January 30, 2009

Who Really Won the Second Lebanon War

Israel’s recent war in Gaza was waged for the simplest of reasons: to deter Hamas from firing Qassam and Grad rockets. Whether or not the Israelis succeeded is an open question. An Israeli soldier – who, by the way, was an Arab – was killed by a roadside bomb next to the border with Gaza a few days ago. But if the aftermath of the less successful Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah in 2006 suggests anything, Hamas is likely to cool its guns for a while. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared a “divine victory” in August of 2006, and most Israelis agreed. Bombastic boasts to the contrary, however, Hezbollah lost, and Hezbollah knows it.

I’m hardly the first to point out that Hezbollah sat out the Gaza war. Somebody fired a salvo of rockets into Israel from South Lebanon on January 8, and Hezbollah couldn’t distance itself from the attack fast enough. If the 2006 war was such a success, why wouldn’t Nasrallah want to rack up another divine victory? He could hardly ask for a more auspicious time to launch the next round if that’s what he was planning. The Israel Defense Forces were busy and preoccupied in Gaza, and much of world opinion had already turned sharply against the Israelis. If Nasrallah’s passivity doesn’t prove he feels more reluctant to pick a fight than he did in 2006, it certainly strongly suggests it.

There’s something else, though, that only a handful of analysts have remarked on. Very few people in Lebanon sincerely think Hezbollah won the 2006 war. It’s mostly Arabs outside Lebanon who take Nasrallah’s declaration of “divine victory” seriously.

Leave aside the fact that ten times more Lebanese than Israelis were killed in that war, and that the centers of entire towns in South Lebanon were destroyed from the skies. It’s theoretically possible that the Lebanese could delude themselves into thinking they won. Most Egyptians, after all, think they beat Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, though they most certainly did not. And denial is a river that flows through other lands besides Egypt.

Nasrallah, though, was all but forced to apologize to Lebanese for the death and destruction he brought down on their heads. “We did not believe,” he said on Lebanon’s New TV station, “even by one percent, that the captive operation would result in such a wide-scale war, as such a war did not take place in the history of wars. Had we known that the captive operation would result in such a war we would not have carried it out at all.”

These are not the words of a man who thinks of himself as a victor. Nor are these the words of a man speaking to those who think they have won. He did not issue his apology because he hoped to appease his Christian, Sunni, and Druze opponents in Lebanon. He routinely, and absurdly, dismisses their March 14 coalition as the “Zionist hand.” No. Nasrallah apologized because his Israeli adventure devastated his own Shia community.

It’s not easy finding Lebanese who are interested in a repeat. I drove from Beirut to South Lebanon shortly after the war to survey the destruction with a couple of Hezbollah’s political enemies. My guide Said succinctly summed up the reaction I heard from most when we parked amid the rubble of downtown of Bint Jbail. “So this is our victory,” he sarcastically said. “This is how Hezbollah wins. Israel destroys our country while they sleep safely and soundly in theirs.”

Don’t assume only March-14 Lebanese feel this way. The Shias of South Lebanon feel it more acutely than most since they suffered the brunt of the damage. But even many of Nasrallah’s allies elsewhere in Lebanon aren’t interested in more of the same. “Both sides lost and don’t want to do it again,” a supporter of Hezbollah’s ally Michel Aoun said to me in Beirut. “The situation in the South is finished. If it happens again, Nasrallah will lose his case.”

Predicting the future in a bottomlessly complicated society like Lebanon’s is a risky business, to be sure, but a clear majority have no interest in yet another bloody conflict. Most Lebanese, like most Israelis, prefer to be left alone. And most of Nasrallah’s supporters will tell you they want Hezbollah to deter Israeli invasions, not to invite Israeli invasions.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:01 AM | Comments (8)

January 27, 2009

The Mother of All Quagmires

I've just returned from a week-long trip through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Israel's border with Gaza, and I'm reminded all over again of what has been beaten into me during my many visits to the Middle East: there is no solution to the problems that vex that region right now. Most Americans are inherently optimistic and think just about any problem in the world can be solved. We put a man on the moon before I was born, but that was easy compared with securing peace between Israelis and Arabs.

The American Jewish Committee brought me and seven of my colleagues to Israel and set up interviews with Israeli military officers, politicians, academics, and journalists on the far-left, the far-right and at every point in between. One of my colleagues asked the eternal question during one of our meetings. “What is the solution to this problem?” He meant the Arab-Israeli conflict, of course, and the answer from our Israeli host was revealing in more ways than one. “You Americans are always asking us that,” he said and laughed darkly.

Americans aren't the only ones who have a hard time grasping the idea of an intractable problem. “Unfortunately we Westerners are impatient,” said an Israeli politician who preferred not to be named. “We want fast food and peace now. But it won't happen. We need a long strategy.” “Most of Israel's serious problems don't have a solution,” said Dr. Dan Schueftan, Director of National Security Studies at the University of Haifa. “Israelis have only recently understood this, and most foreign analysts still don't understand it.”

