War is a Constriction of Policy By Other Means

Gershom Gorenberg

My new article on the war in Gaza is now up at The American Prospect (may it speedily be outdated by a ceasefire):

The morning after the invasion began, I ran into a friend at a café. It was a quiet day in Jerusalem, cold and sunny. He’d received a text message, from his son, who was serving in an unnamable unit in the south. The message said that the soldiers’ cell phones were being collected, so he wouldn’t be able to call again for some time. Translated, it meant, “We’re going in.” My friend smiled, with a bit of effort, and then said about the war, “I don’t think we had any choice this time.”

His colleague, a long-haired middle-aged man with left-leaning politics, agreed. “We had to do something” about missiles raining on Israeli cities, he said. The only available “something” began with airstrikes and had now moved on to invasion.

In war, I thought after I left them, the mind focuses like a telephoto lens. It sees a small picture, without depth, in sharp detail. Any panoramic view is lost. The pictures are stills, without before and after. This is the way people think when a rocket launched from Gaza hits an empty school in Beersheba, an Israeli city that until recently was out of range, or when an Israeli bomb hits a house in a Jabalya refugee camp, killing at least 15 women and children along with a Hamas leader. An e-mail I received from an Israeli human-rights group, based on phone calls from Gaza, described incidents in which Palestinian medical crews were struck by Israeli fire. Each story was reduced to a single sentence of horror. They left no room for Israeli mistakes (though most Israeli combat deaths, so far, are due to mistaken Israeli fire) or for an Israeli reason for going to war.

The choices on both sides that led to this bloodshed make sense in telephoto mode, within a narrow frame, shorn of context…

Read the rest here, and come back to South Jerusalem to comment.

More on Gaza and Hamas at South Jerusalem:

Tough Love: The Moral Choices in the Gaza War

Fight Fire With a Cease-Fire

Pride, Fury, Fire

Is Hamas Looking For a Two-State Solution? Should We Listen?

19 thoughts on “War is a Constriction of Policy By Other Means”

  1. Here’s another axiom, from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, one that seems to apply to both sides:

    “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

  2. I am disappointed to see your somewhat terse hand-waiving analysis of the chain of events that led israel to commit what is, by any civilized definition, a major atrocity. So hamas would not give up its electoral victory to Fatah? so it continues to fire a few firecrackers at a few locations at random – obviously to prove that palestinians are actually still alive beyond the fence? so hamas managed to restore some law and order in gaza after ousting the corrupt thugs of Dahlan’s gang (and their Israeli agents in the process)? and that deserved a total blockade on food, fuel and other essentials for 2 years? all culminating in an all-out bombing and invasion campaign that marked specifically civilians as targets (no doubt because they committed the violation of walking around while Arab)?

    For the record – I consider the massacre of a graduating police class in gaza to be an untargeted assassination of civilians too. Just as a suicide bombing of an israeli police station would be.

    The stuff being spewed about israel’s favorite villian hamas (propelled by some some supposed iranian puppet masters, no less) sound awfully close to an israeli version of the protocols of the elders of Islam. much of what’s been said about the palestinians is nothing short of blood libel. Add that to the near daily pogroms perpetrated by the settlers so beloved by the military government of Israel, and what do you get?

    Just the other day, I read an “inspiring” exhortation by one yahoo Eliahu (a rabbi in good standing, I believe) who used the Shechem massacre (an atrocity by any other name) as a precedent justifying collective punishment. And then some.

    Now that kind of gave me an idea – perhaps the problem with the low moral intelligence of israelis (the vast majority, at least) is that they have been subjected to brain washing as children using those savage biblical tales (many of which, in all fairness portray the israelites as a rather brutish bunch, even as their not-so-merciful god is reduced to perpetual plaintive posturing). Given the nature of many of the tales, and the carte blanche given to many of the perpetrators of all sort of disgusting crimes against humanity, all while using precious school time with very little deliberation of the moral dimension of it all…couldn’t t this be viewed as a tool to inoculate the children of israel against moral pangs when the victim is “the other”?

    You, Mr Gorenberg are, I believe, a religious man given to moral reasonings. Can you give me one good reason why the jews of current-day israel should not be exiled yet again by the very same pissed-off God for much the very same sort of crimes they committed before?

    Just what does being jewish mean to a liberal-leaning orthodox jew such as yourself, at a time like this? watching the blood-thirstiness of your neighbours and country-men? the cynicism of your elected government officials? the betrayal of all things valuable in a long tradition?

    I am really curious now – what value is there in staying jewish under the present circumstances anyways?

    channeler of prophets of old

  3. my comment is rather an article on the crisis in the middle east.Hamas offensive and Israel’s incremental military response.

    By Ilobi Austin

    As the state of Israel, asserts it right to peaceful and peaceable existence within its borders and without, through its defensive military actions against Hamas, it would be imperative that they do not devalue the campaign by denying innocent women and children in Gaza of the same rights, as they seek- right to life.

