Gaza: Laboratory for the Power-Hungry

Unfortunately for the people of Gaza, all the bloodshed there wasn’t really about Gaza. Despite the tenuous ceasefire, the issue of Gaza remains unresolved not because the sides disagree but because all sorts of external actors find the dispute useful. The larger reality is that Gaza serves as a cold-hearted laboratory for these external actors for testing dangerous hypotheses about far greater global political issues.

Gaza is a relatively straightforward problem, small in scale, neatly walled in, with obvious untried potential solutions that Israel could implement literally overnight and unilaterally at no financial cost and relatively low security risk. For example, Israel could allow the people of Gaza to have food, medicine, and electricity; it could encourage the development of civil society and the formation of a wide range of political factions. Only stubbornness and denial of the obvious prevent experimenting with such alternatives to the policy of brutal suppression and collective punishment.

But the importance of Gaza transcends the fate of its tortured population. Gaza has broad implications for many other far more intractable problems, such as Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. The world would do well to analyze the real causal dynamics generating all the heat in Gaza. It’s is a relatively controllable laboratory for conducting experiments in how to resolve Western-Islamic differences. Gaza could make a real contribution to world peace by serving as a model for finding common ground instead of serving to justify the most rabid calls for jihad.

It sounds cruel to use the term “experiment,” but the fact is that the political forces manipulating Gazans are in effect conducting social and military experiments. Israel, for example, is very consciously testing the hypothesis that if collective punishment is sufficiently harsh, it will force the population to give its support to the oppressor. Hamas is testing the hypothesis that the harsher the collective punishment of Gaza, the more the nationalist indignation of Gazans will be stimulated.

Iran is testing the hypothesis that vociferous rhetorical support for Arab dissident movements plus dribbles of funding and the (perhaps true) rumors of military aid will make Iran a major regional player. Conservative Arab dictators are testing the hypothesis that the Arab street really doesn’t have any significant pan-Arab nationalist feeling. Washington is testing the hypothesis that Muslim nationalists, reformers, and radicals can all be lumped together and defeated through brute force.

Control over these experiments should be taken out of the hands of the various neoconservative and otherwise violence-addicted groups now responsible for the endless cycle of death and destruction. It’s highly pertinent to note that Hamas is testing a hypothesis related specifically to all Palestinians — not just Gazans — for Hamas all roads lead at least to the West Bank, probably to Jerusalem and (Israelis fear) perhaps to all of Israel but their ambitions do not lie elsewhere. Were Hamas to march slowly through agonizing violence over a period of years to victory after victory, that process might well encourage wider, pan-Arab ambitions. Ironically, a conciliatory stance by Tel Aviv granting genuine independence to Palestine with fair terms would have the opposite effect, leaving Hamas satisfied and preoccupied with competing for power within Palestine as a normal political party.

Gaza’s Tragedy

The other actors, however, are testing hypotheses for direct application to much broader issues. Hence the appropriateness of the use of the term “experiment.” An experiment is a small-scale trial for a larger purpose. The ultimate tragedy of Gaza is that everyone is exploiting it as a laboratory for testing policies of extreme importance for much larger issues. Aside from Hamas, none of the players cares about Gaza at all. Israelis concerned about security; Arabs concerned with domestic civil rights; Iranians afraid of being attacked by Western proponents of “preventive” war; Fatah members interested in Palestinian independence; and Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Kashmiris, and Somalis trying to pacify their societies all should realize that their struggles will be directly and forcefully impacted by the lessons that the experimenters learn in Gaza.

Unfortunately for all of those groups, the lessons being learned so far are reinforcing the determination of those who believe in resolving disagreement with force. As with the summer 2008 ceasefire between Hamas and Tel Aviv, the current one failed even to produce the minimal Israeli concession of allowing the people of Gaza to go about their lives in normal fashion with access to food, medicine, and energy. As long as Gazans remain not only imprisoned but imprisoned under the collective punishment of economic embargo, radicalism will be empowered.

Hamas rocket attacks stopped on January 18, just as after the summer 2008 ceasefire, but Gazans remain under Israeli colonial control and subject to Israeli collective punishment. How then can any Palestinian politician justify compromising with Israel? Hence, the implications for the security of both the Israeli and Palestinian people are negative.

For Muslim groups beyond Palestine, Gaza serves as a warning of storms to come. Arabs concerned with domestic civil rights see Egypt not only supporting Israeli suppression of Hamas but simultaneously suppressing its own Muslim Brotherhood. The message is clear: no concessions to the people.

That Israel got away with a military tour de force at minimal immediate military cost is likely only to encourage those Israelis who have already set their sights on regime change in Tehran. These Israelis are likely to dismiss talk of Israel having lost support globally or tarnished its image by its brutality; rather, they will cite Israel’s smooth, rapid exit and proclaim the inevitability of Israeli military victory over all enemies. The outcome of this invasion of Gaza thus raises the likelihood of a conflict with Iran, both directly to the degree that it encourages Israeli adventurists and indirectly to the degree that it frightens Iranians and empowers Iranian radicals.

Tel Aviv could now use its demonstration of military prowess in Gaza as the basis for a historic policy shift toward real compromise with Palestine, but history suggests that Tel Aviv will instead take away from the latest battle that brutal force is the road to success. In that case, Fatah will find itself domestically humiliated and, vis-à-vis Tel Aviv, negotiating while standing on quicksand. The implication for the West Bank, then, is continued movement toward “Palestinian Bantustan,” with Israelis living on the best land, driving on Jewish-only highways, and completely controlling Palestinians.

What’s Next

The Gaza war will almost certainly empower Muslim radicals arguing that compromise with the West is pointless because “the West only understands the language of force.” This suggests the coming of further domestic chaos in such Muslim societies as Pakistan and Somalia.

The big question mark lies in Washington. New administrations are expected to bring fresh thinking. The timing is perfect for President Barack Obama to state that the cycle of Palestinian-Israeli violence need not be endless, that the Holy Land should be a place of peace, that Israel should — given American backing — have the self-confidence to treat Palestinians with respect and sincerity.

Obama might point out that Tel Aviv can continue almost endlessly killing every radical leader who volunteers to fight for Palestinian independence only at a grievous price. He might make the argument that Israeli repression generates Palestinian resistance resulting in a cycle of rising repression and resistance. Indeed, Obama might argue, the more effective Israel’s attacks over the short term, the worse its security situation will become over the long term.

Given the completely one-sided nature of the war in Gaza, endless opportunities exist to demonstrate a new policy of “security from good-neighborliness.” Indeed, one need not even go that far; just an Israeli policy of rewarding desired behavior would take the region a long way. The end to Hamas rocket attacks should be met with the end to the Israeli economic embargo. The minimum necessary step to enable Israel to move toward morally firm ground is the end to collective punishment of the people of Gaza.

This wouldn’t remotely solve the Palestinian-Israeli problem, which requires facing up to the contradiction between a West Bank Bantustan and the concept of Palestinian “independence.” Nor would it resolve even the problem of Gaza, which will require addressing the issue of freedom of choice for Gazans about their future. Nevertheless, it would put the initiative in the hands of the Obama administration and change the tone of the experiments being carried out in Gaza. Gaza could then be transformed from a laboratory for testing hypotheses about how to force adversaries into submission into a test case for finding ways to achieve mutually acceptable compromises between Islam and the West.

Dr. William deB. Mills is an American political scientist specializing in the future of the global political system and is a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor. He currently writes and lectures on international affairs, as well as offering training on methods for studying the future, and blogs on foreign affairs at http://shadowedforest.blogspot.com.