5 Şubat 2009
Last Thursday night, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan suddenly became the focus of all the news channels in the country. The reason was that he had stormed the diplomatic scene at a World Economic Forum panel in Davos by accusing Israeli President Shimon Peres for "killing people," and reminding the biblical commandment, "Thou shall not kill." This was not just breaking news to the media, but also music to the ears of millions of Turks who were deeply touched by the recent bloodshed that Israel caused in the Gaza Strip. Some of them even hit the streets in order to welcome Erdoğan, who had decided to come to Istanbul right away after the tense debate. Thousands of cars headed toward the Atatürk airport in the middle of the night in order to welcome "the conqueror of Davos."
’Turkey is proud of you’
I personally had a more mundane problem at that very moment. In order to catch my 5 a.m. flight, I had left home at a quite reasonable time, 2.30 a.m. But the traffic to the airport was completely locked because of the amazing number of cars destined toward it. So, after leaving the taxi at the start of the long river of vehicles, I had to walk on the highway for about two kilometers, my hands on my luggage and my eyes on the crowd. When Erdoğan finally stepped out of the terminal, while I just walking into it, thousands applauded him and started to chant, "Turkey is proud of you!"
Apparently it was not just Turkey, but also the whole Arab or even the greater Muslim world, in which Mr. Erdoğan gained a powerful sympathy by his stance against Israeli militarism.
Next day, his posters showed up on not only Turkish but also Arab streets as the hero of the downtrodden Palestinians. "Erdoğan proved once again," argued journalist Muhammed Nur, in Lebanon’s Al-Sair, "that he is more Arab and human than most Arab rulers." The Iranians even said that he deserved a Nobel Prize.
Since then, a few commentators in the Turkish media have argued that Mr. Erdoğan can be turning into a hero for the Muslim Middle East in a way reminiscent of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian leader who ruled his country for 15 years and fought against Israel two times.
It is an inflated similarity, though, I believe. First of all, no non-Arab leader can become such a central figure in the Arab world. Secondly, and more importantly, the rhetoric of Erdoğan, who opposes Israel’s militarism, is fundamentally different from that of Nasser -- or of contemporary figures such as the Iranian President Ahmadinejad -- who oppose Israel’s very right to exist.
And here lies a very interesting point which can make Mr. Erdoğan a really unique leader in the near history of the Middle East: For decades, there have been two types of political figures in the region: Those who became heroes by fighting or rallying against Israel, and those who were branded as "traitors" by making peace with the her. Now, with Mr. Erdoğan, what we have is a third type of leader: A one who has become a hero for the masses by standing against the excessive policies of Israel, but who also calls for making peace with her.
Turkey’s relations with Hamas is a good manifestation of the third way that Mr. Erdoğan follows. The first way is the way of the "international community:" Hamas is a terrorist organization which can’t be negotiated with. Some Arab countries do speak to Hamas, but Hamas leaders don’t trust these regimes which suppress their ideological brethren -- such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt -- in their internal scene.
Thus, Hamas trusts the representatives of the second way: that of Iran and Syria, who themselves are not at peace with Israel, and, in the latter case, even call for its destruction. But in its third way, the Turkey of Mr. Erdoğan has good contacts with Hamas, is trusted by the group, and tries to convince it to integrate into the peace process with Israel.
Turkey’s third way
The bottom line is that Mr. Erdoğan, thankfully, is no Nasser who will fan the engines of radicalism in the Middle East. But his growing popularity among the once pro-Nasser "Arab street," can be an asset for peace in the region, if it can be utilized by Turkish and foreign policy makers.
In others words, if the stalled Middle East peace process will be revitalized by the new American administration -- something that President Obama seems to be dedicated for -- Mr. Erdoğan can help this process by filling the gap between popularity and moderation. That is something that Mr. George Mitchell, the new U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, might like to note.
2 Şubat 2009
There is big difference between Turkey and America in terms of political culture. Unlike his American counterpart, Turkish PM can simply wake up, read something in the paper, feel annoyed about it, and then comment on it directly to the media without much calculation.
Western policy makers or analysts, and especially American ones, need to keep something in mind about Turkey which they often fail to see: The political language of this country is different from theirs. Here, emotions play a bigger role and political leaders hardly do the deliberation on “wording” that is a crucial matter in their own political culture.
