Friday, October 28, 2005

“Fear and loathing in the Middle East” - by Lisa Goldman

I’m not the only blogger who took some time off for the Holidays. Lisa Goldman, the author of On the Face, has returned in style, with this excellent post. I’m not sure I’d feel as safe as she does traveling into Ramallah or the Gaza Strip (and, considering that Lisa does take such trips every so often, I hope she’s right and I’m wrong); but she has some worthwhile (and true!) things to say about the extent to which Israeli-Palestinian cooperation goes on, beneath the radar of both sides’ news media. On another note: “On the Contrary” has finally been accepted to the Jewish Bloggers Ring (the administrator of which, I suspect, was on vacation for the holidays); so the relevant links (just below “Archives” on the sidebar) actually do something now. Happy clicking!
(Read more...)

<< Home

Thursday, October 27, 2005


I've made a couple of template changes which might be of interest to you - or not: 1) After a micro-landslide in my informal poll on the Bravenet Link Exchange (one person hated it; nobody else offered an opinion), I've disabled the feature. No more annoying pop-under windows! 2) I've added Haloscan's (free!) Trackback system; I've also included the "auto-discover" code, so people using blogging systems that support this feature can link to articles here with less effort. (Someone want to let me know if that part works? Blogger doesn't make use of "auto-discover".) 3) I've opened comments to everyone - before, you had to be a Blogger member to leave comments. The word-verification option is still there, though, so if you're a computer program wishing to leave comment spam, you'd better have good pattern-recognition routines! 4) This one is oh-so-important: I've added a "Home" link to the bottom of the monthly archive pages, to take you back to the main page. This sounds completely trivial, but I for one found its lack to be disturbing. This probably says a lot about me, but I don't think I want to know what it says about me. (Reading through the text above, I realize that almost none of it makes any sense if the reader isn't at least mildly attuned to the relevant blogging jargon. I think perhaps there's some profound, slightly sad message here; but as it's 12:30 AM here and I'm feeling quite tired, I have no idea what the message is. If you figure it out, let me know - and use simple words!)
(Read more...)

<< Home

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Suicide Bombing in Hadera: A Revenge Attack, But Not for Sa’adi

BLOGSCOOP: Palestinian Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for this afternoon’s suicide bombing in Hadera’s market, describing the attack as revenge for Israel’s killing of Louey Sa’adi, one of the group’s top West Bank leaders. If this claim is taken seriously, it will fit into the classic “cycle of violence” scenario of tit-for-tat killings: we killed Sa’adi on Monday, and PIJ avenged his death on Wednesday.

However, there is no reason to believe that this attack was really planned as an act of revenge for Sa’adi’s killing. Israeli security forces were on alert for an attack somewhere today – the tenth anniversary of the killing of Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shekaki in Malta – at least a couple of days before Sa’adi was killed. Further, even had we not known that today’s attack was carried out to commemorate a 1995 assassination, it is very hard to believe that a “successful” suicide attack could be organized only sixty hours after the supposed provocation – particularly in a part of Israel that is protected by a long continuous stretch of the Separation Barrier.
(Read more...)

<< Home

Disengagement: How Much Compensation is Enough?

Haaretz recently reported that former settlers from Elei Sinai in the Gaza Strip are demanding beachfront properties worth $240,000 to $300,000 (for the land alone, if I understood the article correctly) as part of their compensation for being evicted from their former homes. The former settlers want to live together by the ocean somewhere along Israel’s Mediterranean coast south of Tel Aviv, basically reproducing the lifestyle they enjoyed back in the Strip – minus the mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades, of course. The $50,000-per-family land-purchase allowance provided by the Evacuation Compensation Law won’t come close to paying for what they want, and these ex-settlers are prepared to go to extremes – they’ve even hired a publicist! – to force the government to see things their way.

The acrimonious dispute between these ex-settlers and the Israeli government exemplifies an important part of the debate about the recent Disengagement – an issue that will become even more fraught when Israel undertakes future unilateral or negotiated withdrawals: What exactly is the standard for determining how much compensation is appropriate when settlers are forced to leave their homes? (A completely separate issue, of course, is whether the compensation that has been legislated for the evacuees is being efficiently and fairly distributed; for now I am going to deal only with the statutory level of compensation, not with how the compensation system is being administered.)

