Monday, December 17, 2012

A step in the right direction by Sarah Friedman

I spent the weekend at Kibbutz Ketura, home of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, where I interned this summer. I was excited to go back and meet the students who arrived for the semester after I left - Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, Jordanians. Throughout the semester or year, they learn together about the environment and examine their political and personal preconceptions through a periodic Peace and Environmental Leadership seminar. The idea is to create regional leaders who will use shared understanding of shared environmental problems to improve regional cooperation on the environment and beyond. (“Nature knows no borders” is the Institute's slogan.) I was attracted to the Institute because of this approach, the extension of which was the foundation of my interest in the environment of the Middle East: the idea of peacebuilding through shared environmental concerns, that developing trust in a practical and emotionally lower-stakes area will enable existing partnerships – among students, academics, NGOs, governments - to more effectively tackle the greater political challenge of creating a mutually agreed-upon peace.

I loved being a part of the AIES community over the summer, but this time I got the full experience. With students, the place is spectacular: in the gorgeous emptiness of the Arava, in Israel but also in its own world, young people who would never otherwise interact are roommates and friends, spending every waking minute together in class, in the kibbutz dining hall, in the common spaces of the newly built dormitory, on hikes through the surrounding desert. Though their narratives are different, even conflicting, they build connections and understanding that will influence their professional and personal careers forever. Twice during the weekend, students and I discussed how we could solve the whole conflict. Our plans ranged from the ridiculous - build a second floor on top of the entire land so both sides can have it all! - to the painfully practical - '67 lines with land swaps, East Jerusalem to Palestine and West Jerusalem to Israel with some form of international control over the Holy Basin. It goes without saying that we were oversimplifying, but for people of such different backgrounds, each with divergent and dearly held narratives, to speak candidly if lightheartedly about solutions is a step in the right direction. We weren’t being flippant. We were joking around because the situation feels so hopeless: when individuals can connect on a meaningful level but our leaders and people cannot, it’s so sad that when our weeks of working toward a solution end, we have to laugh. It’s a step.

There are many of these small-scale, person-to-person, interfaith/intercultural/international peacebuilding efforts. They make a huge difference in the lives of participants, even if the participants are self-selecting from the start, already inclined to want to understand the other side. So these kinds of programs aren't a society-wide panacea. But hopefully participants will become effective leaders and inspire the rest. At the J Street conference in March, renowned Israeli author Amos Oz said it best: "I don't know who will be the leader or the leaders, who will carry out the necessary surgeries, but I know those leaders are already amongst us; they are alive. I wish I knew how old they are."

At the end of the weekend, the last night of Chanukah, I stood on the top floor of the dorms and looked at the mountain I'd hiked that morning. "Electricity Mountain" has nine big barrels of gas that are lit as a chanukiah every year. The kibbutz kids who became bar and bat mitzvahs that year hike up to light the "candles" every night. It's a beautiful site, visible from the whole kibbutz, the highway, and probably low-flying planes. I hope in the near future, that chanukiah will shine over a nation at peace, and thanks may be due to AIES alumni and others like them.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

IDF Ethics by Sarah Friedman

A few weeks ago I went to a MASA-sponsored security & diplomacy-themed shabbaton, run by Kol Voice Seminars, an educational company run by British olim. I had signed up for it weeks earlier, unsure what to expect, and was both excited and newly hesitant as the weekend began, two days since the end of Operation Pillar of Defense, the almost-war. My experience with this type of presentation has not been one of nuance or balance, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

One perspective I’d never heard in detail was from Colonel (Res.) Bentzi Gruber, who speaks about the IDF ethical code. He arrived straight from eight days on a base in the south, gave a well-practiced and half-heartening, half-discouraging lecture, and left us with the oddest business card I’ve ever seen, featuring a rainbow leading to a tank.

He opened by poking legitimate fun at Egyptians blaming a shark attack on the Israel Defense Forces, but on a related and more serious note he said that Israel can’t seem to avoid losing the PR war. I agree: Israel does make political and military moves deserving of criticism, but it also does and is a lot of great things, and those don’t make it into the news often enough. Israel transgressions – real, exaggerated, or imaginary (like the shark) – make for more popular news. It was encouraging to hear, then, about the IDF’s institutional concern for the ethical implications of its actions, disconnected from PR value, for better or for worse.

Col. Gruber outlined the principles the IDF trains it soldiers to use in real-time decision-making:

  1. Necessity – use only the force required to complete mission
  2. Distinction – don’t harm innocents (difficult against terrorists, who do not wear uniforms like regular soldiers). He said that during Operation Pillar of Defense the IDF hit 1600 targets and refrained from hitting an additional 400 because of doubts.
  3. Proportionality – killing civilians is acceptable when preventing an imminent threat, but not when targeting a terrorist for past wrongs. (Weary from battle preparations, he added: “I am not doing a party when I kill a terrorist. … When you come back from the field after destroying villages, you bring it back home with you.”)

He showed us video of a Hamas member picking up an unwilling child to cross the street with so the IDF wouldn’t shoot. He told us that 98 percent of the medical visits from Gaza to Israel were approved in 2009 and that 95 percent of electricity in Gaza comes from Ashkelon, Israel, up from 35 percent in 2009. He denied a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, saying that civilians are not his enemies, and estimated that of the 1.8 million residents, 40,000 are terrorists. It’s difficult to judge the reliability of presented information when the perspective is clearly one-sided, even if it’s one I’m inclined to trust, but I guess that’s part of the PR war he lamented.

Throughout the presentation, I kept thinking about the actual implications of these ethics. We live in a Jewish state, by Jewish principles (though if two Jews have three opinions, it’s a certainty that not everyone will be happy with the Jewish principles applied), but what happens if a mistake is made? He never mentioned circumstances that might lead to the code not being followed – though it’s not difficult for me to imagine things going occasionally awry among scared 18-year-olds with guns – but he did describe the fear and overwhelmingness of warfare. Col. Gruber said that carrying 60+ pounds for four hours during a mission makes soldiers lose half their brain power, helpfully adding: “put on your helmet and you’re almost an idiot.” (I don’t know how much speculation, observation, or science contributed to that assertion, but I think it’s how I would feel, too.)

In response to a questioner who asked if it wouldn’t have been better to attack Gaza with great force and wipe out the threat completely, Col. Gruber said that this problem can only be managed, not solved – pointing to the fact that after Cast Lead in 2008-9 only six months passed before rockets were shot into Israel again. I don’t agree that the political situation is hopeless (yet), so I was happily surprised when he emphasized that we also need to teach both sides not to hate each other. I wonder if that is possible in a managed situation – when Palestinians grow up stateless, disenfranchised, and Israelis grow up in a hostile neighborhood fearing attacks from all sides. But it revives my optimism that the Israeli military strives to operate ethically, even if the PR war is hopeless; and I hope the Israeli political system can also follow a pragmatic ethical code, intended to preserve the Jewish, democratic nature of the state, even when the political future looks hopeless.