December 27, 2006
How to deal with the fighters of a non-state

It is not easy to wage war against a cluster of organizations that operate within a weak or non-existent state.

Unfortunately, that is what Israel faces among the Palestinians and Lebanese. It is also what the United States faces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Who is the enemy? The fighters wear no uniforms, although some of them don distinctive headbands or masks. The organizations compete among themselves, each claiming to be closest to the toughest, or most in touch with the religious or national ideal. In reality, ideology or theology may only be a facade for what really drives them: we are better than them (i.e., other organizations), our extended family, clan or tribe must stand against a family, clan, or tribal enemy as well as against the targets currently described as the enemies of the nation or religion (i.e., Israel, the United State, Britain, or "the West").

Who is in control? One war lord or another, some of whom may be nothing more than neighborhood gang leaders, or fighters who exploited personal charisma or toughness to climb to the top of a small group of aspiring heroes who have nothing better to do than band together, go through rudimentary training, and set out on the missions they define for themselves.

How to arrange a cease fire, armistice, or truce with these groups? First you have to learn who is in charge. But if no one is in charge, and there are several groups competing with one another while they are fighting you, the process can be difficult in the extreme. Maybe impossible. Never say never, but this is a tough problem. Witness Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, and the West Bank.

In recent weeks Israel began what it hoped was a cease fire in Gaza. It pulled out its tanks and troops, and stopped targeted killings. Some of the Palestinian organizations may have stopped hostile actions, but others continued to fire their homemade rockets toward Israel. Among their reasons: Israel continued to battle their fighters in the West Bank, where no cease fire had been agreed with any Palestinian organization. A persuasive reason or just an excuse for continued action?

Some of their missiles landed in Israeli settlements and damaged property, but did nothing serious until last night. They kept up the pressure on settlements close to the Gaza, and an increasing number of politicians and screaming residents demanded that the prime minister stop what they perceived was a one-sided cease fire.

The prime minister refused to do more than warn the Palestinians that they must stop the firing; that his own patience was wearing thin. He argued to his Israeli critics that the cease fire, even though dangerous, was gaining Israel credit internationally, and was promoting understandings with moderate Palestinian leaders like Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazan). In return, his critics argued that Abbas was an unreliable partner, and that the continued cease fire was signaling weakness to Palestinians intent on Israel's destruction.

Last night the Palestinian misslemen got lucky. A shot landed close to two Israeli teenagers.

The first response of commentators and the prime minister's political opponents was, "That's the end. Now Israel will have to enter Gaza in a small or large way, and put an end to the threat once and for all times."

Before this morning's meeting of the prime minister and key officials concerned with security, other commentators were saying that there was some value in continued restraint. To break the cease fire, even though it was largely one-sided, would push all of the Palestinian organizations into the camp of the violent, and end what might become an opportunity for political progress.

By all signs, complete restraint had become impossible. The cost had proved too great, with two Jewish lads on the operating table, one in danger of losing a leg or even his life. Palestinians might retort that is nothing compared to the 400-500 Palestinians who lost their lives in the months before the cease fire. Israelis would respond that is the problem of Palestinians. We have to take care of our own.

The latest decision of the prime minister and his colleagues is to retain the cease fire, but now to target those who fire rockets, or who might fire them toward Israel. Cynics are calling this a mini-one-sided cease fire, which is neither meat nor milk, and will neither defend Israelis or promote the prospect of peace. Supporters are saying that it is an appropriate way of coping with the need to defend our people and to give peace a change.

But again, that is not easy while it remains unclear who, if anyone, rules the Palestinians, and who can reach agreements that will be enforced on them all.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:55 AM
December 21, 2006
Constraints on the liberties of Israeli Arabs/Palestinians

An insight into the complexity of Israeli society comes from a Masters thesis, prepared by an Israeli who alternately calls himself an Israeli Arab and a Palestinian citizen of Israel. His ambivalence about terminology is one of the issues. The Palestine national movement is an adversary or enemy of Israel, but "Palestinian" is a label that engenders pride. Some Israeli Jews feel their hair bristling when fellow citizens refer to themselves as Palestinians. Labels have political weight, but it seems futile to fight on every front. Israelis who fashion bombs are clearly over the line, and deserve the most forceful efforts of the security forces. Most Israelis who call themselves Palestinians are not fashioning bombs. To sit on their emotions may turn more of them to bomb makers.

