Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Causes of Conflict

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 20, 2000

October 19, 2000

The causes of the Mideast conflict do not lay far beneath the surface in any nation, and as we look from afar in shock and horror at the events transpiring in Jerusalem and the West Bank, we should recognize that the roots of similar devastation lurk in the hearts and minds of people in our own towns and cities.

As a case in point, I offer an analysis of one technology writer's opinion of the MidEast crisis, published by Scott McCollum in OS Opinion.

McCollum's major argument could be summed with the following assertion: Palestinian aggression is a danger to the Israeli high tech sector. Consequently, we should clearly align ourselves with Israel, address Palestinian violence, and give the entire sector some breathing room.

There may be some good reasons to support Israel's position, but the defense of its high tech sector is not one of them. Israel's high tech sector will have to stand or fall on the wider issues of the day, issues which affect all Israeli and Palestinian industry and commerce. And it is in these wider issues that McCollum's short sighted vision is a source of genuine concern.

Let's look at how he introduces his subject:

Let's not play around on this subject anymore. Israel is on the brink of war. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has bullied Israeli leader Ehud Barak into signing away half of Jerusalem at Camp David and then stormed out of the negotiations saying that it wasn't enough.

We can see pretty clearly where McCollum is coming from through his use of descriptive language - "bullied", and "stormed out of" - and thus abandon early any pretense that this will be a balanced report. Well, it is an opinion column. But even opinion columns need to get their facts straight.

First, the Palestinians were not (and are still not) in a position to "bully" Israel into anything. Making Israel look like the weak party in this dispute is a paradigm case of misrepresentation.

Second, Barak never signed away half of Jerusalem. In fact, the resolution of this particular issue is the major sticking point. The Palestinians argue that they should control part of Jerusalem - specifically, East Jerusalem - as their capital. The Israelis are unwilling to cede any part of the city.

And third, there is no evidence that Arafat "stormed out" of the meeting, nor even that it was he who terminated negotiations. Neither side was able to agree, and the actions and words of both sides brought negotiations to a termination.

McCollum continues,

America, normally pro-Israel, has decided to play devil's advocate and side with the PLO on many of their issues.

The United States has been traditionally an Israeli ally, and substantial American funding and resources have enabled the Israelis to develop the most significant armed force in the region. To a great extent, this support continues. To suggest that American reluctance to side with the Israelis on all points is somehow playing "devil's advocate" is misleading. The United States has genuine concerns about some Israeli policies and is not merely posing Palestinian options for the sake of argument.

The Palestinians have a fundamentally sound case and the United States has come to recognize the legitimacy of some of their arguments: specifically, that the Palestinians also have a historical claim in the region, that the Palestinians should enjoy representative government, and that the Palestinians have a right to exist free from persecution. There really should be no dispute on these points, and the Oslo accord is a recognition on all sides that these three points apply to every person in the region, Israeli or Palestinian.

Or more to the point: saying that a people should enjoy fundamental human rights is hardly playing "devil's advocate."

McCollum continues,

To make matters worse, Israeli soldiers used deadly force a week or two later on Muslim civilian protesters (one was a little boy who died in his father's arms) on camera for the world to see. Both sides have their valid arguments, but sub-machine gun bullets in a little kid make a very good case against Israel.

The father and son involved in this shooting were not in fact protesters; they were bystanders. And the deadly force was applied not to these two people but to large groups of Palestinians - as I write the death toll is up to 104 Palestinians killed and (I believe) four Israelis.

The reason why "sub-machine gun bullets in a little kid make a very good case against Israel" is that sub-machine gun bullets in a little kid is very good case against Israel; in most nations of the world opening fire on protesters - even rock-throwing protesters - is considered an excessive response, and the unprovoked shooting of civilians is considered a war crime.

This is not to acquit the Palestinians in their role in the conflict; the mobbing and murder of two captured Israeli soldiers is equally repugnant and equally a war crime.

The world, I think, is reacting not so much to the suggestion that one side or the other is in the right here as it is to the outright expressions of brutality which have characterized the conflict for many years now.

