Bordering on inhumanity: How Slovenia and Croatia illegally deport refugees and migrants

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek, Mašenjka Bačić, Nerminka Emrić, Maja Čakarić and Klara Škrinjar, with the support of Journalismfund.eu

Rather than being allowed to apply for asylum, thousands of refugees and migrants attempting to enter Slovenia and Croatia are being illegally and often violently spirited across the border to Bosnia, and out of the EU. 

Image: ©Matej Povše

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Read the personal testimonies of migrants

Western Bosnia and Herzegovina has become a bottleneck for migrants and refugees who are fleeing through the Balkans. In the past year, many of them have been caught en route to Northern or Western Europe in Slovenia and then systematically handed over to Croatian authorities. In Croatia, they are often subjected to police violence. They finally end up in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they are condemned to an interminable wait.

The Slovenian police deny illegal migrants access to asylum and turn a deaf ear to their appeals. These are first-hand accounts of the migrants who we met along the Balkan route from Slovenia to Bosnia. Similar cases are also recorded by NGOs and are being investigated by the Ombudsman.

Such actions systematically contravene international conventions on human rights and are occurring in two EU member states.

The situation today is very different from the one that came as a rude awakening to the public in the fall of 2015.

Memories of those events, during which, according to rough estimates, a million displaced people entered the EU via the Balkans, are perhaps still freshly etched in our minds. The situation on the ground now, however, has changed dramatically.

This migration route to Western and Northern Europe became impassable after the agreement between the European Union and Turkey entered into force. Among other things, it provided for the return of refugees and migrants from Greece to Turkey. The deal’s effects included the termination of mass migrations and an almost complete closure of the Balkan corridor in the spring of 2016. This meant that many migrants were left stranded.

The following year, information emerged regarding the controversial return of displaced people in Slovenia and Croatia to the border with Bosnia, including reports of violence, confiscated and smashed phones, stolen money, thefts and damaged personal belongings.

Despite the existence of numerous testimonies and compelling evidence, the Slovenian and Croatian police outright deny the case put forward by NGOs, the media, migrants and refugees.

In the middle of July, the Croatian Ombudsman published an anonymous complaint from a group of Croatian police officers. In it, they admitted that their superiors had instructed them to return illegal migrants to Bosnia. Many of their colleagues used violence and took away migrants’ belongings while executing these orders. “If we stood up to this, we would get laid off and then how are we supposed to support our families?” wrote a presumably concerned but fearful police officer.

Many displaced people we met along what is left of the Balkan route confirm that such treatment routinely occurs. Among them was a young Syrian family from Hama who made it all the way to Slovenia this spring. “As soon as we crossed the border, we bumped into Slovenian policemen. We tried to apply for asylum but they said that this wasn’t possible; that there ‘is no asylum in Slovenia,’” the father recounted. “They returned us to Croatia where they took our phones. They treated us like savages even though we were travelling with kids. They threw us into a van and took us to near the Bosnian border.”

From there, they went on foot in pouring rain and biting cold to Velika Kladuša, a town in north-west Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is currently one of the hotspots on the Balkan migrant route. The Bosnian Ombudsman estimates that at least 60,000 migrants will enter the country this year, but local authorities warn that the country is ill-prepared for them.

In Velika Kladuša, innkeeper Asim Latić-Latan let the drenched and exhausted Syrian family into the dining room of a former pizzeria, now converted into a makeshift soup kitchen. He has been serving refugees and migrants for a year and a half. Every day, he prepares as many as 800 evening meals for them. His guests are fleeing from war, totalitarian regimes, poverty, violence and climate change, and he serves them dinner.

After arriving, one family ate dinner, their first real meal in a week, the father of two small children told us. He only gave us his initial, A. He was the only refugee who did not wish to reveal his full name among those whose testimonies are published below. He said he feared that the regime in his homeland, where his parents, brothers and sisters remained, would take revenge on his family.

He had left Syria for Europe with his family, brother-in-law and his partner in the hope of asking for international protection when he arrived. He did not expect any complications as he was coming from a war zone and was travelling with children. He was wrong. His family joined the ranks of a mounting number of people who were stripped of their right to asylum before they had even applied for it.

Fast-track refoulement

Slovenian police have denied many undocumented refugees and migrants the right to asylum and handed them over to Croatia.

This practice of blocking the filing of asylum applications and pushing back refugees and migrants began at the end of May 2018. At that time, a now former director-general of the Slovenian police, Simon Velički, issued instructions to police that people who are caught crossing the border illegally by mixed Slovenian-Croatian patrols “should be handed over to Croatian police to be handled by them.”

This was the moment when Slovenia systematically started to begin thwarting the possibility of claiming asylum by deporting refugees and migrants en masse.

Data published by the police on its own website confirms the changes in the treatment of migrants, and also possible irregularities in the procedures used for handling people who enter Slovenian territory with the purpose of applying for international protection.

The number of refoulements, i.e. the forcible return of refugees to countries where they are liable to face persecution, has risen dramatically since last year when, according to data from a report by the Slovenian police, as many as 4,653 people were deported to Croatia, which is 11 times more people compared to the previous three-year average since 2015, when the Balkan migration route was mapped out.

Slovenian and Croatian police deny entry to displaced people on the grounds of a bilateral agreement which the two countries concluded in 2006. This agreement provides for the return of migrants according to a summary procedure.

“It’s appalling that two EU member states simply get rid of some asylum seekers by using a summary procedure to bounce and return them into a third country,” says Amnesty International.

The Ombudsman’s office also warned that such treatment is controversial because the agreement does not absolve the police of the obligation to respect the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Slovenian constitution, laws and other regulations.