The thesis describes the development of Palestinian "civil society" in Israel. That is, the formation of organizations that provide Israeli Palestinians with an identity, social services, and channels to communicate with one another and to other Arabs including Palestinians outside of Israel, and to present their demands to authorities. The student recognizes that there is a limit to Palestinian national expression. Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, albeit democratic. Palestinian civil society lives within constraints. They limit individual and group opportunities, although the limits are not entirely clear or inflexible. Israeli Palestinians have learned to operate with state authorities. They know what they can demand, what they are likely to get, and what is likely to generate hostility.

Most open is the judicial system. Suits against state authorities have found reception in supreme and lower courts, and with ranking professionals in the justice ministry responsible for deciding what suits the state will contest, and how it will contest them.

The thesis is less certain about relations within the Palestinian community. Extended families and religious leaders are powerful, and constrain the freedoms of individuals and organizations that are associated with civil society in western democracies. The issue is ambiguous and delicate. Families and Islamic authorities lack the formal structures of a western state that operate according to clear rules as to what is permitted, what is forbidden, and what sanctions will be imposed on those who violate the rules. Parts of a paragraph that comes toward the end of the thesis are worth translating from the Hebrew:

"It is very interesting that . . . the discussion that I opened in this work . . . revealed an ironic and exciting situation that I did not think about earlier. Relations between the Palestinian civil society and the state are clear. . . . (Palestinians) know the addresses of authorities and how to make their approaches. . . Different are relations between the Palestinian civil society and Arab society. Those relations are complicated and marked by a lack of clarity. . . . There is a concern not to damage the delicate social and religious fabrics, that are likely to produce social sanctions. . . This is a paradoxical situation that requires further examination."

The thesis reminds me of a cartoon that achieved classical status by announcing, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Those who wish to see other indications of Arab and Muslim ideas should check out It provides daily translations of media, and film clips from television. Some of it is the old hatred expressed in blood libel, holocaust denial, and creative updates of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Yet Memri also translates a considerable amount of Arab and Muslim criticism of Arab and Muslim regimes, culture, and elites. The creator of Memri is a former Israeli intelligence operative who sees the grays as well as the blacks and whites in the media that he surveys.

My student's work, and what I read on Memri indicate that the Middle East is complex and interesting, as well as a dangerous place for Jews and Christians, and for Muslims who may be believers, but who chaff at the constraints of family and religion. Israeli Palestinians may not view their state as paradise on earth, but they have learned to find room for themselves within it, and to use its tools in order to expand their opportunities. More problematic is their own Arab society. The most severe limits on them come not from an apartheid imagined by those who do not tolerate Israel, but from social and religious pressures expressed in Arabic.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:23 AM
December 20, 2006
Cease fire, or continued civil war?

Cease fires are likely to be tricky. The first hours are especially problematic. The word does not always get to all the troops. The problem is worse when the organizations agreeing to a cease fire are not well disciplined armies or states, but organizations whose structure is fluid at best.

The first cease fire in this week's war between Hamas and Fatah fell apart. There were attacks on buildings using mortars and rocket propelled grenades, which are the closest these fighters get to weapons of mass destruction. The second cease fire, proclaimed last night, may be holding a bit better, but that will not console the families of the fighters who paid the ultimate price after it was supposed to begin. Only time will tell if the friends or family members of the deceased will take it upon themselves to revenge their deaths, no matter what their ostensible leaders proclaim.

Chaos rather than coherent action is the impression made by film clips and commentary. The Kalashnikov is the weapon of choice. Reports are that they are going for 2,000 Jordanian dinars (US $2,800), which is a bit higher than the $240 price tag that my Google turned up. Demand and supply rule locally. The camel or Toyota that carried it over the Sinai, as well as a few middle-persons have to get something. The weapon's designer, Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashnikov, most likely has missed out on any royalties, but he did well in prizes and commemorations from Soviet authorities.

