Friday, January 30, 2009

Coyote Scat

Caedmon and I were wandering around our backyard yesterday, and we came across quite a large quantity of feces on the ground. Given Caedmon's age, it wasn't surprising that he wanted to investigate further; nor, given my interest in everything outdoors, was it surprising that I wanted to as well.

The feces looked like they might have come from a dog, and we've got a few large friendly beasts of that sort roaming our neighborhood. But we also see coyotes in our backyard periodically (I've never managed a good picture of one), and in fact, we had spotted one just two days ago. And it turns out that the feces in question appeared to have hair in them, which isn't normal for a domestic canine, nurtured on traditional dog food.

From Coyote Scat
From Coyote Scat

My suspicions were confirmed when, a few yards away, I spotted the (very) scattered remains of a small animal, probably a rabbit but perhaps a cat. Its fur was lying in patches over maybe a 15 square foot area.

From Coyote Scat
From Coyote Scat

Given the substantial quantity of feces, I have to imagine that one or more coyotes have been frequenting this site for some time.  I don't really mind coyotes except when they eat our cats (we've lost two over the years), but it's still a little odd that we've apparently got one holed up in our backyard.

Needless to say, Caedmon was fascinated by all of this, and even managed to step repeatedly into the feces in question, smearing them all over his shoe. Lovely.

From Caedmon (17 Months)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Chatting with Charlie about Gaza Part 2

My pastor and I had coffee today, to discuss and compare our different views on the current situation in Gaza. Our perspectives, of course, don't entirely mesh: I'm more likely to find Israel's actions in Gaza defensible (though not entirely so), and he's more likely to find them reprehensible (though not entirely so). Charlie and I have always had the ability to debate collegially and disagree while remaining friends, and today was no different: neither of us particularly changed our minds, but we were each able to talk about our perspectives, and learn from the other.

One interesting aspect of our conversation is that while we continued to disagree on where the (primary) blame lay for the latest round of violence, we were largely able to agree on what needed to happen next. I don't want to speak for Charlie, but this is what I hope Israel does in the coming months:

  1. Once the cease-fire is in place, Israel should immediately lift its blockade on Gaza, and invest in rebuilding the infrastructure its military has destroyed. Israel has made it clear to Gaza and to the world that it wields a very large stick; it should show Gaza an even more substantial carrot.
  2. Israel should look the other way for a few months. I can't imagine that Hamas and Islamic Jihad (or their remnants and successors) will allow an attack of this size to pass without an attempt at retribution, cease-fire or no. If Israel is serious about peace, it should plan on ignoring several major violations of the cease-fire in the coming months, without re-imposing the blockade or responding with more violence. But Israel should also make it plain to Hamas (or its remnants) that its patience is limited, and that if violence continues beyond a very short period, Israel will wield an even larger stick, with even more dire consequences.
  3. Israel should enforce its own ban on settlement-building in any contested territory, and the government should bend over backwards to ensure that its courts offer quick and fair hearings for any Palestinian lawsuits over contested land. It shouldn't take a Palestinian farmer five years to evict illegal settlers. And it should begin carrying out its own demolition orders.
  4. Israel should announce to the world that it acknowledges, in principle at least, that East Jerusalem is the legitimate capital of Palestine, and will negotiate the many remaining sticky details with Fatah in good faith.
  5. If this calms things down, in several months, Israel should begin the release of Palestinian political prisoners who are not guilty of actual bloodshed.

I don't think Israel should do these things because it has been wrong and its enemies are right: I think Israel should do these things because its people want peace, and it has the strength to make peace, if it has the will to do so.

If Israel took these steps, it would take all the wind out of Hamas' sails. Hamas is able to sell the Palestinian people the fantasy of Israel's destruction because the Palestinians believe the possibility of peace and prosperity is just as much a fantasy. If Israel could show them that it is as serious about peace as it is about deterrence, that its people are willing to risk suffering as much for peace as they have in war, Hamas' evil and corrupt ideology would lose all its appeal. The IDF has clearly regained its deterrent capability: and Israel will have a (perhaps brief) opportunity to be merciful without appearing weak. If Israel takes advantage of the opportunity its military has created, perhaps even this grievous war will have been worth the price.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Steven Klein on Conflict Management

One of the editors of Ha'Aretz, Steven Klein, has a very interesting analysis of how to move forward past the current stalemate in Gaza. The key part of his proposal, after a discussion of game theory, is that Israel should implement a unilateral but conditional cease-fire:
In the current situation, Israel should not simply declare a limited cease-fire, but rather an unlimited one, as well as an end to its blockade of Gaza, contingent on subsequent cooperation by Hamas. Reports indicate Hamas is willing to entertain truce offers - and now is the time for one. Simultaneously, Israel must communicate clearly to Hamas what the consequences of continued rocket fire would be: For example, for each rocket fired across the border, Israel would close the border crossings for a day, or destroy a certain number of targets. The advantage of this strategy is that it gives both sides the opportunity to de-escalate the violence and to save face. If the rockets do stop, the Israeli government can tell its citizens that it has secured their safety, while Hamas can tell Gazans it forced Israel to back down and achieved more freedom of movement.
This is a very interesting idea, and one that I've pondered in the past. It's probably what I would do if I were in Israel's shoes.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Chatting with Charlie about Gaza