You can see this emotional and inflammatory rhetoric not just in the politics of Turkey, but also in the daily life of ordinary Turks. In Turkish films and soap operas, lovers very often yell at each other saying things like, “I hate you,” “You are disgusting,” or even “I want to kill you.” Next day, or even the next hour, the same couple shows up again in a Romeo and Juliet mode. The TV’s might be exaggerating things, you might think, but they are not. Marriages or premarital relationships in this country are often full of nasty words followed by love fests, and then nasty words again. I am sure it must be like that to a degree in most cultures, but here, it is pretty much over the top.
Oh, you hit me!
Even physical expressions of anger are more tolerated in Turkey more than in other, especially Western, cultures. When I was a kid, I would be surprised by a theme I repeatedly saw in American movies: In the midst of a heated discussion, a father would put a slap on the face of his disobedient teenage child. The child would be shocked, look at the angry father with a stunned face, and say, “oh, you hit me.” Then the kid would angrily run to his or her room, slam the door, and leave behind a regretting dad. But in Turkey, if you get a slap from your parents, you are not supposed to be surprised that much. “Oh, you made your father angry and he gave you some tough love,” your mother will tell you. The fact that his emotions led him to take excessive action is not criticized. The distance between feeling the anger, and putting it into words and acts, is not that big here.
Generalizations might be very misleading, I am aware, but my sense is that the same distance is a bit more emphasized in the Western culture, or at least in the one I know best, the American one.
Now let’s move on from this societal level to the political one. Here, we will see that it is much easy and conventional for Turkish political figures not mince words against some irritating person, group or country. Later he will easily be able to say, “Oh, I didn’t mean that, I was just angry.” Or, his audience will make the same interpretation readily and thus not think that he really means what he says. In fact, there is even a delicate term which we Turks have coined up to define that type of heated rhetoric: “The word which has surpassed its aim.”
There probably is also a big difference between Turkey and America in the level of institutionalization. When the U.S. president or secretary of state make remarks, there is almost always a team of people behind them who took great pains to make the right arguments and choose the right terms. The Turkish prime minister, on the other hand, can simply wake up, read something in the paper, feel annoyed about it, and then comment on it directly to the media without much calculation.
The recent remarks of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan in the face of the brutal Israeli assault on Gaza should be understood in this context. In fact, Mr. Erdoğan tried to balance some of seemingly pro-Hamas remarks by refusing the opposition’s calls to abandon relations with Israel and denouncing anti-Semitism. But it was not enough. Hence, President Abdullah Gül and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan also spoke on the same topic in order to create a balance and diffuse misunderstandings.
29 Ocak 2009
Israel’s brutal attack on Gaza has not just left 1,330 dead bodies, including those of 437 children, but also a Turkey that is very bitter against the Jewish state. Turkish society deeply felt and shared the suffering of the Palestinians in the Strip and rallied against the bombs that hit them. The last time I saw such a tense public sentiment was the early 1990s, when Bosnians were subjected to "ethnic cleansing" by Serbian nationalists. The situation in Gaza was more complex, to be sure, but it was perceived in Turkey as something similar to the slaughter of Muslims in the Balkans.
Therefore, it wasn’t a surprise to see the Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan say harsh words against Israel. He was just mirroring the public sentiment. And this was more than populism, as some could ascribe to a politician who is on the eve of local elections. Mr. Erdoğan was sincere in his feelings. When he visited a group of wounded Palestinians that were brought to an Ankara hospital, people noticed tears in his eyes.
Anger versus balance
But while strong emotions are worthy of respect, diplomacy more so needs nuance and deliberation. And those are not the highest qualities of Mr. Erdoğan. He is rather known to be a man who minces no words and, as he put himself, who thinks "anger is a rhetorical art." So, as he has done many times before on many other issues, including domestic ones, he sounded unbalanced -- and even pro-Hamas. As Sedat Ergin, the editor-in-chief of daily Milliyet, put it in these pages yesterday, his whole Gaza rhetoric was "problematic."
By looking at that, some commentators are arguing these days that Turkey has become close to the pro-Hamas and anti-Israeli axis, which is represented by Iran and Syria. Consequently, some experts doubtfully ask whether Turkey is still a Western ally at all.
