The law of unintended consequences

Whether you are a general, politician, statesman or a common man, think well before you act, for the consequence of your action may be very different from what you expect.

 (Daily Times, 28 November 2012)

 The Second Gaza War is over. Who won? Who lost?  The biggest losers, no doubt, were the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmood Abbas, the president of a Palestinian entity without borders, sovereignty or international recognition. 

Nearly two decades after the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian President is still no more than a glorified mayor of a large city.  He has little to show his people besides a bloated bureaucracy and the glitter of a government without a state.  On his territory, Israeli troops roam free, military police control checkpoints, secret police hunts down and arrests suspects, and Jewish settlers seize the best lands and humiliate the Palestinian people on a daily basis. 

And who won?  Hamas, surely, was the big winner, followed by Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, President Barack Obama and, to a lesser extent, Iran.  It was Iranian rockets which Hamas fired at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and yet the violence has shifted the focus from Iran’s nuclear program, temporarily at least.

Such is the Law of Unintended Consequences that the results of a purposeful action or set of actions are often very different, if not the opposite, of what is intended.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to war against Hamas thinking he will destroy this “terrorist” organisation once and for all and earn the gratitude of the Jewish people.  He has achieved the opposite. 

Gaza under Hamas rule now has more attributes of a state than before – certainly far more than the West Bank under President Mahmood Abbas.  It has defined borders, a modicum of sovereignty, a rudimentary defensive and offensive capability and, now, some recognition and a lot of sympathy and admiration.

Thanks to the Israeli bombardment and threats, Hamas has had the pleasure and honour of hosting, for the first time in its five-year rule, heads of state or government and other dignitaries, namely, the emir of Qatar, the prime minister of Egypt, and five Arab foreign ministers. Recognition and respect are not the only achievement for Hamas.  Israel has also agreed to lift the blockade of Gaza, one of the main demands of Hamas.

And why did Netanyahu accept a ceasefire under terms that give a boost to Hamas?  Firstly, the changed strategic equation given that an Islamist leader is now the president of Egypt.  It was clear that the new Egyptian government would no longer keep the Rafah border closed, which would make the Israeli blockade ineffective anyway.  Secondly, a re-elected Barack Obama brought to bear the full weight of his administration in favour of the Egypt-brokered ceasefire. Netanyahu is now on the defensive, occupied with damage control, and Obama has regained the initiative.  And, last but not least, despite the bluster, Israel was concerned about the possibility of high casualties among his troops during a land invasion of Gaza.

One of the main arguments that Israeli statesmen, spokesmen, diplomats and journalists frequently gave to bolster their case against their neighbours is that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.  They have often taunted the Arabs for the lack of democracy in their countries.

Now that one of them, Egypt, has taken tentative steps towards democracy, with Syria and Jordan possibly to follow, Israel is already in panic mode.  Arab autocrats, dictators and kings serve Israeli interests far better than governments with popular mandates, responsive to their voters, will ever do.

And what about democracy in the Palestinian territories, of which Gaza is an indivisible part?  When the first elections to the Palestine Legislative Council were held in 2006, Israel and the United States did not like the outcome.  Nor did PLO/Fatah of Mahmood Abbas, for it won only 45 seats against 74 by Hamas in the 132-seat parliament.

Israel determined to annul the results, much like the military junta did in Myanmar in 1989 and the Algerian regime in 1991. With Fatah already weakened by its election debacle, Israel decided to decimate Hamas. It arrested, under one pretext or another, 50 elected Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, including three cabinet ministers. Mahmood Abbas and Fatah didn’t mind at all, in fact they were happy to see their rival crushed.

There are now over ten thousand Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, including 98 women and 345 minors.  These include, besides the 50 parliamentarians from Hamas, three Palestinian mayors and four members of Nablus and Bani Zeid Municipal Councils, all Hamas members. 

Many Hamas leaders were forced into exile.  Its co-founder, the 67 year old quadriplegic, nearly-blind, wheel chair-bound Sheikh Ahmad Yasin was killed in 2004 by a missile strike from an Israeli helicopter gunship, together with his two bodyguards and nine bystanders.  Its military chief, Ahmad Al-Jabari, was killed by an Israeli F-16 at the outset of the latest hostilities.

But such is the Law of Unintended Consequences that arrests, deportations, targeted killings, indiscriminate bombings, economic siege, financial and political blockade and two military offensives later, Hamas is now stronger both politically and militarily and it enjoys far greater prestige than before among Palestinians as well as internationally.

I doubt that the Israeli leaders, especially the likes of Netanyahu and his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, will learn the appropriate lessons.

After all, they should have known about Saddam Hussain’s ill-fated invasion of Kuwait (1990), the Argenine military junta’s disastrous attempt to “liberate” Malvinas or Falklands (1982), Pakistani generals’ bluster about teaching “secessionists” in East Pakistan (Bangladesh) a lesson (1971), Egyptian President Nasser’s fateful bellicosity towards Israel (1967), the ill-advised Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Suez Canal (1956) and Hitler’s aggression which led to the Second World War (1939-45). The list is long.

In every instance, those political or military leaders who had initiated or provoked hostilities hoping for a swift victory, had instead met humiliating defeat. Some of them lived to ruminate over their blunder and die distraught, few others breathed their last in the hangman’s noose, and at least one chose to shoot himself dead.

So, whether you are a general, politician, statesman or a common man, think well before you act, for the consequence of your action may be very different from what you expect.  Such is the law of unintended consequences.  And that is the lesson of history.        

By Razi Azmi

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3 Responses to The law of unintended consequences

  1. Javed Agha says:

    Very well written article. Objective in its approach and lesson for those who do not think hard before they leap on a new adventure.

  2. Zulfiqar Ali says:

    Razi Azmi sb has well summed up the lessons of history for today’s leaderships to learn. He makes a comprehensive analysis of the present situation in Gaza. What is alarming, as he points out, is that there are still over 10,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails including women and minors. International community should pursue Israel for freeing them. Also, US president should play a more decisive and fair role to resolve this conflict, which is long overdue.

  3. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Razi Sahib has put forward sound arguments for “The law of unintended consequences” he has given numerous examples. The problem with people attempting to do something like invading or suppressing people is that they chose to ignore this law and rightly suffer.
    Thank you Razi Sahib.

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