Newsletter #185— December 15, 2023
From the BI Israel/Hamas War Discussion
Jack Williams first wrote us about our Israel/Hamas posts on November 17. We responded shortly thereafter, and Jack replied on December 9, to which we are responding now. This string has gotten too long for one newsletter, so we are posting Jack's first letter to us and our reply today, and we will post his second letter and our answer to that tomorrow.
Jack is the President of the Institute for Global Negotiation, based in Zurich. He is also consultant for the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) where he teaches negotiation and mediation skills and is leading a project to establish a solar PV-system in a refugee camp in Northern Iraq in partnership with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In addition, Jack serves an Adjunct Professor at Sciences Po Paris, Leuphana University Lüneburg and the American University of Kurdistan, where he was previously an Assistant Professor of International Relations and Acting Dean of the College of International Studies.
Jack's First Letter to Us
Dear Guy and Heidi,
I wanted to personally reach out regarding your posts on the Israel-Gaza conflict on the BI Substack. I’ll be formulating a ‘public’ response where I critique in more detail your assessments, but I wanted to try to summarise your position and ask some initial questions to better understand why you have taken the line you have.
When reading your thoughts and responses I saw parallels with what Deepak Malhotra has analysed as three conversations about Israel that are taking place: 1) whether the Hamas attacks are inhumane and unjustifiable 2) the broader context of the Israel-Palestine conflict 3) how should/should not the Israeli government respond.
My interpretation is that many of your posts have focused on conversation 1. From what I’ve read you are really struggling to comprehend the abhorrent nature of the attacks carried out by Hamas on 7th October. I have purposely avoided images of the attacks for my own sanity but the descriptions of the attacks you and others have given are etched into my brain. The brutality described is inhumane. You also repeatedly note your disquiet of reports of Palestinians in Gaza celebrating these attacks and a discomfort at colleagues you feel are trying to excuse the actions.
In denouncing the actions of Hamas you have paid less attention to conversations 2 and 3. Your most recent post started to address this although remained wedded to the horrific nature of the attacks and what you see as an ‘evil-actor’ intent on destroying one side. I feel many of the concerns raised by colleagues relate to conversations 2 and 3 while you have focused on strongly condemning Hamas – going from the attacks to what you characterise as their refusal to negotiate and use of civilians as human shields.
I am very troubled as others are by the tone of the points you’ve put out mainly because they seem to ignore any nuance or impartiality on conversations 2 and 3. To this end I have some questions:
- In what way do you feel the BI resources do not pertain to such a scenario? So many intractable conflicts are with those who see each other as evil and commit horrific crimes against one another including glorifying in torture and killing.
- How have you selected the sources that you judge as reliable? You share IDF videos where they purport to show attempts to minimise causalities but not credible news reports questioning those claims. Similarly, you dismiss statistics on Gaza causalities without citing organisations who independently try to verify deaths.
- You say that ‘We, personally, do not think we know enough about the situation to offer our own "way out” and yet argue for a disproportionate response and justify ‘collateral damage’ caused by the Israeli military. I don’t understand how one can excuse oneself from making recommendations for peace but confidently advocate specific military tactics?
This is an issue that you clearly feel very passionately about, and I commend you for sharing Richard E. Rubenstein’s response as well as other critiques. I look forward to your responses and can only say from my point of view the BI resources were designed for exactly the situation we face now.
I hope you can enjoy the Thanksgiving Holiday and thank you again for the openness and reflection you have demonstrated on this issue even if we are of different opinions.
All the very best,
Guy and Heidi's Response
Jack, thanks for writing.
We did, in our first post, spend a fair amount of time on topic 2 (the broader context), pointing out (among other things) that the Palestinians have been offered a two-state solution five times and have not only refused those agreements, they have gone to war (or upped their terror tactics) in response. We also covered the context in Newsletter-176 where we listed all the factors that are contributing to this "perfect storm." Our belief is that the many of the horrors that we are now witnessing are directly attributable to escalation dynamics surrounding this 75+ year cluster of reinforcing feedback dynamics.
That said, we believe that there are two things that Israel's enemies have done to make this conflict especially intractable: 1) steadfastly refusing to recognize Israel's right to exist and 2) committing themselves, over a period of decades, to the self-dehumanization strategy of terrorism. We find it impossible to imagine how any sort of peaceful coexistence-based resolution of the conflict would be viable under these conditions. While the Israeli settlements in the West Bank also make peaceful co-existence very difficult, we believe that those likely would have been dismantled years ago, just as the settlements in Gaza were, had Palestinians not constantly attacked Israel from West Bank locations, and had Israel not been punished so badly with rocket attacks after they unilaterally left Gaza.
So far, we have tried to explain all of this in our three major posts on this topic which, we think, need to be looked as a unit:
- Israel, Hamas, Evil, and the Bad-faith Actor Problem -- https://beyondintractability.
- Intersectionality, Israel, and Peacebuilding: How Do They Mix? -- https://beyondintractability.
- The Israel/Hamas War: A Perfect Storm of Complexity and Chaos -- https://beyondintractability.
Now as to point three (how should Israel respond). We aren't making recommendations about topic three because we don't think it is the place for people sitting comfortably in Boulder, Colorado to be telling people in Israel what to do. Further, we are not military strategists and we have no access to information about the exact nature of the Hamas threat and options for neutralizing that threat, so we are not going to make any specific, near-term recommendations regarding what, exactly, Israel should or should not do. Our only recommendation is longer-term. We think that the international community should take a stronger stand against terrorism and insist that Israel's enemies recognize its right to exist within secure, but negotiable borders. If that happens, then things could change dramatically in ways that would make prospects for genuine peace much more likely.