    This is not taking any thing away from the statements of the Israelis authorities on the disagreeable tactics of the Hamas militants of using those victims-women and children, as shields, which makes their avoidance as a target, practically, impossible. . “Fighting” from the immediate neighbourhoods of these innocent and showing off their dead bodies as Israelis trophies will not do. They, the Hamas militants, invited the “bomb rains” on their territory and stronghold and should be brave enough to face death without conscripting unwilling partners.

    It is hypocritical for some world leaders to condemn the actions of Israel and label same, holocaust as seen on most Arab satellite channels, without doing the same to the provocateur- Hamas. Furthermore, one is very confident that most of those who have condemned these actions would do more damage should similar challenges confront them within their territory.

    Russia’s response to Georgia’s indiscretion is still very fresh. No self-respecting nations with the military capability and competence of Israel would stand by and watch the provocative waste of the lives and property of her citizens. No! It is too high a price to pay for diplomacy of any kind. This is not in any way advocating the Russian treatment or worse.

    All should understand that the current actions of Israel are only a response to the ceaseless firing of rockets into her territory by the radical wing of Hamas referred to as militants or terrorist by the west, which it had repeatedly complained and warned of dire consequences, against.

    Violence begets nothing but, violence. At the end of the day, dialogue, would still be sought and in the spirit of give and take devoid of emotions, one believes that an agreeable solution would be found.

    Israel once demonstrated that it desired peace when it unilaterally, withdrew from Gaza after many decades of occupying it; and this position has not changed. The authorities, contrary to the insinuations of some sympathetic public and opinion leaders from the Middle East, has already declared that it has no intentions whatsoever, of re-occupying the Gaza strip. That is scarcely the statement of a supposed land grabber.

    Crafting to stamped her into giving up more of her territory or even, supposedly, that of the Palestinians as Hamas and their other variants have tended to do, with rockets and suicide bombings in crowded environments like markets and eateries, only hardens them and their resolve to hold on to their positions and believes in the rightness of their actions.

    Besides, it betrays a lack of knowledge of the history of the Jewish state of Israel itself. The biblical and modern Israel has witnessed more deadly violence through history for any intermittent explosions here and there to down grade or challenge her resolves to hold on to her current opinions.

    Israel has already proved beyond doubt that it can deal decisively with any form of violence from Hamas or any other such group and Hamas has equally proved that it can provoke some minor discomfort however, the price. It is now time for both to look for a single table and an unbiased referee to officiate while they trash out issues without politics of might or right devoid of any arm twisting tactics or blackmail. A cease fire-from Hamas first then, Israel, of course must, of necessity, herald this process.

    Ilobi Austin writes from Nigeria and is the author of many articles that can be downloaded @ http://www.vibratingaustin.blogspot.com

  4. Nice article – I always turn to you for some close up clarification (to extent the metaphor), or at least a different angle.

    So, what will happen vis-a-vis the Jan 9 date for the Palestinian presidency crisis, given all that has transpired/is happening in Gaza?

  5. For the record–anyone who would characterize the barrage of rockets that have killed and maimed Israeli civilians, many of them children, as “a few firecrackers” has completely removed him/herself from the realm of civilized discourse. Spare us your apologia for the fascist, theocratic, thuggish movement that you admire so much.

    And the next time you want to pimp for fascism and antisemitism in public, have the courage to sign your name. — Sarah

  6. Well said Sarah . . . thanks for popping that pimple of pomposity. I hope you were wearing rain gear.

    “pimp for . . .” – good enough to use some other time.

  7. Ditto. Hamas and others are launching rockets with the intent to kill Israelis. Lack of targeting accuracy doesn’t change the motive.

    I start and end each day with the hope that Hamas will take the bold, unilateral action of stopping the rockets, and challenging the Israeli government to live up to it’s CNN broadcasted promises to end the casualties and suffering.

    If only …

  8. Gershom:

    Thoughtful article Sir. I warmed to your metaphor of the “telephoto lens.” Your last sentence gave me much pause . . . an intentioned mistake perhaps? Did you mean “Sometimes war is a failure of policy, a constriction of imagination.”? Whatever – its rhetorical qualities proved meditative to me; my outline of a riposte has ebbed. For a few moments I am wise enough to listen.

  9. I didn’t read the last sentence as a mistake. War creates its own dynamic, like a perpetuum mobile, as Israel’s own foolish adventures in Lebanon showed all too well. Once you decide to pursue war, for whatever excuse, because your imagination fails to provide other options, the hostilities have a tendency to usurp policy. Hubristic refusal to consider that the war might not go as planned tempts to neglect exit strategies, leaving the only “honourable” exit the crushing defeat of the enemy – until reality forces a humiliating retreat. That was instrumental in the course of WW I & II, Vietnam, and both Lebanon wars, with the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan adventures nowhere in sight yet. Objectives of the war also get changed that way, most notoriously in Iraq, but in Gaza, too, the disconnect between the reality of warfare and the bigger political picture is evident. Gershom’s photographic metaphor is right on the mark. The military has got only a telephoto lens, while the political leadership refuses to use the wide-angle lenses they have. And so we are showered with platitudes like “Israel has a right to defend itself”, or “what would America do if Canada was firing missiles southwards”, or “Hamas delenda est”.

