The Facts of the Case

Perhaps I should start this article with a little cautionary tale. Years ago I was teaching a course about the history of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). I had just said that the kingdom of Jordan already had a Palestinian majority when a young student raised her hand and asked me, very politely, how I knew. To my shame, I must confess that the question took me by surprise—here in Israel everybody and his neighbor had been saying this for years, as they still do.

When I recovered I told her she was right and offered her a deal. She would look into the matter and do a research paper about it. In return, I would release her from the final exam. She agreed, and a few months later I received the paper which neither confirmed not contradicted my original claim. It did, however, draw my attention to some facts that I, and presumably many others as well, had never thought about. First, there was and is no accepted definition of a Palestinian. One reason for this is that there are several different kinds of Palestinians—old ones, medium ones and new ones, all depending on the date at which they had arrived in the Kingdom. Second, Jordan being the only Arab country that has granted the Palestinians in its territory citizenship, there were many mixed marriages with offspring, making the question as to “who is a Palestinian?” even harder to answer. Third, the Jordanian Ministry of the Interior for its own reasons is keeping a very tight hand both on definitions and on figures, with the result that nobody knew

Another personal story. Back in 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada, my son had an American girlfriend who lived in Utah. One evening we were sitting in front of the TV when the phone rang. It was Christine. “Jonathan, there has been shooting in your town. Are you alright?” It turned out there had indeed been a few shots; but even though our town is rather small she, living on the other side of the world, knew it before we did.

These incidents made me reflect, as never before, on information, numbers, and our frequent tendency to accept them without further thought. For example, the accepted number of those who died in the American Civil War is 600,000. That, however, conceals the fact that 400,000—fully two-thirds of the total—were not killed in action but succumbed to disease. When a violent coup overthrew the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauceşcu back in 1989 some otherwise reputable Western news organizations initially spoke of over 60,000 dead. How they ever arrived at that number remains a mystery to the present day. In the end, based on hospital reports, it turned out that the real figure was probably in the low hundreds.

In 1943 Colonels Klaus von Stauffenberg and Hennig von Tresckow estimated that “tens of thousands” of Jews had been killed. Both men had served on the Eastern Front. Both were leaders of the German resistance to Hitler and later paid with their lives for trying to blow him up. They certainly cannot be accused of trying to minimize what was not yet known as “the Holocaust;” yet by that time the true number of victims was already running into the millions.

Some of the discrepancies are the result of different definitions used by different people and organizations for different purposes. Others grow out of insufficient information amidst the usual confusion—the fog of war, as it is known. Others still represent deliberate fabrications. A very good example of the last-mentioned problem emerged in the spring of 2003 when the Israelis entered and partly demolished the West-Bank city of Jenin. A video camera, mounted on a one of those ubiquitous little machines that were then known as RPVs (remotely-piloted vehicles) and now as drones, caught a Palestinian “dead” man accidentally falling off the stretcher on which he was being carried, getting up, and walking away. Enough said.

And now, to Gaza. As the two sides seem to be moving towards some kind of agreements, things start to happen. Videos of IDF units being fired at from schools, mosques and hospitals are now available for anyone to watch. Foreign journalists who spent the last few weeks in Gaza are explaining how Hamas operators prevented them from doing their job, confiscated or broke their equipment, blacklisted them, and occasionally threatened them. Such tactics have always been common in war; why anybody can think that Hamas, a terrorist organization, should not use them escapes me.

Errors apart, and there undoubtedly have been some, the IDF has no incentive to deliberately target noncombatants. Why should it, given that doing so will not advance its goals and subject it to even more international criticism than that under which it is already laboring? To the contrary very often it uses leaflets, telephone calls, and even small missiles—so-called doorknockers—to warn people that their house or neighborhoods are about to be attacked and order them to leave. Probably no army in history has done more.

The IDF does not publish either the criteria it uses to decide whom to kill or the number of “terrorists” versus “civilians” it has killed. Under the policy known as “targeted killings,” some of the dead are identified by name. Since the main Hamas operatives have long gone to ground, though, their number is much too small to make a statistical difference. The rest are armed men who die either when they are caught in known Hamas facilities, such as command centers and rocket-factories, or else during the act of launching rockets or firing at IDF troops.

