What happened in the Med?
As the sun sets on the Middle East, many will be asking this question. And lots of people much more qualified than me will be trying to explain the strategic rational for Israel’s actions.
But, until they do, I must admit that I am baffled.
Normally, I think I understand what the Israeli government is doing. It seems to me that they have a fairly standard modus operandi. They steal a chunk of land, kill some people, and then agree to give back a little peace of land, and stop killing quite so many people if the Palestinians agree to compromise on what they want. They do things so outrageous so that they can continue to define the parameters of the debate, and in doing so have successfully exceptionalised our understanding of Middle Eastern politics.
So, when the Israel/Palestine boarders were drawn in 1968, Israel got the vast majority (nearly 80%) of the land. But they continue to shape the debate, by claiming more and more – both rhetorically, and physically. The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, accepted the borders as they were. As this debate continues, the middle ground shifts – we begin to wonder how many settlements Israel should be allowed to keep, rather than asking how much of Israel should be given to the Palestinians – or, perhaps, whether the 68 borders should be maintained, or if we should seek a one state solution.
This is, essentially, standard bartering. You start by being completely unreasonable, and in doing so, you drag the debate in your direction. It is brutal. It is wrong. But it is standard realist politics, and I can see why people do it.
Israel are also the experts of propaganda warfare. They define the language we use to discuss the conflict. Their encroachments in the West Bank are ‘settlements’, despite being essentially the same as what the rest of the world calls a ‘military base’. So when they build new ones, no one cares enough to write sensationalist headlines. Palestinians fighting are ‘terrorists’. Israelis fighting are ‘soldiers’. This means that most deaths barely get noticed in the international news. If Palestinians don’t accept the right of Israel to exist, then they make a massive deal about this. No one is talking about those members of the Israeli government who refuse to accept the Palestinian right to exist.
So, while Israel’s use of white phosphorous on school children, regular murder of Palestinians, and theft of land and water are all criminal, there is a rational self interest I can understand: the latter two, they get away with, because they sound reasonable when framed as “fighting terrorists” and “Settlements”, and because they are so dull when compared with the chemical warfare of the former: “They may be killing people, but at least they’ve stopped burning children alive…”
Which is why today’s behaviour seems so odd. To burn so many bridges with Turkey – the second biggest military power in NATO – seems a strange thing to do. Though they weren’t exactly best friends, the two countries have collaborated in the past, and Turkey is (or was) certainly one of the closest associates Israel has(d) in the region. Similarly, killing peace activists isn’t much of a surprise from Israel. But lots on one day is pretty foolish, as people tend to notice that sort of thing, and even the closest allies struggle to justify it.
So, this leads me to wonder. Perhaps I’m missing something. But, maybe this wasn’t planned?
Imagine you are in the IDF. This means, most likely, that you are 18 or 19. In fact, I imagine these soldiers had a little more experience – probably 19 or 20. All of your military experience has been under right wing governments, probably in the West Bank.
Remembering back to my own brief trip to Palestine last year, it was the age, and brutality, of these soldiers which struck me the most: seeing 18 year old’s waving around an M15 in the West Bank, or, on a night out in Jerusalem, slinging them low round their bums like a pare of skaters jeans; meeting Palestinian students who had become accustomed to being siphoned off at check points to be used for torture practice. Watching them see me and my white friends, and flash us a flirtatious, conspiratorial smile before returning to grunting orders at the brown people. This generation of conscripts in Israel is, more than it’s predecessors, indoctrinated into violence, and racism. More than their predecessors, they have learnt to shoot first, and ask questions later.
And the only conclusion I can come to is that this is what happened in the Med last night. While these tactics may well make a brutal sort of sense when faced with Palestinians who can easily be explained away as terrorists, they are the last thing you want to do when faced with an international delegation including MPs from a strategic regional partner.
But a generation of soldiers who have never been trained to be subtle will struggle to switch procedure because of the nationality of the crowd they are facing.
So they shot the brown faced men and women who they found, scared and defensive on the decks of those boats.
Because that’s what happens when you train people to hate, fear, and kill.