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.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 11 February 2013.

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Egypt’s rebels without a pause

 
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By Khaled Diab

The failure of Egypt’s new leaders to address the needs and aspirations of young people means the revolution will not stop until there is real change.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has set his successors a hard act to follow… he managed the remarkable feat of going from hero to zero in little more than 24 hours.

After days of escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence that threatened to spill over into a full-blown war and even a wider regional conflict, Morsi bucked the expectations of doubters and succeeded in brokering a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Gaza, eliciting a freak chorus of praise from all sides of the trenches: from Hamas, Israel, many Egyptians and even the United States.

The acclaimed ceasefire, which avoided the death, destitution and destruction of the Gaza war of 2008/9, went into effect on Wednesday 21 November. Rather than rest on his laurels for a while and bask in the glory of Egypt’s minor diplomatic victory – which highlighted and underscored the power of diplomacy over violence – Morsi decided to seize the moment.

No sooner had the Israeli missiles and Palestinian rockets fallen silent than the Egyptian president decided to drop a massive political bombshell on the home front. A day after the ceasefire, on November 22, Morsi delivered a declaration which effectively immunises him and the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly – which then hurriedly approved Egypt’s controversial draft constitution pending a referendum – from legal challenges from the judiciary or opponents.

Although Morsi insisted his move was a temporary measure, which would last only as long as it took for the new constitution to enter into force, and was designed to “protect the revolution”, opposition figures and revolutionaries were unconvinced, describing the President’s ambitions as being that of a “new pharaoh” and the declaration as a “coup against legitimacy”.

Many in Egypt saw the timing of this move as more than just a coincidence, with some going as far as to suggest that Morsi had received a nod and a wink from visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to launch his bid to become Egypt’s new, American-backed dictator-in-chief.

We do politics differently now

Although Washington seems to look favourably on Morsi as the lesser of many evils for American regional interests, what seems the most likely is that the Egyptian president decided to reward himself for his success and prematurely cash in on his unexpected moment of popularity both within and outside Egypt by indulging in an impulsive act of flagrant opportunism – which has backfired spectacularly.

But even if the president has now, under immense popular pressure, reversed his decree, though not many of its rulings, he betrayed a seriously flawed understanding of the republic of which he has become the first democratically elected leader: the majority of Egyptians did not vote for dictatorship, and the Egypt that accepts autocracy is, like the past, a foreign country: we do politics differently now.

Most Egyptians, particularly the youth who spearheaded the revolution, no longer have the stomach for a “new pharaoh”, especially after all the sacrifices they have made to win their freedom (even if it is only partial, for now), and have developed a strong appetite for greater people power.

That is why Morsi’s attempt to impersonate ousted former president Hosni Mubarak was met by widespread contempt, opposition and anger… and in that longstanding Egyptian tradition, mockery and humour, such as the teenage protesters who placed a surgical mask on a statue in Cairo of Latin American revolutionary Simon Bolivar, presumably to protect his bronze eyes and lungs against the stinging, suffocating effects of teargas.

Since the fateful decree, millions of Egyptians have poured out on to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Mahalla and other towns and cities across the country to protest Morsi’s actions and the referendum, slated for Saturday 15 December, on the draft constitution which reformist Egyptians see as undemocratic and non-inclusive.

So many protesters came out to reoccupy Tahrir that one wit demanded the expansion of the world-famous square in anticipation of future missteps by the Egyptian president.

And in scenes reminiscent of Mubarak’s final days, the crowds chanted: “The people want to bring down the regime”, and vowed that they would not vacate the square until their demands were met. “Morsi has done in less than five months what it took Mubarak 30 years to achieve. With this latest move, he has messed up big time,” one young Egyptian diplomat observed. “I think his days are numbered.”

The new wave of protests has led to speculation as to whether Egypt’s stalled revolution has resumed. To me, it looks like we are entering the third phase of revolt: the first was against Mubarak, the second against the generals who replaced him, and now people are regrouping to take on Morsi and his Islamist cohorts.

Revolutionary generation

To many, the battle lines in the current standoff are between Egypt’s new Islamist rulers and the disgruntled secular opposition who had started the revolution but were apparently unable to finish it. While this Islamist-secularist division is partly true, it oversimplifies an extremely complex situation of overlapping alliances and rivalries.