I don't think we did — we certainly didn't intend to — "advocate for a disproportionate response." But we are not calling Israel out for that either, because, based on what we know about this highly uncertain situation, we don't think that is what they are doing. Yes, unequal numbers have died. But that's not what "disproportionate" response means.
Quoting from John Spenser, who is chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute (MWI) at West Point, and co-director of MWI’s Urban Warfare Project,
Israel has pledged to obey international law, and one of its cornerstones is proportionality. The concept is often misunderstood to allow only for equal numbers of civilian casualties on both sides, with any lopsided numbers considered disproportionate. But proportionality is actually a requirement to take into account how much civilian harm is anticipated in comparison to the expected concrete and direct military advantage, according to UN protocols. In other words, a high civilian death count in Jabalya could potentially be considered legal under international law so long as the military objective is of high value. The Israel Defense Forces said the intended target in this case was the senior Hamas commander who oversaw all military operations in the northern Gaza; neutralizing him is an objective that most likely clears the proportional bar. Furthermore, Israel pointed out that the loss of life was compounded because Hamas had built tunnels that weakened the targeted structure that then collapsed in the strike.
The reason we have stressed the fact that Hamas uses citizens (and probably hostages) as human shields is that this forces Israel to kill civilians if it wants to defend itself. So this plays right into the Palestinian information warfare strategy which has been quite successful in both building global support for the Palestinians while also undermining Israel's legitimacy. As this is as much a battle for public opinion as it is a kinetic war, we think it is important to acknowledge what is going on.
Okay, back to your first question. The BI materials that lay out the problem of intractability are, indeed, very relevant. If there ever was an intractable conflict, this is certainly it! I was thinking about the "solution" side of BI. Most of BI's "solutions" materials assume that the parties involved are mostly good-faith actors who are willing to engage meaningfully in dialogue, in negotiations, mediations, problem solving workshops, etc. They relate to situations where the conflict is "ripe" for negotiation. They are much less applicable when one (or both sides, for that matter) think that they can win through military means (or believe that the other side will never negotiate in good faith). That's the situation we have here right now.
The Palestinians seem convinced, as they have been for a long time, that they can win if they just make life on Israelis miserable enough for a long enough period of time. And when they are supported and celebrated for doing just that, that must make them even more convinced that this is a winning approach. They have proven time and again that they are willing to accept substantial civilian casualties. People who die are martyrs for the cause, and from what I read, many think that is the highest possible calling one can have in life. And yes, some, such as Netanyahu and his far-right wing allies also seem to think that a military response and quite possibly an annexation of the West Bank, if not Gaza, is a way to ultimately prevail in this struggle.
That makes this situation extremely unripe, which makes most of BI's solutions materials irrelevant until both sides come to the conclusion that they want to negotiate an end to this dispute (using the John Burton distinction between conflict and a dispute, this is a dispute). Then BI becomes relevant. Bill Zartman's essay on how to promote ripeness would probably be one worth looking at right now — we will try to feature that in an upcoming newsletter.
Question #2 How we choose our sources. We explained in Newsletter 175 that we tend to believe Israeli sources are more credible that Hamas' sources because one is an open society, the other a closed society. One (Hamas) has everything to gain by inflating the casualty numbers, the other (Israel), while it has everything to gain by making those numbers look low, they also have everything to gain by actually keeping those numbers low. They know that increasing civilian deaths is going to make them look bad to the outside world. They know that unnecessary civilian deaths are just going to create more Hamas sympathizers. So why would they do that? They aren't stupid. But they also aren't going to say, "okay, you win. We won't take out your offensive capability because we don't want to harm civilians."
As for "independent sources," we don't know of any. The New York Times and the Washington Post, two newspapers we used to trust, are seem to be increasingly biased in their coverage. They jumped on the bombed hospital story right away, taking Hamas's accusations without question. Only after the error was firmly established did they reluctantly back down — long after much damage was done. We haven't been reading the BBC much, so we cannot comment on their coverage. The UN has for years been pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel, as have NGOs such as Human Rights Watch. We'd love to find some impartial observers. But short of that, we need to make a choice and we choose sources that we think, taken together, offer as accurate a view of the situation as we have been able to find with the time and resources available. We have been quite open about the sources we rely on, which are either cited in the articles we write or in are Beyond Intractability in Context newsletters. We've also tried to be realistic about the limits of our knowledge and the many "fog of war" uncertainties that exist. We also know there is no lack of news showing other views, so we are trying to add a little bit of "bubble-bursting" counter-predominant thinking information. One of the things that we've learned from our inquiry into the problem of hyper-polarization is that there are a wide range of conflict dynamics that are forcing media sources on the left (as well as the right) into homogeneous, politically pleasing narratives surrounding intersectional, oppressor/oppressed thinking. In the United States, at least, we believe that this effect is a major contributor to what we see as anti-Israeli bias. While you may disagree with this conclusion, it is a conclusion based on our sincere effort to think through the dynamics that are tearing our societies apart. For those who don't want to believe it, that's their choice. With respect issues like this, we really need a vigorous, honest exchange of views.
Question #3. We believe we have already answered this. We are not confidently making military suggestions. We are only trying to set the record straight as to what the actual UN law is, and show how Israel is, as best we can tell, acting predominantly within the laws of war, even when its enemy is not bothering with such laws at all.
So that's our answer--and we'll be happy to post your thoughts on these matters if you want to share them. Thanks for checking with us. We believe that the conflict over the handling of this conflict is likely to be one of the most consequential of our time (with implications reaching far beyond Israel and Gaza). It is important that we get this right. We look forward to exploring this further with you and others. — Heidi and Guy
[We will post Jack's response and Heidi and Guy's response to that tomorrow.]
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