If the Slovenian police hand over a foreigner who is caught by a Slovenian-Croatian patrol in Slovenian territory to Croatian security authorities, even though she or he has expressed an intention to apply for asylum, this infringes on the laws of international protection.

This conclusion was reached by the Ombudsman’s office in the report on the treatment of migrants by the police at the border. Due to allegations against the police regarding violations of the right of access to international protection, the Ombudsman’s office, as an autonomous and independent agency, reviewed the work of police.

Among other things, it highlighted the lack of (serious) consideration of the personal circumstances of each individual. From police documents, it was not clear whether a detained person stated his or her intention to claim asylum or whether he or she stated such an intention but was possibly ignored. Such inconsistencies could mean that the police denied some people asylum procedures.

The Ministry of the Interior assured the Ombudsman that everyone is able to find out their rights in police facilities and that brochures are available in various languages. Such provision of information is, according to the Ombudsman, undoubtedly useful, but should be accessible in places where people can leaf through the brochure’s contents.

The Ombudsman insists that an asylum seeker should be granted the possibility to apply for international protection and obtain it in line with the provisions of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, i.e. the Geneva Convention.

“The negligible number of intentions to apply for asylum actually recorded at Črnomelj police station reflects the seriousness of the allegation that some police procedures could be irregular, including collective expulsions which are prohibited in compliance with the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,” explained Nataša Kuzmič from the Ombudsman’s office.

In its report from April 2019, the civil society initiative InfoKolpa found that “the practice of violating the legislation by denying the right to asylum” became systematic last June. It states that this practice spread from Črnomelj station to other police stations in the southern border region, such as Metlika, Ilirska Bistrica, and Dragonja.

A sudden slump in asylum seekers

Last June, soon after the above-mentioned instructions were issued, the volume of people stating their intention to apply for asylum at the Črnomelj police station decreased by 95% in only one month – from 98% to 3%.

We asked Slovenian police for updated data on asylum seekers from January 2018 to July 2019 (by individual border police stations), but received none. They explained that gathering the data would constitute a “disproportionate burden” on them.

The statistical report on illegal migration, however, confirms that “the number of foreigners handed over rose considerably due to a strengthened collaboration with Croatian security authorities. The increase was noticed especially in the second half of 2018.”

This year, numbers have hit an all-time high. The number of people whom Slovenian police returned to the authorities of other countries rose by as much as 406% in 2018 compared with 2017. There was also a spike in the number of people returned to the Croatian border – a staggering 507%.

The available official data from the police, nevertheless, shows that the number of filed asylum applications in the first half of 2019 was similar to the same period last year, but that the number of unauthorised crossings of the national border increased by as much as 47%.

The number of refugees and migrants who the Slovenian authorities returned to neighbouring countries under the guise of various bilateral agreements rose even more – by 200%. In the same period last year (from January to June), the authorities deported 1,117 people, whereas this year the number was as much as 3,534 people. By far the most (98%) were returned to the Croatian border.

Urša Regvar from the Legal Information Centre for NGOs (Centre PIC) stated that some asylum seekers still attest to being refused access to asylum procedures, “which confirms our observations and shows that individuals at the border are still being denied access to protection.”

The police claim otherwise: “We have already provided answers to such generalisations and unfounded accusations in the past, as well as explained that we verified each and every one of the concrete cases presented to us. Until now, these allegations were confirmed in none of them.”

For some time, journalists, activists and NGOs have warned that the police procedures at the border are untransparent, carried out systematically and en masse. Last year, these suspicions reached the Slovenian Ombudsman and Information Commissioner. Suspicions of illegal police procedures and possible violations of human rights are being investigated by the Specialised State Prosecutor’s Office. The investigation is ongoing.

A crucial document was appended to the report which states that, last May, the Slovenian police command gave orders to all police stations about how to treat migrants and asylum seekers at the border. Until recently, the document was confidential. “The public, however, is not familiar with the entire content of these instructions, because the police is contesting the disclosure in court, despite the decision of the Information Commissioner that it involves public information,” InfoKolpa added. The procedure is pending.

The systematic and collective expulsion of asylum seekers continued this year. We gathered testimonies that prove this.

Entering the bureaucratic triangle

Not far away from Plitvice National Park, one of the most important Croatian tourist sites, lies the town of Korenica. It looks slightly forlorn, its buildings rather dilapidated.

Although it is just a stone’s throw away from a national treasure, it is off the beaten tourist track. According to Croatian NGOs, the Korenica police station compound has become a “bureaucratic triangle” or “temporary accommodation centre” for a different type of visitors.

Migrants who are captured during unauthorised border crossings are first taken to this faraway police station and then onward to the green border from where they are expelled to Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“It’s true that they bring migrants here,” confirmed a resident of Korenica. As to why, how and how many, she did not know.

However, the report on illegal push-backs and border violence published in April of this year by the NGOs that collaborate in the Border Violence Monitoring initiative contains more testimonies about this particular police station or, to be precise, a garage next to it. According to the news published by the H-alter.org portal, people are detained and mistreated there, and then returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Croatian police categorically deny that they are carrying out push-backs. However, the testimonies of refugees, a series of photographs and videos prove the opposite. Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović herself recently asserted that “a touch of force” is necessary. The irregularities in police treatment are reflected also in official statistics, or rather in their incongruities. The civil initiative Dobrodošli (Welcome) and two NGOs, the Center za mirovne študije (The Center for Peace Studies, CMS) and Are You Syrious, discovered inconsistencies in official data.