Other battle lines include pro-revolution versus anti-revolution, rich-poor, women-men, democratic-autocratic, neoliberal-progressive, socialist-conservative, etc. Throughout nearly two years of upheaval and change, one of the most constant divides has been a generational one, between the more privileged older strata of society and the more marginalized youth. This is reflected in every opposition movement, including the Muslim Brotherhood, whose younger, more liberal, pro-revolutionary members broke away from the anti-revolutionary elders last year to join their fellow revolutionaries on the streets and squares of Egypt.

As was the case in February 2011 against Mubarak and in November 2011 against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), though people of all backgrounds and ages were out on the streets, the bulk of the protesters were young. “I just want to say how brave these young kids are,” one protester, Ahmed, said upon returning from Tahrir Square. “Not even the choking tear gas was able to stop them from fighting for their freedom.”

The predominantly youthful nature of the protests is a natural by-product of Egypt’s young population – with more than half of Egyptians born after Mubarak came to power in 1981 – and the ongoing marginalisation of young people by the establishment, whether official or opposition. Although many young Egyptians have found success in all walks of life, politically they still occupy the fringes, leaving the main arena open to them the democracy of the street and the utopian possibilities raised by the egalitarian, if short lived, tent Republic of Tahrir last year.

“I believe Egypt’s political revolution is the product of Egypt’s ‘social revolution’,” says Nael Shama, an Egyptian political researcher and columnist. “This young generation is very dynamic and rebellious. They break taboos, revolt against prevailing institutions, norms and mindsets, and heavily assert their presence in public spaces, which usually puts them on a collision course with the official establishment.”

Although it is true that the Egyptian revolt started in January 2011 on the back of its sister revolution further west, events in Tunisia really only provided the spark of hope and inspiration required to trigger the chain reaction which shifted the existing movements for democratic and revolutionary change from the margins of Egyptian society right to its very heart.

During the decade preceding the revolution, calls for change were gathering pace, as reflected in the greater daring civil society and the opposition exhibited towards Mubarak and his men. In a society where criticising the president was once tantamount to political sacrilege, and like cardinal sins carried hefty consequences for the “sinner”, it was remarkable that an entire political movement existed, Kefaya (Enough), which united activists of all political stripes under the single platform of openly demanding that Mubarak step down. It even forced him, in 2005, to organise Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential election, even if it was hardly free and fair, and this was an early sign of radical change in the making.

Even though Kefaya’s leadership, like much of Egypt’s established opposition, was dominated by older secularists, it had a strong youth element. Moreover, young people came into their own when they pushed beyond the consensus position of the opposition – which called for Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and rejected Gamal Mubarak’s suspected plans to take over power from his father – and set up a movement to agitate for more far-reaching social and economic justice. For example, the 6 April Youth Movement, which is credited with being one of the main driving forces behind the 25 January revolution, was originally established, in the spring of 2008, by young activists, most of whom were well-educated and had not been political beforehand, as an expression of solidarity with striking textile workers in Mahalla al-Kubra.

Moreover, the revolution of the mind, which had been building up gradually in the years prior to the revolution and which exploded in the regime’s face in January 2011, was nowhere more apparent than among youth, who have surpassed their elders in their confidence and courage and their determination to overcome the traditional fear and deference which has paralyzed Egyptian politics and society.

When people think of politically conscious and active youth, their minds tend to wander towards universities, and despite the Mubarak regime’s studious efforts to depoliticise Egyptian student life and the many years of apathy and indifference this spawned, campuses played, as they had in the anti-colonial period, a crucial role in young people’s political formation.

But the radicalisation of youth did not stop at the university gate. Despite or perhaps because of the poor education Egyptian public schools generally provided and their reputation for creating conformity in young minds, Egypt’s state-run school system was unwittingly producing a generation of politicised youth under the regime’s radar, as groundbreaking research carried out by Hania Sobhy of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), convincingly demonstrated.

