War and peace in the Middle East and Europe

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Europe’s history of total war and mass displacement can help create more sympathy for today’s refugees and keep hope alive in the Middle East.

Like today's refugees, Belgians fleeing World War I often took to the sea in overcrowded boats.

Like today’s refugees, Belgians fleeing World War I often took to the sea in overcrowded boats.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Some 800 refugees lost their lives in the Mediterranean sea last week. While this has prompted calls for the European Union to do more to deal with the refugee crisis created by the current turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, voices on the far-right have demanded that Europe do less.

Among them was Katie Hopkins, a popular columnist with UK tabloid The Sun, who has over half-a-million followers on Twitter. Shortly before the latest tragedy, she wrote a column in which she described these migrants as “cockroaches” and “feral humans,” suggesting outrageously: “What we need are gunships sending these boats back to their own country.”

On social media, the reactions were even more shocking and disgraceful. Supporters of the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom), or PVV, founded by the anti-immigrant firebrand Geert Wilders, expressed stomach-churning euphoria and ecstasy at the tragedy.

“600 fewer benefits,” one rejoiced.

“Good so. The more who drown, the fewer the problems,” another volunteered.

“Now the seabed is even more polluted,” joked yet another.

Judging by this small sample of comments, what has actually hit rock bottom are the moral compasses of many Dutch people and Europeans

Despite the clear racism of these comments, the European anti-immigrant right wing in general also taps into deep-seated public anxiety towards the violent upheavals and conflicts taking place in the Middle East, which many fear refugees might bring with them.

For some on the far-right, “refugees” and “asylum seekers” have become dirty words, terms of abuse and subjects of hate. While right-wing nationalists may claim to be defending their heritage and tradition, in their attitudes to refugees they are actually betraying it.

Europeans weren’t always so hostile towards those fleeing war and conflict. During World War I, the Netherlands welcomed so many refugees that the Germans saw it necessary to construct a 200-kilometre-long fence along the Belgian-Dutch border in an effort to curb the influx of Belgians pouring from the German occupation into neutral Holland.

The Wire of Death's deadly innovation claimed hundreds of Belgian victims. Source: http://www.dodendraad.org/index.php/wire-of-death

The Wire of Death’s deadly innovation claimed hundreds of Belgian victims.
Source: http://www.dodendraad.org/index.php/wire-of-death

Known as the Wire of Death, it was the world’s first-ever high-voltage electric barrier. Built at a time when Europeans were largely unaware of electricity and its attendant dangers, the fence claimed hundreds of victims who were unaware of how deadly it was or were desperate enough to risk death to cross the border.

In order to shorten the barrier’s distance, German engineers took shortcuts that left large swathes of Belgian territory stuck in the no-man’s land behind the fence. Like in the contemporary West Bank, this meant that a large number of farmers could not reach their land and many families and friends were forced to live in enforced separation. Using a system that would be familiar to modern-day Palestinians, the Germans only allowed those with hard-to-obtain passes, which excluded men aged 16 to 45, to cross the barrier.

This is a far cry from the current situation, where the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherland and Luxembourg) are tightly integrated and even acted as a precursor and “experimental garden” for the EU. The Middle East, especially the former Ottoman Empire, has gone in the other direction. While the Levant was once largely a borderless economic and cultural area, with many mixed marriages and friendships, today many of its borders are tightly sealed, especially Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon.

Many generations on, the vast majority of Belgians, including my wife and myself, are unaware that such a deadly barrier ever existed and almost no physical signs remain. In fact, I still remember clearly the first time I “crossed” between Belgium and Holland and my wife (girlfriend, at the time) challenged me to identify the border. As the two countries flow so seamlessly into each other, I failed.

It was not just the Dutch who gave refuge to their unfortunate Belgian neighbours. Even though Britain is famed for its oft-isolationist island mentality, it was, during World War I, home to a quarter of a million Belgian refugees, many of whom were housed in purpose-built villages.