On the Palestinian side the best available single source is Hamas’ minister of health, Dr. Ashraf al Kidra. He works in a crowded office where he and his staff receive as many as 700 telephone calls a day, most of which carry information about fresh attacks. Each evening he holds a sort of press conference in which he spells out the figures for the preceding day. His data in turn form part of those collected by the United Nations Human Rights Office in Geneva which receives the reports of various NGOs in Gaza. As of the morning of 9 August the Office has reported some 1,843 deaths, including “at least” 1,354 noncombatants.

There are, however, problems with these numbers. First, as several international news organizations have noted, the percentage of women and children among the dead is much too small to justify the claim that the IDF is firing “indiscriminately.” The population of Gaza is the youngest in the world. Therefore, had the IDF indeed been firing “indiscriminately,” then women and children should have formed about 70 percent of the dead. In fact even the Palestinian data show that the figure is much lower. Second, Hamas, like so many similar organizations around the world, does not a regular army form. Many of its operatives do not wear uniform except when it suits them. As a result, to turn a dead “combatant” into a “noncombatant,” all one has to do is remove his weapon before filming him and informing Dr. Kidra. That, some foreign journalists have reported, was precisely what Hamas did. Conversely, the group with proportionally the highest number of casualties are young men aged 18 to 29—precisely those most likely to be killed in any war, big or small.

The moral? Beyond re-conforming the urgent need to treat “the fact of the case” with extreme caution, I am afraid there isn’t one.

In Praise of Potsdam

I am writing this from Potsdam, a smallish (160,000 inhabitants) German city southwest of Berlin where my wife and I go to stay for a month or so every year since 1999. Originally what brought us to Potsdam was the fact that it is home to the Bundeswehr’s historical service. They have the best military-historical library in Europe; enough said.

Potsdam, however, also has other attractions and it on them that I want to focus here. When we first visited back in 1992 it was a sad town. Many buildings were dilapidated; testifying to the fact that the very last battles of World War II took place in this area, many windows had not yet been repaired. The predominant color was grey. It took me awhile to realize the reason for this. It was due to the fact that, in a country that had only recently emerged from communism, there were no commercial signs and no advertisements in the streets. In the entire city the only halfway decent hotel was the Merkur, located not far from the railway station which, like the rest of the town, had been heavily bombed in 1945 and never properly repaired.

The hotel itself consisted of a high-rise building not far from the city center where it formed, and still forms, a real eyesore. Originally its rooms did not have private bathrooms. By the time we stayed there they had been installed, but only at the price of making the rooms themselves rather cramped. In the entire central district of the city there was just one restaurant. Located on the central square, the Brandenburger Platz, in good East German tradition it only served a small fraction of the items theoretically on the menu.

Over the years, watching the city shed its communist dress and put on a modern, liberal and commercial one has been a feast for the eyes. Potsdam is not nearly as wealthy as some of its West German counterparts. But like all small German towns it is clean and orderly. One can cycle wherever one wants. In the suburbs, especially Rehbruecke where we stay, many houses have flourishing gardens. The buses run, the trams arrive on time. Everything functions—to someone coming from the Middle East, that is anything but self-evident. Still I would not have written about Potsdam if, in addition to these qualities, there had not been some things which set it apart.

Potsdam_Sanssouci_PalaceFirst, there is culture. Starting in the early 18th century and ending in 1945, Potsdam was where the kings and princes of Prussia spent their summers. Though the Hohenzollerns are gone, that accounts for the fact that there is much to see and to do—museums, palaces, shows (in German, but for us that is no problem), concerts, you name it. Some of these attractions, notably the palace of San Souci (Worry-Free) built by Frederick the Great in the 1750s, are world famous. Others, such as the evangelical kindergarten that, during the early post-war years, served as an NKVD prison are merely interesting. Given that Potsdam used to a garrison city, many of the attractions have ties with Prussian/German military history. But by no means all: there is a Dutch quarter and there is a Russian colony and there is a Jewish cemetery. There is a mosque, built around 1740 to conceal the first steam engine in Germany. For anybody who wants more places to visit Berlin, a global city of three and a half million people, is only half an hour away.