And this rebellion and disaffection is hardly surprising, given the non-curricular lessons on class, youth exclusion, corruption, arbitrary and harsh punishment and the importance of connections and nepotism pupils receive in school. “The school gives very practical and concrete citizenship lessons to children, lessons about their differentiated entitlement to rights,” describes Sobhy.

One boy who spoke to Sobhy demanded portentously: “To fix things, everyone has to be removed…We need all new people.” As a foretaste of what was to come, less than a month before revolutionary fever gripped the entire country, pupils at semi-private state schools known as national institutes went on strike and organised sit-ins and marches in opposition to a ministerial decree they believed threatened their schools.

The sport of revolution

But perhaps the most surprising breeding ground for revolutionary fervour was not the education system, but sport. Around the world, football fans are rarely associated with politics, and soccer, in fact, has traditionally been regarded as a tool for channelling disaffection and discontentment into harmless club loyalty. But in a country where the government had managed to shut down all outlets for youth discontentment besides the mosque and (later) the internet, many of those who did not find Islamism appealing turned the stands of their favourite football clubs into political salons.

The Egyptian Ultras, as these politicised supporters are known, have truly put the fanatic, in the most positive sense of the word, back into fan. As someone who only has a passing interest in football and finds the petty tribalism of fan culture unappealing, the passion, commitment and courage of the Ultras during the 18 days it took topple Mubarak, and the vital role they played in holding on to Tahrir during the infamous “Battle of the Camels”, has filled me with a great deal of respect for these young idealists.

And the Ultras’ willingness to put their lives on the line for the cause of freedom has helped sustain and revive the revolution when it looked set to falter amid harsh repression. “I think the battles and clashes have kept the revolution alive, in the sense that they materialised the feeling, which persists, that there is still something to fight for (both in the pessimistic sense of ‘we’re not there yet’, and in the sense of not giving up hope),” observes Alya El Hosseiny, a 23-year-old Egyptian graduate student.

But it would be a mistake to think of the Ultras as simply urban warriors, as I discovered for myself at one of their sit-ins. The protest was well-organized and self-policed, and the participants were good-humoured despite their obvious anger at the lack of progress. They sang and danced to a whole repertoire of newly coined revolutionary songs, from the thunderingly defiant to the mockingly ironic. In one sarcastic song, they advised fellow citizens “Keep your head down, hang it low, you live in a democracy, you know.” Given the machismo of football, the Ultras themselves are all men, but there were also plenty of women in the crowd, from the hip and modern to the hip and traditional.

And the longer things change without really changing, the more the aspirations for change will grow. Mubarak and the generals of the SCAF have already learnt this lesson the hard way, but the Islamists are intent on repeating the same errors: the more they try to suppress and contain Egypt’s new revolutionary spirit, the wider it spreads. In fact, the sustained campaign to put the brakes on the revolution has only widened resistance to the previously unpoliticised and the even younger.

“What we’ve seen [in the latest confrontations] are very young people, including children, fighting the police,” says Wael Eskandar, a Cairo-based journalist who follows the revolution closely. “Not all of them are particularly aligned with what we think is the revolution, but such a generation is learning not to accept the status quo and to revolt against injustice.”

A revolution in search of a leadership

Over the past nearly two years, so much change has taken place that there are those, in Egypt and beyond, who wonder why there are still such large-scale protests, especially amongst the young. Not only has Mubarak been removed and the army increasingly sidelined, but Egyptians got to go to the ballot box to select their first ostensibly democratically elected parliament and president.

Part of the reason is that much of the change has been superficial and has not delivered the fundamental freedom, equality and economic opportunity young Egyptians yearn for. “The youth revolts but the leadership is still ancient. The youth want change yet the leaders cannot walk away from their comfort zone,” says Marwa Rakha, an Egyptian writer, broadcaster and blogger.

“Young Egyptians have more than once demonstrated that their aspirations are greater than the elite, that their vision is more farsighted, and that they are more willing to sacrifice for the cause,” echoes Nael Shama. “It looks as if the young live in a different time zone from the one within which the largely conventional political elite operates.”