In 2018, 8,207 people crossed the Croatian border without permission, 71% more than in the previous year. The rise in unauthorised border crossings was most obvious close to the border with Slovenia and amounted to as much as a 158% increase. In the vicinity of the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatian police noted an 88% increase in unauthorised crossings, whereas such crossings in the rest of the country increased by 55%. Of those 8,207, 1,438 were returned to third countries, 1,068 applied for asylum and 536 were detained.

This means that there is only data on a total of 3,042 people who Croatian police detained who attempted to cross the border clandestinely. “Where are the remaining 5,165 people and how did police treat them?” asks Julija Kranjec of CMS. In its report, CMS assumes that these people were illegally refused entry in Croatia. It speculates that the police do not register all of the people they capture.

According to CMS, there are no official statistics on expulsions of refugees from Croatia. In light of data collected by international organisations, they conclude, however, that Croatian police have illegally pushed at least 10,000 people back to neighbouring countries. “I constantly repeat the question: where are these people?” says Maja Kević from the Croatian Ombudsman’s office that receives complaints about illegal returns of migrants to Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The majority of complaints in the last annual report of the Ombudsman refer to police procedures against migrants who were apprehended while attempting to cross the border or immediately after.

The Ombudsman’s office also discovered unpublicised internal rules which allow the Croatian police to carry out the push-backs.

According to the statements of XY, one of these rules is supposedly based on an oral order from the end of 2016 and the other on a written document from 15 February 2018. According to instructions from the then Director General of Police Marko Srdarević, police officers must send undocumented migrants found deep inside Croatian territory to a police station near to where they crossed the border and not to the station closest to where they were found – as stipulated in the regulations.

In addition, according to Kević, the Ombudsman’s investigations revealed the existence of a form that is presented to migrants “which, among other things, says that they agree to be returned, do not need a translator, can communicate also with the help of Google Translate and the like.” This is flies in the face of Croatian law. Refugees should be given the option to apply for asylum if they wish to do so. They should be treated individually in order to find out why the entered the country, says Kević.

The form they receive is actually a decision on their departure which demands that they leave the country within seven days. In order to cross the border, they would need to possess valid identity documents which the majority of migrants neither have nor can obtain. “Therefore we think, and also state it in [our] report, that they take them to these outlying police stations in order to get them over the green border,” continued Kević. She thinks that this actually constitutes a violation of human rights, which, considering the large numbers of returns, are being committed en masse.

The Croatian Ministry of the Interior – as is the case with its Slovenian counterpart – consistently denies that border police are engaged in such illegal conduct, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. This May, a Swiss television channel published footage of a policeman pushing migrants over the green border into Bosnia and Herzegovina. When questioned about it, Croatian Interior Minister Davor Božinović said: “This is another futile attempt at throwing accusations against the Croatian police that abides by national and European laws.”

Bosnian camps

The migrants and refugees caught by the Slovenian or Croatian police upon crossing the border end their journey in Bosnia and Herzegovina for an indefinite period of time. Bira, a former factory which produced air conditioners in the northwestern town of Bihać, is one of the largest migrant centres in the country. Every migrant that lives there has attempted to cross the border with Croatia at least once, and then to continue their journey towards Slovenia. Some of them were returned; others succeeded in their attempt, or ended up in Serbia.

According to data from Bihać’s communication office, around 11,000 migrants arrived in Bihać between last April and this June, whereas the Ministry of the Interior of Una-Sana Canton counted 17,000 of them. These were only how many they actually registered. No one can explain this discrepancy since both authorities say they are registering them correctly.

Various displaced people converge on the streets of Bihać: from Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Afghanistan, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, and other Middle Eastern and African countries. Many of them sleep outdoors. Some of them find shelter in abandoned buildings, of which there are plenty in Bosnia. For a long time, no one took care of the migrants without a place to stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In July of last year, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) took over the care of refugees and migrants in all of the reception centres across the country. These centres, however, are often full, meaning that many migrants are left on the streets without a roof over their head.

Outside the entrance to the Bira centre there are reception facilities where, during our visit this spring, around 500 people were milling around. When we talked to them, they asked us for help and told us that no one in the Bira centre wants to help them. They claimed that they were not given food or water. Melisa Kljuca, the IOM representative who manages the Bira centre, assured us that everyone is getting regular meals but that the centre is overcrowded.

We also witnessed how security officers from Bakrač, the private security company that protects the Bira centre, used electric stun devices to force the migrants away from the entrance to the reception centre. The use of such devices is prohibited by Bosnian law. We contacted a representative of the Bakrač security company but they were not willing to explain why they use them. Melisa Kljuca of IOM told us, however, that the individual security guards had already been suspended and relocated due to the use of these batons.

That night many migrants were left outside, sleeping in a meadow close to the Bira centre. Not far from Bihać, Bosnian authorities set up tents in a field previously used as a landfill site. The police now send the migrants that they find on the city streets to this improvised camp, called Vučjak. Living there is worse than being in prison, they say.

The Balkan bottleneck 

Migrants usually enter Bosnia and Herzegovina from its eastern border, where there are no reception centres for them. Then they head to the country’s interior, towards Tuzla. As we witnessed on the ground, the brunt of the migrant crisis is borne by a handful of volunteers. They act on their own initiative and are occasionally aided by humanitarian organisations and a few of Tuzla’s residents. Among the most active is local Senad Pirić. He says that they cope as best they can and that they are already exhausted. Their supplies of food, sanitary material and other basic necessities of life are almost gone, but there are more and more migrants pouring in every month.