A clear majority of Israelis would instantly hand over the West Bank and its settlements along with Gaza for a real shot at peace with the Arabs, but that’s not an option. Most Arab governments at least implicitly say they will recognize Israel's right to exist inside its pre-1967 borders, but far too many Palestinians still won’t recognize Israel's right to exist even in its 1948 borders. Hamas doesn't recognize Israel's right to exist inside any borders at all.

“We will never recognize Israel,” senior Hamas leader Nizar Rayyan said before he was killed by an air strike in Gaza during the recent fighting. “There is nothing called Israel, neither in reality nor in the imagination.”

Hamas does not speak for all Palestinians. I’ve met Palestinians who sincerely despise Hamas and everything it stands for. But let’s not kid ourselves here. Hamas speaks for a genuinely enormous number of Palestinians, and peace is impossible as long as that’s true. An-Najah University conducted a poll of Palestinian public opinion a few months ago and found that 53.4 percent persist in their rejection of a two-state solution.

Far too many Westerners make the mistake of projecting their own views onto Palestinians without really understanding the Palestinian narrative. The “occupation” doesn’t refer to the West Bank and Gaza, and it never has. The “occupation” refers to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. A kibbutz in the center of Israel is “occupied Palestine” according to most. “It makes no sense to a Palestinian to think about a Palestinian state alongside Israel,” Martin Kramer from the Shalem Center in Jerusalem said to me a few days ago. “From the Palestinian perspective, Israel will always exist inside Palestine.”

“Making peace with the Palestinians is harder than making peace with other Arabs,” said Asher Susser, Senior Research Fellow at Tel Aviv University. “With the Palestinians we have a 1948 file as well as a 1967 file. With other Arabs we only have a 1967 file. The 1967 file relates to our size, but the 1948 file relates to our very being. It is nearly impossible to resolve because we cannot compromise on our being.”

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:43 AM | Comments (33)

January 26, 2009

The Mood in Israel Now

The mood in Israel during the immediate aftermath of the Gaza war is markedly different from the mood in the wake of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Things felt precarious and vulnerable then. Confidence in both the government and the military disintegrated. When Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared his “divine victory,” many, if not most, Israelis shuddered and thought he might be correct. This time, by contrast, I didn’t meet a single Israeli who thinks Hamas defeated the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is nowhere near finished, and the problems in Gaza will endure for a long time, but the Israeli military and government spent two and a half years intensely studying what went wrong in Lebanon in 2006 and corrected nearly all those mistakes. Most Israelis I spoke to in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last week feel a tremendous sense of relief and seem more at ease than they have been in years.

The results speak for themselves. The IDF wasn’t able to halt or even disrupt Hezbollah’s Katyusha rocket attacks on Israeli cities in July and August of 2006, but Hamas’s ability to fire its own crude rockets was reduced by almost 75 percent. According to Major General Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, Hamas fired 75 rockets per day at the beginning of the war, 35 rockets per day in the middle of the war, and only 20 rockets per day at the end. At the same time, Hamas was only able to inflict a tenth as many casualties on Israeli civilians and soldiers as Hezbollah did in 2006. During the final ten days of the war, again according to Ben-Eliyahu, Hamas did not kill a single Israeli. Ismail Haniyeh’s predictable declaration of “victory” could hardly sound more empty if he delivered his boast from inside a prison cell.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:56 AM | Comments (29)

January 25, 2009

Back from Israel

Okay, I’m back from my brief visit to Israel. Sorry I haven’t had time to write much in the last week. The American Jewish Committee scheduled back-to-back meetings from breakfast until dinner every day, and I took a token amount of time off to visit the Dead Sea for the first time with Max Boot and Mario Loyola. I met with Israeli military officers, academics, and journalists from the far-left to the far-right and at every point in between. Now that I’m home and can process everything I’ve learned, I can start writing again. Stay tuned. And thanks for your patience.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:42 AM | Comments (19)

January 22, 2009

2008 Weblog Awards Winner

For the second year in a row I won the 2008 Weblog Awards in the Best Middle East or Africa Blog category. Many sincere thanks to everyone who voted for me, and congratulations to Professor Juan Cole for a strong second place showing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:14 AM | Comments (13)

January 19, 2009

In Israel

I'm in Israel now and have been here since Saturday afternoon. I have one more day with a packed schedule and then I should be able to squeeze in some time to write. Stay tuned for several short analysis pieces and a long dispatch from the border with Gaza.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:27 PM | Comments (26)

January 15, 2009

On My Way to Israel

At the last minute I was invited to Israel by the American Jewish Committee and will leave first thing tomorrow (Friday) morning. I’ll be heading over there with Max Boot, Anthony Cordesman, and a handful of other foreign policy professionals. We’re scheduled to visit areas hit by Qassam and Grad rockets, and are working on arranging meetings with Palestinian leaders, Israeli intelligence officers, IDF commanders, and members of the Knesset.

I have a lot of material that needs to be written from my recent trip to Iraq and Lebanon, but none of it is as time-sensitive as the war in Gaza and Israel. So I’ll continue writing about the Middle East’s current hot spot at least for a short while.

