Ethics and pragmatism sometimes align in matters of war and peace, and other times they work at cross purposes. Two recent examples illustrate this rather banal point:

1. Brian Ulrich calls attention to what might be charitably described as a misguided Israeli tactic for dealing with Hamas in the West Bank:

It’s long been said that Hamas is popular because of its social services. Israel’s defense establishment is now on the case:

“Israeli military officials have identified Hamas’s civilian infrastructure in the West Bank as a major source of the Islamic group’s popularity, and have begun raiding and shutting down these institutions in cities like Hebron, Nablus and Qalqilyah.

“Last week, troops focused their efforts in Nablus, raiding the city hall and confiscating computers. They also stormed into a shopping mall and posted closure notices on the shop windows. A girls’ school and a medical centre were shut down in the city, and a charitable association had its computers impounded and documents seized.

And:

In recent months, the army has also closed down an orphanage, a bakery and other institutions in Hebron, which Israel believes are associated with Hamas. In Gaza, meanwhile, Israel and the Islamic group are observing a truce, but this does not pertain to the West Bank where the Israeli military operates freely.”

Are they serious? Having Israel attack Hamas orphanages and medical centers is supposed to make Palestinians turn against Hamas?

Robert Farley lodges an additional objection:

The motivating concept behind strategic bombing in World War II was that enemy morale would be crushed by the destruction of the infrastructure of civilian life; the Japanese, it was thought, would stop supporting their government when the United States Army Air Force destroyed the ability of that government to supply civilian services. Essentially, the point is to make the people blame their own government for their hardships.”

Rob contines

The Israelis aren’t actually blowing anything up, but the concept seems to be the same — close an orphanage, and hope that the Palestinians blame Hamas instead of Israel. Good luck with that…

I think Rob misses the point. The Israeli campaign isn’t designed to make the Palestinians blame Hamas for a loss of social services, but to deny Hamas the ability to provide social services. Now Rob is right that a major problem with the strategy is that it risks creating more of a rally-around Hamas effect; another is that it further undermines Fatah.

Writing in the daily Haaretz newspaper this week, columnist Gideon Levy calls the move against Hamas-related institutions “ludicrous.” Residents of the West Bank, he concludes, “cannot be simultaneously imprisoned, prohibited from earning a living and offered no social welfare assistance while we strike at those who are trying to do so, whatever their motives. If Israel wants to fight the charitable associations, it must at least offer alternative services. On whose back are we fighting terror? Widows? Orphans? It’s shameful.”

By moving against Hamas institutions, Israel runs the risk of increasing the popularity of the Islamic movement and, at the same time, undermining that of Abbas and his Fatah party, who are perceived, correctly or not, as the intended beneficiaries — even if unwitting and unwilling ones — of this policy.

What’s more, Hamas’s popularity does not derive only from its network of schools and charities, but is also very much a direct function of the deep disillusionment among the Palestinian people with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and its inability to deliver on its key promises, the central one being an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza. Some in Israel argue that the best way for Israel to block Hamas and bolster Abbas would be to halt construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, ease travel restrictions there and, most importantly, ensure there is progress in negotiations with the Palestinian leader.

To be blunt, the Israelis need to demonstrate to the Palestinian people that the peace process–and those advocating peace–will bring material improvement to their lives. Israeli counter-terrorism strategy, however, often does just the opposite.

The frustrating thing is how little anyone interested in peace has learned since the breakdown of Oslo, when the Israeli far right Palestinian extremists de facto conspired to torpedo the peace process. They did so not only by polarizing the environment, but by forcing policies that destroyed the hope of material benefit from the peace process.

So this is a case where moral action–responding to the plight of the Palestinian people–is also pragmatic action.

2. The opposite, unfortunately, is true in Sudan. Recall that the ICC has issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide. China, an increasingly close ally of Sudan, is part of an effort to suspend the ICC indictment.

But the indictment should be suspended, as it complicates already struggling attempts to deal with the situation in Darfur. Proceeding with the indictment backs Bashir into a corner, reduces whatever incentive he has to sign onto any future agreement, and renders such negotiations even more difficult. The African Union is basically right that:

“hard-won gains made in the search for peace and reconciliation in the Sudan” could be jeopardised.

Foreign ministers of the 15 countries currently serving on the AU’s Peace and Security Council are expected to meet in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital where the AU is based, next week.

The charges against President Bashir put African countries in an acutely difficult position, says the BBC’s Liz Blunt in Addis Ababa.

They supply almost all the troops for the joint AU/UN peacekeeping force in Darfur, and are also the countries most likely to be called upon to carry out any arrest warrant, she says.

It also threatens to undermine the ICC itself, as it can’t do much of anything to enforce its writ.

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