Gaza: the "new war"

Izzeldin Abuelaish is a Palestinian
gynaecologist who lives in Gaza and works in an Israeli hospital and runs a
free clinic in Gaza on weekends. His specialty is infertility and he helps
Israeli women who have difficulty conceiving. He was born and brought up in a
Palestinian refugee camp and became a doctor after studying his own medical
records when he was ill as a boy.

During the recent war in Gaza, he was
frequently interviewed on Israeli television because he speaks fluent Hebrew.
This is why Israelis actually witnessed his anguish when a tank shell hit his
house, killing three of his daughters and a niece. The horror of Abuelaish's tragedy did briefly lead to calls for a ceasefire (even though there were
also shocking scenes on television of Israeli women attacking him, even in the
midst of his despair, for causing their sufferings). But within a couple of
days, fabricated pictures were circulating on the internet showing Abuelaish's
house packed with weapons. In the end, however, after the war was over, the
Israeli Defence Forces have admitted that there were no weapons and that they
are investigating what happened.

What "war"?

For Israel, the attacks on Gaza were a legitimate
war aimed at the state security of Israel, keeping Israeli citizens safe. In a
legitimate war, there is some attempt to minimise civilian casualties and the
Israelis did try to minimise casualties by, for example, dropping warning
leaflets, telling the inhabitants of places they were about to hit to get out
of the way. Since the Israelis could not distinguish combatants from
non-combatants and since Hamas, according to Israel, used civilians as a
shield, and since there was nowhere for civilians to go, the attacks mostly
killed civilians,. Such "collateral damage" as it is anodynely known, can be
justified, it is argued, if it can be shown that this was militarily necessary.

For the rest of the world, the attacks on Gaza
were a massive violation of human rights. What has changed above all since the
wars of earlier centuries is our growing consciousness of what it means to be
human. The rest of the world watched aghast as human beings (not enemies) were
killed, maimed and displaced from their homes. It is partly that we are able to
witness what is going on thanks to satellite TV, internet, or mobile phones.
Moreover, many more people travel and migrate so we may actually know friends
or relatives of those who are suffering or NGOs active in the area. But also in
the aftermath of twentieth century wars, the norms against killing and against
wars have been strengthened. The UN Charter prohibited war except in
self-defence and human rights law has been greatly developed over the last
sixty years. These formal constraints have been underpinned by the growth of
peace and human rights thinking and activism.

But what does it mean for Israelis to say they
are fighting a "war"? Clausewitz, the great military strategist, defined war as "an act of violence
intended to compel an opponent to fulfill our will". For Clausewitz, such a war
inherently tends to extreme as each side tries to destroy the other. The only
reason that war is limited, according to Clausewitz is political calculation or
what he called "friction" - the fog of war that slows down military operations.

Did the Israeli attacks correspond to this
definition of war? Was Israel actually trying to compel Hamas to fulfill its
will? Certainly, that was what they argued and probably believed - they were
"punishing" Hamas. The talks in Cairo focused on preventing weapons smuggling
and on guarantees for future ceasefires. Yet, at the end of the war, after over
a thousand casualties and the wholesale destruction of homes, schools,
hospitals, and huge tracts of agricultural land, Hamas rocket attacks have not
stopped. The Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas, has not been
released. Indeed, Hamas has used the cover of war to strengthen its position
and kill many opponents.

The "new war"

The attacks on Gaza are much better explained
as what I call a "new war". A new war can be defined as the use of political violence by
organised groups for a range of purposes. For "new wars", what is important is
the idea of war as a joint enterprise, which serves to mobilise people and to
satisfy certain economic interests. As Daniele Archibugi has pointed out on these pages, for the Israelis, the war helped to shore up the position of
Kadima in the run up to the elections. Contrary to predictions, Tzipi Livni's
Kadima party won one more seat than the right-wing Likud party. On the other
hand, the war also hardened opinion in Israel and the extreme rightist party of
Avigdor Lieberman is holding the political balance. The war also provided an
opportunity to demonstrate the efficacy of Israeli defence technology, even
though, of course, this magnificent technology was unable to discriminate
between civilians and military targets. Indeed, it can be argued that the
Israeli state has become a sort of war state, in which the Israeli defence
industry, Israeli intelligence and the Israeli defence forces are integrated
into the fabric of governing institutions and political authority depends on
the idea that the state's main role is to protect Israel from its enemies.