I’ll be back home in a week.

The AJC is paying for most of this trip, but I’m going to stick around in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for two extra days so I can interview a few other people I need to see while I’m over there. Please consider a donation so I can pay for a rental car and a few extra days in my hotel room. And stay tuned for more coverage.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:19 PM | Comments (17)

January 14, 2009

Child Abuse in Gaza

This is horrendous:

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:00 PM | Comments (54)

The Oldest Hatred

Europe is convulsing with anti-Semitic hatred and violence again. I hardly even know what to say. Marty Peretz at The New Republic should be required reading right now: "If you are not shocked by the replenishment of the oldest hatred you are shocked by nothing."

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:37 PM | Comments (31)

A Conversation with Nizar Rayyan

I’ve spoken to a handful of guerilla leaders, terrorist leaders, and members of terrorist organizations. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has spoken to more. He recalls one of those conversations with Nizar Rayyan, whom the Israelis just killed in Gaza, for a piece in the New York Times called Why Israel Can’t Make Peace with Hamas.

It’s long for an opinion piece, and it’s pointless to summarize, so I’ll just give you the beginning:

In the summer of 2006, at a moment when Hezbollah rockets were falling virtually without pause on northern Israel, Nizar Rayyan, husband of four, father of 12, scholar of Islam and unblushing executioner, confessed to me one of his frustrations.

We were meeting in a concrete mosque in the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza. Mr. Rayyan, who was a member of the Hamas ruling elite, and an important recruiter of suicide bombers until Israel killed him two weeks ago (along with several of his wives and children), arrived late to our meeting from parts unknown.

He was watchful for assassins even then, and when I asked him to describe his typical day, he suggested that I might be a spy for Fatah. Not the Mossad, mind you, not the C.I.A., but Fatah.

What a phantasmagorically strange conflict the Arab-Israeli war had become! Here was a Saudi-educated, anti-Shiite (but nevertheless Iranian-backed) Hamas theologian accusing a one-time Israeli Army prison official-turned-reporter of spying for Yasir Arafat’s Fatah, an organization that had once been the foremost innovator of anti-Israeli terrorism but was now, in Mr. Rayyan’s view, indefensibly, unforgivably moderate.

In the Palestinian civil war, Fatah, which today controls much of the West Bank and is engaged in intermittent negotiations with Israel, had become Mr. Rayyan’s direst enemy, a party of apostates and quislings. “First we must deal with the Muslims who speak of a peace process and then we will deal with you,” he declared.

Read the rest. All of it.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:33 AM | Comments (21)

January 13, 2009

Does "Black Hawk Down" Portray an American War Crime?

Jeffrey Goldberg and Mark Bowden discuss the infamous battle in Mogadishu where 24 American soldiers and 1,000 Somalis -- 800 of them civilians -- were killed in 24 hours.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:56 AM | Comments (27)

January 12, 2009

Don't Forget to Vote

Don't forget to vote for me in the 2008 Weblog Awards. The Best Middle East or Africa Blog category only has two serious contenders left, and I'm one of them. You can vote every 24 hours, and it just takes a second. Don't let Juan Cole win.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:11 PM | Comments (29)

Hamas is Responsible

Steven Erlanger wrote a revealing article in the New York Times about the methods of urban warfare used by the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas in Gaza. He shows that Hamas is committing war crimes against both Israelis and Palestinians, and that Hamas knows better than most that Israelis take great care to avoid harming civilians despite propaganda saying otherwise.

“Unwilling to take Israel’s bait and come into the open,” he wrote, “Hamas militants are fighting in civilian clothes; even the police have been ordered to take off their uniforms.”

Hamas is in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions here, but that’s nothing new. Hamas never agreed to uphold the Conventions in the first place. Its raison d’être is the destruction of an entire country, after all. The laws and ethics of civilized warfare are anathema to groups like Hamas.

Nevertheless, everyone should be familiar with what the Geneva Conventions actually say. The Society of Professional Journalists provides a good summary explanation that most of my colleagues should know well by now:

The Geneva Conventions and supplementary protocols make a distinction between combatants and civilians. The two groups must be treated differently by the warring sides and, therefore, combatants must be clearly distinguishable from civilians… In order for the distinction between combatants and civilians to be clear, combatants must wear uniforms and carry their weapons openly during military operations and during preparation for them… Combatants who deliberately violate the rules about maintaining a clear separation between combatant and noncombatant groups and thus endanger the civilian population are no longer protected by the Geneva Convention.

These protocols have been carefully crafted by leaders of civilized nations and are not to be lightly dismissed. It may be convenient to blame the Israelis when civilians are killed by their air strikes in Gaza, but the Geneva Conventions clearly state that Hamas fighters endangered those civilians by disguising themselves.

Not only do Israelis have a harder time figuring out who is a target and who needs protection, we all have a harder time identifying those who have already been wounded and killed. Hamas says mostly civilians have been wounded and killed in the fighting in Gaza, but its fighters look just like everyone else. They can trot out the bodies of two dead terrorists in front of the cameras and say they’re civilians, thus easily fooling just about anyone. The number of civilian casualties, therefore, appears much higher than it really is. But even if that weren’t the case, far more civilians are being killed in this war because Hamas is fighting dirty.