Displaced people enter the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina or Republika Srpska from the neighbouring Serbia over the Drina River. The government of Republika Srpska, one of the two political entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, insists that it will not help migrants but that it can provide a humanitarian corridor. Hence, police direct everyone who enters the Republika Srpska to the other entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Tuzla.

During the late evening hours, several migrants arrive in Tuzla on foot, usually in groups of up to 30 people. They are soaked, hungry and afraid. They gather in front of the assembly centre, in the park or at the main bus station. From there, they continue their journey to Sarajevo. “There is no location in Tuzla that is suitable for living. Public toilets do not operate in the evening. There is also no provision of health services or any help from the responsible authorities,” explained Pirić.

The authorities are intentionally indifferent to this problem, says Pirić, the tireless volunteer, who offers help to refugees and migrants day and night. He says that Bosnia and Herzegovina has no systemic solutions to deal with the migrant crisis. “They are not allowed to enter the EU and here, where they are stranded, they are also not provided with anything,” reflected Pirić, sadly. “They are stuck and can go neither backwards nor forwards.”

“By being unresponsive, the country blatantly infringes on the basic human rights of refugees and migrants, while the EU encourages non-member states to use repressive methods,” finds Nidžara Ahmetašević, a Bosnian activist and journalist who has been following the migrant crisis since 2015.

Denial and indifference

Following three months of intensive fieldwork and data processing, we conclude that the practice of push-backs – denial of entry to refugees and migrants at the border without the possibility of applying for asylum – on the Balkan route continues unhindered in 2019, despite the warnings of national Ombudsmen, NGOs, journalists and other activists in this field.

The clearest proof of this is the testimonies of numerous refugees and migrants to whom we spoke in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly in Velika Kladuša and Bihać – and our verification of the facts on the ground, as well as our combing through and analysis of the available data. The testimonies are of key importance because they provide evidence of the systematic treatment of migrants that contravenes the international conventions on human rights and refugees.

It is impossible to know with any accuracy how many refugees and migrants Slovenian police pushed straight back to Croatia after they crossed the border illegally, because many of them are not included in the Slovenian statistics and often not in the Croatian ones either. In Croatia, the local police – also confirmed in the collected testimonies – employ brutal and cruel measures to return refugees to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where inhumane conditions prevail in the IOM accommodation centres. Many must fend for themselves.

Read the personal testimonies of migrants

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The Jerusalem embassy syndrome

 
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By Khaled Diab

The problem is not the new US embassy in Jerusalem. The problem is the reality which surrounds and underpins it.

All Donald Trump had to do was install a new plaque reading “embassy” at the US consulate in Jerusalem, get his daughter, Ivanka, to unveil it and, hey presto, “history”.
Image source: US embassy in Jerusalem’s Facebook page

Friday 18 May 2018

Remember this moment, this is history,” Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu urged the high-flying audience at the inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem, while less than 100 km away Israeli snipers were killing dozens of unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza and maiming hundreds more. “President Trump, by recognising history, you have made history.”

Netanyahu has set the bar for making history incredibly low. All Donald Trump had to do was install a new plaque reading “embassy” at the US consulate in Arnona, West Jerusalem, get his daughter, Ivanka, to unveil it and, hey presto, “history”.

This is not unlike how Trump operated as an entrepreneur: plonk a sign bearing his name on a skyscraper or casino and, like a conjurer, give the illusion of change without actually changing anything of substance. With Trump, politics and business are all about branding.

The illusion that Trump has made history is aided not just by his cheerleaders but also by his opponents. This is partly because ‘The Donald’ is a dangerously foolish and foolishly dangerous man, but also because he presents a unique opportunity for his predecessors to cover up their own failings by blaming everything on him.

But Trump was not the one who stood idly by and watched as Israel annexed historical Jerusalem and large swathes of the surrounding West Bank and made it their capital. Settlement building in East Jerusalem did not start on Trump’s watch nor did the construction of the wall splitting East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, neither did the demolition of Palestinian homes and the eviction of their tenants. Moreover, the US has officially recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel for nearly a quarter of a century, since the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, so Trump recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is hardly news or new.

This partly explains why the inauguration of the US embassy met with a rather muted response from Palestinian Jerusalemites, not because they are indifferent to their plight but because this minor symbol does not change their situation beyond the symbolic, as a Palestinian colleague from Jerusalem explained. After all, the reality the inauguration represents is one they have been living since 1967 and in accelerated form since the Oslo process began in the 1990s.

Even what has been dubbed as the Great Return March in Gaza to mark seven decades of dispossession, though it was refocused on Jerusalem this week, is only ostensibly and symbolically about the holy city. The demonstrations on Monday, during which Israeli snipers killed at least 58 unarmed Palestinians and wounded hundreds more, were far more about the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the destitution and despair it has created. And it is this massacre of protesters and the incarceration of an entire population which should be the main focus of our outrage.

The mounting death toll in Gaza is causing indignation and anger among Jerusalem’s Palestinians. “It takes unbelievable evilness and a wilful blindness to Palestinian humanity and rights to celebrate the opening of the US embassy in occupied Jerusalem while Israeli troops gun down unarmed people in Gaza,” reflects the prominent Italian-Palestinian journalist and author Rula Jebreal. “East Jerusalem mourns, Palestinian Muslims and Christians mourn their subjugation.”

While the rehousing of the embassy changes nothing of substance, Donald Trump’s presence in the White House and his ending of any pretence that America is a broker, let alone an honest broker, has galvanised Israel’s extremist government and Israeli extremists, who felt somewhat constrained under his predecessor, Barack Obama, despite his lopsided and ineffectual efforts to broker a deal and his staunch support, in words and deeds, for Israel.