In the eyes of many young revolutionaries, Egyptians have so far effectively substituted one set of fossilized leaders for another. The former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of the semi-autocratic Mubarak years has made way for the authoritarian-inclined Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood and the wannabe-dictator Mohamed Morsi – with the only key difference being that one leaned more towards secularism, while the other is inclined more towards religion – but Egypt has changed, so its new rulers do not have the same room for manoeuvre as their predecessors.

Moreover, though young Egyptians started the revolutionary juggernaut rolling and arguably suffered the greatest pain for the revolution, they have seen precious few gains to date. Not only have they been largely excluded from the official political landscape by their elders, the country’s new leadership has shown little interest in empowering the very people who brought them to power, beyond paying lip service to their courage.

To add insult to injury, Egypt’s draft constitution – which is a wonderful document if you happen to be a conservative, middle-aged, male Muslim – takes a patriarchal and paternalistic attitude not only towards women but also young people, despite its insistence that Egypt’s is a “democratic regime” based on “equal citizenship”.

Joining the political party

Part of the reason for the continued relative disenfranchisement of young people, as well as secular revolutionaries in general, is their lack of political experience in comparison with the savvy veteran Islamists. This was compounded by the divisions and rivalries within revolutionary ranks, eloquently and tragically expressed in the splintering of the April 6 Youth Movement into two rival groups.

“At the beginning, young people had a clearer vision of what they wanted, which was to topple Mubarak and the old regime, and see some change in the country,” notes Lamia Hassan, a young journalist and filmmaker based in Cairo. “But as soon as this was over and the revolution was first hijacked by the military then later by the Islamic groups, the youth started to lose their way a little bit and were less [certain] about what they had to do to keep it alive.”

The reason for this disarray is partly due to the failure of a clear leader or group of leaders to emerge to steer the revolution. While the leaderless nature of the early uprising was a key factor in its success because it made it almost impossible for the regime to shut the revolt down, this one-time asset has turned into a liability.

“Yes, it’s the revolution of youth and the Egyptian people but they do not have a leader – an agreed upon leader. But the country needs a president and a whole cabinet of revolutionary leaders,” asserts Rakha. “In the 1952 coup, the officers had a president, a cabinet, and an array of consultants ready to replace the toppled king and his entourage. The 1952 revolution was disastrous on many fronts but at least they got that part right,” she adds.

To move out of the current intergenerational impasse, young revolutionaries need to become better organised and politically savvy, not just at toppling regimes but at building a new and better state for all Egyptians. In addition, the new political elite must realise that their future and that of Egypt’s is in the hands of young people, and so they must start sharing power with and creating opportunity for the new generation.

“To be effective, and even to survive, political forces (both old and new) need to understand the youth and incorporate their ideas and visions into their political doctrines and plans of action,” concludes Shama.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This essay first appeared in the Palestine-Israel Journal on 13 December 2012 and was set to appear in its special print edition on the younger generation.

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Israel and Gaza: When attack is the worst form of defence

 
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By Khaled Diab

As the fog of war distort people’s vision and compassion, can Israeli and Palestinian reject the strategy of violence offered by their leaderships?

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Just days before the current escalation in violence, I encountered a young Gazan art student living “illegally” in the West Bank because Israel would not allow her to change her address.

With her precarious existence as a kind of fugitive in her own land, which had made her unable to visit her besieged hometown for over seven years, and in light of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and its 2008-9 invasion, I asked her how she felt about Israelis.

“I am a human and believe in humanity, regardless of religion, nationality or race. We are all humans. I will not let this affect me,” the art student said, surprising me with the simple intensity of her conviction, as her Jewish-American friend listened in, even though she did not understand a word of what we were saying.

As I watch with rising alarm the fog of imminent war distort people’s vision and compassion, I cannot help but recall this conversation. I wonder whether this young woman is managing to cling on to her admirable compassion and humility, when those around her are losing theirs, or has it too fallen victim to this senseless confrontation?

The first victim of war, it is rightly said, is truth, but its second casualty is humanity. The demonisation, hatred, vitriol and jingoism that has been fired indiscriminately and disproportionately in recent days has been troubling. Personally, though I have felt fury at Israel’s vicious “send Gaza back to the middle ages” military offensive against a captive civilian population – not to mention anger with Palestinian militants for also targeting civilians – I am determined not to allow this to darken my view of ordinary Israelis.