Israelis, in the meantime, go far out of their way to avoid harming the civilians of Gaza. They have even developed weapons for precisely this purpose.

“A new Israeli weapon,” Erlanger writes, “is tailored to the Hamas tactic of asking civilians to stand on the roofs of buildings so Israeli pilots will not bomb. The Israelis are countering with a missile designed, paradoxically, not to explode. They aim the missiles at empty areas of the roofs to frighten residents into leaving the buildings, a tactic called ‘a knock on the roof’.”

If Israelis were targeting civilians, as Hamas and hysterical critics like to claim, it ought to go without saying that they would never have developed a “weapon” that scatters civilians away for their own protection.

Activists, professors, journalists, bloggers, and other uninformed individuals may believe Israelis kill civilians either negligently or on purpose, but even Hamas knows that’s a lie. Otherwise, Hamas would not ask “civilians to stand on the roofs of buildings so Israeli pilots will not bomb,” as Erlanger reports.

Hamas knows the truth but uses its lie as a weapon. And it works. Millions all over the world believe Israel massacres civilians in Gaza and that claims to the contrary from the military are disinformation and smokescreen.

Israelis, by contrast, don’t use human shields to deter Palestinian rocket attacks. The very idea is absurd. Hamas aims at civilians on purpose, as much as it can aim its crude rockets. A congregation of Israeli human shields would only make a bulls-eye at which Hamas could aim.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:18 AM | Comments (27)

January 11, 2009

Somebody Gets It

A Palestinian government official in the West Bank calls Hamas "a black and bloody militia" and hopes to put its leaders on trial for war crimes.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:02 PM | Comments (1)

Hamas Rigged a School and a Zoo to Explode

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:54 PM | Comments (10)

Publishing Schedule

I have a massive amount of material from my recent trips to Iraq and Lebanon to write up, but the war in Gaza is sucking up my time and attention. It's the biggest story by far in the Middle East right now, and nothing I have from the other countries is time-sensitive. I hope you don't mind if I stick with this a little bit longer before I return to my usual beat. I have a few more analysis pieces I need to write, one of which will contrast the 2009 war against Hamas in Gaza with the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

I doubt this conflict will last very much longer, and I'll get to the other material as soon as it winds down. If it does last a lot longer (and I really hope that it doesn't), I will get to work on my Lebanon and Iraq material anyway.

PS - Don't forget to vote for me in the 2008 Weblog Awards. You can vote every 24 hours until the poll closes on Tuesday. Juan Cole is slowly catching up, so I need your help. It only takes about two seconds to go over there and click on my name. Thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:55 PM | Comments (5)

Well, Isn't That Interesting

U.S. thwarted Israeli plan to bomb Iranian nuclear facility.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:04 AM | Comments (8)

January 10, 2009

A Warning from Hamas

Hamas refuses to stop firing rockets at Israeli civilans and threatens to kill international peacekeepers.

Specifically, Hamas Politburo Chief Khaled Maashal threatens to treat international peacekeepers as an "occupying entity," but we all know what that means when a Palestinian terrorist leader says it. This may just be bravado and posturing against the Egyptian cease-fire plan on Maashal's part, but those working on crafting a resolution to the war in Gaza would be irresponsible if they didn't take his warning into account.

Don't forget that United Nations personnel were car-bombed in Iraq and that American peacekeepers were truck-bombed in Lebanon. And almost as many Lebanese Army soldiers were killed in 2007 in the Nahr al Bared Palestinian refugee camp as the British lost in Iraq since 2003. Everyone is a potential target in the Middle East.

If a peacekeeping force goes into Gaza with more authority than UNIFIL has in South Lebanon, it could happen. I slightly doubt it, but I don't know, and I could be wrong. Gaza very well may be populated with more terrorists per square mile than any other place in the world. It is not a place where international forces should tread lightly.

I'd also like to point out, as an aside, that Israel isn't leveling even empty threats at international peacekeepers.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:35 PM | Comments (7)

Gaza and Afghanistan

Readers of this site know I support Israel’s war in Gaza. Long-time readers also know I opposed Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon. Unlike some, I do not automatically assume critics of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead hate Jews or support terrorists. I’d be a patent hypocrite if I did, since I’ve had the very same accusations unfairly hurled at me in the past.

I do, however, object to the entirely predictable hysteria about Israeli “war crimes” by critics who demonstrate that they don’t know what a war crime actually is, and who have no objection, or at least little or no vocal objection, to the war crimes Hamas commits every day.

There is a non-hysterical case to be made against Israel’s war in Gaza. The fact that people are being killed in the war is not it. Innocents as well as combatants die in every war. If you have nothing to object to besides that, then you should oppose the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan for the same reason. That war is also being fought “disproportionately.” Far more innocent civilians have been killed over there than in Gaza. No doubt the rage among some in the Islamic world at the sight of those innocents killed encourages them to join the fight against us.