Nevertheless, even during these dark and embattled hours, many Palestinian Jerusalemites clasp on to a sense of hope beyond the current despair. “I crave a peace plan where all communities live side by side as equals,” Rula Jebreal dreams.

Such a utopian future of equality is unlikely to come from the leadership, at least none that is currently on the horizon. “Have hope, and faith, not in governments, but in people,” Mahmoud Muna of East Jerusalem’s well-known Educational Bookshop wrote in a public post on Facebook. “Our freedom is not awaiting permission from no one, it is coming and without a knock on the door, it will just come.”

For many years, I have been advocating for a people’s peace achieved through a civil rights struggle for equality because the two-state solution is dead and because America will not bring peace, the Israeli government will not bring peace, and neither Fatah nor Hamas will bring peace. What will bring peace are the peace-lovers in Israel and Palestine joining forces. Only then will peace stand a chance.

—-

An Italian version of this article first appeared in Corriere della Sera on 16 May 2018.

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Alt-jihad – Part I: Dying to kill

 
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By Khaled Diab

In the first of a series of articles exploring the disturbing parallels between radical Islamic and White/Christian extremism, Khaled Diab examines whether far-right suicide attackers could become a phenomenon.

Friday 30 March 2018

The Austin serial bomber, Mark Conditt, a 23-year-old unemployed man, has taken the secret with him to the grave of what motivated him to carry out his deadly attacks, which sowed terror in the community. The two who were killed in the attacks were an African-American office worker and an African-American high school student, both of whom were from families connected to the civil rights movement. Among the first to be injured were an African-American and a Hispanic woman were injured.

Was Conditt motivated by racial hatred? If so, why were some of his targets apparently random, such as the tripwire bomb he placed near a road in a quiet area of Travis County, Austin, which injured two white men? Was this revenge against a prosperous community for his unemployed status? Did his conservative religious views play a role in his bombing spree and choice of targets? Was he seeking to punish what he likely regarded as a sinful and god-forsaken society?

Whatever his actual motives were, one incredibly disturbing aspect of Conditt’s attacks was his preference to blow himself up rather than be captured. This qualifies him as a ‘suicide bomber’. This will strike many Americans and Europeans as odd. In the mainstream western mind, suicide attacks are inextricably linked to Muslims, with many conservatives, from Christian pastors to populist right-wing politicians, declaring Islam to be a ‘death cult’. Just last month, Ukip’s Gerard Batten opined that: “[Islam] glorifies death. They believe in propagating their religion by killing other people and martyring themselves and going and getting their 72 virgins.”

Although it is true that nowadays the majority of suicide attacks are carried out by Muslims, usually in Muslim-majority countries, the world leaders in suicidal terrorism were once Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, the Marxist guerrilla group, who transformed suicide attacks into a powerful weapon of asymmetric warfare. The Tamil Tigers constructed “the concept of martyrdom around a secular idea of individuals essentially altruistically sacrificing for the good of the local community,” according to Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism.

This is not a million miles away from Japan’s Kamikaze pilots of World War II. Whether or not people like to refer to them as suicide attackers, western soldiers also have a long history of being involved in suicidal missions. What after all is more suicidal than, say, leaving your trench to run through the no-man’s land of World War I? With the almost certain death involved in some of the deadlier battles of the Great War, involvement in them was akin to a suicide mission.

Such academic comparisons aside, could suicide attacks become a weapon of non-Islamic terrorists in America and Europe?

Well, though not (yet) widespread, this is already occurring, albeit it is a phenomenon that has gone largely unremarked. Take William Atchison, the 21-year-old petrol station attendant who, in December 2017, entered Aztec High School in New Mexico, killed two pupils, injured several others, and then turned the gun on himself. Atchinson was a white supremacist who fantasised, in online gaming forums, about killing Jews. The trouble for him is that there were none around him. “Had Atchison lived in a city with a significant Jewish population, it is even possible the tragedy he caused might have taken an anti-Semitic form instead of the shape that it did,” concluded the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

A far more spectacular suicide shooting occurred last year at the Route 91 Harvest music festival, when Stephen Paddock, 64, who murdered 58 concert goers and wounded a staggering 851, before turning one of his many guns on himself. Chillingly, months of investigation have uncovered no clear motive for Paddock’s rampage. He was a germaphobe, had a gambling addiction and, though once rich, had lost a lot of his wealth in the last year of his life. He also complained of anxiety and pain.

This phenomenon has been in the making, under the radar, for many long years. In 2015, Chris Harper-Mercer, 26, killed nine at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, where he was a student, later shooting himself in the head during a gunfight with police. Harper-Mercer was described as a hate-filled white supremacist, albeit an anti-religious one.

In 2012, Adam Lanza murdered his mother. Perhaps propelled by his paranoid belief that human civilisation was beyond redemption and that “the only way that it’s ever sustained is by indoctrinating each new child for years on end.” Lanza drove to one of these alleged indoctrination factories, Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he shot dead 20 young children, one for each of his young years in this world. As first responders arrived, Lanza shot himself in the head. Also in 2012, a white supremacist soldier-turned-rocker committed suicide after killing six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

Considering how so many Americans are convinced that mass shootings are not motivated by ideology, it is remarkable how many of them are carried out by men who subscribe to white supremacist, conservative Christian or racist worldviews.

Other American mass shootings in which the assailant took their own life occurred in 2007 and two in 2006, including one involving a rare female shooter. That is not including all the possible suicide by police that may have occurred.