Those who believe that the compensation being offered to former Gaza Strip settlers is inadequate – and they appear to be almost entirely people who opposed the Disengagement in the first place – apparently feel that relocated settlers should be at least as well situated after their relocation as they were before. According to this view, ex-settlers should be able to enjoy the same comforts and perquisites they enjoyed before they were evacuated; so if a settlement was on the beach, its residents are entitled to receive beachfront housing to replace what they lost, and if a family had a 300-square-meter (3200-square-foot) house, they are entitled to receive a house just as large and luxurious.

Despite the fact that I am a settler – and thus, at least potentially, a future evacuee – I believe that this lifestyle-replacement standard for compensation is fundamentally flawed.

Getting the Rights Right

I’ll use my own family’s situation as an illustrative example: In late 1999, we were living in a rented apartment in Ra’anana, and we knew that in a few months the owner was returning from abroad and we would have to find a new place to live. We wanted someplace with enough bedrooms for our three daughters not to have to double up; we also wanted someplace that was cat-friendly, meaning that a large assortment of ferocious little fanged carnivores could happily take advantage of our largesse without running too great a risk of being run over by maniacal Israeli drivers. Add to that the usual factors: decent schools, not too bad a commute, general gemütlichkeit, and so on.

It quickly became clear that nothing within our price range would satisfy all these requirements; in fact, we couldn’t come close. After some weeks of hunting, we decided to broaden our horizons and investigate our options across the Green Line. After various irrelevant adventures, we finally bought a house in Alfei Menashe, a medium-large, basically non-political settlement just over the Green Line; our house had (and still has) seven rooms, and sits on half a dunam (1/8 acre) of land. We quite like it, and wouldn’t be at all happy about having to leave.

So what are our rights should some future government decide to “disengage” from Alfei Menashe? In 1999 we clearly had no right to live in a seven-room house on half a dunam in “Israel proper” within easy commuting distance of Tel Aviv – not if we didn't have the money for it! Now we do live in such a house, but in the Territories, and subject to the risk of relocation. Should the government decide to evacuate us, do we have a right to seven-rooms-and-half-a-dunam back inside the Green Line? If we do, how exactly did we acquire the right to live a post-settler lifestyle that we couldn’t afford before we moved to a settlement?

I would like to think that everyone is entitled to some kind of appropriate housing as a “universal” human right; although I’m not sure that I’m on firm legalistic ground here, I believe that nobody should have to be homeless. But at the same time, it’s pretty clear that even if everyone is entitled to a roof over his head, this right doesn’t extend to luxury housing. We might not have enough closet space, but our house is certainly more than our “human rights” entitle us to! If the Israeli government had forced us to live in a settlement, I suppose we could claim that we deserved some extra compensation for the years we’d passed in durance vile; but like our fellow settlers, we moved to the Territories of our own free will.

It seems reasonable to me for the government to compensate settlers for the money they spent on buying and improving their property (adjusted for inflation, of course), plus moving expenses, perhaps plus some small additional amounts for factors such as emotional trauma. But I'm not convinced that the government owes settlers a duplication of their settlement lifestyle inside the Green Line. Should we be “disengaged” from our home, I would think that the correct goal of compensation would be to restore us more or less to the position we were in before we moved to Alfei Menashe; but I don't really see why we should be better off as former settlers than we were as a pre-settlers.

Of course, if we’d saved money in the intervening years, or improved our income level, we might be in better shape than we were before becoming settlers; interesting notion, that. Perhaps we should try doing so, just in case!

(Read more...)

<< Home

Sunday, October 16, 2005

A West Bank Puzzle

Over the last few days, a couple of news items – neither one especially prominent by itself – grabbed my attention:

  1. Last Tuesday, a 14-year-old Palestinian boy from Nablus/Shechem was arrested by the General Security Service (a.k.a. the Shin Bet). Apparently, he had been recruited by Fatah Tanzim operatives from the Balata refugee camp after he had an argument of some sort with his father; according to one account, these operatives threatened to kill him if he didn’t carry out the attack.

