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Occupation magazine - Commentary
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Humanitarian narrative means no one sees Israel as a victim
By Conor Foley
8 June 2010
It is too early to judge the full political impact of Israel`s grotesquely-named Operation Sea Breeze, but it is already clear that the actions of a few hundred international activists have struck a body-blow against Israel`s long-term political strategy in the region.
The siege of Gaza, in part an attempt to prevent Hamas re-arming itself and in part a collective punishment of the Palestinians who voted for them, looks increasingly untenable. Hamas has been empowered at the expense of its moderate, secular rival Fatah. Israel has become the victim of the `humanitarian narrative` and its inability to grasp the importance of this in shaping contemporary international relations now poses it with an existential threat.
Political humanitarianism played a decisive role in shaping the outcome of the Balkans wars of the 1990s. The actual case of the Serb minorities, who objected to the breakup of Yugoslavia and were fearful of their status in the emerging new states, was lost sight of as they found their `military victories` turned into political defeats. International public opinion was rightly outraged by the suffering of civilians during the siege of Sarajevo, ethnic cleansing in the countryside and the brutal storming of Srebrenica, which culminated in an act of genocide.
All wars are accompanied by brutalities, but Bosnia-Herzegovina`s was unique in the scale of the humanitarian intervention that accompanied it. At its height the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was spending one million dollars a day feeding almost three quarters of the country. International intervention brought greater scrutiny. Aid workers protested against the blocking of humanitarian convoys, bore witness to atrocities and provided the media with a steady stream of stories, which overwhelmingly focussed on the misdeeds of the stronger party.
Yet the Bosniak army was not blameless, as the subsequent indictment of the commander of its Srebrenica garrison for war crimes shows. Moreover, aid workers viewed some aspects of the humanitarian response, such as the `safe havens` policy with fundamental unease. As Karin Landgren, UNHCR`s head in Bosnia at the time, noted, the safe havens gave a `degree of sanctuary from the slaughter`, but `also provided relief, recuperation and other forms of bases for the [Bosniak] military; potential bargaining chips for later negotiations on territory; and effective continuing symbols of oppression in a war which counts CNN among its fronts`. By persuading civilians to remain in areas that could not, in fact, be defended, humanitarians probably contributed to the scale of the subsequent massacre and this, in turn, reinforced their own narrative.
The year after the fall of Srebrenica, a previous unknown paramilitary group, the Kosova Liberation Army, began a campaign of terrorism in Serbia`s historically significant, but majority Albanian province with the specific goal of provoking a similar response. A series of atrocities and reprisals eventually led to Nato`s armed intervention in the spring of 1999, which precipitated a far greater humanitarian crisis and loss of life.
I was working for Amnesty International in the runup to this intervention, visited the region during the war and then served for a year in UNHCR Kosovo, attempting to pick-up the bloody pieces. As with many others, I left convinced that we had made a bad situation worse.
The problem with the humanitarian narrative is that it reduces complex disputes over territory and sovereignty into simple tales of human suffering and Manichean struggles between good and evil. During the conflict in Darfur, for example, activists for intervention exaggerated the death toll by tenfold claiming that 400,000 innocent men and women have been killed, although the direct death toll was closer to 35,000, with perhaps a similar number of indirect deaths (PDF). The government retaliated with ever-tighter restrictions on the aid agencies, who they accused of spreading false propaganda.
Of course large-scale massacres of civilian populations do take place; the carnage in northern Sri Lanka, while I was working there last year, is the most shocking that I have personally witnessed. Aid workers who speak out against in such circumstances risk losing their neutrality, but staying silent could lead to moral culpability.
Political activists, such as those who sailed on the Freedom Flotilla, of course suffer no such restraints. Linda Grant has drawn a powerful parallel drawn between the violent storming of the Exodus in the immediate aftermath of the second world war and the events of last week. As she notes: `Against the single image of a ship full of Holocaust survivors being beaten by squaddies, the British had to set a complex narrative, too complicated for a public looking for a simple story of victims and oppressors.`
The tragedy is that the British had a reasonable case to make in 1947. Their warnings of the potential dangers of allowing unrestricted Jewish immigration while the region`s sovereignty and territorial arrangements were still under discussion, the need to balance the rights of the existing Arab population of Palestine, and the dangers of being seen to concede Zionist-inspired terrorist groups all proved well-founded. But international public opinion swung overwhelmingly against the `cold-hearted colonial masters` and in favour of the unilateral creation of Israel the following year.
The Israeli government now finds the same narrative turned against it. Increasingly friendless on the international stage, the voices defending it sound unconvincingly defensive or shrill and paranoid. It is on its way to becoming a pariah state. Anyone with a remote understanding of Jewish history should see the dangers of this. But Israel, and its diaspora supporters, need to grasp why no one thinks of them as the victims any more.
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