On the other side, the Israeli occupation, the
checkpoints and the periodic attacks have prevented the emergence of any
unified Palestinian political authority and allowed a state of lawlessness in
both the West Bank and Gaza, in which armed factions, militia groups, clans and
organised crime have grown in strength and influence. Of course, the Hamas coup
in Gaza has led to a crack down on factions but also much greater repression;
and in the West Bank, there are areas like Jenin where the Palestinian
Authority, spurred by international pressure, has managed to re-establish a
more peaceful situation. Nevertheless, the struggle against Israel offers a
kind of framework for all these unsavoury networks. Hamas, as a resistance
movement, acquires its legitimacy through the attacks on Israel. One of the
most chilling sentences of the war was the Hamas spokesman who said: "Every
time they attack our homes, mosques and schools, it legitimises our attacks on
their homes, synagogues and schools."

The tendency of new wars is not towards the
extreme; rather it is for wars without end - a permanent war psychosis. A
parallel can be drawn with the "war
on terror"
. Understood as a
classic Clausewitzean war, each act of terrorism calls forth a military
response, which in turns produces a more extreme counter-reaction. The problem
is that there can be no decisive blow. The terrorists cannot be destroyed by
military means because they cannot be distinguished from the population. Nor
can the terrorists destroy the military forces of the United States. But if we
understand the "war on terror" as a mutual enterprise, whatever the individual
antagonists believe, in which the US administration shores up its image as the
protector of the American people and the defender of democracy and those with a
vested interest in a high military budget are rewarded, and in which extremist
Islamists are able to substantiate the idea of a global jihad and are
able to mobilise young Muslims behind the cause, then action and
counter-reaction merely contribute to "long war" which benefits both sides.

In the aftermath of Gaza, the prognosis for
peace is not hopeful, whatever the efforts of the new Obama administration. The
prognosis is for more rockets and more bouts of violence and for the rise of
more and more extreme factions on both sides. Far from recognising each other
as human beings, each bout of violence has the opposite effect.

Is there a role for the outside world? At
present, the outside world, at official levels, tends to endorse the Israeli
perception that this is a war designed to shore up Israeli national security.
Even though organisations like the EU or the UN do a lot to alleviate suffering
through their humanitarian assistance, this is not reflected in the dominant
political rhetoric of the US (even since Obama) and the Quartet (the US, the
EU, the UN and Russia), which tends to focus on issues like the rocket attacks,
weapons smuggling to Gaza, or Hamas's non-recognition of Israel.

Towards human security

What is needed is a shift in international
policy from concern with Israeli state security to concern about the human
security of both Israelis and Palestinians. Such a shift of policy would have
to mean pressure on Israel to allow Palestinian to lead more normal lives
through allowing freedom of movement, releasing Palestinian tax revenues, or
freeing prisoners. To some extent, this is beginning to happen in parts of the
West Bank where Condoleeza Rice and Tony Blair have tried to achieve limited
gains in institution-building and economic development particularly in areas
like Jenin. But it needs to involve much more extensive and coordinated
external pressure and to be applied throughout the West Bank and Gaza. The
pressure could take the form of an arms embargo or conditions attached to EU
neighbourhood policy. None of this would solve the problem but at least it
could improve every day life for Palestinians a little bit and perhaps create
the conditions for engagement with all political (and non-political) actors
including Hamas, which in turn is necessary for any possible change of heart.
(Of course, the Palestinian Authority should be regarded as the legitimate

Ultimately, there can be no end to this new war
unless and until Israelis begin to view Palestinians as fellow human beings.
Even if peace negotiations bring limited agreements, and there are plenty of
proposals for different versions of the two-state solution with complicated
arrangements covering such issues as the settlements, the right of return or
Jerusalem, there can be no long term solution until Israelis and Palestinians
are ready to live together. Unfortunately, each time Israel attacks
Palestinians and each time Hamas launch a rocket, this prospect gets more

This is why Abuelaish's story is so important.
Nothing will bring back Abuelaish's daughters and niece. But his case has
revealed a tiny chink of humanity in Israel.

Mary Kaldor is professor of global governance at the London School
of Economics (LSE), and convenor of the human-security study group that
reports to the European Union's foreign-policy chief Javier Solana. This article has been republished from OpenDemocracy.


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