  2. Last Thursday, a Palestinian man was tackled and arrested after he attempted to stab IDF soldiers at a roadblock near Halhul, north of Hebron. This was the eighth such stabbing attempt in two weeks; none of these attempts resulted in serious injury to IDF personnel, and several of the attackers were killed.
Both these stories strike me as rather odd. In the first place, why would anyone recruit a 14-year-old to carry out a suicide attack? In five years of the “al-Aqsa Intifada”, there have been very few attempts to carry out suicide attacks using kids this young, and no successes. In fact, the typical “successful” suicide bomber has been in a rather narrow age band: out of 136 such attackers in my database (119 with known ages), 87 were between 18 and 23 years old; the youngest two were 16 years old, and seven were 17 years old.

Kids have been used routinely as “mules” to carry bombs past checkpoints, so we can’t assume that the terrorists have a lot of scruples about keeping children away from explosives; but there’s a great deal of difference between offering a boy a few shekels to carry a package a few hundred meters, and training him to perpetrate a suicide attack. Since (A) a 14-year-old suicide bomber, especially a reluctant one, is not very likely to succeed in his mission; (B) using a kid this young as a suicide bomber, especially after coercively recruiting him, is very bad for an organization’s internal and external image; and (C) an intercepted suicide bomber is likely to yield some useful information to Israel’s security forces, this would seem to have been an all-around bad move on Fatah’s part.

*     *     *

The string of knife attacks is at least as mystifying to me. I'm well aware that there is a great deal of anger and frustration among the Palestinian population of the West Bank, and that Israeli checkpoints are particularly hated; and it’s no surprise by now that some Palestinians are willing to risk their lives to carry out attacks against the Zionist Enemy. But I find it very difficult to comprehend why anyone would risk his or her life attempting an attack that is almost certain to be completely pointless.

The odds of accomplishing anything by attacking well-armed and alert soldiers with a knife are extremely low. Clearly, a string of eight such attacks in a couple of weeks means that the later attackers are emulating the earlier ones; but why emulate failure? Further – and most significantly, I think – why carry out a doomed attack on your own when there are terror organizations that will be glad to train and equip you for an attack that is much more likely to succeed?

*     *     *

While it’s always risky to do too much reasoning with too little data, I find it very tempting to see these two stories as pieces of the same puzzle. If they are somehow connected, what picture do they begin to reveal? I can’t offer more than a slightly educated guess, but I can think of at least three possibilities:

  1. The terror organizations are having such a difficult time infiltrating people into Israel (and its settlements) that they are reduced to using “low-quality” bombers – people who are less capable than the normal suicide bomber, but are also less likely to attract the attention of Israel’s security forces.

  2. Many Palestinians are so disenchanted with the major terror groups that they prefer to carry out futile “go-it-alone” attacks rather than volunteer as suicide bombers or otherwise serve the organizations. This could be a consequence of some of the recent faux pas committed by Hamas and Fatah; Hamas didn’t win itself any friends by blowing up a bunch of people (including children) at a rally and then attempting to dodge responsibility, and both Hamas and Fatah-affiliated groups have been implicated in rampant lawlessness, particularly in the post-Disengagement Gaza Strip.

  3. Perhaps the terror groups really aren’t trying too hard at the moment. Hamas has reiterated its commitment to the current period of (tense) calm, as has Fatah. Since Fatah (and particularly the Tanzim/Martyrs of al-Aqsa faction) is quite fragmented these days, maybe only a few semi-autonomous parts of the organization are actively trying to carry out attacks.
Whether any of these guesses is correct or not, it would appear that the Palestinian terror groups are having a difficult time carrying out “quality” attacks these days. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Israel should let down its guard; the terrorists’ motivation remains high, and a successful attack could occur at any moment. But in our cheerful little corner of the world, we have to take what good news we can get.

Update: Even the vaguest optimism can backfire in this part of the world. No sooner was this article posted than the Martyrs of al-Aqsa carried out two shooting attacks along Route 60, a road that runs north-south through the West Bank. One attack targeted Israelis at a hitchhiking station in the Gush Etzion area south of Bethlehem, and the other targeted pedestrians at the Eli Junction north of Jerusalem. The Martyrs have already taken credit for the first attack, and it’s pretty obvious that the Eli Junction attack was their work as well. Three Israelis were killed, and five were wounded.