Second, the walks. Potsdam and its surroundings are almost completely flat. You can spend entire days wandering in the fields and along the canals—with no danger that some redneck, gun in hand, will warn you to f—k off and shoot you if you do not do so fast enough. The horizon is far away, the land often somewhat swampy. Some of it was laid dry in the seventeenth-century by Dutch engineers. This is not a district with spectacular views; what we value is the monotony and the soothing effect. Here and there the land is punctuated by a Kneipe, certain to be clean, certain to be well-kept, where you can have a cup of coffee with cake or else a beer with a sandwich.

Third and most important, there are the lakes. Brandenburg has more water than any other German Land. Twenty years after reunification, and following a gigantic investment, the water in question is now clean enough not only to swim in but to drink. Personally I know no finer piece of countryside than the Caputher See, a lake located near a village—Caputh—four or so miles south of Potsdam. For those who are interested, Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels used have a little house there. So did Albert Einstein; there is also a small Einstein Museum that a friend of ours now runs. The only aquatic sport we practice is swimming. I know that not everybody likes swimming, but that is their problem.Caputher_See_by_Area29ED6

What is it that makes swimming in Potsdam, and in former East Germany in general, so attractive? It took me a long time to figure out the answer. It is not the climate. As Napoleon is supposed to have said, Germany has eight months of winter and four months of no summer. It is not the water—you can find that in many other places around the world. Nor is it the views—lovely as they are, there are others that are as good.

It is, instead, the sense of freedom. The Caputher See is considerably larger than Walden Pond. Unlike the latter it is not a celebrity. The only way to reach it is by a short walk through the surrounding forest. So beautiful, so marked by chiaroscuro is the path that my then eight-year grandson dubbed it “the enchanted wood.” There is no gate and no gatekeeper to look you over and charge for entry. There are no kiosks trying to sell you this or that. Let alone the kind of blaring music you often get in open air cafes. You can strip naked and leave your things on the little beach, if that is what you like. There are no buoys to tell you how far you can go—in some American lakes I have visited, you are only allowed to wade up to your knees. The kind of rubber boats children use apart, there are no boats to pollute the water with noise and oil. Best of all, there is no lifeguard. You are even allowed to drown if that is what you want. There is no and there is no and there is no.

The moral? We citizens of “advanced” countries have bound ourselves in endless ribbons, like those used by the police to cordon off crime scenes. On them are printed, instead of the words “keep out,” “freedom, justice, and safety.” Growing tighter by the year, the ribbons have brought us to the point where we can hardly move a limb or open our mouth. We are surrounded by counselling, sensitivity training, surveillance cameras, mobile phones that track our movements, screening processes, background checks, personality tests, licenses, examinations, certifications, mandatory prerequisites, and mandatory insurance. Not to mention mandatory helmets and goggles and harnesses and bright orange vests with reflective tape when all we want to do is ride a bicycle to the post office. All, we are told, because we are not fit to look after ourselves. And all for our own good.

Thank goodness there are still a few places left where all these restraints can be cast off. At least for a couple of hours.

The Monster

The monster—the Sunni militias which, equipped by the Saudis with the active backing of the U.S, have been waging civil war in Syria for over three years—has risen against its benefactors. Unable to make headway against Syrian dictator Basher Assad, they have turned to the much softer target that once constituted Iraq but is now, thanks to George Bush Jr, no more than an awful mess. Doing so, they shed any “secular” and “liberal” character they may once had possessed. Instead they revealed their true colors as murderous bandits who wage war with a ferocity rare even among Arabs.

Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and home to one of the world’s most important oil fields, has already fallen to them. As resistance seems to be crumbling, the capital, Baghdad, may well be next in line. Should that happen then the way to Basra and the Gulf countries in the south will be open. The outcome could well be another Afghanistan threatening to export terrorism, and perhaps more than just terrorism, both to the Gulf States in the south and to Jordan in the west—not to mention what may happen to the world’s economy should one of its main oil-exporting countries be knocked out..