My pastor recently posted a thoughtful response to the ongoing violence in Gaza. I started to post my own thoughts on his blog, but I realized that they were more complicated and extensive than I could easily put into a simple response. So I'm going to post them here, and then link to them from his site.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tough problem for a Christian to think through. Whether you accept the "just war" theory (which I think I do), or advocate strict pacifism, it's difficult to know how to respond to a situation in which each side has been responsible for so many unconscionable acts of violence and oppression. Certainly no honest Christian can side entirely and unequivocally with one side or the other. (And I should state up front that Christians who believe whatever Israel does is right, simply because it is Israel, have badly and baldly misunderstood the Bible. Certainly neither Isaiah, Jeremiah nor Ezekiel held such views – let alone Jesus.) Israel has done many horrible things in their conflict with the Palestinians. To take the most obvious example, its continued settlement building in the West Bank is unconscionable, indefensible, brutal and stupid. Similarly, while Israel is well within its rights to build a wall around the West Bank, it has no such right to build a wall inside the West Bank.

Nevertheless, although neither side is without fault, I do think that it's important to understand as much of the situation as accurately as possible; and in that light, I take issue with how my pastor characterized the situation in Gaza. Or to put it another way, I agree with almost everything he says about how a Christian should respond to the situation in Gaza; but I disagree with his understanding of what that situation actually is.

Charlie wrote:

What happened? In the ongoing struggle for control between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Israel cut Gaza off from the world's trade. They refused to allow none but the slimmest of food supplies into Gaza. After months of fruitless talks, Hamas began last week to fire Qassam rockets into Israel to force them to allow countries to recontinue trade with the 2 million people living in Gaza.

It seems clear to me that the conflict in Gaza is specifically not about who controls Gaza: it's about who controls everything else. Israel made it plain that this was the case when it withdrew its army from Gaza in 2005, and forced its settlers – sometimes at gunpoint – to follow. If Hamas (or even Fatah) had taken the opportunity to apply its considerable ingenuity and collective intelligence to building a Palestinian state, instead of continuing its futile and insane war against Israel, we would have a very different situation right now. However, since the Israeli withdrawal, Hamas and its allies have fired over 5000 rockets and mortar shells at Israel (over 3000 just in 2008), and the rocket attacks continued apace even during the six month "truce". Nor is it quite true that Israel didn't open the border during the truce: they opened it repeatedly, only to shut it again after Hamas continued to lob rockets at Israeli civilians. Moreover, even when the border crossings were open, Hamas used them to launch suicide attacks against the Israeli border guards.

These rockets are nothing like Israeli or US rockets. The Israeli Ministry of Defense views these as "more a psychological than physical threat." Called a Qassam, they are 5 to 90 lb handmade affairs powered by sugar and fertilizer with TNT in the top and no guidance system. But of course they can be lethal. 15 people have been killed by the 5000+ that have been fired since 2001.

Charlie is very right that the rockets which form the backbone of Hamas' arsenal are pale and primitive things in comparison with the guided munitions that arm Israel's F16's. But it's also important to distinguish between the primitive Qassams Hamas has been using over the last few years, and the Grad rockets that they've been using more recently. These are not homemade rockets, but are rather versions of the military-grade Katyushas that Hezbollah used with dramatic effect against Israeli civilians in the 2006 Lebanon war. These Grad rockets were manufactured in China, and were smuggled into the Gaza strip during the cease fire with the help of Iran and Syria. They carry much larger warheads, with a much greater range. It's true that they are virtually worthless as a military weapon: their single purpose is to kill as many civilians as possible. Their warheads, for instance, are packed with ball bearings to maximize civilian casualties, and nearly a million Israeli civilians now live under the threat and reality of rocket bombardment.

Last week Hamas resumed firing these rockets. Before there were any injuries of Israelis, Israel began a devastating attack on the Palestinians. They bombed Gaza City from highly precise fighter jets. After two days one Israeli was killed by the Palestinian rockets and 300 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli Air Force. Those included men, women, children, and infants. Also another 600 Palestinians were burned and injured.

The disproportionate response of the Israelis outrages me. The Israelis say they are killing Palestinians to protect Israelis from the rockets. Yet in one weekend the Israelis killed 20 times more Palestinians than the Palestinians did Israelis in seven years of rocket attacks! Whatever happened to the command for retributive restraint? "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," says the Lord in Exodus. What we see in Gaza is unrestrained revenge.

