Gaza and the Middle Ground Theory

 I’ve been exposed to a couple of Facebook discussions on the ongoing attack on Gaza. Typical to them is a pretense to neutrality and referring to what I call the Middle Ground Theory of analysis. According to this theory, the right opinion is to be found somewhere on the middle ground between two extremes. This line of arguing is not unique to this particular topic.

There is no such thing as neutrality. Everybody has a point of view they cannot escape. Instead of focusing on neutrality, we should consider how well a position is supported by facts and arguments. Sometimes the arguments people use to prove that they are “neutral” get absurd. Something along the lines of “I used to be pro-Palestine, then I became pro-Israel, and then I started thinking about this whole thing again, and now I am neutral.” What matters is understanding the context and providing sound arguments, not the history of previous opinions.

In the case of the Gaza crisis, the context is military occupation. Israel conquered Gaza and the West Bank in 1967 and since then they have been under military occupation by Israel. These two land areas are known as the Occupied Palestinian Territories. According to the international law, as embodied in the Geneva Conventions, the occupying power is responsible for providing the necessary services to the areas it occupies and has to respect the human rights of the inhabitants. Israel has not fulfilled these obligations. It constantly violates human rights on both Gaza and the West Bank, and contrary to the article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention it has built settlements on the occupied territory for its own civilian population.

Gaza has been under siege since 2007. The list of items allowed into Gaza has changed many times, but at times soda, juice, jam, spices, shaving cream, potato chips, cookies and candy have been on the list of forbidden items. During its assaults on Gaza, Israel has repeatedly committed war crimes. In the ongoing hostilities, more than 230 Gazans had been killed as of July 17, according to the UN, about 77-80% of them civilians. In addition, one Israeli civilian had been killed in the rocket fire. During the ground operation that started late in the evening Thursday, July 17, about 60 more Palestinians and one Israeli soldier have been killed, the latter likely by friendly fire. The numbers reflect the asymmetry of the situation: this is not a conflict with two equal sides. Instead, there are the oppressors and the oppressed.

But to get back on the topic: where does the middle ground lie? It is a relative question that depends on who is in the discussion and what their opinions are. My own position is that the Israeli attack on Gaza is wrong and should be ended immediately. This is not to say that I support the rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel either. In addition, Israel should end the occupation. The solution should be just, and everybody’s human rights should be respected. International pressure in the form of boycotts and sanctions should be applied on Israel until it ends the occupation.

This position seemed extreme to many in a Facebook discussion with an Israeli military official, a couple of Israeli liberals, a Palestinian civilian and people from various different countries. But if a Hamas officer had joined in, I would suddenly have become much closer to the middle ground. According to the Middle Ground Theory, my opinion would have magically become more correct. Suppose now that I was discussing the situation with some officials from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. I would be at one extreme again, but the middle ground would be at a completely different place than it was in the discussion with the Israelis.

The Middle Ground Theory is tempting. But let’s apply it to something completely different to see it’s bogus: “Extremists on one side say gays should be killed, extremists on the other side say they should be allowed to marry. I hold the middle ground; I think they should be imprisoned.”

The whole idea that viewpoints form a line from one extreme position to the opposite is conceptually wrong. There are thousands of different points of view, which cannot be aligned on a simple, one-dimensional axis. The points of view of Hamas and the Israeli leadership seem like opposites. But where on the line do the ultra-Orthodox Jews who refuse to recognize the State of Israel for religious reasons fit? Or the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy who says calling boycotts on Israel is patriotic? The line is not able to distinguish between Palestinians supporting different political parties, either. And the whole discussion on whether two states for two people or one democratic state should be established on the area happens somewhere outside the line.

Here’s to replacing the Middle Ground Theory by the Facts & Arguments Theory.


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