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The Gaza War: Is It Really So Hard to Understand?

It's no different than Pearl Harbor or September 11. When you are attacked, you fight back. (Also, Phyllis Chesler on Israel's Morality vs. Hamas's Morality)

by
Barry Rubin

Bio

December 31, 2008 - 12:00 am
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But why, more than one reporter from highly reputable publications has asked me, is Israel attacking Gaza now? At first, I was astonished. Then I answered: because Hamas canceled the ceasefire and started massive rocket firings at Israel.

No, they responded, as if I had said something rude. Isn’t it the election, or an attempt to stop the tunnels, or this or that reason?

Absolutely not, I say, it’s like Pearl Harbor or September 11. If someone announces they are going to go to war with you and then does it, you retaliate and fight.

At that point, the reporters seem to lose interest and bring the interview to an end, as if clearly a person who can say such things is not going to provide any rational analysis. Yet if one cannot even understand this most basic fact, what comprehension can there be of this issue or, indeed, of Middle East politics in general?

There are reasons, however, for this response. Large elements in the West find it very hard to “get,” that is to understand, Hamas or the Palestinians in general — or, for that matter, Islamists in general, or Arabs in general, or Muslims in general — albeit with all the many variations and exceptions.

The problem with pragmatism

Today, people ask, why didn’t the Jews of Poland understand the Nazis were going to wipe them out, at least in the earlier period when escape or revolt was more possible? According to contemporary and later eyewitness testimony, because they didn’t think Germans would act in such an unpragmatic manner.

After all, hundreds of thousands of Jews were involuntarily contributing to the German war effort. They were making clothes, repairing roads, growing food. Why should the Third Reich destroy a highly effective, very cheap, and low-problem labor force, thus crippling itself and helping to ensure that it lost the war?

Answer: ideology. A doctrine and belief system will make people act in a way that doesn’t fit pragmatic expectations. Why should Hamas start a war against a stronger power? Due to believing itself to be stronger and its need to mobilize mass support. Why should Palestinian leaders reject a state even if it means the end of an increasingly small degree of “occupation”? Due to belief that total victory is inevitable, that compromise is treason, and that their enemies are satanic.

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