On the Bookshelves

Chilling Zones in Killing Zones

Even in endless wars, there can be pockets of peace

Illustration
Katy Lemay

At first, the notion that Israel could sit down with its sworn enemies and achieve a limited agreement to protect civilians seemed far-fetched to Gabriella Blum LL.M. ’01 S.J.D. ’03. The year was 1997, Blum was a young officer in the Israel Defense Forces, and she’d just been assigned to a group with the task of monitoring that noble, if dubious, effort.

The strained relations between Israel and Lebanese armed groups had reached a bloody low the previous year, when cross-border attacks had killed and wounded hundreds of civilians (mostly in Lebanon), prompting the parties to seek an unusual agreement to reduce the collateral damage to innocents. Brokered by the U.S., the deal called for the creation of a monitoring group from the U.S., France, Israel and Lebanon, as well as Syria, which had strong ties to the Lebanese armed factions.

The agreement held together for four years, saving countless civilian lives and inspiring the once-skeptical Blum to launch a personal inquiry into human nature and the art of the possible. That quest has culminated in a new book, “Islands of Agreement: Managing Enduring Armed Rivalries.” In it, the HLS assistant professor, who teaches International Negotiations, and International Law, makes the argument that negotiators might be best served by accepting the fact that some violent conflicts cannot be resolved and by instead focusing their efforts on trying to carve out potential areas of asylum.

“The pursuit of resolving conflict is a crucial one and worthy, but it’s not always possible,” said Blum, adding that this acknowledgment differentiates her from many negotiation scholars who perceive conflict as a pathology that can be cured through rational discourse. Too many nations and too many populations profoundly want to maintain conflicts, Blum says. In her book, she cites a point made by Sigmund Freud in his famous 1932 correspondence with Albert Einstein, in which the two exchanged radically differing opinions about whether mankind could end warfare. Einstein, the pacifist, said yes. Freud was doubtful. The willingness to engage in force was too embedded in human nature, he said.

Blum leans toward Freud.

However, identifying herself as a “hopeful pessimist,” Blum insists she isn’t a defeatist. After all, she holds that even when conflicts can’t be ended, they at least can be managed. As she saw while serving on the Israel-Lebanon Monitoring Group, zones of peace could be carved out of the broader war zone.

Nor were Israel and Lebanon the first enemies to create such zones, she found. In fact, as she reports in her book, the practice has been common throughout history. In 1406, England and France agreed that the hostilities between them would not extend to the capture or assault of fishermen as prizes of war. More recently, despite ongoing clashes over control of Cyprus and the Aegean Sea, Greece and Turkey settled on a cluster of agreements that have created a relatively harmonious relationship. Even the tense relationship between India and Pakistan has been eased periodically, Blum says. Most notably, the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty devised a cooperative water-sharing scheme that has remained intact.

Deals like the Indus Waters Treaty can be cut, Blum argues, by recognizing that there are things that can be negotiated even when armed conflict can’t be ended. Her fear is that negotiators bent on achieving elusive goals of conflict-ending peace will miss chances to achieve more modest but realistic islands of agreement. “My concern is when the pursuit of resolution comes at the expense of lost opportunities of possible cooperation,” she said.

Finding those opportunities, Blum argues, means looking at the broad spectrum of relationships between the nations and peoples involved, for what they can agree on even if they cannot agree to end hostilities. And, in a world that is increasingly interdependent, she noted, the need for these islands of agreement will only grow: “The more the world advances toward … connectedness, the less we are able to detach ourselves from our enemies.”

Blum wants to believe that islands of agreement can develop into broader agreements, as they did with Greece and Turkey, but she admits that might be wishful thinking. “This is my dilemma,” she said. “I don’t think every conflict is resolvable. But I think we should try.”


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