And the West? Following more than a decade of warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, its armed forces are exhausted and urgently in need of recuperation. Many of them have also been made the subject of endless cuts. As a result, their strength has been reduced to a fraction of what it used to be even as recently as the early 2000s. For some of them, the American ones in particular, new threats are looming in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia. Perhaps most important of all, the politicians responsible for the wars in question have been largely discredited. Their successors, with President Barak Obama at their head, may engage in loose talk about the need to use force, as German President Joachim Gauk recently did. However, as President Obama has said, they will not spend any considerable resources to intervene in the ongoing struggle.

Nor, in truth, is there any reason to believe that, if Obama did respond to Iraqi Government pleas and did spend such resources, the outcome would be at all satisfactory. True, an American aircraft carrier, the appropriately named GWHH Bush, is now cruising in the Gulf along with its various escorts. However, the number of attack aircraft it can launch is limited while the distances they will have to cover (first in one direction, then back) to hit the Jihadists in their present location is measured in several hundred miles. That fact would impose strict limits on the number of sorties that can be flown—probably not much more than one per aircraft per day on the average. Since the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) fighters hardly do a regular army form, any eventual strikes will also be faced with a lack of targets.

The U.S armed forces might also resort to their favorite weapon, i.e. drones. Experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere has clearly shown that drones, which are relatively small, cheap and expendable, are better suited to combatting irregulars who do not have an air force of their own than manned aircraft are. But deploying any number of them in the theater and arranging suitable bases from which they can be operated, maintained and supplied will take time. Time that may not be available.

Under these circumstances, and barring some miracle, the only real hope of containing the ISIS rests with Iran. Compared with other interested countries, Iran enjoys the enormous advantage that it is right next door to the theater of war. Consequently, to intervene, it would not have to fly forces there from halfway across the world. It is also a Shi’ite country. Hopefully that gives it some interest in making sure the ISIS Sunnis do not gain the upper hand over their own coreligionists, who form the majority in Iraq; let alone unite Iraq with Syria so as to create, in time, a single powerful Arab state.

Clearly, though, Iran will not act as the West’s policeman in Iraq without extracting a price. Presumably that price will include a. the relaxation, if not complete abolition, of economic sanctions; and b. turning a blind eye to the continuation of Iran’s nuclear project. Is the price worth paying and the risk—whose existence cannot be denied—worth taking? In the opinion of this author, the answer is yes. Perhaps an agreement can be reached that will allow Iran to pursue the project but neither test a bomb nor open declare it. For this the kind of agreement, U.S diplomacy over the last few decades provides several precedents.

Taking a wider view, how capricious, how full of surprises and hairpin corners, does life turn out to be! During the days of the Shah (reigned 1953-78) the U.S considered Iran its strong arm in the Middle East, buying its oil and providing it with some of the most advanced weapons of the time. Following the Islamic Revolution Iran became part of the “axis of evil” whereas the Iranians on their part insisted that the US was “the big Satan” (the title, “little Satan” was reserved for Israel). Throughout the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 the U.S did whatever it could to support Iran’s enemies, even condoning Saddam Husein’s use of chemical warfare.

Now the tables have been turned again. Iran is good. whereas the Iraqi Sunnis—who President George Bush Jr. and his team hoped might follow up on the defeat of Saddam Hussein by building a modern, enlightened, even democratic Arab country in the Middle East—have become blacker than black.

As the saying goes, there is no end to illusions. And politics do strange bedfellows make.

Back in 1970

Back in 1970 Israel and Egypt fought a ferocious “war of attrition” along the Suez Canal. It probably brought Israel closer to destruction than any other since the country had gained its independence twenty-eight years before. The worst moments came in April-May when the Israeli air force shot down four or five—the exact number is disputed—Russian-piloted Egyptian fighters. In response there was serious talk of the Soviet Union extending its already formidable presence in Egypt and militarily intervening on Egypt’s side. In the event escalation was averted, but only by a hair’s breadth. Three months later the two countries signed an American-mediated cease-fire which went into effect on 7 August.

Starting in June 1967, hostilities along the Canal cost the Israelis almost fifteen hundred dead. So bad were things that youngsters out of high school and about to be drafted used to tell each other, “see you in the military cemetery.” However, for Egypt the outcome was little short of catastrophic. Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Days’ War had already resulted in the closure of the Suez Canal, depriving Egypt of an important source of revenue. The subsequent fighting along the Canal not only destroyed the country’s largest oil refinery but completely demolished the cities of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez, turning hundreds of thousands of people into refugees Perhaps worst of all was the blow to Egyptian pride, given that its enemy continued to sit right on its doorstep and could not be dislodged.