Unlike today’s image of asylum seekers as being spongers and cheats, these refugees were regarded as heroic and people wanted to help the “plucky Belgians.” It would be welcome if, instead of shirking its responsibilities, Europe rediscovered this spirit and took in more refugees today.

To understand the fundamental shift in attitudes over the ensuing decades, one needs to delve into the nature of contemporary (Western) Europe. It’s not just a matter of selfishness and ill-will but also a question of profound misunderstanding.

It is said that the past is a foreign country, and the Europe of war and near-annihilation has become just that – a distant memory which only the oldest of Europeans has partly experienced first-hand. When viewed from the peaceful, still-largely prosperous and borderless European Union, the madness and mayhem in the Middle East and Africa seems inexplicable and barbaric, and this makes it far easier to blame the victims for the situation they find themselves in.

But the Europe of the First and Second World Wars resembled the contemporary Middle East to a frightening degree – except Europe was deadlier still.

While an estimated 3 million Syrians have fled the war that’s ravaging their country, the situation is not unprecedented. A century ago, there were over 10 million refugees in Europe, while World War II resulted in tens of millions of displaced people.

A century ago, Belgium, like Syria today, was a devastated nation of refugees and internally displaced people. Some 1.5 million Belgians fled to neighboring countries, and possibly as many again sought refuge from the fighting in other parts of the country. And this was in a country of just over 7.5 million inhabitants.

To Europeans, another inexplicable aspect of the contemporary Middle East is the horrendous levels of mindless killing and blood-letting, which leaves the impression that our region has a unique bloodlust.

Though comparative carnage is a rather macabre undertaking, it is nonetheless a useful exercise to highlight, both to Europeans and Middle Easterners, that the current situation is not unique and, hence, can eventually be overcome.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest clashes in human history.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest clashes in human history.

While the carnage and destruction in Syria and the wider region today is horrendous and troubling, it pales in comparison with the butchery that took place on the Western Front, where the average trench soldier held onto life for just six weeks. The Battle of the Somme alone claimed over a million dead and wounded.

Despite the tens of millions of Europeans who perished in the two world wars, Europe was able to turn over a new leaf in its history and herald in an extraordinary era of peace and coexistence.

It is inevitable that the fire engulfing our region will eventually die down. I only hope that it happens sooner than it did in Europe, and that, out of the rubble of conflict, we draw similar lessons to those of the architects of the European Union, and construct a frontierless Middle Eastern Union.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 23 April 2015.


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Race against space

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By Khaled Diab

Both time and space are  running out for the two-state solution. If Israelis wish to preserve the Jewish identity of their state, they need to act now to create a Palestinian state.

Monday 25 July 2011

Local children squeeze into the one-roomed school for the village's summer camp. ©Photo: Khaled Diab

Perched on a scenic hilltop named ‘Mont de Joie’ (‘Mountain of Joy’) by the Crusaders for its commanding view of the Jerusalem they were about to conquer, Nabi Samwil’s 250 or so Palestinian inhabitants have little to feel joyous about. They are cut off, by Israeli settlements and the separation wall, from the rest of the West Bank, while the West Bank IDs they carry deprive them of access to Jerusalem, even though Israel considers their village to be within the municipal boundaries of the city. 

“We’ve become like a tiny island,” describes Mohammed Barakat, a local lawyer, who lives with three branches of his family, i.e. 13 people, in a small house of about 120m2. “If a child needs a doctor, you have to embark on a very long journey to get to other nearby villages or Ramallah.”

 As he speaks, Barakat, who was crippled in a car crash in Amman, is sitting on his bed working on his computer, one of the few connections he has with the outside world. In addition to being a key advocate of the villagers’ rights, Barakat runs an NGO appropriately called, given the confinement of his village, Disabled without Borders.

One practical problem associated with their imposed isolation is getting relatives and friends from other parts of the West Bank into the village. Mohammed’s brother, Rebhi, who is a member of the village council, is somewhat anxious about a local wedding that is due to take place later in the week.

“The Israeli civilian administration insists on knowing the names of everyone who is coming,” he complains. “But you can never know who exactly is coming because each person you invite usually brings along their family and friends.”