I disagree with Charlie that Israel launched this most recent offensive out of a desire for revenge. I think Israel did launch its 2006 war against Hezbollah out of a desire for revenge, but the results of that war made it clear to everyone in the IDF and in the Israeli government that revenge is a singularly inadequate motivation for all-out war. Nor does Israel think that it can actually eliminate Hamas' ability to fire rockets into civilian populations: this also was made clear during the Second Lebanon War. What Israel intends to achieve against Hamas is the one thing it actually did achieve against Hezbollah. Israel wants to make Hamas suffer so badly that they will not just agree to another cease fire, and but will actually hold to its terms once it's in place. That's what eventually happened in Lebanon, and it's what Israel wants to happen in Gaza. It's not a Christian means or a particularly merciful end, but it's a practical means and a livable end, and it needs to be understood (or even condemned) as such, not as a blanket desire for revenge. Hamas knew that Israel would respond when they escalated their rocket attacks, and Israel knew that Hamas knew this; Israel's hope is that Hamas underestimated how strongly and effectively Israel would respond, and overestimated the support they would receive from the international community. (Even the Egyptian foreign minister has recently acknowledged that Hamas "served Israel the opportunity on a golden platter to hit Gaza".)

This leaves open the question about whether Israel's response has been proportionate; and that's more difficult to answer. My pastor is very right when he points out that Israel has killed far more civilians than Hamas has, and I'm genuinely grieved at the death of these innocents. I can't imagine the grief and rage of the parents who've lost their children in Israeli air strikes. Nevertheless, there's a genuine and widely held moral distinction between killing non-combatants accidentally when going after legitimate military targets, and killing civilians intentionally. Clearly, Israel is doing its best to avoid civilian casualties: as just one example, it's been reported that prior to the first attack, the IDF actually telephoned thousands of Palestinians who lived near targeted areas, warning them to move out of homes or neighborhoods which were serving as Hamas military sites. The most recent information I've been able to find is that of the nearly 400 Gazans killed in the fighting, nearly 300 of them wore Hamas uniforms. In contrast, there is a great deal of evidence that Hamas cynically uses mosques to store weapons, and launches its mortars from schoolyards, specifically to maximize Palestinian civilian casualties. If Hamas had Israel's weaponry, it seems highly likely to me that they would direct that firepower into the heart of Tel Aviv residential neighborhoods; and if anyone has evidence otherwise that I've overlooked, I would like to see it.

Another way to look at it: if Mexico were foolish enough to launch 5000 rockets from Tijuana into San Diego, or if Nepal were to launch them into China, or Venezuela into Colombia, the aggrieved nation would certainly respond, and in a similarly "disproportionate" fashion. Israel's initiation of this war may not be justified by the highest Christian standards – standards no actual country has ever lived up to, certainly not the US – but I can't imagine any nation in the history of the world not responding to Hamas' blatant, repeated and foolish provocations. Perhaps Israel should legitimately be condemned for doing in this war what any nation does in any war: but we should be clear that we are equally rejecting all nations and all warfare, Britain in 1940 as much as Israel in 2008.

But the issue goes deeper than the comparatively simple matter of who violated the truce most egregiously or whose tactics are the most reprehensible. It's almost universally acknowledged that a two-state solution (going back in its rough outlines at least as far as 1947) is the only just and legitimate solution to the ongoing crisis. No other resolution short of genocide is conceivable, and no organization or ideology, Arab or Israeli, can be taken seriously if it refuses to acknowledge that both Jews and Palestinians have a right to a homeland. The Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority are together working fitfully towards this solution; the difficulty, as always, is in the details. In contrast, Hamas has had numerous opportunities to renounce its stated goal of the destruction of Israel, and has consistently refused to do so. In other words, while the Palestinians have many legitimate claims against Israel, Hamas can't be taken seriously, or treated as other than a terrorist organization, until it acknowledges as a matter of justice that Israel has a right to exist, and as a matter of practical politics that Israel will in fact continue to do so. Until this happens, Hamas is fighting, not for anything noble, and certainly not for freedom, but for a horrible and terrible lie. (In all fairness, it's clear there are any number of Jewish settlers who are also fighting for a lie, and who need to be treated in precisely the same way.)

All that said – and it was probably said at more length than it needed to be – I agree with Charlie about the appropriate response a Christian should have to the situation in Gaza. We should grieve the loss of life, and must always reject the temptation to dehumanize even those we are convinced are in the wrong. We need to discern injustice and identify evil whether it is done by "our" side or by the "other". And in our work and prayer for peace and justice, we must finally remember that final reconciliation can come only from the Prince of Peace.