A lot of the Palestinians photographed with his invention seem to fire it mostly in the air, or aimlessly in one general direction or another. Members of the perhaps 13 separate security forces are wearing uniforms, some of the fighters have headbands or masks that may signal something, but most are without distinctive clothing. Friends, family members may know one another well enough to point their weapons appropriately. Casualties during the spurts of chaotic fighting are not high by international standards, at 6-8 deaths a day including bystanders, and perhaps five or six times that number reported as wounded.

I recall a drill instructor from my own training in the IDF saying that making noise with a poorly aimed weapon is not a way to win a war. Most of the soldiers we see may be brave, but they do not seem to have gotten as far as I in their military training. Maybe noise is better for them than mass bloodshed. It makes a point without doing irreparable harm to the development of Palestinian nationhood.

There is some harm being done. Ahmed Tibi, MD, a fervent Palestinian nationalist and one of the brightest of Israeli Knesset members, expressed embarrassment and profound sadness during an interview on prime time news. The national movement to which he has dedicated his professional life was showing the world, as well as its Israeli adversaries, just how incapable it was of creating a viable democratic state.

Tibi described a situation where the pragmatic nationalists of Fatah (the hitherto most prominent element in the PLO) and the Islamicists of Hamas are fighting over the leadership of the Palestinian people. The war may be most prominently about this, but it also includes violence between extended families, and some degree of settling individual scores. The importance of family loyalties and revenge competes with the discipline of national or religious movements, and raises doubts as to whether the Palestinians are ready to create a national entity.

The war also casts a shadow on six decades of Arab and Muslim unity cobbled together in behalf of Palestine. If the ostensible beneficiaries of the concern are killing more of one another than they are concentrating on the holy target of Israel, the whole effort may be worthless. Israelis have sensed this for some time. Now the message may be going a bit further.

Is the present war good for the Jews?

Not necessarily. On the one hand, better that they target one another than us. On the other hand, at least some of them realize that they can lessen the intra-Palestinian bloodshed by reminding one another of the conflict with Israel. Leaders of both sides are calling on their followers to return to the greater fight against Israel. Somebody fired two rockets toward Israel this morning. If one lands too close to an Israeli, it can cause another IDF attack on Gaza that might solve the conflict among Palestinians, at least for a while.

There are some other unpleasant consequences that can come in our direction. Palestinians and their friends will blame us for the fighting. We are used to being the target of their hyperbole, and will not suffer greatly from it. We do not want a wave a refugees flowing from Palestine to Israel and demanding protection on humanitarian grounds. Ideally we want quiet on the other sides of the barriers. We continue to dream about a credible agreement between us and them. The war makes all of that even further away.

Few of us are wishing success to the Islamists of Hamas who advocate our destruction. Few of us should provide the Fatah with an embrace that they may not deserve, and that would not help them in Palestinian politics.

It is their war.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:11 AM
December 16, 2006
Is it time for optimism?

Israeli optimists are moving into high gear, along with leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, and other international worthies. It is conventional wisdom to support Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazan) in what is developing as an intense political conflict or perhaps a civil war in Palestine.

The good guys are the Fatah Party, once led by the late Messiah Yassir Arafat. The bad guys are Hamas, once led by the late Messiah Ahmed Yassin, and now divided between a local faction headed by prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and what may be the real command of Kahaled Mashaal who remains out of Israeli range in Damascus.

There is a difference between the parties. Hamas is driven by Islamic intensity, and refuses ever to recognize the legitimacy of Israel. Fatah is more secular and more flexible. Its leaders have dealt with Israel, and they always proclaim the importance of peace on agreed terms. The present party leader has consistently said that Palestinians should not fire missiles into Israel. But saying "no no" has been the extent of his willingness to enforce the prohibition. Occasionally he has sent his security forces, which once numbered 30,000 in Gaza, to stand looking official in the area from which the missiles were fired. They, too, may have said "no no," but they did nothing more than that to stop the couple of hundred heroes who kept hauling the missiles, setting them up, and firing them in the direction of Sderot or Ashkelon.