This latest conflagration confounded me but it did not surprise me.

It did not surprise me because we have been here before – in 2006 in Lebanon and 2008-9 in Gaza, to name just two examples, when the Cain of senselessness murdered the Abel of sensibility. The timing was also no big surprise. The smokescreen of military confrontation is a powerful political ploy because it can turn political villains into heroes and discontented citizens into loyal soldiers, silencing growing dissent in the ranks – although it can backfire or blow up in its user’s hands, as discovered by Israeli prime ministers Shimon Peres in 1996 and Ehud Olmert in 2009.

Although this brewing war is ostensibly about the security of Israel, it is, in reality, more about the insecurity of the Israeli government at the ballot box, faced as it has been with growing social unrest, economic dissatisfaction, widening inequality and increasing public fury at the fiscal black hole opened up by settlement subsidies. How else can we explain Israel’s infuriating decision to murder its “subcontractor” in Gaza, Ahmed Jabari, who was, reportedly, on the verge of sealing a permanent truce with Israel?

On the other side of the fence, Hamas has been facing growing popular discontent – with a recent poll suggesting that it would receive just 31% of the popular vote in Gaza, and considerably less in the West Bank, if suspended elections were held – particularly since the eruption of the ‘Arab Spring’, and especially amongst young people. Although it was elected for its apparent lack of corruption and cronyism, now that Hamas is the uncontested master of Gaza, it has been guilty of severe abuses of power and human rights violations. Hamas is also far less tolerant of dissent than Fatah.

Though the current fighting does not surprise me, it does confound me. It confounds me because if Israeli and Gazan leaders are truly sincere in their claims that they seek to defend their people, then why have they not yet recognised that attack is the worst form of defence, at least in this conflict?

What have Israel’s many long campaigns of violence against Hamas achieved? The previous Gaza war did not accomplish its intended objective of destroying Hamas, nor did it halt the flow of rockets into Israel. All it succeeded in doing was to increase the quotient of human misery in Gaza, and with it the measure of hostility and distrust towards Israel among Palestinians and Arabs. This current campaign is about restoring “deterrence”, we’re told, but the greatest deterrent effect it is likely to have is to deter even more of the world from viewing Israel with sympathy or compassion.

More broadly, Israel’s other attempts to destroy Hamas by other means have backfired spectacularly, and though they may serve the interests of extremists, they do little to enhance the security and well-being of ordinary Israelis.

Take the blockade on Gaza. While it has been very effective at increasing the destitution and despair of the average Gazan, it has done very little to weaken Hamas’s hold on power. In fact, tightening the screws on the Strip has led us from a situation in which Hamas had to share power with Fatah – and signal its willingness, now that it was actually in power, to act more pragmatically – to one in which the Islamist movement became the only show in town in Gaza and its position has re-hardened.

Hamas’s violence has also paid precious few dividends to the people of Gaza and the Palestinian people in general. Though some see Hamas’s behaviour as a heroic form of resistance against the humiliation and oppression of occupation, what good has this supposed heroism done Gazans or the Palestinian cause? Ever since Hamas tacitly joined forces with extremists Israelis to assassinate the (admittedly flawed) peace process, Israel has seen to it that the situation of Gazans has deteriorated immensely.

That is not to say that resistance is futile. On the contrary, if Palestinians are to secure their human rights, resistance is necessary. But in a situation where they are by far the weaker party militarily, they will never be able to match Israeli firepower, so they need to unleash the most potent weapon in their arsenal: peaceful people power, which is more suited to the political nature of the conflict.

The relative potency of this weapon can be seen when you compare the peaceful first intifada with the violent second intifada: the first uprising effectively brought Israel to its knees, while the second brought the Palestinians to theirs. And since the second intifada died down Palestinian peace activists have been rediscovering and reasserting the power of non-violent resistance.

While non-violence has received a lot of attention in the Palestinian context, when it comes to Israelis, it has received precious little. This is reflected in the fact that while most Israelis agree, and urge, the Palestinians to abandon violence, they cling on to the right to use it themselves, as illustrated by the overwhelming support for the previous Gaza war among the Israel public.

