Saturday, February 14, 2009

PTSD politics

Thoughts on Palestine as a case of PTSD politics.

Trauma and victimization are profoundly and permanently damaging. Recent stories about Iraq veterans show the permanent changes that can be wrought by PTSD, analogous to the permanent brain alterations that follow tobacco, alcohol, or cocaine addiction. Our brains are plastic and impressionable, degraded by degrading conditions. People who are ground down by traumatic conditions are prone to act irrationally and harbor bottomless resentments. Conversely, those brought up in security and prosperity tend to be optimistic and open-minded. That is the underlying rationale for America's "special role" in world affairs, borne as much of our long-term prosperity and security as of our ideals and political example.

To illustrate, the post-9/11 mood on the east coast, especially in Washington, was completely out of proportion to the threat posed, either by the World Trade towers attack or the antrax attacks. The terrorists terrorized (some of) us out of our collective wits without doing very much damage in absolute terms, mostly because Americans had been coddled for decades in a placid, secure country whose major questions revolved around the levels of interest rates and consumer confidence. Our much-vaunted ideals collapsed in a heartbeat, replaced by the vengeful drum-beating of an opportunistic president.

Imagine how we would have reacted had such devastation rained down on us on a daily basis, as in the recent Gaza war, where proportionate damage would have been 83,000 dead per week in the US. Or the recent civil carnage in Iraq, where proportionate damage in the US would have been roughly 20,000 to 30,000 dead per week, every week, for six years. The mind reels at what would have happened to our society. (Compare also the current US-wide death toll of ~825 per week from car accidents and 8,300 premature deaths per week from tobacco).

With this perspective, we can appreciate the intransigence and horror of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Locked in enmity and mutual trauma, they hate and are hated. They seek revenge and self-respect in the face of dehumanization. The open each other's scabs, and rub salt in the wounds.

Who is at fault? Well, the problem started with the displaced trauma of European antisemitism, reaching its climax in the holocaust.* While Palestinians where largely pro-Hitler and antisemitic by long Islamic tradition, they were peripheral to the convulsive drama of Europe's Jews .. until those Jews showed up on their doorstep, looking for a home. The Zionist project long pre-dated World War two, but that was when a trickle turned into a flood, and integration of the rising tide of Jews became impossible. They wanted their own space- Lebensraum, one might say- in Palestine.

They pursued all sorts of means, fair and foul, to get it, ranging from purchases of land to terrorism of the local Arabs. Already from the start, the Palestinians had dysfunctional politics, self-defeating reponses, and some bewilderment as to why, exactly, they were supposed to give up their land because some Europeans had been evil to other Europeans. The claims of Jews to their promised land fell on deaf Palestinian ears, as did the pleadings of the British, who were nominally in charge of the territory. The whole deal just did not make any sense.

Yet with force majeure on their side, and the sympathy of the former colonial powers as well as the US and the UN, the Israeli state was born in the teeth of Arab enmity- teeth which were shortly chipped and broken on the highly westernized military know-how of the young Jewish state in the 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars, culminating in Israel's control of the entire territory of Palestine. Incidentally, as a Europeanized, Westernized outpost, Israel also fulfilled in an ironic way the dreams of the European Crusades for conversion and repossession of the so-called "holy" land.

The traditional and Biblical method of dealing with the Palestinians at this point would have been to kill the males of age and sell the rest into slavery. Unfortunately, the requisite markets for slaves no longer existed, and the Jews had raised their ethical norms in the intervening millennia. Forced exile was another option that was explored, (called, in our hygenic age, "ethnic cleansing"), but naturally, no neighbor wanted to take in the now-traumatized and bitter Palestinians, or indirectly thereby help Israel out of its enormous problem.

So Israel was faced with an existential and moral conundrum: how to deal with an embittered enemy on their doorstep, in territory under their own control, within their own ethical precepts, so recently sharpened by their own travails? The answer was to semi-officially apply a water torture of gradual land purchase and expropriation driven by the most rabidly religious settlers, (who, because they are viewed as "more Jewish" than other Israelis, are given a pass on their unethical behavior and fanaticism, not to mention the irony of being excused from military service), along with big helpings of degrading treatment and collective punishment of the Palestinians via the ensuing occupation. In return, the Palestinians mounted what resistance they could, generally small-scale terrorism and guerrilla warfare.

It is clear that Israel has fundamentally violated its own morals and those of the modern enlightened age in its treatment of the Palestinians. The Palestinians for their part have violated the same norms, though they never subscribed to them, and would never have presented any problem had their territory not been disturbed in the first place. At any rate, the problem is one for the Israelis to resolve, since it is they who have the power: the airforce, the billions in weaponry supplied by the US, the nuclear bombs. For them to claim that the Palestinians are not "partners for peace" is totally disingenuous, since the historical process they have sponsored has rendered the Palestinians justifiably aggrieved, embittered, and traumatized, not to mention powerless in all respects other than to say the one word they can manage ... "No".

It might be useful to note here that there are only two ways to win a war- one is to kill the enemy, and the other is for the enemy to give up. An enemy who refuses to give up is one you can not defeat, (see Vietnam), thus the importance of winning "hearts and minds" in the current parlance, which is far more important than realized, even now.

I had thought that the border wall against the West Bank was the beginning of a good solution, hewing the old adage that good fences make good neighbors. But unfortunately, the Israelis placed the fence not on the 1967 border which would have been the logical (and legal) place to put it, but snaking through Palestinian territory, breaking up numerous communities, all in an effort to include as many settler zones as possible, and to impair as many Palestinian communities in their vicinty as possible.