  10. Gershom, do you have any insight into why Israel is seeking a multinational force to control the border with Egypt? Isn’t it fairly clear that Egypt wants Hamas to collapse, or at least be forced back to the negotiation table with Fatah? In other words, why doesn’t Israel trust Egypt to take of that aspect itself?

    I think you’re absolutely right about the failure of the siege. But I wonder whether some good might not come of disarming Hamas.

  11. I think that your last sentence says it all:
    “…sometimes it is a faliure of imagination…”
    In other words, dreams, visions, make-believe.
    How will imagination help to conqour the impossible facts on the ground?
    “Hamas”, you say “need to be incorporated into the Palestinian mainstream”…(this is an organisation whose primary aim is to destroy Israel!)…and the UN need to take on their responsibilities (although they never ever have)…
    Yes, its true. All this needs to happen. But it wont. We focus on the “zoomed-in image” precisely for this reason: because the “big picture” is impossible, unfixable, disaster.

  12. Remember Gilad Shalit? Probably. Remember the guys that died when he was kidnapped? Betcha don’t.

    Jerusalem Post, 11/4/08 (updated 11/6) “The source added that the attack tunnel was ready for “imminent use,” describing it as a “ticking tunnel” for the purpose of kidnapping soldiers.

    The IDF accused Hamas of jeopardizing the truce by digging the tunnel and plotting to abduct more Israeli soldiers in the immediate future.

    “The tunnel we uncovered was ready for imminent use, forcing us to act immediately,” the military source said. “We did not know where the other end of the tunnel surfaced. In light of the intelligence we received about its immediate use, plans for special forces to enter Gaza this evening after sundown were approved,” he added.

    So Hamas, during the fictitious cease-fire-that-never-was (talk to anyone in Sderot or near by) uses this negotiated time out to tunnel its way to another kidnap/killing spree, and when Israel interdicts that attempt, it’s a violation of the fictitious cease-fire. I think not.

    Your link is 20/20 hindsight spin by Hamas. At the time this truce was up for renewal in December, Hamas stated that the reason the truce would not be renewed was because the border crossings had not been opened.

    Any excuse would have done–Hamas was simply re-armed to the teeth, the IEDs ready, the missiles stockpiled and the months of summer “training camps” for fighters of both genders complete. It was time.

    Hamas simply mistook Israel. After years of firing rockets and mortars into Israel and provoking mostly empty talk from politicians, Hamas assumed that their demand for our border crossings to be opened to them would be something we would just cave in to after a steady barrage of missiles.


  13. As a unabashed liberal Christian here in the United States ( that assertion may be seen by the Christian Zionists here as a oxymoron) Why doesn’t Israel finish off Hamas once and for all? Look there is no way to clear up the public relations “brew ha ha” so finish the job already. There is no room ,no way , for a ceasefire with these fanatics.Thats like getting the”nutcases” out of the settlements.Once Israel has totally kicked their asses then and only then will there be a two state solution. I mean like the Romans did to Carthage and cover Gaza City over with salt

  14. Since the posting invites “Read the rest here, and come back to South Jerusalem to comment,” I did and I am.

    You wrote there, in part: “In fact, the dilemma of Gaza can only be resolved by looking at it in panoramic political view. It requires a solution for the future of the West Bank, as well, and reintegrating Hamas into a single Palestinian political framework. International help and mediation is needed but on a far larger scale than policing the Egypt-Gaza border.”

    Oh, I agree, but South Jerusalem.com is still set on telephoto, and thus omit the following. Both Hamas and the “Palestinian Authority” (PLO) are committed to getting rid of Israel and the Jews one way or another. Before we get to “international help” we would need the Arab world (read — Arab nondemocratic governements) also to accept Israel and the Jews. When that happens, the money will start flowing to the right places, and not be stolen to the wrong places. And “the West Bank” and “the Palestinians”, along with Jordan (why not “the East Bank”?) and Syria are all artificial, dictatorial entities created by Britain and France as they brought down the Ottoman Empire less than 100 years ago. A truly “panoramic political view” must look for a solution for Gaza that takes into account much more history and area than just the last 40 years or few square kilometers.

  15. Tom, if I was an apologist for Israel right or wrong, I’d be careful about ridiculing countries for being artificial entities created by Britain in the wake of the fall of the Ottoman Empire…

  16. Fiddler: Maybe your right it could be the vicodin I have been taking for my herniated L4-L5. It makes me mean. better get the lumbar laminectomy and quit whining and taking it out on the Palestinians.but they do frustrate me.

    Maybe Barak and Hillary have a plan between them that will bring all this senseless slaughter to an end. My heart goes out to the parents of the Israeli reservists being drafted into this fight. It is one thing to be a trained member of the IDF , many of whom have been in battle before, and a citizen who two weeks ago was working at his or her job. I’ve been in combat and you never get over the smell of death.

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