Just like Mr. Erdoğan’s rhetoric, these are inflated comments. No, there is no doubt that Turkey is a Western ally. And, no, Turkey is not pro-Hamas. But Turkey is a Western ally who has gained the confidence of Hamas, "the Arab street," Syria, and even Iran. And this is not a bad news at all, if it can be utilized for building peace in the region.
One needs to see this: Turkey has been talking to Hamas, but unlike Iran, it has been telling the radical Islamic group to calm down and integrate into the peace process with Israel. Turkey indeed has become very popular among the Arab masses, but it has gained this by calling for not a "world without Zionism," but a world of peace and justice. Turkey’s reaction was not against Israel itself, but what she had done in Gaza.
No wonder Turkey’s foreign policy establishment has recently taken steps to correct the misunderstanding that Mr. Erdoğan’s harsh words have provoked. First, President Abdullah Gül, whose experience and role in foreign policy is unmistakable, called his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, and then declared "the importance Turkey attributes to the solidarity, unity and integrity of Palestinians under the leadership of Abbas." You can read this as a confirmation of the fact that Turkey is in line on this matter with the international community. Then foreign minister Ali Babacan spoke to journalists and said, "We can’t approve what Hamas does; however, it is not possible to maintain peace by ignoring Hamas." He also warned the group had to decide whether it would remain as an armed organization or a political party.
What this means is that Turkey disapproves the terrorist tactics of Hamas and its insistence on not recognizing Israel’s right to exist. But it also sees that peace is impossible without Hamas being a part of it and hopes to persuade the group to open the way for, at the very least, a "hudna," a long term truce with Israel.
A note to Senator Mitchell
That’s why the new U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, former Senator George J. Mitchell, whose appointment was a very wise decision by President Obama, should also put Turkey on his countries-to-go list. I am sure he will benefit from a meeting with Ahmet Davutoğlu, the top foreign policy adviser to Mr. Erdoğan, and who recently helped persuading Hamas to declare ceasefire when Israel announced its own.
Meanwhile, there is something else that Mr. Mitchell, and the Obama administration, urgently needs to consider: Israel continues to steal Palestinian lands by building or allowing Jewish Settlements in West Bank. This illegal usurpation makes the Palestinians, and others in the region, to think that a two-state solution is impossible because Israel’s expansionist ambitions will never end. It should be not just stopped, but also pushed back.
In other words, let the countries of the region, including Turkey, persuade Hamas that a world with Zionism is acceptable. But, on the other hand, America should persuade the Israelis that their Zionism needs to be much less paranoid, aggressive and expansionist. If we don’t want this zero-sum game to continue for decades, creating endless bloodshed, we have to force both sides to compromise.
24 Ocak 2009
If you don’t already know him, let me introduce you to former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, Mordechai Eliyahu, an 80-year-old man of faith. In May 2007, he wrote a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to give him some religious advice on what to do with the Palestinians. As reported in the Jerusalem Post on May 30, 2007, the retired chief rabbi was furious about the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel and held the whole population in the Strip responsible. "An entire city holds collective responsibility for the immoral behavior of individuals," he argued. And from that premise, he reasoned: "there is absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza." This might remind you what Israel actually just did in Gaza in the past three weeks. The Jewish State heavily bombed the most densely populated part of the world, killing at least 600 civilians, including at least 300 children.
The rabbi and the sheik
Yet the chief rabbi’s endorsement of "indiscriminate killing of civilians" reminded me of something else, as well: the "fatwa" of Sheikh Hamed al-Ali, a Kuwaiti based radical cleric, who, similarly, endorsed the killing of innocents. In April 2002, he wrote: "When Muslims are forced to launch an all-out attack on enemies or bomb them from a distance and this may cause the death of women, children and other civilians, it is imperative to ensure that they are not killed intentionally. However, if they are killed during such attacks, killing them does not constitute a sin."
As you can see, the sheikh was sounding even a little less radical than the chief rabbi, because he at least emphasized, "it is imperative to ensure that they are not killed intentionally." (The reason is that Islamic law clearly bans the killing of non-combatants during conflict.) But the sheik was still saying something very close to the chief rabbi: in a conflict, civilians just die, and we don’t have to give a damn about that.
