Israel and Egypt’s insane alliance against Gaza

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite Egypt’s mediating role, it is no impartial broker on Gaza. It shares Israel’s view that Hamas can be crushed and suffocated into submission.

Photo: UNRWA

Photo: UNRWA

Sunday 10 August 2014

Egypt-Israel-Gaza is possibly one of the most bizarre and perhaps twisted love-hate triangles of recent times. Washington’s credentials as an honest broker have rightly been questioned over the years, and Egypt was traditionally seen as a welcome counterbalance to US bias, but can Cairo today be seen as a pro-Palestinian or even impartial broker?

Not really. For the past year or so, ever since Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi became the de facto leader and then president of Egypt, his regime has been an enthusiastic accomplice in the Israeli-led blockade against Gaza, completely sealing off the Rafah crossing and destroying hundreds of tunnels into the Sinai which provided the Gazan economy with some respite from the siege.

Taking a page out of Israel’s handbook, Egyptian officials leaked plans to Reuters earlier this year that Egypt intends to topple Hamas by, among other things, fomenting dissent in Gaza and backing Fatah.

On top of that, military-aligned television presenters and hosts have been ratcheting up the rhetoric and disinformation against Hamas in Gaza. Despite the continued presence of critical voices, including normally pro-regime anchors, this anti-Hamas propaganda reached fever pitch when hostilities began in early July.

Tawfik Okasha, the military junta’s leading TV cheerleader, praised Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and mocked Gazans on his show. “Gazans are not men,” he taunted live on air. “If they were men, they would revolt against Hamas.”

“Bless you, Netanyahu, and may God give us more like you who will rid us of Hamas, the root of corruption, treason and collaboration with the Brotherhood,” tweeted Azza Sami, a journalist with the semi-official Al Ahram newspaper.

Egypt’s stance has, unsurprisingly, met with much praise in Israel. However, this Egyptian-Israeli love affair has set alarm bells ringing even among normally staunch supporters of Israel. For instance, the conservative, generally pro-Israel Wall Street Journal ran a long feature on this “unlikely alliance” which laid much of the blame for the escalation to open warfare on the excessive “squeezing” of Hamas.

For their part, Palestinians have generally reacted with bewilderment and anger that a country they regarded as an ally has left Gaza to burn, regardless of what they think about Hamas. Many Palestinian I encounter ask me, with a tone of severe disappointment and betrayal in their voices, what Egypt’s game is and why it is allowing fellow Arabs to die in this way.

Some Palestinians and Arab sympathisers have gone so far as to see the hidden hand of conspiracy theories at work, and are convinced that al-Sisi and his regime are US and Zionist agents.

Despite the fact that the al-Sisi regime, under worldwide attack for its lack of democratic legitimacy and widespread human rights abuses, wants Washington on side, this is certainly not the case.

Egypt’s punitive approach towards Hamas is actually not all that new, though it has become far more severe. The Mubarak regime also distrusted and disliked Hamas and played its part in maintaining the Israeli blockade. Even Morsi, the Muslim Brother, did little to alleviate Gaza’s suffering, though he eased the blockade slightly.

The Egyptian president’s strident hostility towards Hamas actually stems from al-Sisi’s hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement he has persecuted since toppling his Brotherhood predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, following massive protests. The Egyptian regime has falsely alleged that Hamas was guilty of stealing Egyptian resources during Morsi’s 12-month term in office and is behind an insurgency in the Sinai.

This may partly be out of genuine conviction but is also certainly a political ruse to keep popular anti-Brotherhood sentiment and hostility high to justify al-Sisi’s self-declared “war on terrorism”, to manufacture consent, like in Israel, by creating a frightening common enemy, and to crush opposition.

Where once Arab leaders sometimes used Israel as an excuse to silence dissent and delay reform, al-Sisi has come up with a troublingly innovative new formula: blame the Palestinians. And a surprisingly large, if dwindling, number of Egyptians are swallowing the rhetoric.

With all this hostility in the air, Egypt has decided effectively to fight a proxy war against Hamas, by sitting on the sidelines and letting Israel bloody its hands in Gaza, with the trapped civilian population paying a deadly and heavy price, in the hope that its Islamist adversary will collapse.

However, Israeli-Egyptian calculations that Hamas can be brought down or tamed through violence are enormous miscalculations. Although Hamas’s resorting to rocket attacks after some two years of respecting a ceasefire were disastrous and stupid, and walked straight into the trap set by extremist forces in Israel, the Israeli-Egyptian pincer movement over the past year had so cornered the movement that it is now fighting an existential battle in which it has nothing left to lose and, as it sees it, everything to gain.

In addition, even if Hamas falls, there is no guarantee that Fatah will take over, and even if it did, many Gazans will view it as a traitor and collaborator. There is also a strong chance that more radical groups will take over control of the Strip.

With Egypt as mediator and Israel as protagonist on the same misguided line regarding the need to contain, and preferably, topple Hamas, I am sceptical that the current talks in Cairo will lead to a lasting and durable solution, since for that to happen, requires the lifting of the blockade and the reconnecting of Gaza to the West Bank.

The sad, ironic tragedy is that Hamas could have been “contained” without a single shot being fired now, or in 2012, 2008/9 and 2006. Yes, I find Hamas’s extremist ideology and its past of suicide bombings abhorrent, and, like Israel’s militarism, its swift recourse to violence despite its proven futility has been extremely costly. However, ever since coming to power, Hamas, burdened with the responsibility of governing under siege, has displayed far more pragmatism than Israel.

Hamas not only dropped its calls for the destruction of Israel from its election manifesto, the party has consistently indicated its willingness to accept a two-state solution along the pre-1967 borders. Before the latest conflict, Hamas even went so far as to cede political control to the PA and a government of technocrats in the desperate hope that this would lead to the lifting of the siege.

Despite all these clear overtures, Israel’s extremist, jingoistic government, desperate not to give up the territory in the West Bank conquered in 1967 and blinded by ideological hatred towards Hamas (which Israel once misguidedly supported as a counterbalance against the PLO), has refused to play ball and find a way to coexist.

If Israel and Egypt fail to find a way to live non-violently with Hamas, history will continue to repeat itself, each time more tragically than the preceding time. And Gaza will become not only the graveyard of innocent civilians but also the burial ground for the prospects for peace for generations to come.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 8 August 2014.

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Palestinian resistance: The gun or the olive branch?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The death and destruction inflicted by Israel’s assault on Gaza point to the futility of Palestinian armed resistance. Peaceful resistance is the way.

Gaza Day poster from 1969.  Source: http://www.palestineposterproject.org/poster/gaza-day

Gaza Day poster from 1969.
Source: http://www.palestineposterproject.org/poster/gaza-day

Sunday 27 July 2014

The war in Gaza has exacted a heavy human and humanitarian toll on the long-suffering civilian population there, especially for children and women. At least 925 Palestinians have been killed, of which at least 676 are civilians, including 206 children, according to UN figures.

The images of the suffering, anguish and pain have provoked an enormous sense of outrage, anger and despair amongst Palestinians outside the strip.

Hamas’s barrage of primitive and puny rockets may have been physically targeted at Israel but ideologically their intended recipient seems to be arch-rivals Fatah, and its negotiated approach to the conflict.

Arafat UNForty years ago, in 1974, Yasser Arafat stood before the UN General Assembly and declared: “I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”

During the intervening years, the PLO packed away its “freedom fighter’s gun” in favour of the peace process. However, the net result has been that the life of Palestinians today is worse than it was when there were no formal agreements between the two sides. Prior to Oslo, Palestinians had freedom of movement across all of Israel and Palestine and were not strangled in by settlements.

