”’Author’s note: The following letter was written by Richard Baker, special assistant to the president of the East-West Center (EWC) and coordinator of the Center’s Islamic Initiative in Honolulu, Hawaii. It was written in response to a query from a Malaysian participant in a Center seminar for journalists that studied perception problems between Islamic communities in Asia and American/Western societies. The Malaysian journalist asked Baker how the actions of Israel and the United States in the ongoing Lebanon crisis could possibly be explained to a predominantly Muslim audience. For more information, reach Mr. Baker at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org”’
Regarding your question, I can certainly understand your chagrin over the latest developments in the Middle East and U.S. policy. This is precisely the kind of moment when understanding is hardest, but also the most important.
Nobody would ask you to agree with Israel’s actions in this situation, or indeed with U.S. policy and diplomacy. But the real question is more fundamental. Do we simply write off the side of the story with which we disagree as evil or irrational? If we do, then we just add to the chorus of criticism and opposition, which can get very emotional and even further compound the divisions, stalemate, and horrors.
So the question is not whether we accept what is happening, but to have any constructive impact we should at least consider what it would take to resolve the crisis. Focusing single-mindedly on condemning Israel (and/or the U.S.) will not, I fear, make any meaningful contribution to that.
So how can we see this situation for what it is, one in which both are sides acting in ways they consider necessary and justified, both are at least partly wrong in their calculations, and both sides are also suffering and inflicting suffering at the same time?
Perhaps the best way to try to do this is to ask what we would do in similar circumstances. Since you clearly see volumes of material that explains and defends the Hezbullah and Hamas positions, let me look at the Israeli position.
Israel is faced with two movements, respectively located right on its northern and southern borders, that are imbedded and protected in the local political structures in their base, that declare their objective to be the elimination of Israel, and that commit such deliberate acts as kidnapping Israeli personnel from border posts and lobbing rockets into Israeli communities.
Hammas is currently the government in Palestine; Hezbullah is a member of the government in Lebanon and has armed forces that are stronger than those of the Lebanese government.
Both groups routinely station their personnel and launch their attacks from residential areas of their own territory, and are either supported by the local residents or have the locals so cowed that few dare to oppose them or even flee. This means that inevitably any counter-strikes will produce civilian casualties that can be publicized to gain sympathy for their side.
So in this situation, if you were Israel, what would you do?
Imagine for a moment that Malaysia were in Israel’s position. Christian militias in Singapore and Buddhists in Thailand, who believe that Malaysia is an illegitimate state occupying their rightful lands and whose objective is Malaysia’s destruction, are regularly staging cross-border raids, organizing terrorist bombings of civilian population centers, and lobbing missiles from residential areas on their side of the border into Malaysia’s towns and cities. What would Malaysia do in this situation?
I, of course, don’t know, but I rather doubt that any Malaysian government would believe it could just sit by and let this happen with no response or attempt to get at the attackers.
So, does Israel share the blame for the continuing conflict? Of course. Does the United States have some responsibility, as Israel’s principal foreign supporter? Certainly. Are Israel’s tactics overly heavy-handed and costly in terms of human lives and suffering? I think they are.
Could and should the United States be doing more to halt the latest violence and broker a genuine settlement. Also agreed. But is there no legitimate reason for Israel