Kevin Clarke
The Chicago Tribune
January 1, 2009 - 1:00am,0,48419...

It's hard to watch the mayhem in Gaza, watch the bloodied faces of children and anguished parents, hard even to watch the death mask of even the most ardent, Israel-hating member of Hamas as he is carted off to his grave, easier to turn it off, and not think about this complex, seemingly intractable mess that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Unfortunately that has essentially been the attitude of the current administration in Washington over the last eight years. Surely its hands-off policy has contributed to the slaughter being unleashed over the last several days in what is already one of the most wretched places on Earth. Surely the willful ignorance of the U.S. public to America's role (or lack thereof) in the Middle East must share some of the blame.

Both sides, predictably, accuse the other of breaking the recent truce; both sides have suffered casualties in the recent exchange of hostilities. Also predictably it is Israel's high-tech, U.S. supplied and manufactured (mostly) weaponry that is generating the highest number of casualties among Hamas, non-Hamas police and security officers and non-combatants, including women and children in the aerial bombing campaign. There is no real balance in these reciprocal exchanges. Israel deploys state-of-the-art aircraft and missiles that are guided to their brutal conclusion. Hamas' Qassam rockets are almost comic malperformers that still manage to squash a life or two while maintaining a stupid level of terror in southern Israel that one presumes is enough to assuage Arab pride. Let us hereby go on the record as condemning without exception the use of such weapons against civilian targets in Israel.

Almost by definition Hamas' tactics are morally indefensible. But the Hamas-led government, if it can be described as such, in Gaza is not an ally of the United States and it is not on the receiving end of billions of dollars annually in U.S. aid (soon to be jacked up to $3.1 billion a year in direct military aid alone, at least $30 billion over the next 10 years). America's goals and intentions in the Middle East will not be evaluated through the actions of Hamas, but by those of its regional surrogate Israel. Hamas and its agents have acted deplorably, immorally, but it is useless and redundant for U.S. voices to condemn such terrorism. The only capacity we have for moral suasion in the region is through the nation frequently described as America's strongest global ally, Israel. It is Israel's behavior therefore that is rightly subject to our most intense moral and strategic scrutiny.

Israel has every right to defend itself and its citizens against cross-border rocket attacks. That right, however, does not excuse it from good moral judgment and strategic restraint. In other words, while some response may be justified, any kind of response cannot be beyond criticism. So-called surgical strikes via high explosives delivered by U.S. manufactured missiles will inevitably include civilian casualties. The Israeli Defense Force and public have shown too high a tolerance for such casualties in the interest of what can only be called short-term tactical goals (just as our own tolerance for "collateral damage" calls our moral and strategic judgment into question).

Worse, many commentators have noted that this unprecedented bombardment in Gaza's densely populated urban environment may be attributable to the upcoming changing of the guard in America and the nearness of Israeli elections (likely to favor a "get tough" candidate). If that kind of political calculus was truly driving the decision to ratchet up the response in Gaza then this military campaign is already morally bankrupt.

The ostensible goal of the current mission is to end the periodic barrage of Qassam rockets and neutralize Hamas, but it is hard not to believe the IDF hopes to "kill down" Hamas to a level that can either be utterly defeated in a military showdown or until they've reached some elusive level where moderate leadership will somehow emerge through the carnage. The inherent flaw of this line of strategic reasoning should be self-evident—further brutalization may not succeed in neutralizing Palestinian radicals but only in radicalizing more Palestinians (and others throughout the Arab and Islamic world), liberally sowing the seedbed of future enmity and suffering all around.

And the moral problem is that following that gruesome course will necessitate an unknowable level of suffering among the community members of Gaza, who already endure unspeakable economic and personal hardship. Yes, that is blood on Hamas' hand for poking the giant and provoking the mayhem, but only the most feebly formed morality could argue that Israel and the U.S. do not likewise bear a moral responsibility for the slaughter of the innocents in this conflict and the rational containment of violence. Hitting a legitimate military target knowing full well that that strike will include non-combatant casualties in no way washes away culpability for those casualties. Destroying the infrastructure of an impoverished community and maintaining a strangling economic blockade is a form of collective punishment. Doing nothing while a trusted ally engages in such tactics using your military hardware and arguably in violation of U.S. law likewise does not excuse you of culpability for the deadly outcomes on the streets and among the refugee warrens of Gaza.

So how should Israel respond to the Qassam rockets (if it is forever too late to even ask that question)? It is hard to offer an alternative other than forbearance to the Israeli public, a frustrating and infuriating reality. The Qassam rockets are occasionally deadly but hardly an existential threat; generating new levels, cycles, generations of violence is or one day will be.

"Hamas is a prisoner of a logic of hatred, Israel of a logic of trusting in force as the best response to hatred," the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, told Vatican Radio on Saturday. "They need to keep looking for a different way out, even if it seems impossible."

It is an atrocious cliché to suggest that new thinking is required toward resolving this endless conflict. It is nonetheless true. Perhaps the U.S. needs to take a direct peacekeeping role in Gaza and the West Bank; perhaps its vast military aid to Israel could be better invested in actual peacemaking than the perennial and perpetually unrealized promise of "peace through power." Perhaps better diplomatic opportunity must be made of, say, a period of six months of peace. This one was allowed to come and go with remarkably little achieved. But it is that essential and ceaseless exercise in dialogue that promises the only escape from this "perverse logic of conflict and violence," as Pope Benedict describes it, that threatens to engulf us all.


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