This grizzly phenomenon stretches back to the previous millennium. Two such attacks occurred in 1991: one in which the attacker killed four faculty members at the University of Iowa and another where the killer murdered 23 at a Texas cafe. Known as the Luby’s massacre, the Texas attack was, at the time, the deadliest mass shooting in US history. Apparently driven by misogyny, George Hennard, before opening fire, screamed, “All women of Killeen and Belton are vipers,” after crashing through the window of a Luby’s cafeteria with his car.

Mad or bad?

There is a psychological link between suicidal urges and committing mass murder, according to Scott Bonn, a professor of sociology and criminology, in which “alienating social forces” lead “fatalistic individuals increasingly [to] kill others, and in many instances themselves, in catastrophic acts of rage and violence”.

Despite the differential treatment of the mainstream media and politicians towards white and Muslim mass shooters, recent research has suggested they share a great deal in common, namely a suicidal urge to kill and be killed.

And there is strong evidence that suicidal tendencies are, at least partly, determined by social factors, as first posited by the pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who classified suicides into three basic groups: egoistic, altruistic and anomic. There are certain problems with Durkheim’s ideas, namely his insistence that “a given effect must always have a single cause, and that this cause must be of the same nature as the effect,” as Robert Alun Jones of the University of Illinois points out.

Even though Durkheim’s work is too reductionist, the framework he pioneered, as Bonn suggests, is useful not only in understanding suicide but in understanding suicide attacks. It also challenges the simplistic tendency in the West to classify Muslim suicide attackers as evil and ideologically driven, while white suicide attackers are deranged, psychologically disturbed ‘lone wolfs’. Of course, ideology plays a role (after all, the vast majority of such attacks are carried out by violent salafi jihadist groups), but it is, by far, not the only factor. Looking at the social-psychological background helps contextualise how and why such (self-)destructive ideas emerge and how they find some willing recruits. In short, the mad or bad dichotomy is a false one.

Enormous social upheavals can push a minority of people, who under other circumstances may have functioned peacefully in society, over the edge. The attendant despair can cause people to develop the desire to take their own lives and/or the lives of others. The absence or dismantling of social safety nets exacerbates this problem, by depriving these individuals of the kind of emotional, community and economic support to bring them back into the fold. Many even manage to remain undetected for years as they entertain ever bloodier fantasies of murder. The breakdown of law and order, or the disintegrating of the state, creates the kind of social vacuum that facilitates and enables such behaviour. In fact, such behaviour can sometimes be a desperate cry for belonging, especially amongst vulnerable individuals who join tight-knit radical groups, which function as their surrogate family.

This helps explain why different Muslim societies show different propensities for suicide attacks. In some, they are non-existent, while in others, they, along with more conventional forms of terror attacks, occur on a regular basis. In this light, it is hardly surprising that the largest number of suicide bombings occur in Iraq and Syria, two countries where war has completely destroyed the state, made life a misery and even crushed hope for a better tomorrow.

Deathwish or higher purpose?

This highlights how, while some suicide attackers may not be suicidal and carry out their deadly actions for mostly ideological reasons, a sense of altruism in which their individual existence matters not a jot when compared with their perception of the greater good, many, many others appear to be driven by the inverse: suicidal tendencies looking for an outlet. Since almost every society regards murder, both of the self and others, as a grave sin and a crime, the potential suicider with homicidal urges needs to find a way to legitimise and express these proscribed tendencies.

This occurs fairly often in the Palestinian context, where people have collectively to contend with the Israeli occupation, Palestinian oppression and a political and social situation that seems to be in constant, perpetual and ceaseless decline. When you add addition personal difficulties on top of the collective hardships, the explosive cocktail is there for the possibility of politicised suicide-homicides.

One stark manifestation of this was the wave of uncoordinated attempted stabbings by mostly young Palestinians, quite a proportion of whom appeared to be out to commit suicide by soldier. This was particularly the case for some young Palestinian women who, in addition to the occupation and socio-economic despair, had the additional burden of a suffocating patriarchy with which to deal.

This higher level of desperation can make the line between the political and the personal vaguer in the case of women than men. This can lead some troubled women to seek a more “honourable” path to taking their own lives, according to Nadia Dabbaghh, a child and adolescent psychologist and the author of the informative and taboo-breaking study Suicide in Palestine. “Rather than bring shame or dishonour to their entire family and even their community by running away or committing suicide, these women sought escape through an act that would by and large be viewed as patriotic,” observes Dabbagh.

This also sheds light on why it appears to be that America is the only wealthy industrialised country to be suffering not only from routine mass killings, but from ones that regularly feature the suicide of the attacker. This is due not only to America’s lax gun laws and the ease with which firearms can be acquired, but also to the destruction of the social safety net, the eradication of solidarity and support mechanisms, the gaping and growing inequalities, the extremely poor or non-existent healthcare millions of Americans receive, and the emergence of tribalism and identity politics as a substitute for meaningful socio-economic and political reform.

Does this mean we are likely to witness a trend of ultra-right suicide attacks in the coming years?

I hope not but it is entirely possible, especially if radical white supremacist and Christian groups, as well as anti-government militias, choose to exploit systematically these human weapons of mass murder by actually recruiting and actively brainwashing vulnerable individuals to carry out suicide attacks.

What is far more likely to continue apace is the sharp and alarming increase in far-right violence, including terror attacks, not just in America, but also on the other side of the Atlantic, including in the UK.

When, a decade ago, I warned that America was falling prey to a Christian jihad many laughed at me. When I cautioned that the greatest terror threat facing Europe and America was from white supremacists and neo-Nazis, readers did not take me seriously.