It is no wonder that the olive branch looks like it has fallen irretrievably out of the feeble hands of Mahmoud Abbas, whose gestures of peace remain unrequited by the Israelis and whose Palestinian Authority has, in many ways, become a security contractor for the Israeli occupation.

And there is a rising public sense here that armed struggle is inevitable. “Till we have a viable and independent Palestinian state, the Palestinian people have the right to resist the Israeli occupation and domination in any and all ways possible,” contends Imad Karam, a Gazan filmmaker and peace activist currently based in the UK.

“I really dislike Hamas but what they’re doing against Israel is the right thing,” a Jerusalemite friend told me, echoing an increasingly common sentiment.

“Israel has got to feel that there is a cost to its actions. It needs to get some of the same sense of fear and anguish we feel,” another said.

Hamas’s rockets are a “symbolic and radical assertion of an indigenous people’s unbending will to live with dignity in their ancestral homeland,” described Susan Abulhawa, the Palestinian author of the critically acclaimed book Mornings in Jenin, in a public post on her Facebook page. “They are the minimal acts of self-defence of a people against whom unspeakable crimes have never ceased in 60 years.”

Palestine’s increasingly successful peaceful popular resistance movements have also been caught in the crossfire. “This is the most aggressive Israeli war and one which hit families hardest, but we have not seen in the past such Palestinian unity and support behind the resistance,” says Karam. “A sign would be the general mood in both Gaza and the West Bank which is one that is proud and supportive of the resistance and their achievements, despite the hefty cost.”

Some even mock and ridicule the very notion of peaceful resistance. Rana Baker, a London-based Gazan, asked mockingly, in an article for openDemocracy, whether Palestinians “should grab guitars, pianos, and white ribbons, look up at their oppressors flying over their heads in apaches and F16s, and sing a lullaby of peace”.

Baker even justifies the targeting of civilians, which is a war crime, through the convoluted logic that “Palestinians fire rockets into what belongs to them in the first place.” In a show of dangerous self-deception, she even believes that armed resistance must continue “until Palestine is liberated, and by Palestine I mean historical Palestine.”

Such hardening maximalist nationalism in some Palestinian quarters is a product of disappointment and disillusionment at the failure of the peace process to deliver an independent state or even equality, only a state of segregation, settlements and walls.

But can armed struggle deliver justice for Palestinians where negotiations have failed? Judging by the long annals of the Arab-Israeli conflict, armed struggle has been a double-edged sword, with the edge facing the Palestinians digging much deeper and causing more pain.

In fact, in almost every military confrontation the Palestinians and Arabs have had with the Israelis, Israel has come out on top, with Palestinians paying a heavy price for the loss. Yet for advocates of the way of the gun such overwhelming evidence is ignored, or perhaps irrelevant.

“I remain convinced that there is no military solution to this conflict,” says Karam, recognising the futility of armed conflict in the Israeli-Palestinian context. “No matter how hard Israel hits our people, the Palestinian people will simply not give up until our legitimate demands for freedom are fulfilled, and no matter how far our rockets reach in Israel, they will not bring a solution to the conflict.”

'The sole solution'. A 1935 poster by the Irgun group. Source: http://www.palestineposterproject.org/poster/the-sole-solution

‘The sole solution’. A 1935 poster by the Irgun group. Source: http://www.palestineposterproject.org/poster/the-sole-solution

This is a lesson which Israel repeatedly refuses to learn, preferring the so-called “deterrence” of military brutality to the employment of soft power and the tackling of the underlying causes.

Karam still sees a future for unarmed Palestinian resistance, even in Gaza. “In my view, popular and non-violent resistance is the best way forward to achieve our national aspirations, alongside political negotiations,” he asserts. “However, it is difficult to apply this in Gaza which is blockaded and I don’t see an end to armed resistance from Gaza unless at least the blockade is lifted.”

Personally, I am convinced that non-violent resistance need not wait for a lifting of the blockade and, in fact, in a situation where Palestinians are seriously outgunned, peaceful protest can outsmart the Israeli military, leading to the lifting of the siege.

In fact, the most significant gains made by the Palestinian cause came through peaceful means. This is reflected in the first intifdada, when ordinary, humble, unarmed but dedicated Palestinians almost brought Israel to its knees. That the opportunities for peace and justice this threw up were manipulated in ill faith by too many Israeli leaders and squandered by the PLO does not detract from the power of popular, peaceful resistance.

Palestinian peace activist Sulaiman Khatib believes this apparent surge in support for armed struggle is passing and is fuelled by outrage and powerlessness at what is happening to the population of Gaza. “When people see all the images from Gaza, there is a shift in the balance between violent and non-violent struggle. But this is only temporary,” he told me.

“The large disparity in power in Gaza confirms my conviction that violence – or armed resistance – is not the way. The best way to change and combat the occupation is through non-violence.”

Khatib is the co-founder of Combatants for Peace, a group of ex-fighters, both Palestinians and Israelis, who “decided to put down our guns, and to fight for peace”.

This organisation didn’t get off to an easy birth. At the first-ever meeting of ex-Israeli and Palestinian combatants the air was thick with distrust, loathing, disagreement and, above all, fear. The Palestinians and Israelis were both paranoid that the meeting might be a trap.

Today, they are a well-organised and effective, if still relatively minor movement. In keeping with their ethos, they held a joint Arab-Jewish protest, albeit a small one, against the Gaza war. “We also need co-resistance,” emphasises Khatib.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Last week’s large peaceful protest in Qalandia is a clear sign that unarmed resistance has certainly not yet run its course in Palestine.

And it doesn’t end there. The Palestinian grassroots weave together a long and loose web of activists and groups who employ only peaceful means: from the likes of Bassem Tamimi, the school teacher who became an anti-settlement activist in Nabi Salih to Emad Burnat, the farmer who became an Oscar-nominated filmmaker to protest the Israeli wall in Bil’in.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated and extended version of an article which originally appeared in The National on 23 July 2014.

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Marching for Gaza and towards the third intifada

 
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By Khaled Diab

Does the largest Palestinian protest in  recent memory, along with weeks of unrest sparked by Gaza and racist hate crimes, indicate that the long-expected next intifada is here?

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 25 July 2014

It was billed as the “march of the 48,000”. Although the actual number was probably lower, with some estimates placing it at over 20,000, it was still the largest protest anyone could remember attending in many long years.

The demonstrators had come out in support of the people of Gaza, who have been under relentless Israeli military assault for the better part of three weeks, leaving at least 789 people dead, some three-quarters of whom have been civilians. The day of the protest also proved to be one of the bloodiest in Gaza, with well over 100 falling prey to the Israeli offensive, including at least 16 taking shelter in an UNRWA school.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Under the slogan “We are all Gaza,” people from all walks of life walked together from the Am’ari refugee camp in Ramallah to the Qalandia checkpoint… and onwards towards Jerusalem, the organisers wished.

Among the crowds were young and old, rich and poor, men and a surprisingly high proportion of women, not just the hip and revolutionary but also the mainstream muhajabat. People chanted slogans and sang songs in support of Gaza, with a small minority even singing about Qassams falling on Tel Aviv.

There was an ocean of Palestinian flags of all sizes being waved by the crowd, in a display of proud national identity targeted most likely at the hated symbol of the occupation towards which they were marching: the infamous Qalandia checkpoint, the barrier keeping Palestinians of the West Bank out of Jerusalem, unless they have a hard-to-come-by permit. There were also a handful of green Hamas flags.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

As we neared our destination, it was more like we were approaching the gates of hell. Thick clouds of black smoke were emanating from the area just before the checkpoint, the product it was clear of the dozens of large tyres which had been dropped off a truck as we’d passed earlier towards the starting point.