You might wonder who Sheikh Hamed al-Ali exactly is. He is known to be a supporter of the Al Qaeda in Iraq. On Jan. 14, 2007, he published a document titled "The Covenant of the Supreme Council of Jihad Groups," which, according Israeli scholar Reuven Paz, "completes some of the policy guidelines of policy aired by Ayman al-Zawahiri," the architect of al Qaeda.
In other words, Sheikh Hamed al-Ali is what "the international community" would define as an advocate for terrorism.
If that is the case, then shouldn’t we call chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu as an advocate for terrorism, too?
If you are not sure, let me introduce him to you more. In his letter to Olmert, the chief rabbi also explained the magnitude of the death toll that Israel can rightfully inflict on the Palestinians. "If they don't stop after we kill 100, then we must kill 1,000," he suggested. "And if they do not stop after 1,000 then we must kill 10,000. If they still don't stop we must kill 100,000, even 1 million. Whatever it takes to make them stop."
Eliyahu even quoted the Psalms: "I will pursue my enemies and apprehend them and I will not desist until I have eradicated them."
Now, this sounds very al Qaeda-like, too. Suliman Abu Ghaith, a prominent al-Qaeda leader, argued that it would be justifiable for them to counter what he perceived to be America’s attacks on Islamdom by killing 4 million Americans, displacing 8 million of them, and crippling hundreds of thousands more. He just couldn’t quote the Koran, which has orders to fight against the enemies, but doesn’t speak about "eradicating" them.
You can tell me that Israel is only retaliating against the Palestinians’ rockets, so its massacres would not count. Well, the guys on the other side are saying that they are only retaliating against Israel’s occupation -- and America’s support to it. Who cast the first stone is question without any objective answer.
Call to moderate Jews
I am not saying all this in order to justify what Muslim terrorists have been doing. No way. I am rather trying to tell you that we have a problem with Jewish terrorists as well. If terrorism means the killing of civilians for political goals, and if this is carried out by the bombs of not just Hamas but also Israel, then we have terrorism on both sides. That’s why their ideologues, whether they be in a garb of a rabbi or a sheik, sound very similar.
In fact, both Islam and Judaism condemn murder and cherish human life. But the devil is in the details. "Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils," said G. K. Chesterton. "They differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable." As a Muslim, I don’t find the killing of one single civilian excusable. Moderate Jews should do the same thing and denounce their co-religionists who practice or support the killing of innocents. They just shouldn’t sit and watch those cruel fanatics hijack their religion of peace.
22 Ocak 2009
I was among the billion people who watched the inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama. And like most of those people, I was moved and filled with hope for a better world. For me, one of the striking points in the inauguration ceremony was that it started with a prayer by pastor Rev. Rick Warren, and ended with a benediction by pastor Rev. Joseph E. Lowery. During the whole ceremony, repeatedly, God was praised, His blessing was asked, and His Scriptures were evoked.
Imagine if something similar would happen in the inauguration of our next prime minister, who will probably be, again, Mr. Tayyip Erdoğan. Imagine if an imam would open his ceremony with prayers, and another imam would close it with blessings. Imagine if verses from the Koran were read out loud in the nation’s capital, Ankara, in order to sanctify its leadership.
Let me tell you what would happen: Turkey’s secularist establishment would go crazy and the country would fall into an acute crisis, and even come to the brink of a military coup. Thousands would rush to visit Anıtkabir, Atatürk’s tomb, and beg for his help against the "Islamists" who had taken over his legacy. Fellow columnists would tell you that the country was falling into "darkness," and that we couldn't waste time with childish things like democracy. Tanks could even hit the streets, as they did in 1997, to stage yet another "post-modern military coup."
But let’s be fair and see the other side of the picture, too. Had imams blessed the inauguration of Turkey’s new prime minister, neither these clerics nor the PM himself would probably mention Christians, Jews, Hindus and "unbelievers" as our fellow citizens, as it was the case in Obama’s inauguration. Theirs would probably be a less pluralist and inclusivist form of faith. (One has to give credit to Mr. Erdoğan for trying to achieve progress in that regard, such as his campaign to reach out to the unorthodox Alevis, but Turkey has more way to go.)
Beneath this difference between Ankara and Washington, there lies the genius of what author Jon Meacham calls "the American Gospel." The Founding Fathers of America enacted a public faith that embraces all of "God’s children" regardless of their race, creed and sect.
