Eli Kavon is an adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University who lectures on Jewish history and is a frequent contributor to The Jerusalem Post. I spoke with Kavon recently to get his perspective on the conflict that's erupted between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and which shows no signs of ending anytime soon.
In a December 17 column for The Jerusalem Post, you wrote that Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should resign based on ethical lapses he's committed. Do you still feel that way, or have the events of the last few weeks changed your mind?
I think that this war was provoked by Hamas. Hamas does not want to end Israel's occupation. It wants to end Israel's existence. For the past five or six years Hamas has struck into the heart of Israel, committed acts of terror...Even after Israel left Gaza a few years ago, unilaterally, Hamas continued to fire rockets into Israel. Why did they do so? Because their goal, their agenda is to make sure there is no peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. They want a Palestinian state that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the nation of Jordan in the East. So it's not a matter of Olmert or Netanyahu or anyone else. It's a matter of Israel not having a choice. It's a soveign state that has to protect its citizens.
You wrote in a December 24 column that "powerlessness can be immoral." Did Olmert have a moral responsibility to bomb Gaza? To launch a ground invasion?
(Rest of the interview, after the jump)
Yes, Israel does have a moral responsibility. My thesis in that article is that if you're powerless you can't make moral decisions -- other people are making decisions for you, which was the case with the Holocaust. To have power is to be able to make decisions about your future... I know that the ground invasion is not a great alternative. I just don't feel that Israel had another alternative. Israel, as a sovereign state, cannot accept Hamas fire rockets into Ashkelon and Ashdod and ultimately into Tel Aviv.
In the same column, you cautioned against an army that might "abuse that power, through coercion and domination." Given the disparity in the casualties (so far, nearly 800 Palestinians compared to 14 Israelis), isn't that getting close to domination?
That's a good question, but when I talk about an army abusing its power, I was talking about the 1967 territories Israel captured legitimately. Israel, for demographic reasons, was going to have to give back much of the land it captured because if they were to annex those territories there would be an Arab majority in Israel. This war in Gaza is different... Now I don't know with whom Israel is going to negotiate. Israel has to give back the land knowing that there will not be peace. They left Gaza a few years ago because they understood that there would never be an Israeli majority in Gaza. I'm no saying it was the wrong move, but as a result we have this situation of Hamas not living in peace.
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You're an expert on Jewish history. But the historical event that seems to have the most in common with today's conflict is the one that happened in Lebanon in 2006, when the rockets were being fired by Hezbollah and Israeli attacks produced civilian casualties and hurt its standing internationally. Can Israel avoid a repeat of that episode?
In the second Lebanon war, Israel's agenda was to cripple Hamas and in the end it was a half-hearted attempt. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization but it represents the majority of the Shia population that lives in Lebanon. I don't know if Israel could have been successful in wiping out Hezbollah because (Hezbollah) had a pretty solid base of support in Lebanon. Israel has the same problem in Gaza. For most of the Palestinians living in Gaza, Hamas for them is legitimate representation. Whether (Israel) can totally uproot Hamas is another question. But maybe it can cripple its ability to fire rockets into Israel.
There have been some ugly clashes in South Florida between people on both sides of this conflict. It seems like it has the potential to get violent. Or is it possible that Arab Americans and American Jews will be less polarized than the two sides in the Middle East?
I want to be optimistic. I kdon't know at this point if Jews in Muslims can sit down and speak to each other about peac and tolerance. I think there are Jews prepared to do so. Jews in South Florida are looking for Muslim moderates. The problem is that in the Islamic world the extremist voices dominate. Because of what's going on, it's going to be very difficult. Moderates are coerced by extremists. That's part of the problem. I can understand a Palestinian living in America who years for a state, but that state has to live in peace with Israel.