But the emerging reality could prove worse than I feared. But when dealing with this threat, we must learn from our mishandling of Islamic extremism. We must be vigilant, not vigilante. We must seek justice, not retribution. We need to excise the demons causing these toxic ideologies, not demonise the people who fall prey to them. We must fight ideas with better ideas.

Read part II – Delusions of grandeur and persecution

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Israeli pilgrim in Prophet Muhammad’s house

 
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By Khaled Diab

A visit by an Israeli Jewish blogger to some of Islam’s holiest sites has stirred up controversy and anger. But should it have?

Wednesday 27 December 2017

A photo of a smiling man dressed in a traditional Arab thawb, keffiyeh and agal while standing in the middle of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Islam’s second holiest site, has sparked online outrage among some Arabs and Muslims.

That’s because the man in question, who has posted his photo posing with a bag emblazoned with Hebrew letters reading ‘Ben Tzion’, is not a Muslim worshipper but an Israeli Jewish blogger.

Instagram, where Ben Tzion had been chronicling his escapades, suspended his account, he claims, and the account is, at the time of writing, no longer active, following a deluge of angry comments.

Under the hashtag ‘#صهيوني_بالحرم_النبوي (‘Zionist_in_the_Sanctuary_of_the_Prophet’), numerous Arab Twitter users expressed severe criticism of Saudi Arabia for allegedly breaking the Arab boycott of Israel, seeing this as a further escalation of the kingdom’s apparent attempts to normalise relations with Israel.

Some took it as an opportunity to spew bigoted anti-Jewish sentiment. “Umar Ibn Al-Khattab… expelled Jews from madina [sic] 1400 years ago and now Saudi government are [sic] allowing them back again,” wrote one Twitterer.

The incident became a battleground in the ongoing Gulf propaganda war between Qatar and a Saudi-led alliance which has laid it under siege, supporters of which have accused Qatar of being an Israeli stooge. The truth is most Gulf countries have been discreetly cultivating relations with Israel for many years now.

“You prohibit Qataris from entering it but you allowed your cousin, the Jew, to enter,” wrote one Qatari user.

Despite (false) allegations that the Israeli blogger was on an officially sanctioned visit and that the Saudis had knowingly let him enter, Ben Tzion himself maintains otherwise. Speaking to BBC Arabic, he said that his trip, for which he used an undisclosed non-Israeli passport, was a private visit, to meet Saudi friends he had got to know in college in America (on a previous visit, he had visited a college friend in Iran).

In a telephone interview with the Times of Israel, Ben Tzion explained that the visit to Saudi Arabia was part of a regional ‘goodwill tour’ which also took him to Iran and Lebanon, both of which Israel defines as ‘enemy states’, prohibiting its citizens from travelling there, on pain of possible but unlikely prosecution – unless they happen to be political dissidents or Palestinians.

This two-sided rejection might be the reason why Ben Tzion keeps his full name and current location under wraps. In fact, a source close to the Times of Israel informed me that, although Ben Tzion occasionally blogs for the online news site, nobody there has met him in person.

Of Russian origin, Ben Tzion grew up in the United States, where he graduated from Babson College, a prestigious business school, and worked in real estate in the Boston area – he holds American, Russian and Israeli citizenship, my source informed me.

“No one in the Arab world ever approached me with hostility,” Ben Tzion told the Times of Israel. “Among regular people, there is no hatred. I was in Beirut two weeks ago – there’s no hatred, people are friendly.”

This revelation will shock and dismay a large number of Israelis, many of whom, I have learnt through years of interaction, are convinced they would be lynched upon entering Palestinian neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, let alone travelling deep into ‘hostile’ Arab territory. This is especially the case among Israeli Jews who equate contact with Arabs as a form of betrayal and self-hatred aimed at the destruction of the Jewish state by other means.

But such contact highlights the importance of direct, grassroots people-to-people contact. It helps demystify and humanise the other side. While this, in and of itself, will not solve the complex issues at the heart of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, understanding and empathy are vital prerequisites to eventual resolution.

Many Arabs will protest that this whitewashes the Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians and normalises the occupation. In my view, a distinction must be made between private, independent Israeli citizens and activists, and representatives of the state or members of organisations affiliated with the state or defending its crimes – and this distinction should be incorporated into the Arab boycott.

This does not mean that Arabs have to agree with Israelis or turn on the Palestinians. It simply means that they need to engage with Israelis and assist their Palestinian brethren in making their case.

Some Arab activists will counter that the boycott is effective and is working, as evidenced by the panicked anti-BDS legislations and activities of the Israeli state, including the recent decision to deny entry to a delegation of European parliamentarians and officials who had intended to visit jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti.

However, the limited successes BDS has scored lulls activists into a false sense of confidence. Even though Israel has become the subject of greater social and political opposition in Europe, this has scarcely made a dent in its economy and, as protection against possible but unlikely European sanctions, Israel has actively nurtured deepening ties with Asian and African states.

Moreover, the current situation empowers extremists, who increasingly call the shots, and opportunists, who take advantage of the chaos.

While principled Arab activists and citizens refuse to reach out to ordinary Israelis, the de facto Netanyahu oligarchical dictatorship is forging ever-deepening ties with equally unscrupulous Arab despots and dictators. And they are doing so not in the interest of peace, justice and security, but to further their own self-interest through conflict and war, injustice and insecurity.

Grassroots contacts founded on principles and dialogue are not simply about paving the way to a better tomorrow – they are also about sidestepping a worse and more destructive future from sucking our region even deeper into the abyss.