And Afghanistan isn’t currently shooting rockets at the United States.

Nearly every argument I have read and heard about Israel’s war in Gaza applies ten-fold to the war in Afghanistan. Yet many, if not most, of the very same people who deploy those arguments support the war in Afghanistan.

I find that curious.

So here’s some free advice to the critics of Israel. Find an argument that applies specifically to the war in Gaza that can’t also be said about every other war fought by a democracy against a terrorist army. If you cannot do that, you are not going to convince anybody.

UPDATE: Here is an example of a well-reasoned and non-hysterical argument. And here is an indirect rebuttal that is also well-reasoned and non-hysterical.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:23 PM | Comments (71)

January 9, 2009

Juan Cole's Hysterical Campaign

Professor Juan Cole is slowly catching up to me in the 2008 Weblog Awards in the Best Middle East or Africa Blog category, and his simultaneous campaign against me and the state of Israel is hysterical.

Here is what he has to say about Israel:

Israeli atrocities in Gaza are endangering American security. If the Israeli operation were something other than a cynical power play that almost wholly disregards civilian welfare, then the US would be right to support it and damn the consequences. But it is a shame to place our land and even our democracy in danger on behalf of a barbaric military operation.

Southern Israel has been under indiscriminate rocket fire from Hamas for years. And Hamas’ stated goal, as Cole knows very well, is the total destruction of Israel. No government on earth would sit idly by while tens of thousands of its citizens live under constant rocket attack, and Cole knows that, too. He also knows that the Israel Defense Forces adheres to the laws of war, goes out of its way to avoid harming civilians, and even warns terrorist leaders themselves that their homes are on the target list.

Victor Davis Hanson, on the other hand, nails it correctly. "Every terrorist Hamas rocket is aimed at a Democratic civilian; every Democratic IDF air -to -ground missile is aimed at a terrorist."

Cole knows all this, and yet he does not care. He insists on characterizing Israel’s defensive war as “barbaric” and “a cynical power play.”

Here is what he has to say about me in the same piece:

Michael J. Totten has surged way ahead in the voting online for the best Middle East weblog. The way he has done this is very instructive and tells us something about how the Neoconservatives always run rings around the American left and leave them with nothing to do but complain about Neoconservative power. First, Totten demonized me and mobilized rightwingers in general and right-Zionists in particular to vote for him as a way of voting against Informed Comment.

Cole is free to characterize me as some kind of right-wing Zionist lunatic all he wants. But he also knows very well that the American public and the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly back Israel’s war against Hamas. And if he thinks only neoconservatives, right-wingers in general, and right-Zionists in particular have my back in the voting, he’s wrong.

Uber Pig at Blackfive posted the following yesterday:

I'm the token liberal here at Blackfive. Some of you have issues with that. I respect that. And so when I say that it's really important that Juan Cole not win the 2008 Weblog Awards for Best Middle East or Africa Blog, you should understand that it is really important. It's not that he hates America, or that he hates Israel. It's that he's dumb. That may have qualified him for a tenured professorship at the University of Michigan, but the blogosphere should hold itself to a higher standard.

My advice? Vote for Michael Totten.

Few, if any, of our elected representatives in Congress have heard about our competition in the 2008 Weblog Awards, but 99 percent of them voted in favor of my position on Israel and against that of Juan Cole. The professor is way outside the mainstream, and I’m right in the middle of it. Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell aren’t likely to vote for me in this contest, but you can. So please do so, and do so every day until Tuesday while the polls remain open.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:59 AM | Comments (86)

American Exceptionalism

Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell introduced a Senate resolution yesterday that strongly backs Israel against Hamas in Gaza, and it passed unanimously.

Americans are really exceptional. Nearly alone are we willing to side with a democracy against an avowedly genocidal terrorist army that seeks to eradicate it.

UPDATE: The House of Representatives did the same. 390 voted for it. Four Democrats voted against it, as did Republican Ron Paul from Texas.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:35 AM | Comments (22)

January 8, 2009

Peace at the Smallest of Prices

Daniel Finkelstein in the Times of London on the hideous truth few are willing to face:

The poverty and the death and the despair among the Palestinians in Gaza moves me to tears. How can it not? Who can see pictures of children in a war zone or a slum street and not be angry and bewildered and driven to protest? And what is so appalling is that it is so unnecessary. For there can be peace and prosperity at the smallest of prices. The Palestinians need only say that they will allow Israel to exist in peace. They need only say this tiny thing, and mean it, and there is pretty much nothing they cannot have.

Yet they will not say it. And they will not mean it. For they do not want the Jews. Again and again - again and again - the Palestinians have been offered a nation state in a divided Palestine. And again and again they have turned the offer down, for it has always been more important to drive out the Jews than to have a Palestinian state. It is difficult sometimes to avoid the feeling that Hamas and Hezbollah don't want to kill Jews because they hate Israel. They hate Israel because they want to kill Jews.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:40 PM | Comments (26)

A Prayer for the Children of Gaza

I am neither religious nor Jewish, but I can’t help but be touched by this Jewish prayer for the children of Gaza published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz while Israelis are in the midst of a shooting war with a violent fascist regime. If Hamas ever publishes prayers like this one for the children of Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be over.

