A ‘shadow war’ performed for Western voyeurs

Why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict drags on and on.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

What lies behind the latest skirmishes between the Israeli military and Palestinian militants in Gaza, following the capture nine days ago of a 19-year-old Israeli soldier by the military wing of Hamas?

Depending on whom you read, it is either an attempt by a buoyed-up Israel to reconquer Gaza, a territory it withdrew from only a year ago, and to show the Palestinians who’s the boss of the Middle East. Or it is evidence that Hamas, which has been running the Palestinian territories since it was elected in January, is a ruthless organisation hellbent on making life difficult for Israel. Either way, it is, in the words of one commentator, ‘the latest stage in a war that never really ended’.

In fact, this is better understood as a shadow war. It is not a clash between an expansionist Israel and a determined resistance in the shape of Hamas; instead, both sides are executing media stunts aimed at impressing their own domestic audiences and, crucially, an international audience too. Both the fragile Israeli government and the beleaguered Palestinian authorities seem to be using military tactics and war talk as a substitute for having any vision or direction, not as a re-declaration of war.

Today, it is not the ambitions of the Israeli or the Palestinian leaderships, much less the needs and desires of their peoples, that sustains this old Cold War conflict in a degraded form. Rather, it is the relentless internationalisation of the Middle Eastern crisis, the way in which it has become ‘everybody’s war’, that props it up long after it should have faded away.

For all the talk of a ‘new war’, or at least the latest stage in an age-old war, much of the Palestinian and Israeli action over the past week has been sound and fury signifying not very much. The capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit reportedly by three Palestinian groups – the military wing of Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees and the Islamic Army – shows the weakness rather than strength of Palestinian militancy, and of the Hamas government itself. Isolated both by international and Israeli sanctions, and unable (and unwilling) to launch or sustain any kind of military campaign against Israel, Hamas militants and their allies are reduced to using the tactics developed most recently by insurgents in Iraq over the past three years: kidnapping one individual in order to ‘send a message’ to the enemy and to try to get some of their comrades released from jail.

For the Hamas government, the Shalit standoff with Israel provides a useful distraction from its own political and financial crises in the West Bank and Gaza. There is talk of an impending rupture in Hamas, between leaders who wish implicitly to recognise the state of Israel and those who refuse to do so (which, again, suggests that Hamas is becoming more moderate rather than gearing up for war). Meanwhile, it is reported that sanctions and the aid boycott are making life very difficult for Palestinians, especially in Gaza, where medical and food supplies are running low.

For Hamas, the Shalit crisis is an opportunity to pose as determined men of principle even as they preside over an increasingly divided and impoverished Palestine. This is a military tactic designed to divert attention from their own failings, and to present themselves as standing up to the Israeli bully on behalf of the Palestinian people.

Israel is similarly executing military stunts in response to the capture of Corporal Shalit. For all the claims that the Israeli military is about to retake and reoccupy Gaza, in fact its antics have been relatively small-scale, certainly as compared with Israeli actions in the past. It has launched air assaults on the Hamas-run Interior Ministry and Hamas training camps and weapons depots in Gaza, but it has resisted sending in ground troops or bulldozing Palestinian homes – no doubt mindful of the international outcry such violent methods have provoked in the recent past.

The stunt-like nature of Israel’s response to the Shalit crisis is most clear in its violation of Syrian airspace. Israel sent planes to fly low over Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s palace in the city of Latakia, ‘because the Syrian leadership supports and harbours terrorists, among them Hamas’. Was this a declaration of war? A precursor to a bombing campaign in Syria? No – it was a gesture, designed to show that Israel is a serious and determined state.

Israel is not setting out to take back Gaza – rather it is hoping for a ‘Jessica Lynch moment’, when America temporarily regained some of its moral authority over Iraq by staging the rescue of one of its soldiers in 2003. Like Hamas, Israel hopes that tough talk and aggressive gestures over the Shalit incident will impress on the homefront, where Israeli politics has pretty much been in disarray since the demise into ill-health of former prime minister and strongman Ariel Sharon earlier this year.

These latest clashes between Israel and Palestine look like a performance for an audience, rather than a real fight on behalf of a constituency. There is almost a complicity between both sides: the Palestinians need Israel to respond to the kidnapping with bombing raids in order to show that they face a spiteful and unreasonable neighbour, while Israel needs the Palestinians to hold Shalit for a bit longer so they can continue trying to make mileage out of it. Yet this performance is not only for a domestic audience – it is staged for international viewers too. Indeed, in many ways it is the internationalisation of Middle Eastern politics which today provokes these kinds of low-level violent scraps between Israel and Palestine.

The conflict in the Middle East is no longer merely a clash over territory – rather it has become the most internationalised war on Earth, with everyone from the US to the UN, Russia to the EU, and numerous commentators, activists and academics around the world defining themselves and their missions on the back of the Israel-Palestine question. This has had the effect of upping the ante, and prolonging the conflict.