Like the majority of the crowd, we stopped short of the inferno and did not venture further, though we stayed as close as possible to see what was going on. A different variety of protester was rushing in to this uninviting hellhole: hardcore, young, almost exclusively male (though I thought I glimpsed a woman), faces concealed behind keffiyehs, masks, scarfs or any other improvised facial covering. Young men determined to get to Jerusalem that night.

In addition to the thick smoke, fireworks were being let off by protesters to confuse the riot police who, in turn, were firing flares, pointing menacing-looking and powerful lasers, shooting ample supplies of teargas and, most troublingly of all, they went so far as to shoot live rounds. As we stood there, a constant stream of wounded men was being carried away from the frontline and towards the ambulances.

At first, this was an orderly affair carried out solely by medics. But soon, as the casualties mounted, panicked, shaken young men were carrying out their own fallen, calling out desperately for ambulances and medical attention, which they soon received. We must have seen at least 50 wounded men pass us, including at least one that seemed to have a live-fire wound in his leg. In total, two died and 287 were injured that evening.

With our route to Jerusalem blocked and not wanting nor needing to take the path chosen by these daring and courageous youngsters, we hunted around for an alternative route. My friend, Ibrahim, suggested there must be a way around the clashes through the Qalandia refugee camp.

Finding a way through the warren of alleyways proved a challenge, but the locals were very helpful, from an old man who told us to scale a certain wall to a group of men who scored a lift with an AP cameraman for us. Despite our caution, we still got a couple of personalised teargas canisters shot in our direction when we got out of the car, forcing us to leap, choking into the first available vehicle that could take us to Hizma, and from there back to Jerusalem.

The large number of protesters at this demo, the numerous other protests and clashes going on that night and the following day – not to mention the weeks of unrest we have had since the abduction and murder of three Israeli teens unleashed a wave of hate and crackdowns against Palestinians, culminating in the racist murder of a Palestinian youth – could be an indication that the long-expected third intifada is final here.

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Arab leaders as human shields in Gaza

 
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By Khaled Diab

In order bring a halt to the multiplying human tragedy in Gaza, the Arab League should convene an emergency summit there. 

Instead of meeting in Cairo, Arab leaders should hold an emergency session of the Arab League in Gaza.

Instead of meeting in Cairo, Arab leaders should hold an emergency session of the Arab League in Gaza.

Monday 21 July 2014

Sunday was the bloodiest day of fighting since Israel lauched what it calls Operation Protective Edge. In almost two week, some 375 Palestinians, including 270 civilians, and 20 Israeli, including 2 civilians, have been killed, according to the United Nations.

The Arab League’s Secretary-General Nabil el-Araby described Israel’s shelling of the Shejaia neighbourhood in Gaza which killed at least 62 Palestinians on Sunday as a “war crime“. Despite this, the League has done precious little to intervene, beyond holding a foreign ministers meeting last week and urging international protection for Gaza’s civilians.

Well, this is just where our fine Arab leaders can really throw their weight and show us their mettle by acting as human shields.

Instead of foreign ministers meeting to discuss Gaza in Cairo, the Arab League’s heads of state and government should gather in Gaza itself in what would certainly constitute an “extraordinary session” in both word and deed.

Like the courageous international activists holed up in a Gaza hospital to protect it against planned Israeli airstrikes, Arab leaders can become a highly potent and symbolic human shield to protect the vulnerable and captive population of Gaza.

Just picture the scene. Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, the two King Abdullahs and other Arab leaders pass through the hermetically sealed Rafah crossing in a long and snaking motorcade which is met by a weary but relieved crowd pleased that the Arab world has finally showed its solidarity with them in such a high-profile manner.

In a show of sympathy with the suffering population, they could also visit hospitals, destroyed homes and grieving families. This would not only win them plaudits in Palestinian circles but also with their own publics at home.

The deployment of such a top-level Arab peace corps would almost certainly bring about a ceasefire, as the possible death of a president or monarch would constitute too great a risk for Israel, which wouldn’t want to widen the scope of the conflict. As for Hamas, it would, after such a spectacular gesture, want to keep fellow Arab leaders on side as it seeks to emerge from its international and regional isolation.

On the Gazan-Israeli front, which is stuck in a short-play time loop that is gradually spiralling towards total disaster, a cessation of hostilities will not be sufficient to stop history from repeating itself as tragedy and farce simultaneously.

In Gaza, the assembled Arab leaders with a mandate from the rest of the Arab League should offer to help the UN assemble a blue-helmeted peacekeeping force which would be deployed along all Gaza’s borders. Its mission would be to stop the targeting of civilians, which constitutes a war crime for both sides, albeit of hugely varying magnitudes, since Israel has only had two civilian death so far.

The blue helmets would, first and foremost, protect Gaza’s vulnerable and besieged civilians from the wounding trauma of being trapped and under attack. In addition, the international force would protect the socially marginalised and economically deprived residents of southern Israel from the militant rockets which – though they have caused only a fraction of the deaths and damage that results from Israel’s far superior firepower – nonetheless have resulted in significant fear, especially among children. These civilians deserve to live in security.

More importantly, Gaza needs to emerge from its isolation, which is both inhumane and has caused a humanitarian disaster. At the extraordinary session in Gaza, Egypt should indicate that, for the sake of the people of Gaza and regardless of what Cairo thinks of the Hamas regime, it will unilaterally end its side of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, while the Arab league would announce the creation of a special Gaza fund to rebuild the battered strip and its shattered economy. This should be the minimum Arabs aim for, and bringing Gaza into the Arab fold can be achieved without Israel’s acquiescence or co-operation.

Beyond this, the Arab League should demand Israel to follow suit and end its sea and land blockade of Gaza and any future military operations there, in return for guarantees that Gaza-based militants will stop attacks against Israel. The details of such a wide-ranging package can be hammered out in Cairo between representatives of Hamas and Israel, whom, given the hostility between the two sides, can convene separately under Egyptian auspices.

More fundamentally, the League could use this golden and highly symbolic opportunity in Gaza to go over the heads of Israel’s intransigent and extremist government to appeal directly to the Israeli electorate and public by re-floating its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which offers Israel comprehensive peace in return for a comprehensive settlement.

It is highly improbable that the vision I have outlined here will have many takers or stands much of a chance of success, as there are too many barriers which stand in the way. These include the Israeli government’s intransigence and ultra-nationalism, Hamas’s re-emerging radicalism and traditional rejectionist stance towards peace efforts, despite its indication that it would accept a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders, divisions within Palestinian ranks, despite the recent national unity agreement, and the current turbulent and divided nature of the wider Arab world.

Nevertheless, what I seek to demonstrate with this thought experiment and wishful mental exercise is that, without creative and fundamental solutions to the Gaza question and the wider conflict, history will continue to repeat itself indefinitely, while the human tragedy will multiply and mushroom.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Daily News Egypt on 15 July 2014.

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From the Chronikles – 2048: A peace odyssey

 
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By Khaled Diab

A century after war broke out, jubilant Israeli and Palestinian crowds celebrate each other’s independence as they march hand-in-hand into the future.

14 May 2048*

Israelis took to the streets today in jubilation to mark the 100th anniversary of the violent birth of their once-troubled nation. In Palestine, Palestinians, who also today celebrate 15 years of independent nationhood and the fulfilment of their national aspirations, extended warm congratulations to their Jewish neighbours.