Lord who is the creator of all children, hear our prayer this accursed day. God whom we call Blessed, turn your face to these, the children of Gaza, that they may know your blessings, and your shelter, that they may know light and warmth, where there is now only blackness and smoke, and a cold which cuts and clenches the skin.

Almighty who makes exceptions, which we call miracles, make an exception of the children of Gaza. Shield them from us and from their own. Spare them. Heal them. Let them stand in safety. Deliver them from hunger and horror and fury and grief. Deliver them from us, and from their own.

Thanks to the indispensible Jeffrey Goldberg for pointing me to this.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:26 PM | Comments (4)

A Defense of Barack Obama

President-elect Barack Obama is getting grief from all corners for refusing to say anything substantial about the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. It’s a legitimate complaint up to a point. Obama deliberately campaigned as a Rorschach candidate upon whom would-be supporters could project their own views. The downside to Obama’s strategy is that potential opponents can also project their criticisms onto him and he’ll be left with too few friends instead of too many. In this case, both supporters and enemies of Israel who assume Obama agrees with them can criticize him for not speaking up.

In less than two weeks, when Obama is officially inaugurated as President of the United States, this will change. A president has to take a position and live with the consequences. Executive leaders must stand alone with their decisions and cannot vote “present.”

That said, I’d like to weigh in here as supportive of Obama’s decision to keep quiet.

I don’t know what Obama really thinks about Israel’s war in Gaza, but I can guess. He has a track record of relevant statements, and his most recent was this one: “If someone was sending rockets on my house where my daughters were sleeping at night, I would do everything to stop it, and I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.” It’s possible, though, that he only said that to reduce skepticism among Israelis. Perhaps Obama is quietly joining France’s Nicolas Sarkozy in his condemnation of Israel instead of quietly joining Germany’s Angela Merkel in her support.

Whatever he thinks, his silence ought to be welcomed among supporters of Israel for at least one of two reasons.

If Obama opposes Israel’s use of force to defend itself from missile attack, he deserves credit for keeping his opinion to himself while he is not actually president. As he has stated on several occasions: the United States only has one president at a time. “We can’t have two administrations running foreign policy at the same time,” he says. “We simply can’t do it.” He could try to undermine the current President Bush, but he’s right that it wouldn’t be proper.

On the other hand, perhaps he silently supports Israel’s short operation in Gaza against a terrorist army with whom he himself repeatedly said he would refuse to negotiate. If he said so out loud, though, his global “hope and change” honeymoon would be over before it even began. It’s not in his interest to hobble himself from the start, nor is it in America’s interest or Israel’s.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:07 AM | Comments (10)

January 7, 2009

Rockets Out of Lebanon

Three rockets just struck Israel from Lebanon and wounded two people. CNN suggests they were fired by Palestinians, not by Hezbollah, and I'm guessing they're right.

UPDATE: See Tony Badran for an in-depth analysis of what just happened.

UPDATE: See also Marty Peretz in the New Republic.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:42 PM | Comments (1)

Citizen Journalism

Joe the Plumber is going to Israel as a war correspondent. Seriously.

I need to interview him when he gets back. Watch me. I'll do it. And I won't do it like this.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:25 PM | Comments (7)

Stop Juan Cole

Juan Cole is decrying all the neocons he's forced to compete with in the 2008 Weblog Awards for Best Middle East or Africa Blog. He thinks Helena Cobban -- a deranged Hezbollah supporter -- should have been nominated instead of someone like me. He's worked his leftist readers into a tizzy, and they're putting him over the top. I don't really care if I win this award; I won it last year. But Juan Cole certainly doesn't deserve it.

You know what kind of abject nonsense he's peddling now? He's arguing that Israel's 1996 attack in Qana, Lebanon, inspired Mohammad Atta, who led the Al Qaeda cell on September 11, to write his "martyrdom will." But Atta's will, as Martin Kramer points out, was written before the attack in Qana. And it wasn't a martyrdom will. It was a standard will. But Cole won't let facts get in the way of blaming Israelis for just about anything, including violence committed by Al Qaeda.

Don't let Cole win. Go over there and vote for me. Alternately, My Marrakesh is a beautiful blog written by a woman who isn't a neoconservative. Go vote for her. Or if you want to vote for a professor, vote for Martin Kramer. He actually knows what he's talking about. Or there's always Aussie Dave at Israellycool. I've met him, he's a good guy, and he doesn't sit around in his office and hatch asinine conspiracy theories like Cole does.

