The truce in Gaza may be over almost before it began. Sky News reports “Israel had earlier agreed to halt its campaign against militants in the Hamas-run territory during his brief visit. But Sky’s Middle East Producer Tom Rayner said: ‘We’ve seen at least 4 rockets launched from Northern Gaza in the last 10 minutes – ceasefire may be over before it has even really begun.’” Does it matter who breaks a ceasefire?
Does being the weaker party absolve it of the need for forbearance. There is a school of thought which holds that the Palestinians are burning with such righteous anger that they cannot be expected to show restraint. Stephen Walt writes in Foreign Policy: “What if powerful Palestinians were bombing weak Israelis?” Then the Israelis would understand how hard it would be to hold back.
And please: The issue is not about whether Israel has the right to defend itself. Of course it does. But what it doesn’t have is the right to use disproportionate force in order to maintain an unjustified and illegal occupation and the subjugation of millions of Palestinians, which is the taproot from which these events spring.
Walt’s rhetorical question can be phrased equivalently: if the Palestinians had as much firepower as the IDF and the Israelis had as much firepower as the Hamas, how long would the weak Israelis survive? Perhaps they would survive as long as the Palestinians simply because enlightened persons like Stephen Walt and Samantha Power would intervene to prevent a genocide.
They would shame a powerful Palestine into treating a weak Israel well. But the unfortunate fact is that the United Nations did not prevent or stop the Cambodian, Rwandan or Kosovar massacres. They do not even recognize the Darfur Conflict as a genocide. They are unable, as of the present time, to stop the killings in Syria, estimated to have claimed 50,000 victims to date. The Rwandan genocide occurred in fact under the very noses of UN Peacekeepers.
History appears to show that the physical ability of the UN to prevent a massacre is quite limited. What success it may have in tempering conflict largely depends largely on the character of the militarily dominant party. Diplomats can “stop” Israel with words because the Israeli state is responsive to legalities and words. It cannot stop Assad because the Syrian government is not responsive to the same persuasion.
Hence, the fate of a “weak Israel” under a powerful Palestine will be determined by by the character of Hamas. Would a Hamas in the possession of armored vehicles, artillery, missiles, aircraft and nuclear weapons restrain itself? Would it listen to Stephen Walt and Samantha Power?
One proxy test of this proposition is to examine with what restraint Hamas treats the inhabitants of Gaza. According to the New York Times, Human Rights Watch “accused Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that governs the Gaza Strip, of running a criminal justice system rife with arbitrary arrests, torture and unfair trials.” The HRW report says:
Based on interviews with former detainees, lawyers, human rights groups, and reviews of case files and court judgments … Hamas security services in Gaza routinely conduct arrests without presenting warrants, refuse to promptly inform families of detainees’ whereabouts, deny detainees access to a lawyer and torture detainees in custody.
… As a measure of how broken the system is, three criminal defense lawyers in private practice told Human Rights Watch that they had themselves been arbitrarily arrested and tortured in detention by Hamas security forces …
This report does not attempt to compare abuses by Hamas with abuses by the Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank, where Human Rights Watch has also documented arbitrary arrest, torture and impunity.
In brief, Hamas shows no mercy to its enemies. Or at least, very little. On the assumption that Hamas is unlikely to treat Jewish persons any better than Muslim Arab bretheren, it is possible, perhaps even plausible to say that a weak Israel at the living at the sufferance of a powerful Palestine may not fare very well.
It may be objected that Walt’s hypothetical experiment can never be settled with certainty until history presents observers an actual instance of a Jewish population wholly at the mercy of a hostile force. There are of course examples which may guide opinion, though they are all from the 20th century. The 21st is different, isn’t it? We have the United Nations and the International Community now.
The real logical flaw in Walt’s reasoning is that the proper metric is not “power” versus “weakness”. The real contrast is not weak versus strong but civil society versus authoritarian tyranny. Israel is a fundamentally democratic society that happens to be militarily powerful. Hamas happens to be a despotic organization which happens to be weak.
The fundamental defect of Hamas from a human rights point of view is not that is weak, but that is evil. The fundamental virtue of Israel is not that it possesses the “Iron Dome”, but that it is basically a law-abiding society. Hamas thinks its defects can remedied by more military power, just as perhaps Walt thinks Israel’s moral authority can be increased by disarmament, but the thinking is false.
If Hamas broke the ceasefire it agreed to it did not do so because it was weak. It did so because it was a treacherous. That is the fundamental difficulty, one that will not be amended by simply arming them further.