Saturday, December 5, 2009

Gilad Shalit

I have avoided writing about Gilad Shalit for some time, mostly because my thoughts about his situation are jumbled.  However, thanks to the urging and support of some friends, here are these thoughts in all their gory glory.

Before we get started, a little background information. Gilad Shalit is an Israeli soldier who was captured on June 25, 2006 on Israeli soil and has been held in Gaza by Hamas since then.  He was 20 years old upon his capture and is now 23.

Hamas has not allowed international aid groups to visit him although they did release a video of Shalit this October in exchange for 20 female Palestinian detainees.  Recent negotiations may result in the release of as many as 1,000 Palestinian detainees in exchange for Shalit's release.

The internal Israeli debate over the merits of the potential exchange is intense and incredibly emotional.  This is one aspect of the conflict that is, in my opinion, not fully understood in the US.  Then again, I am not sure it is possible for Americans to truly understand the emotional complexity of these issues since we lack direct experience.

For example, the US has a firm policy regarding terrorism; we do not negotiate with terrorists.  Every American knows this if only from movies and TV shows.  In a vacuum, this is the optimal policy.  As one can see, paying ransoms, whether in the form of prisoners or money, simply begets more kidnapping.  However, American military service is not analogous to Israeli military service because the US has a volunteer army and Israel does not.

The moral and morale calculus radically shifts when a nation's soldiers are not volunteers.  American soldiers all signed up for service knowing that the US would not negotiate with, say, al Qaeda for their release if they were captured.  However, Israeli soldiers are drafted.  There are real, tangible negative consequences if one refuses military service and, consequently, benefits if one does serve.

There are good reasons why Israel chooses to use the coercive power of the state to push people toward military service.  But the fact remains that coercion is necessary.  The state has, by extension, greater responsibility to ensure their safety.

Everyone in Israel agrees that Gilad Shalit must return home.  The argument is about the cost.  Hundreds of the 1,000 Palestinian detainees named in the exchange already have Israeli blood on their hands.  They have directly participated in killing Israelis either through planning or violent action.  Thus, some have concluded that the release of such people would only lead to the death and/or capture of even more Israelis, making the entire exchange a colossal risk with no upside and a huge downside.  In their eyes, the cost is too great.

But Gilad Shalit is more than a single Israeli soldier.  He is not merely the son of Mr. and Mrs. Shalit.  He is, in a way, everyone's son.  All Israeli parents know that he could be their child.  And if you were Gilad Shalit's parents, wouldn't you give up anything to get him back?

In purely pragmatic terms, it may also be important to troop morale for the IDF to secure Shalit's freedom.  There are many Israeli soldiers who serve out of a sense of duty or obligation and nothing more.  If given a choice, they certainly would not be soldiers.  In exchange for this service, the IDF promises that it will do anything possible to make sure no soldier is left behind.

If the IDF reneges on this promise, then morale may be compromised.  Non-service, already a problem, may increase.  So to prevent further erosion of popular support and troop morale, any price is worth paying.

To be honest, I did not understand the visceral nature of this dilemma until very recently.  It seemed like a fairly obvious decision from my detached American point of view.  No negotiating with terrorists, period, end of story.  1,000 detainees for one guy?  Um, are you kidding?

But as I heard Israelis debate the issue, my certainty gave way to doubt and, as I write, a sense of tearing, of being torn in two directions.  It is not necessarily a separation of heart and mind.  My mind and heart are truthfully divided neatly in two, with half of my heart siding with one side of my mind against the other halves.  Do you let a young man go through a certain future of captivity and pain, or do you potentially condemn others to die in his place?

In some situations, distance gives perspective.  But such decisions are not made by objective observers, blessed with emotional distance.  They are made by those in the swirl, buffeted by tides of pain and passion and fear and love.  It is so easy for those with little lose to give sage advice preaching patience and fortitude and calm resolve, to warn against giving in to anger.  But it is far harder to follow that path when it is you who could lose everything.

This is why I have avoided writing about Gilad Shalit.  My thoughts are drowned out by my frustration.  Frustration that we live in a world where such choices must be made.  Frustration that so few outside of Israel understand how difficult these decisions truly are.  Frustration that I can be nothing more than frustrated.

