Four years ago, during a visit to Gaza to interview the boys throwing blast bombs at the Israeli troops then protecting the settlements in the coastal enclave, the question came up repeatedly over why parents permitted it. It was a moot point. For not only was the activity largely pointless — few of the bombs came close to their targets, and were more dangerous to those who threw them — but the inevitable return of Israeli fire hurt far more of the children. Th e approximation of an answer that I gleaned was complex, but nearly five years later it has a resonance for one of the most compelling questions of the continuing Gaza crisis: why is it that the militant factions have persisted with rocket fire that has almost no military value?
It is not to be found in the bravado that says it welcomes the Israeli ground invasion as an opportunity to kill Israeli troops. Instead, it is to be found in a more subtle conjunction of motivations revolving around the idea of resistance. It served — said my interview subjects — multiple functions: as a form of psychological release; as a focus for social cohesion and national identity, generating “martyrs” to celebrate; and, finally, as a constant reminder to the “other” — the enemy — that the Palestinians had not been defeated. It was intimately interwoven for me then with another issue: the rejection of non-violent resistance by large sections of Palestinian society. While that issue retains its urgency, these days it is interwoven with a second, equally compelling, point of interest — when do we regard armed resistance as being acceptable?
In recent years, it has been seen as unremarkable to support the rights of groups to turn to violence in order to pursue ambitions of statehood, seceding from regimes that they complain suppress both their human rights and desire for self-determination. In both Kosovo and Darfur the west has sided with the secessionists.
In the context of Gaza and Israel — as Michael Walzer, author of Just and Unjust Wars, argued in a 2002 essay on the region — one of the problems is the oversimplification of the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. The reality, he argued, was that there were “four wars” being fought at different times, each of them requiring a different moral response: a Palestinian war to destroy the state of Israel; a Palestinian war to create a state alongside Israel and end the occupation; an Israeli war for security within the 1967 borders; and an Israeli war for a Greater Israel, for settlements and the occupied territories.
The difficulty is that the wars in Israel/Palestine that people believe they are fighting overlap — and in the moral realm are often contradictory. So Walzer categorises the war to destroy Israel as “unjust, while arguing that the war to create a Palestinian state — while in pursuit of a legitimate “goal” — could have been pursued without violence. “Winning the second war,” he argues, “depends on losing the first.”
Walzer also famously propounded the notion of the “supreme emergency” — his framework of permission for state terror, founded on the fire-bombing of German cities in the second world war when the allies were faced with the prospect of defeat by the Nazis. It saw the targeting of civilians, against his general view that civilians should never be targeted.
Although Walzer would perhaps deny its applicability, the consequences of Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza come close to the idea of a supreme emergency (much in the same way that Israel has justified its attack on the Gaza Strip in similar terms). Under the blockade, Gazan society has been brought close to disintegration: Gaza’s economy has suffered irreparable damage; one in two residents live in poverty; and its always fragile social, kinship and political relationships have violently broken down.
What has made the issue even more murky — as Conor Gearty, professor of human rights law at the LSE has noted — is the way in which terrorism is less and less regarded as a “technique,” albeit a horrible one, in pursuit of a political agenda. Instead, it has been deliberately redefined, largely by states, to mean a “category of person” — making it easy to ignore the underlying causes while concentrating on the acts.
None of the above should be read as a defence of terror, or even as an argument for armed resistance. The tragedy of Gaza is the acceptance on both sides that killing and oppression have more value than negotiation. And while many in the international community — and in Israel — remain stuck on the idea that the Jewish state has a monopoly on the deployment of the language of “supreme emergency,” more violence is inevitable. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009
( Note: Peter Beaumont is foreign affairs editor at the Observer.)