But the rejection of violence is as important a creed for Israelis as it is for Palestinians, even if they are militarily the more powerful. In this asymmetric conflict, there can be no winners because the more Israel destroys, the more it bolsters Palestinian determination to resist and the more it isolates itself internationally. More importantly, since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ultimately political, and not military, it cannot and will not be decided on the battlefield, no matter how long the hawks deny this basic law of nature.

Recognising this important truth, a  resident of a kibbutz near the border with Gaza urged the Israeli government, despite the rockets which have landed in her backyard: “If you want to defend me… try to negotiate until white smoke comes up through the chimney.”

In my view, the best way to defend the Palestinian and Israeli peoples is through a complete rejection by the public of violence, not only that committed by the other side, which is easy, but also, more significantly, that perpetrated by your own. Once the cycle of violence is broken for long enough, the two sides can gradually shift from resistance of the other to coexistence with one another.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 18 November 2012.

 

 

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The Arab world’s missed opportunities

 
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By Khaled Diab

Early Arab rejectionism and division unwittingly helped to build Israel and to lose Palestine, with the Palestinian people paying the heavy price.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

In my previous article, I highlighted the many opportunities that Israel has squandered over the decades to forge peace with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world and how this has jeopardised its  dream of creating a Jewish state.

But Israel does not possess a monopoly when it comes to harmful short-sightedness. In fact, one could argue that the Arab handling of the conflict has been so inept and self-defeating that Israel actually owes the Arabs a major debt of gratitude because, through their mis-steps, they have played a key supporting role in building the Jewish state, albeit unintentionally.

One key example of this is the Arab rejection of the 1947 United Nations partition plan for Palestine, as encapsulated in UN General Assembly Resolution 181. Though there is no excuse for how the Israelis pushed out or caused hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee, and refused to allow the vast majority of the refugees to return after the war, one can only speculate about what might have occurred had the Arabs not gone to war with the proto-Israeli state and, instead, focused their energies on building a strong and vibrant independent Palestine on the areas left to them.

On reading the above passage, many Arabs will protest that the UN partition was essentially unjust – neither the UN nor the British before them had the right to act imperialistically and give one people’s land to another – and unfair: under this deal, the Arabs would receive only 45% of the land even though they made up some two-thirds of the population in 1947.

But in rejecting the partition plan the Arabs ultimately cut off their nose to spite their face, especially since Arab leaders were well aware in private that they were not ready for war. Some might see in this a common characteristic both sides share, that the Holy Land somehow creates in its inhabitants a kind of “Massada mentality”.

After all, now that the shoe is on the other foot and Israel enjoys the upper hand, its lack of appetite for compromise is comparable – or perhaps worse because it has military might to back it up – to that of the Arabs all those decades ago. And if the international community were to try to impose a similar carve up today, then there is a very strong likelihood that Israel would go to war, like the Arabs did back then.

However, this brand of rejectionism is quite common around the world and is quite consistent with human nature. Consider the decades-long conflict since the partition of India or how the European nations would have reacted had a Jewish state been established in their midst.

Though there are plenty of precedents of people taking up arms to defend the takeover of their land, the Arab rejection was so catastrophic that what seemed like a raw deal in the 1940s now seems like an almost unattainable paradise.

Despite the rejection of the UN partition plan, over 40 years later, in 1988, the PLO based the Palestinian declaration of independence on Resolution 181. Moreover, today the Palestinian leadership – whether Fatah or Hamas – is willing to accept a state on the less-generous 1967 lines – although the recent controversy over Abbas’ interview on Israeli TV highlights the ongoing struggle between radicals and pragmatists, as well as the hardening of positions that has accompanied the failure of peace negotiations to reach a just settlement, leaving Palestinians with just settlements.

Of course, partition would not have magically ended the conflict, and could have led to civil war between the minorities and majorities in each state, and constant clashes between the two declared states, especially between expansionist Zionist and rejectionist Palestinian forces.  However, it is equally possible that partition would have provided a cooling-off period that would empower the realists on both sides. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that partition would have led to a more catastrophic outcome for the Palestinians than the mass dispossession and complete loss of Palestine that they have been left with.