This "national religion" is based on various religious sources such as the Bible, but also, and maybe more so, on human reason. Thus the Deist, the Jew, Muslim, Christian or Hindu can interpret references to the "Creator," "Nature's God," "the Supreme Judge of the world" and to "divine providence" in their own way. At the end of the day, the "self-evident" truth which matters is that the Creator created all men equal.
To be sure, it has taken a long time for America to realize and fulfill this principle. It has taken, for example, two centuries to overcome the suppression and exclusion of African-Americans. And many Americans continue to have a much less ecumenical understanding of religion that divides the world between friends versus foes, the chosen versus the damned.
This Manichean view get much worse and more severe when America feels itself under threat. After Pearl Harbor, all Asians were seen as the enemy’s fifth column. After 9/11, some Americans, including policy makers, started to see the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims as potential terrorists. Such cases of paranoid bigotry had harmed not just America itself, but, especially in the recent case, also the world.
All men, indeed
Yet the American Gospel still stands out there as a source of inspiration that will help overcome these crises and move toward the principles of justice and liberty for all. Today President Obama is the right person to carry that banner and lead America forward. I had personally canvassed for him in Virginia three months ago. I am now so happy to see him in the White House.
His presidency definitely signals a triumph for America’s civil rights movement. But there is much more way to go. Americans need to fully realize that all nations, including the ones with which they don’t have too many cultural ties, deserve justice and liberty as well. Yes, all men are created equal, and this dictum includes, for example, the downtrodden people of Palestine, too, who also deserve a "land of freedom."
President Obama has given us the hope that he understands this and he will lead his nation accordingly. So help him God. He should proceed bravely and unyielding. If he does, he will be indeed a leader dear to all of us. But if he fails, alas, so will the American gospel.
17 Ocak 2009
Since Israel started its brutal onslaught in Gaza, I have been receiving dozens of emails everyday about the nature of the conflict and the parties involved. Most of these fall into two distinct narratives that are 180 degrees opposite.
My Muslim friends are telling me that Israel is "the real terrorist," that its goal is to annihilate or enslave the Palestinian people, and it is responsible for not just the current bloodshed but also the 60-year-old tragedy in the Holy Land. My American or Israeli friends, on the other hand, are telling me the exact opposite. The problem is Arabs, they say, who never accepted Israel’s right to exist. Hamas, for them, is responsible for the carnage in Gaza. Israel, they argue, is only defending itself against this fanatic group.
These totally opposite points of view are not just in my email inbox, to be sure, but also in the media. In a piece titled "Why Israel Can’t Make Peace With Hamas," Jeffrey Goldberg was boldly expressing one of them in the New York Times last Tuesday. "Hamas cannot be cajoled into moderation," he was arguing, adding that the Islamist group believed in the destruction of Israel as an article of faith.
It is their religion, stupid Interestingly enough, I have been reading the mirror image of that argument -- that Israel cannot be cajoled into moderation -- in the Islamic side of the Turkish media as well. Several columnists in conservative Istanbul papers have noted that Israel will unavoidably continue to occupy Palestinian lands, because the Jews believe that this is their "God-given" land. And like Jeffrey Goldberg, who quoted Hamas militants who had sworn to destroy Israel, these pessimistic Turks quoted militant Israelis who had sworn to keep "Judea and Samaria" in their hands and topple those stand in their way.
These totally opposite but actually very similar arguments cover not just matters of politics, but also violence. In the past few weeks, I have received several emails showing horrific photos of Palestinian mothers crying for their children killed by Israeli bombs and then quoting an Old Testament verse: "Their infants shall be dashed in pieces before their eyes" (Ishaah, 13:16).
15 Ocak 2009
I have great sympathy for the Palestinian people. They are my co-religionists with whom I share a common history and culture. Every now and then I recall with nostalgia that the Ottoman Sultans, living in my home city, Istanbul, used to rule Palestine for centuries in a way that made it possible for its people live in peace and security. And I feel deeply sad about what happened to them after we Turks were forced to leave the Holy Land during World War I. That’s why, although every civilian death is tragic to me, the death of hundreds of innocents in Gaza is emotionally catastrophic. And I strongly denounce the Israeli government for inflicting such a ruthless violence. I don’t buy, for a minute, their argument that Hamas is using its own people as "human shields."