The legendary one-time Israeli and Palestinian premiers, after attending separate independence day rallies in their respective capitals, Tel Avivand Ramallah, walked out together onto a raised podium in jointly administered Jerusalem, the two nations’ spiritual and federal capital, for a celebration with thousands of revellers.

“Words cannot express my pride and joy on this special day,” a clearly emotional Shalom V, the charismatic Israeli ex-prime minister, told the assembled crowd as he fought back the tears. “I am proud to be alive at this important moment in the Jewish people’s history. Today, we can truly hold our heads up high as proud members of the family of nations, now that we and the Palestinians have found a way of living together in peace and prosperity. I would like to take this opportunity to wish our brothers and sisters in Palestine a happy 15th anniversary for their nation.”

A deafening roar gripped the mixed audience of Palestinians and Israelis who spontaneously began to chant the name of Salama B, the popular Palestinian ex-prime minister. “Just 20 years ago, the idea that a Palestinian leader could be standing here wishing Israel a happy birthday was still unthinkable. It has not been easy for my people, who have shown for decades fortitude and steadfastness in the face of adversity, to come to terms with the painful reality that accompanied the loss of our land in 1948, but our Jewish brothers and sisters also suffered in their exile. Now they are safe among their brethren.”

Back in 2007, while the world was marking the 40th anniversary of the1967 war, Israel was strangling Gaza and repressing the West Bank, and Hamas and Fatah were at war, Salama was on his fifth year in administrative detention in an Israeli prison. The passionate young idealist, a doctor, was spurred by the images of Ariel Sharon entering the Holy Sanctuary with hundreds of troops to join the al-Aqsa martyrs brigade.

He was engaged in a number of gun battles with the better-armed IDF soldiers, but was opposed to suicide bombings and attacking civilians. This set him on a collision course with the more extreme factions of the group, but the imminent standoff was averted by his capture and arrest during another shoot out with the Israeli army, ironically while tending to the soldier he’d critically wounded.

The Israeli officer in charge of Salama did not sympathise with Salama’s assertion that, in a war, it was legitimate to attack soldiers. “And if what you say is true, you’re my POW until the end of this war,” the hawkish officer famously said.

Little did this officer suspect that he was aiding the prospects for peace. In prison, Salama learnt to speak fluent Hebrew and discovered a passion for history – and what he learnt about Jewish history did not quell the anger in his breast that he felt at the plight of his people, but it caused him to feel compassion for the other side.

In 2008, Israel’s 60th anniversary caused Shalom, then a junior Knesset member and historian, to suffer, in addition to his tearful joy, a crisis of conscience. He and Salama needed to reach out to the other side and started off a correspondence through which they became best friends before they ever met.

Together, they realised the explosive effect of the past and of ideology and so set about to defuse it. Slowly, they formulated a common narrative which gave credence to both sides. It sought to replace the current epic Israeli and Palestinian histories with more nuanced ones.

They also agreed to work together on “bread and butter” issues. Shalom, then only 31 and with no military background, began a clever and charismatic grassroots campaign calling for Salama’s release. Once out of prison in 2009, Salama faced some suspicion of being a “collaborator”, but his natural intelligence and charm and his simple message of “individual dignity before national pride” won him many converts among the hard-pressed and downtrodden Palestinian population, at a time of Israeli closures and crushing occupation, international embargo, and civil war. And the many scattered groups involved in non-violent activism found in him and Shalom natural leaders.

Together, Salama and Shalom effectively turned the Palestinian struggle into a civil rights movement for the next decade or so, winning Palestinians the hard-earned right to work and move freely across the entire land, which helped the two sides to see the human in the other. By around 2018, the movement they’d spawned turned its attention to Palestinian autonomy, which was achieved in 2021.

The vexed issue of refugees was handled through a sustainable number of Palestinians being allowed to return each year, compensation for those willing to stay away – and the entire Palestinian diaspora being allowed to visit freely. Some Arab countries which had had significant Jewish populations, such as Morocco, also instigated a right of return for those Middle Eastern Jews who had been made refugees after the creation of Israel and their offspring wishing to return to their ancestral homelands and revive the once-vibrant Jewish minorities there. Most of those who returned came from Europe or the US, but some also moved from Israel.

After a dozen years of autonomy, rapid economic growth and convergence between Israel and Palestine, the time came to decide on the fate of the two nations. In 2033, two separate referenda were held among the two peoples outlining the options ahead. A majority of Palestinians and Israelis voted for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, but then, to the surprise of many, for its immediate entry into a federal union with Israel.

The Palestinian state was born on the same day as the Israeli one 85 years previously, so that the day of Israel’s joy – traditionally associated with Palestinian tragedy and despair – would also be that of Palestine’s, marked according to the Gregorian calendar, rather than the former practice of using the lunar calendar common to Judaism and Islam. In addition, Israeli remembrance day was broadened to include the Palestinian nakba.

“Given the small size of this land and the proximity of our two peoples, that is the only sensible option,” Shalom remarked at the time.

“In the past, we had our hands at each others’ throats. Today, our two peoples have voted to walk into the future hand-in-hand,” said Salama, independent Palestine’s first premier, as he and Shalom grabbed each others’ hands and raised them triumphantly in the air, hugging emotionally like the old comrades that they were.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

*This article was republished on 5 May 2014. It originally appeared in The Guardian on 23 April 2008.

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Gaza’s forsaken and forgotten people

 
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Gaza’s humanitarian disaster and the rising tensions there are forgotten by the world. Principle and pragmatism demand an end to the blockade.

Image courtesy of UNRWA

Image courtesy of UNRWA

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Tensions between Gaza and Israel are mounting once again. There have been Israeli airstrikes and Islamic Jihad rockets. Israel recently claimed that it had intercepted a Gaza-bound arms shipment, though the claim seemed rather implausible.

It has also uncovered what it described as the “most advanced” tunnel into Israel from Gaza which says could’ve been used to mount attacks. On the other side of Gaza’s hermetically sealed boundaries Egypt claimed to have destroyed a mind-boggling 1,370 smuggling tunnels.

This has sealed off what little economic breathing space Gaza had to withstand the naval and land blockade of the Strip. And the figures speak for themselves.

Although Gaza has been overshadowed by the catastrophes related to the Syrian civil war and other regional events, the forsaken and forgotten territory is enduring a humanitarian crisis of monumental proportions.

Official unemployment runs at nearly 40%, with the actual figure probably significantly higher, and some 80% of the population receives aid, according to UNRWA, the UN relief agency. Gaza also endures severe fuel shortages, endless blackouts, while raw sewage and seawater contaminate the water supply.

Even though things are relatively quiet for now and Hamas is sticking to the ceasefire negotiated in 2012, the situation, driven by desperation, could spiral out of control at any moment. “It is only a matter of time until a flare-up with Israel escalates into a major conflagration,” warned the International Crisis Group, the conflict-prevention think tank, last week.

To prevent this destructive eventuality, the ICG calls on Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza in return for continued guarantees that rockets will not be fired into Israel.

Personally, I think that the ICG’s blueprint may delay a confrontation for a time, at best, but it will not prevent it.

The only way to do that is for both Israel and Egypt to end their siege of Gaza and for Hamas and all the militant groups to provide iron-cast assurances that they will not carry out attacks on either of their neighbours, who will also refrain from launching military operations on Gaza.

Hawks in both Israel and Egypt will immediately object, and claim that the blockade is the only way to contain Hamas. In fact, officials in both countries have indicated their desire to go beyond containment and to bring down the de facto sole ruler of Gaza.