These attacks confirm – as if we needed the confirmation – that the terrorists are still in business; so we can probably dispense with Possibility Number Three, at least regarding the Martyrs’ Brigades. At the same time, it’s worth noting that both attacks took place outside the Arafat Line (a.k.a. the Separation Barrier) and outside the settlements themselves. Drive-by shooting attacks like these are normally carried out by permanent members of terrorist organizations rather than by the “single-use” recruits employed for suicide bombings; so today’s attacks haven’t changed my guesses about terrorist recruitment or about the difficulty of getting suicide bombers into “Israel Proper”. On the other hand, these attacks give some additional credibility to statements by various security figures who prophesied that the focus of Palestinian terrorism would shift to the West Bank.

Interestingly enough, my wife and I are planning to drive on Route 60 in a couple of days, to take some supplies (sent by a fellow barefoot-horse enthusiast in England) to the owner of a foundered pony in Bat Ayin, a couple of kilometers from the site of today’s attack. Looks like it’s time to clean my pistol, for whatever that’s worth.
(Read more...)

<< Home

Monday, October 10, 2005

If You're Happy, I'm a Loser

My youngest daughter’s computer broke down a week or so ago: no LED’s glowing, no fans blowing, and, in short, no vital signs showing. As a veteran of 24 years in the computer business, I of course did the professional thing: I procrastinated. But finally, over the weekend, I opened the computer’s case and took a look inside, just to see if the problem was something obvious like a loose connector. No such luck – everything looked OK, if inert. Ah well, time for a service call; luckily, the computer, which I’d purchased through Michraz HaMedina (roughly translated, the “National Auction”, an Israeli on-line bidding system almost entirely unlike eBay), still had three months left on its one-year warranty.

Or so I thought. Yesterday morning I took the computer to the people who’d assembled it and sold it to me, Galaxy Computers of Rishon LeTzion, expecting no special difficulties in getting the thing fixed. They cheerfully informed me that since I’d broken the little paper seal – that is, I’d dared to open the sacred computer – the warranty was void. The good news – and “good” is very much a relative term in these circumstances – was that the power supply (which I suspect is what had died) was only guaranteed for seven days in the first place; so even had I not dared to poke my inquisitive nose into the computer, I would have had to pay for at least part of the repair. (Needless to say, the part about a vital component of the computer having only a one-week guarantee wasn’t mentioned on the auction listing.)

All my expostulations, threats, and pleas achieved nothing. Galaxy would be happy to fix the computer at their regular rates (as if I’d give them the job under such circumstances), but beyond that, it was my problem.

The Game of Computer Repair

Now, it may well be that my Galactic interlocutors were acting within their rights according to Israeli law and the letter of their warranty (which is in Hebrew, far beyond my very limited ability to read); there is no question that consumer-protection law in Israel is rudimentary at best. I’m quite prepared to be told by the experts that my “foreign” expectations regarding fair business practices don’t apply to life in this little corner of Paradise. What I find most annoying, though – and yet it’s instructive, or I wouldn’t be blogging about it – is the underlying attitude this outfit displayed. Had this been a reasonably well-run computer shop in America or Great Britain (or even in Israel), the staff might have lectured me about paying attention to the fine print; they might even have let me know that they reserved the right to charge me for the repair if I’d altered anything inside the computer. But even if they grumbled a bit, they would have understood that having me as a happy customer was worth something as well; and in the end I probably would have succeeded (after promising never to be bad again) in having the computer fixed under the warranty.

But that kind of thinking is quite foreign to the Galaxy I visited yesterday morning. I had entered a region of space in which I was not a past (and possible future) customer whose good will was of some value; in this corner of the cosmos I was The Enemy, and if I “won” – if I managed to get my daughter’s computer fixed without paying full price for the repair, that is – my victory would imply cataclysmic Galactic defeat. By utterly and steadfastly refusing to honor the computer’s warranty, the Galactic Defenders gained a great victory over me; and the fact that I would pay someone else to do the repair, that I would never be a repeat customer, and that I would attempt to get them in trouble (e.g. by writing nasty things about them in an obscure blog) didn’t signify.