The idea of a human shield works only if the person who shoots at you has a concern for innocent human life. Yet Israel apparently has no such concerns, as it continues to bomb densely populated areas without seeing any shields down there.
Revenge or restraint?
In fact, the death unleashed on the civilian population in Gaza seems to be an integral part of Israel’s operation. "They voted for Hamas, so now they face the consequence," an Israeli soldier was saying on Al Jazeera English the other night. It is the same strategy that Israel used against Hezbollah two years ago in Lebanon. In his New York Times column, Thomas Friedman frankly tells us what the Israeli logic was: "to exact enough pain on the civilians -- the families and employers of the militants -- to restrain Hezbollah in the future." He defines this as a "not pretty, but logical" strategy. I would definitely prefer much stronger words than "not pretty."
But Israel is what it is. Its strategy of a hundred eyes for an eye is merciless, but it is a fact. I will continue to denounce it, and hope from the United States, and especially from the new Obama administration, to impose some restraint on the Jewish state. Yet I am not holding my breath.
Yet, there is still hope. There is a political power, which is even more influential than Obama, who can force a change in Israel’s policies. And that force is no one other than Hamas.
Soon, hopefully, there will be a cease-fire in Gaza and Hamas will have more time to think about the future. I am sure they will be filled with hatred against Israel -- and how can they not be, with hundreds of dead children in their arms? But if they decide to "take revenge," hence choose to attack Israel, and wow to fight against it until it is destroyed, they will only be inviting more destruction on their people. "Our modest, home-made rockets are our cry of protest to the world," says Hamas Leader Khalid Mishal, in his piece in The Guardian. I understand the sentiment, but that sort of "protest," which kills civilians on the Israeli side, too, only brings more destruction and poverty to Gaza.
That’s why Hamas desperately needs a policy change. It is time to leave maximalist claims to "liberate" whole Palestine -- which sounds to the Israelis as a second Holocaust -- and engage in the diplomatic process in order to reach a two-state solution. There are two reasons that make this more possible then it ever used to be:
1) In a week, there will be a new administration in Washington, which, unlike the eight-year-long previous one, expressed its willingness to talk to Hamas and its main supporter, Iran. Mishal, in the piece I mentioned, indeed noted that this gave Hamas a hope. They should not miss this opportunity.
2) The project of a Greater Israel, which included the continuous hijacking of West Bank and Gaza through settlements, is effectively dead. The reason is not Israel’s sense of justice, but its inability to provide enough Jewish population that would outnumber the Arabs in the Holy Land.
That "demography problem" led Ariel Sharon to "disengage" from Gaza in 2005. Israel, to be sure, will continue to fortify itself around Jerusalem, but with enough U.S. pressure, a peace deal which will create a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and goes back to the 1967 borders with some trade-offs is possible.
Peace and justice
Hamas might not find such a solution just. I would like to remind them the case of the late Aliya Izzetbegovic, the wise leader of Bosnian Muslims, who accepted a peace treaty with the Bosnian Serbs -- the leaders of those cruel, ruthless, genocidal Chetniks -- in 1995. That settlement in Dayton did not give Bosnia all the things it ideally deserved, but it was the only way to secure the future of Bosnian children. "I had to chose peace," Izzetbetgovic would later say, "over justice."
Today, we Muslims remember Izzetbetgovic not as a "traitor" who gave up on Bosnia’s rights, but as a brave and wise leader who gave a valiant but also reasonable struggle for his people.
If Hamas leaders carry the Palestinians to a similar peace, they will similarly be honored. If they rather choose to fight until the end, the children of Palestine, unfortunately, will the pay the price.
So, Mr. Mishal and his friends in Gaza, please, please, reconsider your policy and rhetoric. Yes, Israel is ruthless and brutal, but you can still save your people from its wrath by deciding not to provoke it further.
10 Ocak 2009
As of yesterday, the Israeli military had killed 770 people in the Gaza Strip, about 200 of them children. Millions around the world are appalled at this ruthless bloodshed. But Israeli spokespersons routinely show up on television, and pleasantly tell us that they don't have the slightest responsibility in all this carnage. They are doing everything they can do avoid this "collateral damage," they say, including warning civilians to run away from their homes before launching an onslaught of bombing. And, based on that, pro-Israeli commentators, such as Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, coldly tell us that Israel is absolutely the "moral side" in his conflict.