Echoing Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz has warned that, if rocket fire resumes, Israel may invade Gaza to topple Hamas.

But Steinitz’s proposal betrays a severe absence of intelligence. After all, previous efforts to dislodge the Islamist movement – including major military operations since Hamas came to power, in 2006, 2008/9 and 2012 – have only strengthened its grip on power.

Besides, even if Hamas is faltering or on the brink of collapse, there is the troubling question, asked by many in Gaza, of who will come after.

Israel once supported Hamas and its precursors as a supposed counterbalance to the PLO, and, in the process, contributed to creating something far more radical. Many fear that Islamic Jihad, not the Palestinian Authority, would dominate such a post-Hamas Gaza.

Israel has imposed severe restrictions on Gazans since at least 1991, when it began its permanent closure policy in the Strip, with little noticeable effect on Israel’s security or on prospects for peace.

In fact, sealing Gaza off from the outside world has turned what used to be a relatively open and liberal society dependent on shoppers and tourists into an insular prison colony controlled by religious fundamentalists.

This proven inefficacy, as well as the humanitarian crisis, may be what prompted outgoing UNRWA chief Filippo Grandi to speak out strongly. While acknowledging the legitimacy of Israel and Egypt’s security he concerns, he said: “I think the world should not forget about the security of the people of Gaza.”

Grandi added that the blockade was “illegal and must be lifted”. “I also want to make a strong appeal for export to resume because the lack of export is the main reason for the poverty of Gaza,” he added.

And it is not just Grandi who is fed up with the blockade; others in the international community are too. Even the European Union is losing patience. In a recent report, the EU’s heads of mission called for a “strategy for a political endgame resulting in Gaza’s return to normality”, naming Israel as “the primary duty bearer” due to its role as the occupying power, while urging Hamas to instate a “categorical renunciation of violence”.

If the  status quo stays in place, the ever worsening situation in Gaza will only succeed in radicalising a new generation. After all, some, having lost everything, may decide they’ve got nothing left to lose.

Ending the Gaza blockade is both the principled and pragmatic thing to do.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This feature first appeared in The National on 2 April 2014.

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Gunship diplomacy, rockets and Gaza’s forgotten tragedy

 
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By Khaled Diab

The other tragedies make it is easy to forget Gaza. But with a humanitarian crisis and rising tensions, it’s time to end the Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

Saturday 15 March 2014

Image courtesy of UNRWA

Image courtesy of UNRWA

These days it seems that Gaza only makes it on to the mainstream Western media’s radar when it involves rocket attacks or just simply rockets.

This was amply demonstrated this week, when the media took a brief break from Syria and the Ukraine to train their lens on the besieged Palestinian enclave.

On Wednesday, Gazan militants fired a barrage of rockets into southern Israel, causing no casualties. Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the attack, said it was in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike which killed three of its members a day earlier.

On Monday, Israel displayed an arms shipment it had intercepted which it said was Iranian and destined for Gaza.

Though this is not beyond the bounds of possibility, given Iran’s history of supporting Hamas, I find the claim unlikely, and that the arms were probably heading elsewhere. Firstly, relations between Iran and Hamas suffered a serious rift two years ago when Gaza’s leadership opposed Bashar al-Assad’s violent suppression of the popular uprising against his regime, and efforts to mend fences have yet to deliver substantial results.

Tehran’s subsequent withdrawal of its financial support to the embattled Hamas government has caused enormous economic hardship for the Gazan population, over and above what it endures due to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade. This is reflected in the 75% budget deficit Hamas announced for 2014, the regular 16-hour blackouts and the severe shortages Gazans must suffer.

Of course, it is possible that the arms were destined for one of Hamas’s more radical rivals, namely Islamic Jihad. However, the Israeli claim regarding the arms shipment also makes very little logistical sense.

The ship was intercepted in the Red Sea and IDF officials say that the arms were to be routed to Gaza overland via Sudan. This is a very risky and foolhardy proposition, and would almost certainly have guaranteed that the shipment was intercepted before it reached its final destination.

Port Sudan is over 1,300km away from Gaza and the huge expanse of mainland Egypt, which is hostile to Hamas, lies in-between. Any arms smuggler worth his or her salt would have docked somewhere in the increasingly lawless Sinai, where Islamist militants holed up there could’ve provided logistical support to get the weapons into Gaza – if that, indeed, was where they were bound.

Moreover, if Iran’s aim was to strike Israel, why bother with Gaza, whose border with Egypt has become more and more tightly sealed in recent months in the new regime’s bid to suffocate Hamas?

Israel identified the weapons onboard the seized vessel as being Syrian. Surely, it would have been much easier for Tehran to ask its ally in Damascus to fire these weapons into Israel across the Syrian border. If the attack was then blamed on Jihadist fighters, Iran would be able both to attack Israel by proxy while aiding its ally, Bashar al-Assad, in discrediting his enemies.

All this makes the Israeli claim that the shipment was destined for Gaza seem outlandish. So what is behind Israel’s insistence?

Part of the reason might relate to the atmosphere of public fear surrounding Iran in Israel, which does not invite a rational consideration of the evidence and facts.

For Israel’s leaders, political expediency seems to be a major factor. In his speech in Eilat, where the arms cache was presented to the international media, Binyamin Netanyahu sought to kill two birds with one stone.

First, he strove to stymie the growing rapprochement between Tehran and the West. “Just as Iran tried to camouflage this deadly weapons shipment, Iran camouflages its military nuclear programme,” the Israeli premier said, blasting Western leaders for their “hypocrisy” when “smilingly shaking hands” with Iranian leaders.

Second, the Israeli establishment used the arms shipment as an opportunity to fan the flames of distrust towards Hamas in Gaza, and the Palestinians in general, partly to enrage and frighten a fearful domestic audience. “Each one of these rockets poses a threat to the safety of the citizens of Israel, each bullet and each rocket that was discovered had an Israeli address,” Lieutenant General Benny Gantz has been quoted as saying.

This reflects Netanyahu’s own discourse on and attitude towards peace talks, which US Secretary of State John Kerry has been pushing actively through continuous shuttle diplomacy. If Israel signs a deal with the Palestinians “that peace will most certainly come under attack – constant attack by Hizbullah, Hamas, al-Qaeda and others,” the prime minister told the recent AIPAC annual conference.

And it isn’t just Kerry’s peace overtures that Netanyahu is resisting. Despite Washington’s own lethargy towards the humanitarian disaster zone that is Gaza, there is mounting international pressure to ease, or even lift, the blockade on the territory. Even the European Union is losing patience.

In a report released this week, the EU’s heads of mission called for a “strategy for a political endgame resulting in Gaza’s return to normality”, naming Israel as “the primary duty bearer” due to its role as the occupying power, while urging Hamas to instate a “categorical renunciation of violence”.

But this is likely to fall on deaf ears in Israel, where public anger is simmering, blinding people to the true causes behind this dire situation.

It has long been my view that both principle and pragmatism demand an end to the Israeli-Egyptian siege of Gaza. It is the principled thing to do because collectively and severely punishing 1.7 million civilians is inhumane.

Pragmatic because such punishment is counterproductive. Although Gaza’stroubles pale in comparison with Syria’s, the humanitarian consequences of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade have been building up over the years and continue to exact a heavy toll. Moreover, this has aroused little public protest in Israel, while the Egyptian public has gone from anger at the Mubarak regime’s complicity in the siege to cheering Egypt’s de facto leader Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as he raises the few drawbridges providing relief to this hostage population.