The preferred posture of the US and the UK is to support Abu Mazan's call for a new election, to ask Israel to send more rifles to him, and to hope that he can hold off a Palestinian disaster in the short run, and win an election a bit later.

I want to be as optimistic as anyone. I really believe that we should never say never.


If the Palestinians do get to an election, Hamas may even improve on the victory that it won the last time. Lots of people in Gaza and the West Bank are suffering from a reduction in outside financial aid, but lots of them are also intense nationalists and fervent about their faith. Those willing to die for Allah, or to send their children in their place, are also likely to vote for Hamas.

We were more optimistic in 1993 when Israelis and Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords.

Since then almost 1,300 Israelis have died as the result of Palestinian violence. Abu Mazan tells his people that more than 500 of them have died since the Islamic heroes seized an Israeli soldier in August, and that the price of violence for his people is greater than the benefits. When he talks like that, Israelis of all kinds say, "maybe we can deal with him." Perhaps he will do more than say "no no."

Complicating the picture are noises from Syria: wanting peace with Israel; willing to enter negotiations without pre-conditions. Syria wants the return of the Golan Heights, but now is willing to talk without a prior agreement on that point.

Optimists are moving a bit higher on their scale of hope. The bet of the doubtful is that the Syrian regime wants a breather from international pressures resulting from its aiding of the bad guys in Lebanon and Iraq, and thinks some conversations with Israel can be its life saver.

Also out there is Jimmy Carter, signing his book that headlines Israeli apartheid, but also saying that there is no apartheid in Israel. He is certain that Israel and unenlightened American officials have turned a cold shoulder to opportunities for peace. He regrets terror, but wants the Jews to turn the other cheek.

More pressing for some of my compatriots is that a growing number of football players have been arrested for selling out to the gamblers. Anybody out there old enough to remember the Black Sox?

At home, we have been worrying about our 15-year old mongrel, Motzi. She had a stroke last week, and we thought the ride to the vet would be her last. But so far so good. Steroids are doing their work.

We can manage her daily dosage. We will leave to others the Palestinian civil war, elections, rifles to Abu Mazan, and the possibilities with Syria and Jimmy Carter .

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:51 PM
December 14, 2006
Iran, targeted killings, and a young friend

It is difficult to conceive an appropriate response to the Tehran conference on the Holocaust.

Among the items I have received are:

A suggestion that prominent Americans demand the expulsion of Iran from the United Nations; and failing that insist that the United States quit the world organization and cease all funding of it.
A cartoon in which a Holocaust survivor shows his tattoo to a young friend, and explains it as a reminder about the dangers of extremism. The organizer of this mailing asks that it be forwarded again and again so that at least six million people see it.
A request from the Simon Wiesenthal Center to make a contribution that will support the production and distribution of "an important DVD, 'Witness to the Truth' in order to share the courage and tenacity of 50 Survivors, who each told their stories in 5 minutes, with schools and universities in North America and abroad."
A request from Scholars for Peace in the Middle East to sign its petition to the United Nations which states, among other things, "If no one will stop Ahmadinejad, no one can blame Israel for exercising the right and obligation it has to defend itself and solicit all the support it can get in doing so. Ahmadinejad has made his intention crystal clear since his rise to power. He must be stopped and the international community must insure that the atrocities being predicted by him must be stopped by all diplomatic, economic and other ways to prevent further tragedies in the region." The Scholars for Peace in the Middle East would also appreciate a donation to help with its good works. Those include opposition to academic boycotts of Israelis from the UK and Ireland, and presentations about crazy academics in North America.