UPDATE: This post was slightly edited for precision. I had originally stated that Cole blamed Israel's war in Lebanon on Atta's 9/11 attack, but I struck that sentence because, more precisely, he blamed it on the 1996 Israeli attack on Qana in Lebanon. Cole edits his posts without notifying his readers, and he shouldn't. So I won't.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:32 AM | Comments (48)

January 6, 2009

Journalistic Malpractice

My friend and colleague Noah Pollak on the journalistic malpractice of some of our other colleagues:

Allow me to propose a metric for evaluating whether a journalist is behaving responsibly or not: If he reports that Israel bombed a UN school and killed 30 civilians, he is irresponsible. If he reports that Hamas used a UN school as a weapons cache and base of operations for launching mortars at the IDF, and the IDF’s return fire killed the Hamas cell along, tragically, with a yet-unspecified number of civilians, then he is behaving responsibly. If he wishes to be particularly scrupulous, he might additionally note that Hamas had rigged the school with explosives which detonated after the IDF took out the mortar team, killing a large additional number of civilians. And he might add that you can go to the IDF’s Youtube channel to view footage from 2007 of Hamas using the very same school as a mortar-launching base.

A responsible journalist might also add that what Hamas did is a war crime under international law, and that Hamas is responsible for every civilian killed at that school. Rigging a school with explosives and using it as a base in a war zone is a crime precisely because it endangers the lives of civilians, and in this case of children.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:40 PM | Comments (12)

Vote for Me in the 2008 Weblog Awards

I have been nominated for a 2008 Weblog Award in the Best Middle East or Africa Blog category. Please go over there and vote for me. I'm behind in the polls right now because, unlike the other nominees, I haven't sent my readers over there yet.

And please stay tuned for more coverage from the Middle East. Many long dispatches are forthcoming, as are more shorter analysis pieces.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:54 AM | Comments (3)

Harry Reid Steps Up

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went on Meet the Press Sunday and strongly supported Israel’s right to defend itself from the terrorist army in Gaza. “For eight years they’ve been firing rockets into Israel,” he said of Hamas, and went on to describe the dynamic as follows:

They’ve become more intense the last few months. Israelis have been killed, maimed and injured. Sometimes more than 200 a day coming into Israel. If this were going on in the United States from Vancouver, Canada, into Seattle, would we react? Course we do. We would have to…Israel, for–since 1967, controlled Gaza. They gave it to the Palestinians as a gesture of peace. And all they got are a bunch of rockets in return.

He is right, of course, that if the Canadian government were launching missiles at Seattle the U.S. would react, and with force. And we all know the U.S. would not wait eight years.

Reid’s comments are an important reminder of something most of us already know. The United States is more supportive of Israel’s existence and right to defend itself than any other country on earth. The conservative and supposedly pro-Israel President of France Nicolas Sarkozy condemned Israel’s response on the very first day, while the hyperpartisan left-wing American senator stridently defended Israel after more than a week of fierce fighting. Hatred of Israel consumes the mainstream political Right as well as the Left in Europe, while hatred of Israel in the United States is relegated only to part of the intellectual class and to the left-wing and right-wing lunatic fringes.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:09 AM | Comments (5)

January 5, 2009

No Way Out?

The Middle East can look somewhat normal on the surface to first-time visitors, but it’s mind-bogglingly dysfunctional, and it is obviously so to anyone who has spent even a couple of months in the region. (It is also obvious to some people who know almost nothing at all about that part of the world.) Sometimes, especially when I’m in Iraq, I think the problems there are simply bottomless and that a solution does not exist. President Bush couldn’t fix it. President Obama will not fix it either. If you don’t believe me – wait.

It’s hard for many naturally optimistic Americans to believe this, but sometimes I fear it is true. Time and experience has done that to me. The Middle East just grinds people down. Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad – these are not places you want to spend too much time if you have faith in the human race and linear progress.

I hope I am wrong, but I won’t be proven wrong in the short term.

Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlanic is feeling this much more intensely than I am right now.

I have friends in Gaza about whom I worry a great deal; I've seen many people killed in Gaza; I've served in the Israeli Army in Gaza; I've been kidnapped in Gaza; I've reported for years from Gaza; I hope my former army doesn't kill the wrong people in Gaza; I hope Israeli soldiers all leave Gaza alive; I know they'll be back in Gaza; I think this operation will work; and I have no actual hope that it will work for very long, because nothing works for very long in the Middle East. Gaza is where dreams of reconciliation go to die. Gaza is where the dream of Palestinian statehood goes to die; Gaza is where the Zionist dream might yet die. Or, more to the point, might be murdered. I'm not a J Street moral-equivalence sort of guy. Yes, Israel makes constant mistakes, which I note rather frequently, but this conflict reminds me once again that Israel is up against an implacable force, namely, an interpretation of Islam that disallows the idea of Jewish national equality.

My paralysis isn't an analytical paralysis. It's the paralysis that comes from thinking that maybe there's no way out. Not out of Gaza, out of the whole thing.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:54 PM | Comments (9)

On the Air with Lars

I'm going to be on the air with Lars Larson at 3:20pm Pacific time today if you want to listen.

UPDATE: You can listen to an archived version of the program after 7:30pm Pacific time here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:22 PM | Comments (3)

MichaelTotten.com Now Available on Kindle

You can now subscribe to this Web site and read it on an Amazon.com Kindle if you're so inclined. Just click the button.