In Gaza, official unemployment runs at about a third of the population, with the actual figure probably significantly higher, and almost a million of the Strip’s 1.7 million residents are expected to require food aid this year. Gaza also endures severe fuel shortages, endless blackouts, while raw sewage and seawater contaminate the water supply.

Although Israel has the right and duty to ensure the security of its citizens, Israel’s policy has failed to achieve any of its stated aims, and may even be radicalising a new generation of young Gazans who have seen nothing of Israel except its heavy boot. Egypt’s complicity in hurting a population only recently regarded as “Arab brothers” makes even less sense.

Besides, if it is a ceasefire that Israel is after, Hamas has respected the one brokered following the conflict of 2012.

This might suggest that Israel’s objectives go beyond stopping the rocket attacks and extend to destroying Hamas. But this is unlikely to work, as efforts to dislodge the Islamist movement — including major military operations since Hamas came to power, in 2006, 2008/9 and 2012 — have only strengthened its grip on power.

In addition, Israel has imposed severe restrictions on Gazans since at least 1991, when it began its permanent closure policy in the Strip, with little noticeable effect on Israel’s security or prospects for peace. 

In short, principle and pragmatism demand that both Israel and Egypt lift their inhuman and insane siege of Gaza.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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Can Egypt start a new chapter of Middle Eastern history?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The new constitution says Egypt is a “gift” that will “write a new history for humanity”. Should neighbours welcome or fear greater Egyptian influence?

Saturday 25 January 2014

For the past three years, Egyptian history has been in overdrive. After six decades with just four presidents, Egypt is already into its fourth leader since January 2011, and a fifth, possibly General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, will take over the helm soon. In that same span of accelerated time, Egypt has seen a mind-spinning array of revolutions, counterrevolutions, anti-revolutions, coups, evolutions and devolutions… often simultaneously.

Needless to say, the past 36 months have been an emotional rollercoaster and space jump for Egyptians, especially those at the frontline of the revolution, but also for those, like me, observing from the sidelines.

Although I shun nationalism and the word  patriotism troubles me, during the 18 days it took to topple Hosni Mubarak, I was the proudest I’d ever been of my birth nationality. Despite dreading the hangover which would follow, I too was caught up in the euphoria of the moment, that “beautiful, sweet, intoxicating chaos in which millions are partying to the beat of their own freedom”, as I wrote back then.

On this, the third anniversary of the mass uprising that has succeeded in mobilising millions again and again and again, the question on everyone’s lips is whether or not the Egyptian revolution has been defeated.

Though many have been reading the revolution its last rites, I am of the conviction that the uprising may have been contained for the time being, but the aspirations and it unleashed are uncontainable. And like “liberté, égalité, fraternité” survived to fight another day, “bread, freedom, dignity” will remain a rallying cry for generations.

Another question which has preoccupied many is what are the ramifications of events in Egypt, the most populous Arab country, for the Middle East, and how will it shape or reshape Egypt’s regional role?

In some quarters of Egyptian society, the domestic issues the revolution has focused on have been rather too bread and butter for their tastes, and they dream of Egypt (re)gaining its regional clout.

This is reflected in the flowery, sometimes jingoistic preamble of the new constitution which takes poetic licence with Egypt’s place in the world. “Egypt is the gift of the Nile to Egyptians, and the gift of Egyptians to humanity,” reads the very first sentence of the constitution’s preamble.

Taking note of the conflicts between East and West, and North and South, which have torn apart the world, the founding document declares Egypt’s intention to help “write a new history for humanity”.

What is the likelihood that Egypt will fulfil these dizzyingly high aspirations?

Given that the world is a much bigger and more complicated place than at the dawn of civilisation and Egypt is only a middle-income, middle-sized country, any role it can play is bound to be limited, even at the best of times.

Nevertheless, many Arabs expect Egypt to play a central role in regional affairs. I am constantly surprised by the number of Palestinians I meet who regard Egypt’s natural position as the central player in the region, even repeating the tired platitude which I had once assumed was mostly a domestic comforter – that Egypt is the “Mother of the World”.

At one level, it is touching to observe how Palestinians, despite the multitude of problems they face, take such a keen interest in my country’s affairs, feeling elation for our successes and depression for our failures. “We have always looked to Egypt for inspiration and support,” one Palestinian I met recently told me.

The Israeli perspective is more complicated. Many Israelis, especially the young and progressive, voiced support for the Egyptian revolution and sent messages of solidarity, including in song, to the protestors, while the epicentre of the 2011 social protests in Israel, Tel Aviv’s Rothschild’s Avenue, was known as “Tahrir Square” to many demonstrators.

However, when it came to the Israeli political establishment, fear and fear-mongering were the order of the day. “I highly doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood will succeed, in a post-Mubarak democratic Egypt, of gaining complete control of the country through an Islamic counterrevolution,” I wrote before Mubarak’s downfall, in response to Israeli concerns that Egypt would become “another Iran”. “The cold Egyptian-Israeli peace would remain just as cool or may well chill a few degrees, regardless of the composition of a future democratic government.”

And as time would tell, when they gained power, the Muslim Brotherhood proved keen on maintaining the peace, for reasons of realpolitik. Ousted president Mohamed Morsi even earning accolades from Israel for his government’s mediation of the 2012 military confrontation between Israel and Gaza.

Moreover, today Egypt’s policies towards the Palestinians are even more in line with Israel’s than they were under Mubarak, and to greater public approval. Tragically, this has translated into Egypt becoming an even greater accomplice in Israel’s blockade of Gaza, the vilification of Gazans, and whispers that the regime may be planning to do what has eluded Israel: topple Hamas.

Yet many Palestinians and Arabs still hold out hope that Egypt will play a benign role in the neighbourhood. “Egypt is the bellwether Arab state,” an Emirati journalist and commentator put it to me succinctly. And this “bellwether” role could explain why the Gulf has been pumping billions into the Egyptian economy – to keep the revolutionary bug at bay and to buy political leverage.

And once upon a time, Egypt was not only the most populous Arab country but also its wealthiest. This gave it automatic top dog status, with mixed results.

On the plus side, Egypt launched the Arab world’s first modernising project in the 19th century, has long been an intellectual and cultural dynamo, helped its neighbours resist imperialism in the 20th century, played a pivotal role in constructing a sense of post-colonial pride, and acted in solidarity with non-aligned countries everywhere.

But there is an ugly underbelly to Egypt’s regional influence, and ignorance of it or failure to appreciate it could have serious consequences. For example, even if Egypt was a major anti-colonial influence, it was also an imperial power in its own right.

Khedive Muhammad Ali may have freed Egypt from Ottoman rule but his son, Ibrahim Pasha, ruthlessly and bloodily built his father an empire which, at some point or other, encompassed the Hijaz, Sudan, parts of Anatolia, much of the Levant and Crete, with even Constantinople within military but not political reach. However, imperial Egypt proved as unpopular as any other imperial power in the conquered regions, particularly Sudan.

Following the 1952 revolution/coup, or revolutionary coup, Egypt became a powerhouse of anti-imperialism and pan-Arabism. It lent support to some countries seeking independence and provided inspiration to others, with millions dreaming that the Arab world could become a single nation under the leadership of Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

But the only actual attempt to realise this dream ended in both tragedy and farce. Even though Nasser did not want to enter into a union with Syria, the Syrian government, fearing a communist takeover, forced his hand.

Instead of the United Arab Republic being a marriage of equals, Nasser quickly destroyed Syrian democracy and turned it into the personal fiefdom of his most-trusted confidante, the highly incompetent Abdel-Hakim Amer – perhaps evoking bitter memories of Ibrahim Pasha amongst Syrians.