Clearly, the people I was dealing with viewed our interaction as a zero-sum game: If I won, they lost, and if I lost, they won – by definition. They didn’t look beyond the immediate confrontation; they cared nothing for their reputation or their relationship with me as a possible future customer. In reality, of course, their strategy created a negative-sum game: I lost, but – looking at the big picture – they lost also. And had they considered the value of relationship and reputation and worked out some compromise with me, they could have played a positive-sum game: I would have been happy to pay something for the repair, and would have thought of them as people with whom I’d like to do business in the future. We all could have come out ahead.

The Middle East Game
(or, At Last He Gets to the Point)

The kind of zero-sum/negative-sum thinking I encountered yesterday is all too common in the Middle East (and, I must admit, everywhere else on our planet except – maybe – Antarctica). Every Israeli has dealt with it a thousand times; and as long as it’s just a matter of getting a computer repaired, the consequences aren’t too terrible. Sadly, though, the same kind of thinking permeates our political discourse; and our Arab neighbors appear to have the problem as well.

In the run-up to the Disengagement from Gaza and part of the northern West Bank, I read an endless stream of articles and forum posts opposing the withdrawal. Some of them attempted to make a reasoned case against Ariel Sharon’s policy; but an awful lot of what I read boiled down to a simple, unexamined, zero-sum-game syllogism:

  • The Palestinians are gaining territory that they want;

  • We're getting nothing from them in return;

  • The Disengagement is thus a victory for the Palestinians;

  • The Palestinians are the enemy;

  • Therefore, the Disengagement is a defeat for Israel.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with challenging the logic behind the Disengagement; but this their-win-is-our-loss routine was generally used as a conversation-stopper rather than as part of a reasoned debate. Any benefits Israel might achieve as a result of the Disengagement were dismissed as illusory or insubstantial – “shtachim for shtichim”, territory for [red] carpets – if they were mentioned at all.

Many Palestinians justify terror attacks against Israel using a mirror-image of this logic: The attacks hurt the Zionist Enemy, so by definition they must be good for the Palestinians – even though it should be fairly obvious by now that terrorism is the single biggest impediment to Palestinian statehood.

Egypt and Jordan, which are supposed to be at peace with us, also use zero-sum thinking when they oppose “normalization” between Israel and other Arab/Islamic states. Apparently the Egyptian and Jordanian governments (encouraged by the Palestinians themselves) feel that rapprochement between Israel and Islamic world would constitute an undeserved reward for Israel – and would thus, by definition, constitute a betrayal of the Palestinians. The contrary argument – that Israel would find it easier to countenance a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River if she felt less threatened and isolated – doesn’t seem to carry much weight.

Zero-Sum, Zero Progress

This kind of zero-sum thinking, with its narrow view of self interest and its rigid definitions of victory and defeat, inevitably leads to deadlock and impasse. All of us in the Middle East seem to be so obsessed with avoiding symbolic defeats and winning purely notional victories that we don’t have the time or ability to address our real problems. I know we’re not stupid in this part of the world – I think we’re not stupid in this part of the world – but at times I can forgive people who live elsewhere for thinking that we are. I’m not saying, Heaven forbid, that anyone should put others’ interests ahead of his own and behave charitably. But if we’re ever going to make the Middle East into a happy, peaceful, and prosperous part of the planet, we’ve got to learn to take a broader and more inclusive view of our own self-interest.

In the mean time, does anyone know a good computer repair shop?
(Read more...)

<< Home

Monday, October 03, 2005

Uzi Landau Cancels Temple Mount Visit - Planets Continue in their Courses

Update: Despite – or perhaps because of – Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra’s assurance that Uzi Landau’s visit to the Temple Mount would have no consequences whatsoever, Dr. Landau announced this morning that he had decided against making the visit, which had been intended to improve his position as a contender for leader of the Likud.

While Landau did not offer a reason for his change of plans, it appears likely that he is seeking some more dramatic – not to say catastrophic – means to attract attention and support to his campaign. His efforts so far have led to considerable frustration: an earthquake this morning managed to reach only 4.3 on the Richter scale, causing no injuries or damage. The Acting Director of the Geophysical Institute of Israel assured party members that there was no need to worry, and failed even to mention Landau in his announcement.

