Friday, February 02, 2007

A Little Civil War Now and Then Is A Good Thing

The cease-fire between Fatah and Hamas has collapsed in a paroxysm of violence. Over the last 24 hours, at least 21 Palestinians have been killed in gun battles, and 2 Palestinian universities have been set ablaze (one associated with each rival party). Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah, and Khaled Mashal, the exiled leader of Hamas' political wing, are scheduled to meet in Mecca at the invitation of Saudi King Abdullah in an effort to stop the fighting.

But stopping the fighting might not be the best idea. I've written many times before about the problems that occur when the ruling political power does not enjoy a monopoly of violence within its borders. Hezbollah drags Lebanon into a unwanted war with Israel that wreaks massive devastation on the civilian population; Sunni and Shiite militias in Iraq run around undermining the power and legitimacy of the central government. In Palestine, neither faction can advance its platform as the other has sufficient force to interfere.

Several years ago, Edward Luttwak wrote an article in Foreign Affairs entitled "Give War a Chance," in which he argued:
An unpleasant truth often overlooked is that although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace. This can happen when all belligerents become exhausted or when one wins decisively. Either way the key is that the fighting must continue until a resolution is reached. War brings peace only after passing a culminating phase of violence. Hopes of military success must fade for accommodation to become more attractive than further combat.
The problem in Palestine is that each side has enough force, power, and support to believe that it should not have to submit to the will of the other. Cease-fires, truces, and negotiations only pause the conflict, allowing each side to regroup and rearm for the next outbreak of violence. It very well may be best for Hamas and Fatah to fight it out to the bitter end, enabling one side or the other to establish political control over the Palestinian territories. Permitting a civil war to rage may be of cold comfort to the Palestinian people who will suffer, but perhaps the short-term pain will produce a long-term political solution that has eluded them to date.


Max said...

I guess my concern would be: a civil war, like it or not, would most likely involve external actors such as the US, Iran, and Syria among others. I don’t think a full out civil war would break from Israel and Palestine’s historical pattern of largely isolated conflicts. I’m not sure this would be the best case scenario. Problem is, as you said, “Cease-fires, truces, and negotiations only pause the conflict.”

Jeha said...

In Lebanon, a civil war is the only option.

Unfortunately, I do not think that it would be a "good" option; we have a saying that "it is better to count the blows rather than to receive them". But on a more cynical level, a civil war in Lebanon will not be contained within Lebanon this time around.

I fear that it would be a genocidal affair, and that it would spread far and wide, and unforeseable consequences. Beirut may be a small, insgnificant city, but so was Sarajevo in 1914.

Seth Weinberger said...


You may be right that only a civil war can "save" Lebanon...unless Hezbollah is disarmed, the Lebanese government will never be able to stabilize the country. But, I think the Beirut-Sarajevo comparison is going a bit far. Remember, Lebanon was been in civil war for much of the 1970s and 80s, and it didn't really have much of an impact on the region.

Max: What's going on in the Palestinian territories is unlikely to bring in regional actors. First, Iran and Syria have had limited involvement with either Fatah or Hamas to date (bolstering my argument that the Arab/Islamic nations and groups don't really care about the Palestinian cause). Second, Israel's army and deterrent force is sufficiently strong to dissuade any external actor from injecting itself into the on-going strife between Fatah and Hamas. I just don't really see it as likely that it will erupt into a wider conflict.

Case in point to the larger argument, however. The deal between Fatah and Hamas is not going to erase the serious divides between the two groups; all it does is kick the can down the road. Sooner or later, Hamas and Fatah will disagree about something and the guns will come back out. Only if one or the other is disarmed will the Palestinians have anything resembling a sovereign government that can advance the interests of the Palestinian people.