It was against this background that, not long after the ceasefire took hold, former chief of staff and then minister of defense Moshe Dayan (1915-82), came up with the following plan. Israel would withdraw its forces to a line approximately 30 kilometers to the east, a move that would hardly weaken, and in some ways strengthen, its ability to defend itself against an eventual Egyptian attack. The evacuated territory would remain demilitarized. In return the Egyptians would agree to leave the evacuated territory demilitarized, reopen the Canal to international shipping, repair the damage to their cities, and repopulate them. By doing so, they would create a really powerful incentive towards eventual peace.

Later Dayan claimed that, in his meetings with Anwar Sadat during the Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations that started late in 1977 and led to the Camp David Accords, the latter told him that the plan had been “brilliant, brilliant.” At the time, however, Israel’s Prime Minister, Ms. Golda Meir, strongly disagreed. By one account she went so far as to call Dayan a “madman” and suggest that he be sent to an asylum. Whether or not the story is true, there can be no doubt that, in refusing to consider any kind of withdrawal, she was strongly backed by the cabinet, the Knesset, her party, and Israeli public opinion as a whole. The outcome was the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War which at the time was the largest interstate war fought anywhere in the world since 1945. It ended in a draw; two years later Israel, now under Yitzhak Rabin, and Egypt signed a Separation of Forces Agreement that followed Dayan’s proposal quite closely.

Forty-four years later Israel once again engaged on a struggle of attrition. This time the opponent was not Egypt but Hamas; an organization incomparably smaller and less powerful than the Egyptian army, yet one capable of attacking Israel’s rear and holding its people to ransom in a way Egypt never did. The struggle has now been going on for three weeks. The population of Gaza is suffering horribly—all because Hamas, Israel, and the other parties involved (Egypt, the PLO, Turkey, Qatar, and The U.S—seem unable to find a way out that will please all of them.

Good or bad, everything must come to an end. Can the events of 1970-75 tell us something about what may be possible in 2014? Obviously the first thing to do is to make the weapons fall silent. But that should be the first step, not the last. Using Dayan’s proposal as a model, Hamas should undertake to cease any kind of military operations, including the construction of tunnels, and embark on the road towards co-existence if not peace. Israel should agree to withdraw, relax its border controls and permit an extension of trade. Eventually this should lead to the construction of a port and an international airport. Egypt should reopen the border crossings in return for Hamas ceasing to support the Islamist-Bedouin Uprising in the Sinai. The international community, including Saudi Arabia which has every interest in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should pull its weight. It could do so by supervising the implementation of the agreements, ensuring that they are not abused. It should also provide money to rebuild the Strip so as to provide the people there with something to lose.

Such a plan will no doubt be hard to agree on. Should it be carried out, though, nobody stands to benefit more than the inhabitants of Gaza. Gaza itself is a very ancient city that goes back 4,000 years and more. As Napoleon’s troops noted when they entered the city back in 1798, it has all the climatic and physical attributes needed for economic success. By way of a comparison, look at Singapore on the other side of the Asian continent. Singapore has a per capita GDP of 52,000—almost a hundred times that of Gaza, which is around $ 550. Yet Gaza, for all the density of its population, has more land per capita than Singapore does. Some of it is agricultural, well suited for raising vegetables, orchards, and flowers.

Unlike Singapore, Gaza has some water. Following the example of Singapore, given sufficient investment it could obtain any amount it needs from the sea by way of desalinization. The labor force is young, large, and very cheap. A vast potential market, in the form of the European Union, is not far off. Finally, the magnificent seashore could well be developed so as to attract tourists. Given these facts, there is no reason at all why Gaza could not become a prosperous country, “the Singapore of the Middle East,” as Shimon Peres, Israel’s recently departed president, once called it.

Such a plan would require both sides to climb down from the high tress they are occupying at present. Will it happen? Or must there take place another round of bloody fighting before both sides finally realize they have no choice but to live side by side?