Of course there has always been an international element to the war in the Middle East. In the past America financed and armed Israel while the Soviet Union and various Arab states supported the Palestine Liberation Organisation run by Yasser Arafat. But internationalisation has intensified under the ‘peace process’ of the past 10 to 15 years, to the extent that today virtually every state in the world has a stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, in 2003 the Roadmap for Peace in the Middle East was overseen and enforced by a Quartet of Powers consisting of the US, the UN, the EU and Russia. Just about every power in the world is represented in that quartet.

The peace process transformed the Middle Eastern conflict from a war about sovereignty into a platform for international moral posturing. Since the outset, the perceived wisdom of the peace process has been that the further you are from the Middle East, the better placed you are to determine a sensible and fair outcome to the whole debacle. This was the thinking behind the Madrid conference of 1991 that kickstarted the peace process, and behind the ‘historic handshake’ between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993 and the Oslo Accords of the same year: that it is only from without the Middle East, away from all those nasty Israelis and Palestinians with their violent tendencies, that you can see the matter clearly.

This was not only profoundly undemocratic – it also meant that both sides in the Middle East began playing to the whims and expectations of the Western powers sponsoring the peace process rather than representing their own constituencies’ desires. This process has gone a great deal further as more and more international organisations, states and opinion-formers in the West have intervened in the Middle Eastern conflict and imbued it with Earth-shattering significance.

Today it is common for both individuals and states to define their entire view of life and politics through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is clear in commentary circles in America and Europe, where some adopt a pro-Israel posture to indicate that they are pro-Western, pro-military, anti-terrorism and in favour of law’n’order in international affairs, and where others take a pro-Palestinian stance to show they are progressive, liberal, caring and internationalist. Among some lazy thinkers Israel has become shorthand for Strength in the Face of Adversity, and for others Palestine has become a symbol of oppression and victimhood which they adopt to make themselves feel like good moral citizens. Some Westerners go so far as to dress like Palestinians, wearing those keffiyeh headscarves made famous by Arafat, to show that they even feel Palestinian – victimised and righteous.

On an international level, this adoption of Israel and Palestine as cheap and convenient symbols of everything you stand for can be seen in the splits between America and the EU over the Middle East. America, though it is much more critical of Israel than it was in the past, remains a ‘friend of Israel’, arguing that the state is an important buffer in the international war on terror; the EU, on the other hand, emphasises the importance of building a viable Palestinian state and funds the Palestinian Authority. The US sees Israel as a symbol of anti-terrorism, while the EU cosies up to Palestine (within limits) in order to cock a snoop at the US. Increasingly, US-EU differences are played out in the Middle East.

It is almost as if, at a time of political malaise and cultural confusion across the West, the conflict in the Middle East has become a kind of convenient refuge, one place where you can define what you are for and against. It is the one, live political conflict where things can appear black and white, a kind of throwback to simpler Cold War times when everyone knew where they stood. Such is the intense focus on the Middle East that you will often hear people say that world peace, no less, depends on finding a satisfactory resolution to the conflict, and that everything from today’s nihilistic terrorism to feelings of alienation among Muslims in the West stems from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The clash between Israel and Palestine is no longer a local conflict, it seems, but the great issue of our age which every one of us apparently has a stake in.

This internationalisation of the crisis, the narcissistic adoption of Israel and Palestine as symbols by politicians and thinkers across the West, has had the effect of sustaining and even inflaming the conflict. It both raises the stakes and encourages both sides to play to the international audience keeping an increasingly watchful eye on everything that happens on this tiny patch of land. So during the most recent clashes over the Shalit kidnapping, we can see Israel playing up its commitment to anti-terrorism and demonstrating that it takes seriously the role created for it by its supporters in the West – as a good-guy buffer against the Islamist threat. And we can see that one of the aims of the Palestinian leadership is actually to provoke Israeli incursions into Palestinian territories: they know this will win them more sympathy, and it allows them to demand further international protection against Israeli actions and for the punishment of Israel by the ‘caring’ sections of the international community.

The logic of the internationalisation of the Middle East is that Israel becomes a performing seal for the anti-terrorism brigade in the West, while the Palestinians become increasingly dependent for their survival on winning the pity of international institutions and liberal commentators and campaign groups. The biggest losers in all of this are both the Israeli and Palestinian people, whose leaders are too busy performing for the West to get a grip of their domestic situations. This old Cold War conflict is kept alive by the needs and prejudices of many in the West, not by what the people of Israel or Palestine want.

So, Hands off the Middle East – and today that doesn’t only go for America, but also the UN, the EU, Russia and every other institution, NGO, writer, academic and activist who has helped to turn the Middle East into a stageshow for their own political gratification.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

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Topics Politics


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