And on top of that, they still couldn't stay out of the West Bank or Gaza, continuing to build settlements on the other side of the fence, building roads restricted to Israelis, blocking Palestinian roads, patrolling, subjecting Palestinians to checkpoints, blockading trade from time to time, bombing and destroying buildings, etc., etc., etc. So the fence has been highly successful from the Israeli perspective, keeping the other side at bay and pacified in a state comparable to apartheid, as Jimmy Carter put it. But it has not been an equitable boundary upon which to build a peaceful or neighborly relationship.

That is where we are now, and the way forward is for Israel to do what is right- not to give up its own territory in the form of a "right of return" for Palestinian re-assimilation of Israel, but to fairly divide the territory using the 1967 border as a starting point, and make that division stick by getting out of the Palestinian side completely, with a relocated fence. The Palestinians will need a road corridor to communicate between the West Bank and Gaza, so negotiations could exchange land, inch-for-inch, for such a corridor in exchange for selected settlements on the Israeli border.

We can grant that the Palestinian political system is thoroughly dysfunctional, corrupt, and self-defeating. That is no reason for Israel to not do what is right- to disengage its expropriation and occupation activities and let the Palestinians take care of themselves (with reasonable means to do so, like ports of their own in Gaza, open trade, etc). Only by disengaging will either side be able to heal its particular traumas and wounds.

Additionally, the Palestinians have been egged on and used by their false friends in Iran and Syria, doing themselves precious little good, and keeping them from tending to their own interests. The only way to break these relationships is to cut the ground from under the extremists by unilaterally offering and carrying out a fair deal for the Palestinian people.

At this point, one might ask about the Gaza situation. Didn't Israel disengage there, and didn't Hamas keep sending rockets into Israel? I would offer that compared to the problems of outright occupation, the problems of occasional rockets were minor. Additionally, the disengagement was far from complete, since Israel turned around and blockaded the elected Hamas government and otherwise made life very difficult for Gaza. And the proper solution to the rocket attacks was (and remains) to reply with immediate return fire to the point of rocket origin- easily possible with basic spotting capability- rather than to wait in silence, and then indulge in a frenzy of collective punishment, intended to "send a message" or "teach a lesson" in the form of 100-to-1 killing rates ... lessons that are never learned at the point of a gun. (See a revolting piece of embedded reporting in TNR.)

The remaining problem will be their continuing economic relationship, which is extensive. Palestinian workers endure dehumanizing daily crossings to work in Israel, and many other critical if fraught relationships exist. No doubt Israel will be tempted to exert pressure on its neighbor in perpetuity by these means, its economy being far more vibrant and influential. It is, of course, a temptation to be resisted, since nothing good comes of such pressure, as amply documented in the relationship to date. Israel's interest on every count- demographically, economically, and strategically, is to promote the economic development of Palestine, and Israel should offer treaties to that effect.

In the same vein, it is not Israel's job or right to control the tunnels or other trade routes into Gaza. If Gazans want to import their own bombs, tanks, etc., they should be able to do so. Using such weapons is another matter, but it is ultimately deceptive as well as futile to claim disengagement from the Palestinians while controlling their most basic contacts with the outside world. Without having responsibility for themselves, Palestinians will never take responsibility vis-a-vis Israel.

At any rate, the solution lies in fairness, separation, and disengagement. The only power the Palestinians have is to say no to the Israeli offers of peace, to offer token resistance with small arms and suicide terror, or rioting and rocks when pressed to extremis. Even this power/resentment would largely dissolve if Israel unilaterally provided a fair and sustainable territorial solution as outlined above, rather than continuing to treat the Palestinians as subhuman objects of slow-motion expropriation. And how do we get Israel to do what is right? Simply by withdrawing our various forms of support if they don't. Whether Israel got to this intransigent and immoral position consciously or not, the US has the leverage to dislodge them from it. (See a Cohn piece on tough love..)

It is sad and ironic that, to realize their Zionist dream, Jews turned around and created the very ghettos, dehumanization, and hatred that they fled in Europe. It is time to recover the humanity of both sides, by giving the Palestinians what is right (with or without negotiations) and allowing both sides to begin a healing process that will take generations.

Related links:
  • Podcasted discussion along the lines above, with Antony Loewenstein, heard after I wrote this.
  • Bush secretly supplies arms to Fatah, in hopes of a coup against Hamas.
  • Friedman makes similar points, indirectly.
  • Cohen, on how similar rational engagement with Iran would be extremely helpful.
  • Lengthy podcast on Israel and the fence, putatively "balanced".
  • Lengthy historical treatment.
  • Frontline segment about settlers.
  • Later article on Obama's reluctance in this area.
  • Later, Hitchens with an excellent piece on Israeli clerical extremism
Incidentally, an excellent review of Darwin, on this anniversary

* Let me note as an aside that one of the anti-semites in chief was none other than the founder of Protestantism- Martin Luther:
Martin Luther, "On the Jews and their lies", 1543
My advice, as I said earlier, is: First, that their synagogues be burned down, and that all who are able toss in sulphur and pitch; it would be good if someone could also throw in some hellfire. That would demonstrate to God our serious resolve and be evidence to all the world that it was in ignorance that we tolerated such houses, in which the Jews have reviled God, our dear Creator and Father, and his Son most shamefully up till now, but that we have now given them their due reward.
... Third, that they be forbidden on pain of death to praise God, to give thanks, to pray, and to teach publicly among us and in our country.
... Fourth, that they be forbidden to utter the name of God within our hearing.
... So let us beware. In my opinion the problem must be resolved thus: If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews' blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them. They must be driven from our country.
... But since they lack the power to do this publicly, they remain our daily murderers and bloodthirsty foes in their hearts. Their prayers and curses furnish evidence of that, as do the many stories which relate their torturing of children and all sorts of crimes for which they have often been burned at the stake or banished.

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