So there you go.  I hope this sparks some conversation in the United States and perhaps, help some of you understand this situation a little better.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Magic: The Gathering, Baseball, and the Dynamics of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

One of my passions is gaming, a hobby that is useless at first glance.  But as I've gotten older (and perhaps more delusional), some of the ideas found within games apply to greater issues.  This particular post is going to deal with a couple truisms, the first oft-repeated in Magic: The Gathering circles.  It goes like this: "There are no wrong threats, only wrong answers."

For those who don't know what Magic: The Gathering is, it is a collectible card game (CCG) in which two or more players are magicians fighting for dominance.  They use decks of spells to fight each other, with the goal of either exhausting the other player's deck completely or, more commonly, reducing the opponent's life total to zero.

There are many ways to achieve this goal, but only two apply to the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The first is an aggressive strategy, where a player normally uses cheap spells to overwhelm the opponent's defenses and win before slower decks can establish dominance.  The second is a control strategy, where a player tries to answer the opponent's early threats to get to the late game, when the control player normally has a few powerful but expensive spells that end the game.

Right now, I would classify Israel as the control player and the Arab actors as the aggressive player.  Israel is a nation-state that has been fighting for its existence since its inception.  Its stance is overwhelming defensive; Israel tries to identify threats and neutralize them while essentially eschewing truly aggressive strategies.

The Arab actors thrust themselves into the aggressive role with the invasion of Israel in 1947 and have continued to present new threats.  These threats ranged from the conventional (1967 War) to the unconventional (suicide bombings).  Most recently, they have launched public relations salvos aimed to erode Israel's standing in the world community and thus, the legitimacy of its ability to bring military force to bear.

Israel has, to this point, found the right answers to the existential threats presented.  The IDF is one of the strongest, most resilient fighting forces in the world and has delivered a string of decisive military victories against superior forces.

However, to bring in another of my favorite sayings, this time from baseball, "Past performance is no guarantee of future success."  The IDF is fantastically well-equipped to deal with conventional military conflicts.  On the way back from a trip to the north this week, we drove by a tank exercise.  Dozens of tanks stood in formation on a field.  It was an intimidating sight and not something any conventional army would want to see across the battlefield.

But this only highlights that the threat profile has changed and formerly effective answers may no longer be relevant.  Few, if any, of the battles Israel will face in the next ten years will take place on an open field.  Tanks, while wonderful blunt force instruments, are little use in urban settings where civilian casualties must be minimized.  Those tanks may serve as a deterrent to aggression by Israel's neighbors but do little to stop rocket fire coming from Gaza.

If this were a game of Magic: The Gathering, Israel would have already won.  They found the answers to their opponents' early threats, established a dominant position, and have the overwhelming force necessary to destroy their opposition (for the Magic players out there, a few quick swings by a Morphling or Baneslayer Angel would be an appropriate analogue).  If this were a baseball game, it would 25-0 and the fans would already be heading for the exits.

But this isn't a game where the goal is to kill your enemy at all costs, morality and consequences be damned, or one that ends after a set number of innings.  Israel cannot, for a variety of good reasons, commit genocide to ensure its safety, nor can it simply hold on until it gets 27 outs.  Instead, Israel must try to maintain its position while dealing with the new threats its opponent poses.  Israel spends a huge amount of human and economic capital on maintaining control, costs that take their toll on Israeli society.  Yet these costs must be paid because the next threat, the one they cannot answer, may destroy everything for which they have worked.

By comparison, organizations like Hamas have little to lose.  If one threat fails, they find another.  And if that fails, well, they just keep plugging away.  All of these threats are relatively cheap and force their opponent to spend a large amount of resources to find solutions.  One example I mentioned in a previous post is the Qassam rocket fire aimed at Sderot.  Each Qassam is easy to make, sometimes composed from aid materials and thus incredibly cheap, and capable of inflicting fear and death.  To deal with this persistent threat, Israel has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on bomb shelters while incurring economic losses due to mental health issues and infrastructure damage, to name a few.

I do admit that I find Israeli paranoia problematic, especially since it complicates the peace process and leads to the occasional police harassment I have encountered.  However, this paranoia stems, in part, from a gut understanding of two old truisms: There are no wrong threats, only wrong answers, and past performance is no guarantee of future success.  Just because Israel has always found the answers before does not mean they will always do so in the future.  And one stumble could lead to the end.

Or, to stretch my metaphors to the absolute edge of breaking, they are stuck in a baseball game that does not end until both teams decide to call it a day.  And we all know how that turns out.