Hindsight is a deceptive faculty, some might counter, because it tends to reveal things later that were not apparent at the time. How were the Arabs, who felt they had both right and might on their side, to know in 1947 that a year later they would be so decisively defeated, and that an even more comprehensive defeat was to follow in 1967?

Nevertheless, certain clear signs that pointed towards the urgent need to compromise were already very apparent in 1947. One clear pattern was that the longer the Arabs held out for a utopian dream, the greater the dystopian reality became.

In the interwar years, the inherent contradictions of conflicting, and largely expedient, wartime promises to both Zionist and Arab leaders were placing Britain, the imperial midwife of this bitter conflict, in a tight bind. Faced with mounting popular unrest against both British rule and Zionist immigration, the British establishment began to lean more towards the Arab side. This is illustrated in the “Churchill” White Paper of 1922 which tried to square Britain’s conflicting promises, made partly for wartime expediency, by offering Jews the right to limited immigration to Palestine and to enjoy autonomy there, as well as equal rights, but, crucially, within an independent Arab Palestinian state.

Despite the presence of pragmatists in the Palestinian ranks, the radicals who had gained the upper hand in the leadership of the Palestinian struggle refused this framework and similar future proposals, out of a rejection of British rule, their distrust of the Zionist project, and opposition to large-scale Jewish immigration.

Some have interpreted this opposition to Jewish immigration as a sign of xenophobia and racism, and elements of this certainly existed. But this interpretation is exaggerated, since the very earliest waves of Jewish immigration were tolerated and hardly noticed in Palestine’s rich ethno-religious tapestry.

However, subsequent immigration reached such a scale that it was radically and rapidly redefining the country’s demographic make-up. In the mid-19th century, Jews comprised some 4-5% of the population;  by 1947, they were almost a third. And this immigration, the Palestinian Arabs feared, had the colonial goal of robbing them of the independence the British had not yet granted them.

Though Zionism certainly had colonial designs on Palestine, opinion was extremely divided between those who advocated a single nation of equals, Jewish autonomy or full independence. Moreover, this exclusive focus on Zionist imperialism overlooked the reality that these bedraggled Jews who arrived in Palestine were not just colonists but also refugees, oppressed natives fleeing persecution and murder in their homelands.

Palestinians justifiably ask why they should have had to pay the price for Europe’s persecution of its Jewish population. But there is a much-overlooked flip side: the humanitarian imperative.

Even before the advent of modern international humanitarian law, the region had a long tradition of taking in refugees, including the Jews of Spain. More recently, Armenians fleeing genocide at the hands of the Turks found a safe haven in Palestine, and Palestinian refugees settled in such numbers across the river in neighbouring Jordan that they eventually far outnumbered the locals.

Politically, the inability to understand this element hurt the Palestinian cause because it led Arabs to believe that Zionism was a classical form of European colonialism, and so if they resisted it long enough and hard enough, the newcomers would eventually go home. But Zionism differed in at least one key respect: Jews who came to Palestine felt they had no “home” to return to, and that Palestine was the only home left to them.

So whether or not it was fair of the British to impose this burden on the Palestinians, Jewish immigration was a reality that was unlikely to stop or be reversed. An earlier recognition of this might have enabled the Arabs to accept a compromise favourable to their own interests – and even benefit from the diversity which immigration brings – while they still had the upper hand. Instead, the conflict escalated, with radicals on both sides stoking the flames of hatred and distrust, until the British started contemplating partition, such as in a 1939 white paper, and the newly minted UN decided fatefully and short-sightedly to impose this solution.

When the Arab armies entered Palestine in 1948 to intervene on the side of the Palestinians in the civil war that followed partition, Azzam Pasha, the first secretary-general of the Arab League said: “We are fighting for an Arab Palestine.”

But what did he mean by this? “Whatever the outcome the Arabs will stick to their offer of equal citizenship for Jews in Arab Palestine and let them be as Jewish as they like. In areas where they predominate, they will have complete autonomy,” the Egyptian diplomat insisted.

Had this been the general Arab position a quarter of a century earlier, the Palestinians may have gained their independence decades ago and Arabs and Jews may have today been living in a single democratic state of equality.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 4 November 2012.

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