Dispelling Brutality

“To answer brutality with brutality is to admit one’s
moral and intellectual bankruptcy.”

Mahatma Gandhi

“The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our
fight against terrorism.”

Colin Powell, September 13, 2006

Twelve months after 19 men steered three hijacked U.S. jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and crashed a fourth in Pennsylvania, the Bush administration was citing the brutality of Saddam Hussein toward his own people and his neighbors as the moral justification–indeed, a moral imperative–for forcefully removing him from power.

Unfortunately for the people of Iraq, regime change in their country has transformed Iraq into the “flypaper for terrorists” in the heart of the Middle East. Add to this the inter-sectarian brutality that dominates the daily lives of more than one-quarter of Iraq’s population and that strikes randomly throughout the country, it is impossible to see how this “moral imperative” has made Iraq, the region, or the world safer and better as the president promised. If anything, the brutality that has been unleashed in Iraq (and Afghanistan) is fostering an atmosphere of increased tolerance of brutality around the
world, even in places where full-blown combat has not been the daily paradigm. And as so often happens, the consequences fall most heavily on those who do not participate in the violence but end up the victims of collective punishment.

Nowhere has this been truer than in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since the January 25, 2006 parliamentary elections. Tired of years of corrupt and ineffective governance by the Fatah coalition, Palestinians voted for Hamas candidates, returning them in a majority and conferring the right to form the next government which took office at the end of March. The problem is that both the U.S. and Israel regard Hamas as a terror organization and refuse to deal with it.

This “refusal” quickly assumed a programmatic coherence. Israel, which controls all border crossing points into Gaza, whether for people or for supplies, and collects taxes for the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and forwards them to Ramallah every month, refused to send the money to the new government on the pretext that it would not be spent for the benefit of Palestinians but for more weapons and training Hamas forces. Similarly, the U.S. cut off all financial support to the PNA . Together, these financial hammers quickly wreaked havoc on the PNA, which is the largest employer (40 percent) of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and in turn on the innocent trying to survive day to day.

Worse was to come. The catalyst was an attack on an Israeli outpost along the Egyptian-Gaza border, the latter under Israeli control, by Palestinian fighters. In the attack, two Israeli soldiers were killed and one was captured. After three days, Israeli troops re-entered Gaza, sweeping all the way through the towns and camps looking for the captured soldier. The Hamas-led government, which still refused to affirm explicitly Israel’s right to exist, was powerless to stop the Israeli Defence Forces. More than 230 Palestinians were killed.

The PNA is also powerless to get its perspective into the international media limelight, particularly in the United States. In a real sense, this is an even more critical failing as the PNA finds itself two or more steps behind Israeli interest groups and partisans.

The collapse of the Gaza economy–the outgrowth of the cut-off of tax remittances and foreign assistance–has led to the disruption of efforts by expatriate Palestinians who, having been successful professionals in other lands, returned to Palestine to contribute to the effort to re-establish a viable and healthy economy encompassing both Gaza and the West Bank. But restrictions on the movement of goods, always a hindrance in the best of times, have been tightened even more. Add in the withholding of vital revenue streams, which means families have no money to buy the few commodities that do get in, and in short order “economic activity” is a dream.

Now Israel has opened a new front that will deepen even further the destitution in Gaza. For years, Israel has exercised a type of informal “guest worker” visa system that allowed Palestinian entrepreneurs to stay in Gaza on a renewable three-month work visa. The same rule applied to foreigners in humanitarian, aid, and nongovernmental groups trying to assist the ordinary people. Under the latest administrative ruling, foreign passport holders–even those of Palestinian ancestry–can get only a single three-month tourist visa in any 12 month period. Any additional visas in that 12 month period will be valid for one week only. A few additional one-month renewals may be possible for some businessmen, but this is not guaranteed even when their homes and families are in Gaza.

Truly, this must be one of the most short-sighted decisions in the whole modern history of Israel–one that runs counter to efforts to go beyond treating symptoms to tackle root causes of terror.

A primary non-military objective of the Bush administration’s “war on terror” is to eliminate what the White House regards as the seedbed of terror: the madras schools financed by wealthy Muslims and attended by young boys whose parents cannot afford any other education for their sons or by older youngsters who cannot find work. All these schools teach is the Koran–word-for-word mastery of the entire scripture and the more important (as determined by the madras’ headmaster) interpretations of the meaning of various verses.

While such a regimen may have some benefits for family and society, if this is the extent of the education received by the majority of young men in Islamic-dominated countries, they will not be equipped to compete in the workforce and contribute to improving their country or region. In areas such as Gaza where the public education infrastructure has been so badly damaged by armed struggle, one option that can help overcome the limitations of the madrasas by supplementing Islamic religious education is the foreign-financed schools that teach the basic skills that serve as a foundation for any number of important occupations. But in Gaza, these schools–including one in Ramallah administered by the Society of Friends–are being threatened by the new “three-month to one-week” visa policy. When their English-speaking staff of teachers has to leave Gaza when their initial three month tourist visa expires, they could simply be denied a re-entry visa or be given a one-week visa by the Israeli military which controls who enters and leaves Gaza.

On the broader scope of the Middle East, Israel’s visa policy will simply reinforce the perception that Tel Aviv has no intention of allowing a viable Palestinian state to form. This week, Hamas agreed to form a new “national unity government” with Fatah and to invest Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with full authority to negotiate with Israel and to represent the interests of Palestinians in any peace talks. The working platform of the unity government does affirm the “two state solution,” implicitly recognizing the existence of the State of Israel even though Hamas as an organization still retains its opposition to Israel.

Whether this will be enough to ease the restrictions on visas that are brutally strangling both the educational and the economic prospects of Palestinians remains to be seen. The current government in Tel Aviv has certainly made egregious missteps in its relationships with the PNA and with Lebanon to the north since coming into power at the start of 2006. And like George Bush, its only strategy is more of the same–“stay the course.”

The Palestinian unity government itself faces the challenge of reining in the various armed factions operating in the Occupied Territories and turning away from the brutality of constant warfare. To the extent that the PNA can get control of the violence, it will be able to demonstrate that the harsh Israeli tactics–including the short visas–are unnecessary, punitive, and destructive not only of the chances for an economically vibrant PNA but of the bonds of family and communal life that are the basis of moral government.

Col. Dan Smith is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus, a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at dan@fcnl.org