Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Blood on the sand, once again

This is one of the things you fear.

What started as (a relatively simple) raid and hostage-taking has now escalated into a full blown invasion. I still don't call it a war simply because Lebanon, Syria or even Iran and Palestine has not retaliated with formal military maneuvers against Israel. But the whole situation is dangerously teetering on the edge of full-blown hostilities.

My first thoughts on the matter is how... wrongly Israel is going about the whole thing. True, the raid by Hamas-affiliated militants on an Israeli outpost in Gaza about a month or two ago was horrible - hello, the dug underneath the Barrier! - but Israel's response is equally alarming.

I can understand the concerns over the whole incident within Israel. The Barrier was meant to increase security along the border with Gaza, which is Hamas territory in fact if not name. That Hamas operates both as a legitimate political force - after all, it does have an overwhelming majority of seats in the nascent Palestinian parliament - and an armed force dedicated to the destruction of Israel is always a point of concern. Israel has every right to defend itself, regardless of what Hamas and its allies think, no matter how much they deny or refuse to recognize the existence of the Jewish state.

But Israel's heavy use of formal military power, largely against civilian areas... this goes against many tactical and strategic doctrines I was taught with. The use of overwhelming force appears as too much overkill, when surely the nation with one of the most elite intelligence corps in the world has the resources to do something equally or more so effective, with less complications? This only invites censure on the international scale, and paints Israel as the aggressor, regardless of who started the whole incident in the first place.

That they would attack with their full military might a country that is more or less leaning towards full democracy like Lebanon, is also the height of strategic incorrectness. The scenes broadcast over international television does harm to any justification the Israelis gave for their actions, and puts their allies in a tough spot indeed. Giving the United Nations the diplomatic equivalent of the finger also little helps their cause.

Yet there is also that fact: who started this whole thing in the first place? Before turning off the TV early this morning, I saw scenes from Iran and I think Syria over CNN. I was hearing things like how support should be given to the militants because they're Muslim, too, and how the killing of women and children by Israel must stop.

In every conflict that involves force in whatever form, this is one of the things that surprises me the most: the cry for vengeance for lives lost. This is, of course, a natural reaction. One of ours has been killed by them, and honor cries out for reparation. It comes as a surprise when soldiers and warriors say these things because our trade is conflict and death. Those who wield the sword, die by it (most of the time). As Gen. George Patton once said, the objective is not to die for one's country but to make the soldier of the other country die for theirs.

But most surprising in any conflict I have studied is the one on between Israel and the Muslim world. Of course there are a lot of mitigating circumstances and deep-seated reasons for the beginning and continual nature of this conflict. It is the behavior of Muslims over this issue, especially in the Middle East, that confounds me. Historical reasons aside, wasn't this latest chapter of the Arab-Israeli conflict started when several militants of Hamas tunneled underneath the Barrier between Gaza and Israel and attacked an outpost, taking one young Jewish soldier as prisoner? The effort alone involved in tunneling underneath that wall without getting noticed must have been immense. This was no spur-of-the-moment act of violence but a strike that was methodically and intelligently planned and executed. If warfare is murder, then this was as premeditated as it gets.

One scene last night showed a masked militant - and if he was so ready to die for his people and his faith, why did he hide his identity? - holding a gun and a copy of the Koran aloft. There is something frightening about that scene, something that elicits a reaction from one that, almost unconsciously, makes you want to draw your own weapon. It is the sign of the threat that wishes to do harm to you, akin to the chest-thumping and loud hoots of adult chimpanzees in displays of aggression. It is the clear indication of what the Other wishes to do to you and yours, and every instinct in your body and mind cries out for the proper response to such an overt implication of impending violence.

It was a clear symbol of what drives this conflict from the side opposite of the Israelis. Where the Jews are fighting for survival, especially in the context of the Holocaust and centuries of persecution after the Diaspora, their opponents are fired up by religious fanatics who have perverted the teachings of a religion that was designed to keep such aggression in check. Yes, there are other reasons behind the whole Arab-Israeli conflict - and some of them as much Israel's fault as any - but it has become nearly so impposible to resolve because religious fanatics from the Muslim world have so distorted the issue. You cannot reason out of something someone who was not reasoned into that something in the first place.

The Israelis must remember this. They have been so long without the overt manifestation of a massive threat to their survival as a nation and as a race that their numerous wars with the Arabs were, that perhaps they have forgotten what it is they face. Their enemies - and they are legion - are simply looking for the flimsiest excuse to call on holy war on Israel. No other religion than theo one the Israelis contend with has made such an... institution of holy war, that has made it so all-encompassing to make it so deadly.

This is no simple war for lebensraum or the ascendancy of one race over another. This is about a people who have been conditioned to think that any act against them is another in a long line of acts designed to keep them down and oppressed. This is a conflict that has been rooted by the leaders of a whole people in their religion, a faith that demands absolute belief in its tenets, and that any act of war from their opponents is also an act against God.

Israel must remember that, just like in a debate, when your opponent throws a holy book at you, then all discussions and debates end. And they, of all people in contemporary times, should know that when people start coming out in the streets with guns lofted alongside copies of the Koran, then the situation goes beyond a nation's need for security or justice over one trooper taken as an act of war.

To the opponents of the Israelis, this is no simple act of war on the mundane scale... but one that already involves God. And when God is part of the picture, how can one talk about securing borders and taking down militants? How can warfare be prevented from spilling into civilian areas and harming non-combatants? In holy war, there are no non-combatants.

Escalations are one of the things commanders try to avoid in warfare. As much as possible, a commander wishes to limit the factors and situations in a conflict into a more-or-less manageable system. Escalation in any conflict means more chances for the whole situation to go beyond one's control. And in warfare, once you have lost control, then disaster for your forces is not long in coming.

Israel must pull back, if only to consolidate and take a breather. Its initial anger is understandable, but to fight in the full of anger is also to invite disaster. They must exercise restraint, before this whole situation escalates beyond even their most worst-case scenario.

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