians injured and killed. It is conventional for the military to express regrets about civilian damage, but not apologies.

The international media is filled with detail and photos about the US air strike that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Kofi Anan signed on to the applause with a statement that this death was different from other target assassinations. I presume he meant those done by the IDF. Its latest victim was Jamal Abu Samhadana. For this minor league country, he was in a category parallel to that of al-Zarqawi. Samhadana was a key player in the Palestinian rocket industry. He had a leading role in the killing of Americans traveling in a convoy to meet with Palestinians in Gaza during 2003. Also to his credit were deadly attacks on Israelis, including an especially ugly mowing down of a pregnant woman and her four young daughters. Recently he became the head of the Hamas government security organization (the 14th or so security organization in the Palestinian firmament), so his death suggests that the IDF may be less constrained than in the past about moving toward the head of the pyramid.

So far no good words from Kofi Anan.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:30 AM
June 08, 2006
Different sides of Israel and Portugal

I have had a soft spot for Portugal since doing my undergraduate thesis on "The Portuguese of Fall River." Twenty-five years ago Varda and I traveled from one small town to another in the center of the country, enjoying the fish, the wine, the flowers, and the calmness of a country without stress, or without the stresses apparent to tourists.

We went again, this time to the northern part of the country. We walked, ate and drank for three days in Porto, before taking a car and doing another circuit of small towns. It was a different country than the one we remembered. The urban metro and intercity trains are the best Europe can offer, which means far ahead of the filth of rattling equivalents in Boston and New York. True, they fall short of those in Seoul, where metro stations have rest rooms as clean as those of Swiss hotels, and the trains play Vivaldi. Superhighways out of Porto are as well engineered and maintained as any I have seen; the posted signs indicating 120 seem more to be suggested averages than upper limits.

The experience was depressing as well as fascinating. Portugal is supposed to be the poorest country in Western Europe. The World Bank indicates a per capita income of $14,220. Israel's is $17,360, and has not been able to match Portugal's urban or interurban transportation network. Is this the price we pay for the excitement of national conflict, a world class military, and dealing with boycotts voted by British academics? Israel spends more than four times what Portugal does for its military as a percentage of the national economy. A few years without that burden would support a European class metro system reaching out from Tel Aviv to Haifa, Jerusalem, Beer Sheva, and Ashkelon. It might even be put underground to deal with objections from environmentalists that have so far kept a fast rail line being built to Jerusalem.

Alas, there is another Portugal, which we encountered as soon as we left the superhighways. The small towns and villages are still there. Farmers tend their fields with hand tools, and village folk drink wine served from large bottles enclosed in wicker. The isolated places we saw on our cross-country walks had some new construction, but also quite a few buildings with "for sale" signs, and some falling-down without signs, presumably abandoned when people died, or had left for jobs in the cities. We had to find a tiny village on the outskirts of a small village to locate a workshop where the lone craftsperson was producing tiles painted with scenes and figures in blue, which had been available in lots of shops during our last visit. Why are these traditional crafts less available now? According to the artist we met, that kind of handwork is no longer attractive. People owe too much money to the banks, and they cannot make enough from painting tiles.

Israel is ahead of Portugal on a number of indicators important to moderns. The World Bank reports that high technology is twice as prominent as a percentage of exports and there is twice the incidence of people who use the internet. Israelis also have two years longer to enjoy their lives than Portuguese have to enjoy theirs.

Portuguese wine is as good as any I have had, especially when judged on a pleasure to price ratio. I am not aware of any world class research being done in Portuguese universities. The country is also behind Israel in the technology involve in pilotless military planes, and Warren Buffet has not made any major investments there. It was blessed by ridding itself of dictatorship and ugly spats with large colonies in the 1970s. Membership in the European Union may help the country pay for its fancy infrastructure. People who hate the Portuguese are too far away for lots of suicide bombers concerned about having been conquered to do their thing in Portuguese cities. Being poor is not all that great, but it does limit the numbers of Third World migrants wanting to share the national goodies. Today's Ha'aretz notes that Elie Wiesel is urging Israel to take refugees from Sudan. Some are already coming over the border with Egypt, along with prostitutes from the Ukraine and Moldavia. Israel can send the ladies back to their homelands, but not the Sudanese, due to a lack of diplomatic relations with that Moslem paradise. So we may get some points on Wiesel's index of humanity, probably reduced by keeping the Sudanese in confinement.

One does not have to ponder these issues when drinking Portuguese wine in a village cafe.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:06 PM