McCollum continues,

I can't see the two of them getting out of this without a big, bloody fight. The loss of human life is horrible in any conflict, but what about the toll on the thriving tech sector in Israel and its effect on the United States?

Despite the myopic vision that this paragraph displays, McCollum is actually right to consider this issue, and even to try to look at the issue outside the context of the human losses. Looking at the world-wide impact of the conflict shows clearly why we should have an interest, and why the roles played by U.N. Secretary General K ofi Annan and U.S. President Bill Clinton are important.

Because if the conflict spreads and actually impacts the Israeli technology sector (beyond merely affecting stock prices) there will be a ripple effect, just as a Chinese invasion of Taiwan (which produces many of the world's microchips) would also have a worldwide impact.

McCollum describes the Israeli sector in some detail, a description I won't comment on except to agree with his assessment of its size and importance. It is in his discussion of the impact of the conflict on the sector where we again run into dispute. We pick up his article there:

I'm no stock expert or anything, but all the Israeli companies I mentioned that are publicly traded all have jagged red lines going straight down left-to-right on their charts. I don't think that these guys can blame it on sluggish European sales the way Intel, 3dfx and Dell have tried to. These guys are in trouble because there are 50 rock throwing Palestinian teenagers in their parking lots twelve hours a day. I'll bet they wish they had Intel's problems in Europe rather than worrying about getting their office window shot out with an AK-47 and a Molotov cocktail tossed on their desk.

It is likely that the ongoing conflict has had an effect on the stock market - investors get jittery at any signs of instability, and the current crisis certainly fits the bill.

However, Israeli technology companies are not located in the West Bank or Gaza, where the conflicts have been occurring. Palestinians are not throwing rocks in their parking lots because they can't get close to their parking lots. The battle between Israelis and Palestinians is taking place almost exclusively in what we would consider to be Palestinian regions of the country.

For similar regions, no Israeli technology company has any real fear of being assaulted by AK-47s or Molotov cocktails.

The violence is taking a very different toll on the Israelis than on the Palestinians. Actual loss of life or destruction of property in Israel proper is minimal and occurs mostly on the northern border with Lebanon. But Israeli youth face conscription and likely engagement in dangerous wars, their society is split between the need for peace and the need for security, and increasingly, they are being shunned by world opinion because of their strong response to Palestinian protests.

McCollum continues,

Instability in Israel is attributable to the Palestinians but also to our political bungles in dealing with both sides.

Such a statement scarcely deserves comment. In this conflict the two sides share the blame for the instability. It is arguable, in fact, that the current violence was provoked by Israel - first, by the stunningly insensitive visit by Ariel Sharon to an Islamic holy site, and second by the Israeli troops' use of live ammunition (including the use of snipers and helicopter strafing) against rock-throwing protesters.

Again - these observations do not acquit the Palestinians of any blame, but it is important to realize that the Palestinians are not the sole aggressors here.

But now McCollum starts lobbing grenades...

I'd like to say that we should get behind our buddies in Israel because they are just about our only allies in that area of the world...

McCollum is probably not aware of Turkey, a NATO member since the early days of the cold war and just down the coast from Israel. Or of Saudi Arabia, which actually shares a short border with Israel and whose support was instrumental in the Gulf War. Or even the Egypt of Hosni Mubarak, a far cry from the pro-Soviet Egypt of General Nasser.

Since 1994, we've screwed Israel over by pushing for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians no matter what the cost. Israel has become almost as mistrustful of America as the Palestinians are because of our insistence on concessions to Arafat to keep the peace.

It seems clear from this paragraph that McCollum is as ignorant of American policy as it is of Middle Eastern affairs. Israel continues to have a special relationship with the United States, continues to receive aid and trade incentives, continues to receive military support (including, most recently, an urgent request for rubber bullets.

Yes, the Unites States has been pushing for concessions - though hardly total capitulation. The Americans have joined the rest of the world in agreeing that the continued repression and violation of an entire population cannot continue. It has tried to be fair minded in recent talks, rather than to act as one side's cheering section. It is the most responsible behaviour exhibited by the United States in some time. And it is taken at considerable risk by its leaders who know that morons like McCollum are standing on the sidelines wringing their hands.