Some Westerners who know the region well say that this is not true. Robert Fisk, for example, the veteran British Middle East correspondent, argues, "It is an old lie that Israelis take such great care to avoid civilian casualties." But I can’t claim to have a first-hand knowledge about these matters. I will just think out loud on what seems fairly obvious.
Enter collateral damage
Now, let's start with the term "collateral damage." U.S. sources define it as "unintentional or incidental damage" on civilians during combat. And in a sense, I can understand and accept it. Imagine that American troops are driving around in Afghanistan, for example, and they are suddenly fired at from a building. They fire back. And, accidentally, they kill not just the attackers, but also some civilians who happen to be in the vicinity. Or, imagine that the CIA thinks that a certain building is an al-Qaeda headquarters, and U.S. planes bomb it. But it turns out that the "intel" was wrong, and it was a civilian home.
In all such cases, I can understand collateral damage. The civilian deaths are still tragic, still horrible, but they are clearly accidental. I get it.
However, it is a very different thing if you plan to bomb dozens of buildings in a densely populated area. Here, it is absolutely certain that civilians will also die. Their death is not an accident. It is something that you knew that would happen, but that you did not care enough to avoid. The current operation in Gaza is of the second sort. When the Israeli politicians and commanders were preparing for this war, they must have known that hundreds of civilians would die and thousands of them would be injured. That's why they are morally, not just technically, responsible for every single child, baby and mother who die on the streets and alleys of Gaza.
But what about their effort to warn civilians to leave their homes? Well, where in the world can they go? Gaza, the world's most densely populated area, is blocked from all sides and there are no safe havens. Some civilians found shelter in a U.N. school, but, alas, Israel bombed that building, too, and killed 40 people. In another incident, about 30 Palestinians died as Israeli forces shelled a house in Gaza City into which Israeli soldiers had previously moved about 100 people, half of them children.
And when Israelis say, "Hamas is using civilians as shields," they are distorting facts. Hamas members may be ideological extremists, but they are also an integral part of that society Ñ they are fathers living with their wives and children, sons living with their families. And if they have arms in their homes, it is probably because they don't have military facilities. Unlike that of Israel, theirs is an amateur army.
When I look at all this, I see really no reason for not suspecting that all the alleged Israeli effort to avoid civilian casualties is just part of a cynical public relations campaign. Indeed, there are actually good reasons for not expecting such genuine humane considerations from the Israeli leadership. One person who enlightened us about that was Gen. Dan Halutz, the head of the Israeli military during the bloody campaign on Lebanon in 2006. When asked by the Israeli press, "Isn't it legitimate to ask a pilot what he feels after he releases the bomb," which kills "those he planned not to kill" (such as women and children), he responded:
"No. That is not a legitimate question and it is not asked. But if you nevertheless want to know what I feel when I release a bomb, I will tell you: I feel a light bump to the plane as a result of the bomb's release. A second later it's gone, and that's all. That is what I feel."
Please note that this cold-blooded attitude is not necessarily specific to Dan Halutz but is arguably the norm in the Israeli military, in which he said mercy for civilian losses "is not a legitimate question." Notably, that there have been Israeli soldiers who refused this immoral militarism. Those "Refuseniks" indeed show that there is something fundamentally wrong with the culture of that army.
Kingdom without prophecy
This is a pity. Israel was supposed to be a "light unto nations" according to its Scriptures. But like the fanatic Muslims who disregard the Koran's moral commandments for the sake of "revenge," the Jewish State has apparently abandoned morality for the sake of "survival."
Israeli peace advocate Avrum Burg underlines this very point. "In the Jewish story over so many centuries, there has always been a higher cause," he reminds, "not just for the Jews, but for all of humanity." But now the higher cause is gone Ñ the only cause is a Social Darwinistic urge for survival. "Israel became a very efficient kingdom," Burg adds, "but with no prophecy." What is worse is that, instead of advising restraint and sanity to this unprophetic kingdom, the world's single superpower is silently supporting whatever it does. By doing so, America is losing the chance to be trusted by the other side of the conflict. It urgently needs to change its policy from unilateral pro-Israelism to multilateral diplomacy. Only then can peace be possible. And that is some real change that the world needs now from Barack Obama.