Israeli media has devoted considerable airtime to the conference. Implicit in the coverage is the question, "Why?" Condemnation from civilized governments is widespread. The presence of ultra-Orthodox rabbis at the conference is bizarre. Among the hypotheses are:

Iran wants condemnation to give it an excuse in order to admit that its peaceful nuclear program must, after all, be used to produce weapons in order to defend itself against a hostile world.
Iran wants to strengthen its claim that it is the leader of the Muslim world, and the only member willing to stand up against the Israel-centered source of evil that has stolen Palestine and done other abominations.

One is tempted to ignore the Iranians as mad, but that was a view held of Hitler and his minions until they seized power and began to march elsewhere.

Will it be useful to continue a mass mailing of a cartoon, make a contribution to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, sign a petition and contribute to Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, or to organize the expulsion of Iran from the United Nations when it seems unlikely that the Security Council (crucial to the expulsion effort) can even impose meaningful sanctions?

Meanwhile, the Israeli Supreme Court has issued a long delayed ruling that targeted assassinations are acceptable, providing they are well targeted in a way to be sure that the target deserves the assassination, and that there is a minimum of collateral damage. Predictably, Palestinians concerned about civil rights are claiming that the ruling only proves the crime of the Israeli justice system. Their own conception of justice, apparently, is to lynch a person accused of collaborating with Israel in a public place. Or, as more recent events indicate, simply to kill those Palestinians affiliated with a rival political organization.

One of my close friends is an attorney who has worked in behalf of civil rights for Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, and others. I have watched his son grow up from a little kid to a hefty young man who played aggressive games of football and basketball in the school yard alongside our home. Now he has signed up for one of the most active of the IDF combat units, and is about two months through a training program that will consume about one year of his three years active service. The parents are not yet worried about him. That will begin in another 10 months.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 05:59 AM
December 07, 2006
The sky is falling, again

James "Fuck the Jews" Baker is back in the headlines. No surprise that he wants Israel to withdraw from the Golan in order to ease America's problems in the Middle East. Jimmy Carter has published a book that he calls Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Robert Gates, in his hearings about his nomination to be Secretary of Defense, said that Israel had nuclear weapons, and they are one of the reasons for Iran's nuclear program.

The nerves of Israelis and other Jews are heating at about 99.5 and climbing on a scale of 100. How hard will Baker push? Will Bush II respond? Will Carter impact? Does Gates' comment suggest that American policy is not only to understand Iranian motives, but to support them? Or perhaps to force Israel to destroy its nuclear arsenal in order to allow peace in the Middle East?

Reviews of Carter's book say that he concludes that Israel is not an apartheid state, but most will not get beyond the title. Carter and those who take him seriously should accompany us on our evening walk. They will pass several neighbors chatting in Arabic, and most likely see a group of young men sharing a water pipe while sitting on a park bench.

Gates' revelation comes 20 years after the London Sunday Times published Mordecai Vanunu's pictures of Israel's nuclear weapons factory at work.

This is Baker's second major effort to solve the problems of the Middle East. The first had something to do with a conference in Madrid that led in stages to an agreement hammered out in Oslo, that contributed to the itafada begun in 2000 and still sputtering after more than 1,000 Israeli deaths and perhaps 4,000 Palestinian.

Sane Israelis can hope that the people in charge of maintaining and guarding the nuclear weapons are brighter and more alert than those who let Benny Sela slip through their fingers. That is assuming we have nuclear weapons. Officials are still withholding confirmation.

Next week is Hanukah. After lighting the candles and before stuffing ourselves with goodies, we will sing "Maoz Tzur," a praise to the Rock of Ages (God) for dealing with a list of those who have sought to destroy us: Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Haman, Antiochus, and maybe Frederick I of Germany (the Germans among us argue as to whether the "red one" in one of the later stanzas refers to him-- Barbarossa-- or whether we should sing that far.)

We are still waiting for someone to compose stanzas commemorating the efforts of the Czar to deal with his Jewish problem by assuring that one-third of them would starve, one-third emigrate, and one-third convert. (Grandpa was part of the middle third.) Perhaps Hitler is too recent and too evil to make it into Hanukah music, and James Baker and Jimmy Carter are not in that league. They, too, we will survive.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:10 AM