If we side with the Palestinians, you'll see the NASDAQ go crashing down even harder because there's so many Israeli interests that are tied to American economic well being. If we side with Israel, the Arab world will retaliate against us by cutting oil exports and maybe even some sporadic terrorism. Of course, that means that the stock market still crashes, but it'll be the Dow Jones rather than NASDAQ.

McCollum is obviously unaware that the Arab nations have been cautious - even hesitant - in their support for the Palestinians in the current conflict. Americans continue to be a target in the region - as recent events in Yemen demonstrate - but they are not the target (nor likely to be) of widespread Arab hatred. McCollum needs to resist the temptation to associate the actions of some extremist groups with the beliefs of all Arabs.

And of course, McCollum should consider the possible outcomes of a third course - ironically, the course which the American government is actually taking: that of neutral broker. To be sure, there is still a large possibility that American mediation will fail, however, such an approach at least allows Americans to have the best of both worlds: some semblance of friendship with both sides in a bitter dispute.

A lot of harm is done - and no good - but suggesting that the only option for the United States is to take someone's side in this. Higher values should prevail.

Technology has solved so many problems in the world, but the Palestinians aren't complaining about a digital divide. These guys are fighting for a place to live and could care less about free dial-up access and 50 megs of web space.

Yes they are, indirectly. Palestinians - especially those living in Israel proper - have watched a world class industrial society grow up around them, knowing that by law they are unable to participate in either its growth or its benefits. Some of the first things done in Palestinian Gaza included investments in education and technology. Representing them as third-world sheep herders does McCollum no credit.

I know the Palestinians think that they deserve that land, but Israel has fought harder and for longer than they have for the tiny parcel of land they live on right now.

Again we have another irresponsible statement. In fact, the durations of the modern struggle are now about equal: the Israelis fought for freedom and independence from early in the 20th century until 1948, and the Palestinians have been fighting for it ever since. Indeed, since the Palestinians and Israeli have been fighting each other through this time, it is absurd to say that one of them has been fighting longer.

McCollum, though, is probably alluding to the Israeli's historical claim to the region, one which dates back to the Biblical kingdom founded by Joshua. If so, McCollum should return to his Bible and re-read Exodus, especially the chapters which describe the Israeli's conquest through force of ancient Israel. The Israeli's claim is no more ancient, and no more just, than any of the prior and subsequent peoples of the region who fought, murdered and plundered their way into possession.

To expect the Israelis to just hand it over is madness...

Nobody is asking the Israeli's to give up their entire nation - or even to return to the original partition declared by the United Nations in 1948. But most nations recognize that Israeli sovereignty should not extend beyond the boundaries defined by the 1967 war, boundaries which divide the city of Jerusalem into an Arab sector and an Israeli sector.

and I don't get why Arafat doesn't realize that the entire Palestinian nation could come live in a corner of Utah and not be bothered. Hey, it worked for the Mormons and when was the last time you saw a kid with a black tie and white button up shirt on a bicycle screaming for liberation and shooting the cops with a wrist rocket?

Although McCollum later claims that he was just joking, he here reveals that (a) he is ignorant of history, and (b) he is a generalized bigot.

His ignorance of history not only applies to his misunderstandings of the history of Mormonism - followers of which were not put anywhere - but also of Israelis - who rejected a similar solution, one proposing that they settle in Uganda.

The conflict in the Middle East has an impact on all of us. It affects us economically and technologically because Israel is a fully engaged industrial nation. But more deeply, it affects us because in this region the ballot has been replaced by the bullet, common sense by belligerence, peaceful development with destructive warfare.

We should work not only to find a resolution satisfying all people in the region, we should also look to understand the narrow minded, ignorant and bigoted attitudes and beliefs which foster the development of such powder kegs in the first place.

McCollum's column displays such attitudes, and though his column holds no national import, will sway no opinions, it still must be unearthed and shown for all to see, so we can in more enlightened times appreciate an uninformed and destructive point of view in the full glare of daylight.

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Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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