Then there was what many have called Egypt’s “Vietnam” in Yemen, not to mention the disasters of the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel.

How much and what kind of a regional role or influence – and whether it will be benign or aggressive – Egypt will have in the coming years will depend on many factors. But it is certainly possible that, if elected president, al-Sisi, like many leaders during tumultuous times before him, will involve Egypt actively, perhaps even aggressively, in regional politics to distract attention away from pressing domestic issues or to fill the country’s empty coffers.

But rather than exporting the troubling brand of nationalistic chauvinism that has been emerging in recent months, what I’d like to see is Egypt sharing the irrepressible spirit of the Republic of Tahrir so that, together, the region can grow free.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 January 2014.

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Obama, enough listening, it’s time to act

 
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By Khaled Diab

Barack Obama’s plan to “listen” when he visits Israel and Palestine is not enough, the US president must act to launch a people’s peace process.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Sages through the ages have told us that listening is a virtue – and US President Barack Obama is apparently heeding their advice. According to the new US Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama “wants to listen” during his upcoming visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories this spring.

But is this wise?

“We’re not going to go and sort of plunk a plan down and tell everybody what they have to do,” Kerry explained. And more recently, a senior US official noted: “The Israelis and Palestinians must decide what they want to do, and we’ll be happy to help.”

On the face of it, this sounds like a sensible course of action. One of the things the United States is most regularly criticised for is its dictatorial foreign policy tendency to impose its will on smaller countries.

In addition, the sympathetic and optimistic might read into Obama’s reticence a judicious and prudent silence. After all, if Washington plans to (re-)launch a serious new bid to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama may be keeping his cards close to his chest, given the enormous obstacles that stand in the way of peace and the potentially dire consequences of further failure.

But judging by Obama’s first term and the state of the union speech inaugurating his second – in which the only mention of the Holy Mess was the president’s reiteration of his oft-repeated pledge to “stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace” – “listening”, the sceptic in me is tempted to conclude, sounds a lot like code for inaction and maintaining the status quo.

And maintaining the status quo has been the hallmark of Obama’s presidency, as I predicted even before he became president and after his famous Cairo speech.

“The visit will be a good opportunity to reaffirm the strong and enduring bonds of friendship between Israel and the US,” Washington’s ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said. And in case anyone was in any doubt that this would be more than a photo-op, Obama will be feted wherever he goes and offered the Presidential Medal of Distinction during his visit – perhaps in an effort by Shimon Peres to exercise damage control following Binyamin Netanyahu’s disastrous attempt to influence the U.S. electoral process.

And if media reports are to be believed, security, or at least the illusion of it, will trump peace. The American president, Israel’s Channel 10 has claimed, intends to tell Netanyahu that a “window of opportunity” for a military strike on Iran will open in June 2013.

So, rather than chart a course towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Obama’s visit could trigger a plunge towards regional conflict. Meanwhile, the true “window of opportunity” and key to Israel’s future security, the Palestinians, will be ignored, relegated to non-issue status, even if they deserve their freedom and dignity, rather like they were during the Israeli elections.

However, Palestinian impatience and frustration is simmering near boiling point – with renewed talk of a third intifada, though a full-scale uprising has yet to erupt – as reflected in the collective prisoner hunger strike and demonstrations to end detention without trial following the death in Israeli custody of Arafat Jaradat.

But inaction on the Palestinian-Israeli front is not an option – at least not for anyone desiring a better and fairer future, and avoiding future escalations of the conflict. In addition, if Obama wishes to secure a lasting legacy for his presidency and to earn the Nobel peace prize he was prematurely awarded, he must do more than listen. He must take robust action.

But what can and should the American president do?

Well, freed of the spectre of re-election, Obama has the space, if he so wishes, to work towards radically redefining the US approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first step, in my view, is for him to announce publicly that the failed, discredited and ineffective Oslo process will be abandoned.

One reason why the peace process broke down is that Washington has never succeeded in playing the role of an honest and impartial broker. To address this shortcoming, Obama should announce his intention to turn peace mediation into a truly multilateral process not only by giving the toothless Quartet real teeth but also by bringing in the Arab League and other influential and important members of the international community.

In order to focus the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships’ minds, Obama should harness and mobilise all the diplomatic and economic carrots and sticks at his disposal – and encourage international partners to do the same.

For example, he should significantly downsize US military aid to Israel – though this seems highly improbably, given new Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s assurances that American military assistance would continue, even as the United States hangs precariously off a fiscal cliff – and security assistance to the PA. Obama should also make continued aid to both sides contingent on progress towards peace. In Gaza, where far too many sticks have been deployed, inhumanely and ineffectually, Obama should offer to end its destructive international isolation and he should start a dialogue with the Hamas leadership – perhaps even visiting the Strip, which would be a huge symbolic act of peace and conciliation.

Of course, as decades of foreign meddling going back to the 1947 partition plan and before have clearly demonstrated, there can be no lasting resolution without broad domestic buy-in, among both Israelis and Palestinians.

This involves forcing the leaders on both sides – who are blighted with serious visionary myopia, lack courage, represent too many vested interests, and suffer from ideological paralysis and ineptitude – to take action by giving representatives of every strata of Palestinian and Israeli society seats at the negotiating table.

This may seem like a recipe for chaos, disaster and deadlock, but I am convinced that direct public dialogue and participation is essential if this impasse is ever to be overcome. One factor that has held back a peace deal, even at the most pragmatic and optimistic of times, is the fear that the negotiators would not be able to sell the agreement to their respective constituencies, particularly the radical elements among them.

By involving the public from the start, the entire process is given democratic legitimacy and ensures that there will be a groundswell of popular opinion for any accord when it comes time to sign on the dotted line.

Moreover, such a process would allow an honest public debate to emerge, within both societies and between them, which would most likely strengthen the hand of moderates and pragmatists, allowing the emergence of robust pro-peace alliances, and would shed light on who the true villains of the peace are.

Most importantly perhaps, public involvement would challenge the current levels of endemic popular apathy, cynicism, distrust and despair by empowering people to take direct responsibility for their future, and that of their children. And with apathy and despair, the best allies of extremists, out of the way, pragmatism and moderation might finally win the day.

Some might wonder how on earth you’re going to get two such fractured and divided societies, not to mention determined foes, to agree on the colour of the stationery, let alone the outlines of a comprehensive peace deal.

Well, poll after poll after poll keep suggesting to us that the public in Israel and Palestine are more sensible than their leaders, so it’s time to put that hypothesis to the test. Moreover, “comprehensive” is unlikely to happen, because as bitter experience shows, no wand exists to magic away decades of animosity and wrong turns.

Instead, we should take an immediate and incremental approach. Anything agreed on by the majority of people on both sides, no matter how small or apparently insignificant, should be put to an immediate referendum and implemented straight away. This would gradually improve the situation, create positive momentum, and build a house of peace, shalom, salom, or even salom, one brick at a time.

“All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear,” Obama said in Cairo, at the beginning of his first term. I hope he lives up to this responsibility by supporting and facilitating a peace of the people, by the people and for the people.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 10 March 2013.

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Reading between the lines of the Middle Eastern media

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite its bottom ranking in the Press Freedom Index, the Middle Eastern media is freer than it appears at first sight.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Despite all the sacrifices made by citizens and journalists across the Middle East and North Africa, the region has come in bottom of the global media freedom league, according to the recently released 2013 Press Freedom Index (PFI).  