Read my blog on Kindle

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:39 AM | Comments (0)

January 4, 2009

The Israeli Way of War

Two years ago I interviewed Yaacov Lozowick, then-chief archivist at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and he characterized Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon as stupid and indefensible. I agreed with him at the time, and I still do, as least about that war being stupid. (I do not believe Israel has no right to hit back at Hezbollah.)

Despite Lozowick’s criticism of the 2006 war, he is hardly a pacifist or an Israel-hater. He’s the author, after all, of Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars.

If you’re following the current war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, you might want to bookmark his site where you can read short sharp analysis like the following:

In the week of air-attacks, the IDF proved it had excellent intelligence, and in many cases targets hit from the air kept on exploding for a number of minutes after they were hit, as the ordinance stored there exploded. More significant, the IDF has figured out how to separate the civilians from the weapons: call the neighbors and give them ten minutes warning. The numbers prove how efficient this has been: prior to the ground invasion, more than 600 targets had been destroyed, fewer than 500 Palestinians killed, and fewer than 100 of those were civilians even by Palestinian and UN reckoning. Of course, there remain the pictures of civilians surrounded by devastation, but they're alive, and it wasn't Israel that stacked bombs in their cellars. [Emphasis added.]

Think about those numbers. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on the face of the earth. If Israeli Air Force pilots were trying to kill civilians -- if they were the war criminals they're accused of being all over the world -- they'd kill a lot more than 0.8 people per air strike.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:54 PM | Comments (2)

January 3, 2009

Gaza and the Law of Armed Conflict

While much of the world engages in hand-wringing, placard-waving, teeth-gnashing, and rocket-launching over Israel’s “disproportionate” response to Hamas attacks from Gaza, it’s worth looking at what the doctrines of “proportionality” actually say.

Making the rounds is a two-year old quote from Lionel Beehner’s paper for the Council on Foreign Relations in which he summarizes the principle of proportionality as laid out by the 1907 Hague Conventions. “According to the doctrine, a state is legally allowed to unilaterally defend itself and right a wrong provided the response is proportional to the injury suffered. The response must also be immediate and necessary, refrain from targeting civilians, and require only enough force to reinstate the status quo ante.”

The precise wording of the doctrine can be found in Article 51, not Article 49 as Beehner writes, of the Draft Articles of the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts. “Countermeasures must be commensurate with the injury suffered, taking into account the gravity of the internationally wrongful act and the rights in question.”

This is vague and open to interpretation, as Beehner admits. And it’s further complicated by the fact that the doctrine was laid out at a time when war was fought between sovereign states with standing armies rather than asymmetrically between a sovereign state and a terrorist gang.

Proportion, as defined by Beehner and the Hague Conventions, is impossible between Israel and Hamas. The Israel Defense Forces are more professional, competent and technologically advanced than Hamas and will inflict greater damage as a matter of course. And Hamas’s war aim is entirely out of proportion to Israel’s. Israel wants to halt the incoming rocket fire, while Hamas seeks the destruction or evacuation of Israel.

Beehner’s proportionality doctrine is therefore unhelpful. Each side’s ends and means are disproportionate to the other. And nowhere in that doctrine are casualty figures or the intent of the warring parties factored in.

In any case, no war has ever been fought tit for tat, and the Hague Conventions doesn’t say any war should be. The American response to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor went well beyond sinking an equal number of ships in a Japanese harbor, for instance. And European Jews certainly were not entitled to execute six million German civilians after the Holocaust.

The proportionality doctrine spelled out here is really only useful up to a point. “It’s always a subjective test,” Beehner correctly quotes Vanderbilt University Professor Michael Newton as saying. “But if someone punches you in the nose, you don’t burn their house down.” That much most of us can agree on. Israel should not – and will not – implement a Dresden-style fire-bombing of Gaza City in response to Qassam and Grad rocket attacks.

So aside from the obvious, we’re wading into murky territory that could be debated forever. Another doctrine of proportionality, though, clearly applies to this war, and it’s found in the Law of Armed Conflict.

The Law of Armed Conflict “arises from a desire among civilized nations to prevent unnecessary suffering and destruction while not impeding the effective waging of war. A part of public international law, LOAC regulates the conduct of armed hostilities. It also aims to protect civilians, prisoners of war, the wounded, sick, and shipwrecked.”

Proportionality, in short and according to the law, “prohibits the use of any kind or degree of force that exceeds that needed to accomplish the military objective.”

In other words, if a surgical strike is all that is needed to take out a Grad rocket launcher, carpet bombing the entire city or even the neighborhood isn’t allowed.

Hamas is still firing rockets; therefore, the IDF is not using more force than necessary to disrupt the firing of rockets. Israel, arguably, is using less force than necessary. And the IDF, unlike Hamas, does what it can to minimize injury to civilians. “Militants often operate against Israel from civilian areas,” the Associated Press reported last week. “Late Saturday, thousands of Gazans received Arabic-language cell-phone messages from the Israeli military, urging them to leave homes where militants might have stashed weapons.” Israeli commanders are even warning individual Hamas leaders that their homes are on the target list so they can vacate the premises in advance.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:44 AM | Comments (11)