A solar eclipse is planned for this morning, but apparently it will be merely an “annular” one, not a total eclipse leading to inky darkness, gnashing of teeth, wailing, rending of garments, or an increase in Landau’s chances of becoming the Likud’s candidate for Prime Minister.

Dr. Landau is probably available for comment, if anyone wants to give him a call.

(Read more...)

<< Home

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Out With the Old Year, In With Whatever

On the Joys of Blog Ownership

  1. Flash! Startling Discovery of the Day: It’s easier to read other people’s blogs than to write new stuff for one’s own blog. Yes, folks, I’ve discovered a new way of procrastinating – truly a monumental achievement for someone who had thought he’d explored every possible variation on this fascinating hobby.

  2. When I was much younger, I had a bad habit of writing rather telegraphically – partly, no doubt, because writing by hand has never been physically easy or comfortable for me. Then I discovered typing, and then word-processing. Now it appears that my greatest challenge as a writer – once I actually start writing something, that is – is to be a bit less discursive. In other words, I need to learn to shut up. The Jerusalem Post, which is currently running me as a “guest blogger”, wants posts that take up around one A4 page. I just can’t seem to do it; anything that I think is worth saying takes at least a couple of pages to say. I did manage to trim the last thing I sent them by a third; we’ll see if it makes them happy.

  3. I’ve still got the Bravenet Traffic Exchange feature turned on. I remain very much unsure whether I like the feature or not; and I’m still waiting for some reader feedback to help me make up my mind. Said reader feedback has been very slow in coming… Will people please write some comments about why they aren’t writing comments?

On the Jewish New Year

This last year has been an interesting and important one for Israel. Not only did we leave the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank; we also saw a major decline in successful terror attacks against us, a warming of attitudes toward us in much of the world, and some serious and open discussion (among ordinary Israelis as well as among our ruling elites) of unilateralism as a new Israeli approach to our territorial, political, and demographic problems.

This next year appears likely to be another interesting one. We’ll have national elections, unless our current government manages to limp through ‘til next November; and at the very least, we’ll have the joys of a national election campaign. Get out your umbrellas, folks – I predict serious mud-spattering in all areas of the country. Of course, this blog will feature the traditional Don’s Voting Recommendation post, as soon as we have some idea who’s running.

We’ll also experience the Great Split in the Nation (between the National-Religious and everyone else, or maybe between all the religious and everyone else, or possibly between Israeli Arabs and everyone else, or perhaps even between the unemployed and everyone else) – or maybe not. It seems like this Great Split is always just around the corner, but never quite gets here. I’d like to see the damn’ thing happen already, so we can go ahead and patch it up.

We’ll start the year with Uzi Landau’s walk on Temple Mount. Don’s Prediction of the Day: nothing will happen. The ground won’t tremble (the subsoil is pretty well compacted after Arik’s stroll through the precinct), the Arabs won’t bother to riot, and Intifada III will still be waiting in the wings waiting for Intifada II to die of old age. Dr. Landau’s a nice guy. I’ve enjoyed a couple of brief conversations with him, although they always ended prematurely when his mobile phone rang and he had to go deal with something more important – even though I disagree with him on pretty much every Israeli policy issue I can think of. (OK, he may well agree with me on women’s rights, the environment, and other “social” stuff; but this is Israel – who cares about the stupid environment?) But he’s not exactly Mister Earthquake. Ariel Sharon could start a riot just by showing his face; I don’t think Uzi Landau could start a riot if he took a sledgehammer up on Temple Mount and started swinging it at the Dome of the Rock. (Please don’t try this, Uzi – and if you do, you didn’t read it here.)

Lots of other stuff will happen too – and when it does, don’t forget that you read it here first.

On the Joys of Blog Ownership (reprise)

  1. I hadn’t really thought I had much to say this time. I wasn’t trying to make any great point – I just started typing. Now I’ve managed to alienate Uzi Landau – spoiling my chance of becoming an eminence gris et gros when he becomes Prime Minister – and once again, I’ve written something longer than the Jerusalem Post wants. I guess it’s not yet time to leave my day job.

May we all have a happy, fulfilling, healthy, and successful new year!

(Read more...)

<< Home