Though not entirely surprising, this unenviable distinction is a dispiriting reality check for how far the region still has to go before it delivers the freedoms coveted and demanded by its citizens – at least, that is how the current situation as reflected by the PFI league table seems at first sight. 

The bottom 10 contains two Middle Eastern countries: Syria (placed in 176th position) and Iran (174th). Surpassed only by the truly terrible trio of Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan, Syria, which for decades has not been a bastion of media freedom, has seen its track record worsen significantly ever since it erupted into a bloody civil war in which journalists, like civilians, have been targeted, mainly by the government, but also by opposition forces. 

In all, four journalists were killed in Syria in 2012, and a further 41 media professionals and netizens were imprisoned. This made Syria the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist, according to Reporters sans frontiers (RSF), the organisation behind the index.  

As an indication of the sorry state of the region, the highest scoring MENA country only managed 77th place. Surprisingly for many, this number one spot goes not to Israel, the self-styled only democracy in the Middle East, nor to Lebanon, long regarded as the capital of the freest Arab press and its most vibrant publishing sector, but to the small emirate of Kuwait. 

In addition, despite having a population of just 2.8 million, Kuwait is home to a broad range of quality dailies and weeklies of varying political stripes and, according to RSF, the most liberal press legislation in the region.  

While Kuwait seems to be for the large part practising and not preaching when it comes to its media, the same cannot be said for nearby Qatar, which occupies the 110th position in the PFI ranking. While al-Jazeera, which often exhibits greater editorial freedom than certain segments of the Western media, has revolutionised the Arab world’s staid media, providing those who previously had no access to a free media an open window on the world, and has been boldly and enthusiastically at the frontline of the revolutionary wave sweeping the region, the domestic media in Qatar remains tame and subservient to the ruling elite. 

This has resulted in Qatar suffering from a form of cognitive dissonance, with the government at once defending al-Jazeera’s editorial freedom, even occasionally to the detriment of relations with Arab and Western allies, yet not tolerating dissent from its domestic media. Likewise, this daring channel which walks the walk abroad dares not talk the talk at home, exhibiting “restraint, even self-censorship”, in the words of RSF. Or as one journalist friend put it, “al-Jazeera’s motto is to speak truth to power, except the one that pays the bills”.

Defenders of al-Jazeera sometimes claim that the news channel is not practising self-censorship when it comes to domestic Qatari affairs but rather that the tiny land of 1.7 million is a backwater where little of interest to regional and global viewers ever happens. While there is some merit to this view, there are plenty of Qatar-related issues that would interest a broader audience, such as its restrictive media laws, its sluggish progress towards democratisation, not to mention the controversial presence of a US airbase there.

The ultimate test of al-Jazeera’s vaunted independence would be how it would report on events if Qatar caught the revolutionary bug. Possible indications of how this might play out are provided by neighbouring Bahrain, whose uprising, Bahraini opposition figures complain, has received relatively little coverage.

In fact, since the Arab Spring broke out, a wave of allegations, including from discontented ex-reporters with the network, has emerged that al-Jazeera’s once enviable independent stance has become increasingly subservient to backroom manipulation from the palace, including, in an echo of the traditional practices of state-owned Arab channels, the re-editing of a report on a UN debate on Syria to lead with the comments of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani – you know, the hereditary leader who deposed his father to gain power over that backwater which doesn’t normally merit media coverage.

Despite its poor showing, Qatar is still two places ahead of Israel (112th place). This low ranking is bound to bewilder, bemuse and even anger many Israelis. But I believe it is both justified and unjustified.  

It is justified because of military censorship and the severe restrictions Israel imposes on Israeli, Palestinian and foreign journalists working in the occupied Palestinian territories. In addition, the Israeli military bombed two buildings housing media in Gaza during last November’s Gaza conflict.  

Moreover, not only are Israeli journalists not allowed to operate there, Palestinian journalists are often harassed. It sometimes seems that Palestinian journalists are under siege from all directions, faced as they are with the double whammy of Israeli and domestic repression, especially in Gaza. Fortunately, as Fatah and Hamas try to mend fences, the situation is improving slowly, and Palestine has risen eight places to the 146th spot.

Israel’s handling of the media in the West Bank and Gaza caused its ranking to plummet 20 positions because RSF decided to combine the “Israel extraterritorial” score with its domestic one. Some will cry foul at this apparent sleight of hand, but Israel, as an occupying power, has responsibilities to guarantee fundamental rights in the Palestinian territories. Moreover, if Israel can consider making denial of the occupation an official policy, then why can’t RSF hold it accountable?

Even without including the extraterritorial element, Israel would still rank an uninspiring 92, way, way, way below its declared obligation of being a “light unto the nations”, as David Ben-Gurion claimed.

That said, RSF readily acknowledges that Israeli journalists “enjoy real freedom of expression”. And from my experience working with Haaretz and other Israeli media and the time I spent practising my profession in Jerusalem, I would broadly agree. Personally, I have never had my work censored and I have been given space to express some ideas very critical of Israel.

Even dissidents acknowledge Israel’s pluralistic tradition, at least towards its Jewish citizens, though they express fears about the spate of new anti-freedom laws that have been passed recently, such as the anti-boycott law currently before the Supreme Court, and the ‘Nakba Law’, which outlaws  the commemoration of what Palestinians and Arabs call the ‘Catastrophe’ of 1948 in public institutions. 

“When I studied [the Nakba], I didn’t face the law, I didn’t face the secret service, I faced the community,” the dissident Israeli academic Ilan Pappé told me in an interview some months ago. Though he acknowledges that the Israeli system once tolerated a broad margin of dissent, this, he fears, is changing. “[Israel] is becoming a mukhabarat state. I mean Israel is becoming a state of the old Middle East, of the old Arab World.” 

A surprising number of Israelis I know share this idea of regional convergence. And there are plenty of signs that the Arab world is catching up with Israel – and in a way that this index cannot capture.

Although Kuwait scores the highest in the PFI, I believe the greatest promise for a free media lies not in the Gulf but in the revolutionary states, especially Egypt (158th place) and Tunisia (138th).

This is because certain intangibles cannot be captured in the PFI’s subjective scoring system, based as it is on the assessments of various local and International observers, which means that countries with a more critical culture could score more poorly than countries which are less critical. It also does not take into account qualitative criteria, such as the actual content, as well as the plurality, accuracy and scope of the reporting and commentary in the media, and its daring.

This translates into the fact that although no Kuwaiti journalists were arrested last year, the profession as a whole tends to self-censor to stay within the carefully delineated “red lines”, while attempts by Mubarak, the army and the Muslim Brotherhood to impose restrictions in Egypt through intimidations and periodic crackdowns, have been met with defiance and open rebellion by much of the independent media.

“When Kuwait comes ahead of Egypt, this confounds me,”  Hisham Kassem, a veteran Egyptian publisher and democracy advocate admitted to me amid the bare concrete and dust in the future offices of his ambitious new media project in Cairo a few months ago. “If rulers in the Gulf were exposed to the same level of attacks that Mubarak was in his last years, then heads would roll.”

Mubarak, the military, Morsi and his Muslim Brothers have all tried to revert to politics as more or less usual, proving that denial is more than a river in Egypt. But despite their best efforts to do their worst, the genie is out of the bottle. And it is this revolution of the mind and heart, and whether it can be sustained, that holds the key to the future of the region.

Surprising as it may sound, Israel’s domestic arrangement was once held up by Arab reformers as an example of the freedom they should strive for – and they are striving for that liberty. Today, it is the turn of Israelis to learn from their neighbours and overcome their complacency to defend their hard-won rights from further corrosion and turn the tide back.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 11 February 2013.

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