The villagers’ woes don’t end there. Owing to draconian Israeli building restrictions, the bride and groom, like many other young people, are forced to abandon the village in search of housing elsewhere. Villagers report that only two houses have been built since Israel took over control in 1967, while numerous homes were demolished near the mosque and the tomb that is believed by some, despite the absence of archaeological or biblical evidence, to house the prophet Samuel. 

One of the sad consequences of this inability to build which I witnessed is that some two dozen children have to squeeze into the village’s tiny one-room school, which will soon lack a properly functioning toilet because the one they built has a demolition order on it. 

Isolated as Nabi Samwil is, it is not an isolated case – demolitions and displacements are a daily fact of life. This is clearly illustrated in a new report by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) which is due out on 21 July. Entitled Forced Out, the sobering document focuses on displaced communities in Area C, more than three-fifths of the West Bank over which Israel retains full civil and security control under the Oslo Accords. 

It documents how local communities – faced with restrictions on their movement, a freeze on building and settler violence and intimidation – are facing severe housing shortages, with many moving to Areas A and B as a result. Among the hardest hit are farming and Bedouin communities in the Jordan Valley, some of whom have even resorted to building concrete structures inside their tents to conceal them from the army. 

“While the intent behind the various policies applied by Israel to Area C is unclear, their effect is to make it impossible for many Palestinian communities to develop,” says UN Humanitarian Coordinator Maxwell Gaylard who expresses “concerns about demographic shifts and changes to the ethnic make-up of Area C”. 

Although Israel’s intentions are indeed unclear, the fact that a sharp increase in demolitions and evictions has taken place this year seems to suggest a bid to “create realities on the ground” before the Palestinian leadership gets a chance to go to the UN to seek recognition for an independent Palestine. OCHA’s records show that over 1,100 Palestinians have been forcibly displaced so far in 2011 in Area C and East Jerusalem. 

Area C, which has experienced a massive upsurge in settlement building since the signing of the Oslo Accords, is currently home to twice as many Israeli settlers as Palestinians (300,000 as opposed to 150,000). Nevertheless, it possesses the majority of Palestinian agricultural and grazing land and is the only contiguous territory in the West Bank, which was foreseen to provide, under the ‘land for peace’ formula, the bulk of the space upon which a future Palestinian state would be established. 

However, with 70% of Area C currently set aside for settlements or the IDF, there is little room left for the two-state solution. This might partly explain why the Palestinian leadership, caught as it is in a race against space, has desperately resorted to the UN path, despite its slim chances of success. 

But it is not just Palestinians who should be worried about the changing reality of Area C and East Jerusalem, ordinary Israelis should be, too. If current policies remain unchecked, most of the Palestinian population will soon be living in a series of disconnected islands that will be impossible to join up into a coherent territory, leading to a de facto single Israeli-Palestinian state. 

Once they realise that their dream of an independent state is dead, Palestinians are likely to start focusing their attention on demanding equal civil rights and Israeli citizenship. This will leave Israel with a dilemma: either live up to its democratic credentials and grant Palestinians full rights and dilute the country’s prized Jewish identity, or continue an unsustainable and increasingly oppressive occupation, with all the disenfranchisement it involves, to hold on to this Jewishness. 

I am personally in favour of a single binational state made up of two non-geographical Israeli and Palestinian community governments which oversee the affairs of their peoples, and a joint federal government which manages common issues, such as trade, defence and foreign policy. 

Although a growing minority of Israelis supports this vision, most favour a state with a clearly Jewish identity which, by implication, makes them supporters of an independent Palestine on the pre-1967 borders. However, the current government, which holds the land to be holier than its people, is unlikely to take any meaningful steps to achieve the two-state vision. 

This leaves it up to ordinary Israelis to bring pressure to bear on the government to act now or risk forever holding back peace. Last Friday, some 4,500 protesters, mostly Israelis, marched through East Jerusalem to voice their support for an independent Palestine. The time has come for hundreds of thousands more to join them.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on Friday 21 July 2011.

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