Another feature of the Arab backlash on social media was the rejection as somehow impure or contaminating the notion of a non-Muslim entering an Islamic sacred site. As someone who has entered the holiest sites of many other religions, I find this attitude bigoted and intolerant. While there are plenty of mosques, including the fourth holiest in Islam, the Great Mosque of Kairouan (Tunisia), which permit non-Muslims to enter, Mecca, Islam’s most sacred city, is the exclusive domain of Muslims.

This is completely unacceptable morally and counterproductive culturally and politically. Moreover, allowing non-Muslims into Islam’s most sacred heart would open up its soul to the rest of humanity.

____

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 November 2017.

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Hypocrisy and the Holy Land

 
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By Khaled Diab

In their reactions to Donald Trump’s hypocritical Jerusalem declaration, many Arab and Muslims leaders have exhibited their own grotesque double standards.

At the behest of the Turkish president, Islamic leaders gathered for an extraordinary summit to denounce Trump’s declaration.
Source: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Twitter account

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Exercising his peerless talent to make enemies and infuriate people, Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there changes nothing on the ground – except perhaps highlighting the extent of American hypocrisy and how Washington was never an impartial broker.

Nevertheless, Jerusalem is a city of enormous symbolic significance, not just to Jews and westerners but also to Arab Muslims and Christians, and the Palestinian struggle has been at the heart of Arab and Muslim consciousness for generations.

This partly explains why a merely symbolic announcement from Trump has triggered such angry reactions both in Arab corridors of power and on the streets. Another factor is the need to forge a semblance of unity in this bitterly divided region.

Arab League foreign ministers warned that Trump’s move “deepens tension, ignites anger and threatens to plunge the region into more violence and chaos,” as though it was not already mired in both.

In keeping with the League’s track record of futile, toothless endeavours, the ministers said they would seek a UN Security Council resolution rejecting Trump’s move, as though the US was not a veto-wielding permanent member.

Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, urged the Arab world to adopt economic sanctions against the United States. While Bassil was outspoken in his defence of Palestine, his position towards Palestinians is a different matter.

The foreign minister has previously stirred controversy with his opposition to the naturalisation of not only the recently arrived Syrian refugees but also the Palestinian refugees who have lived in Lebanon for decades. Bassil is even against allowing Lebanese women to pass on their nationality to their children if they are married to a Palestinian or a Syrian.

While Bassil is an extreme and bigoted example, loving Palestine but disliking the Palestinians is a fairly common dissonance in Lebanon. This is reflected in how angry protesters clashed with riot police outside the American embassy in Beirut, with some denouncing the US as the “enemy of Palestine”.

Meanwhile, nearly half a million registered Palestinian refugees call Lebanon home, many of whom live in poverty and socio-economic marginalisation, excluded from numerous professions, in one of the country’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, including the infamous Shatila in southern Beirut.

Of course, Lebanon has been a frontline state in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It has integrated some Palestinians and its failure to integrate the remainder partly rests on the fear of what this would do to the country’s delicate balance of power, which dangerously and precariously hinges on a sectarian fulcrum. Some Lebanese are opposed to the integration of Palestinians on the grounds that this keeps the Palestinian cause alive, even if it exacts a heavy human cost.

At a rally in Beirut last week, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, speaking by video link, urged Palestinians to rise up against Israel and vowed that “Jerusalem and Palestine and the Palestinian people and the Palestinian resistance in all its factions” would become his group’s top priority.

One wonders why the Palestinians of Syria were not a priority for Nasrallah, whose militia has been actively supporting the Assad regime in its destruction of Syria, including Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus, upon which the regime and its allies have inflicted a cruel siege and fought a number of battles.

Not to be outdone, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to lead Islamic efforts to resist the US move, even hosting a summit of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation to prove his point. Calling Israel a “child-murderer state”, Erdoğan pledged to “continue our struggle within law and democracy… Our road map will show that it will not be easy for them to realize their plans.” What Erdoğan failed to mention is that he has almost destroyed Turkey’s democracy and undermined the rule of law through a systematic campaign to jail journalists and critics and to purge the state of opponents and enemies, both real and perceived.

After the summit, Erdoğan pledged to open a Turkish embassy in East Jerusalem. However, he built a cunning escape hatch into his plan by claiming that he could not, for now, open this embassy, because East Jerusalem is under occupation. This sounds like low-risk grandstanding to me, as Turkey already has a consulate in Sheikh Jarrah. He could declare that the embassy, if he really wanted, and hang a sign outside, even if it pissed off the Israelis or led to the Israeli taking action against the consulate-cum-embassy.

The reason Erdoğan talks the walk but does not walk the talk is because of all the Turkish interests at stake. What is also absent from Erdoğan’s inflammatory remarks is that, increasingly isolated like Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, he ratified a lucrative reconciliation deal last year with Israel, the country he accused of infanticide.

While Turkey has longstanding official relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, which severely reprimanded Egypt for its peace deal with Israel and ostensibly upholds the Arab boycott of Israel, is seeking closer ties, not to work towards peace and reconciliation in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but to build a mutual alliance against Iran, Riyadh’s belligerent regional rival.

Regardless of which side of the Gulf spat they stand on, much of the Gulf Co-operation Council has been hungrily eyeing Israeli technology, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar all finding covert paths, via middle countries, through which to import Israeli products, including military ones.

This, along with Saudi Arabia’s hatred of Hamas and murderous starvation of Yemen, could explain the muted reaction from Riyadh compared with other Arab and Muslim capitals. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, under the de facto leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is keen to build an axis of autocrats with wannabe dictator Donald Trump in Washington.

Egypt’s reaction has also been fairly reserved. This is partly because of the mutual appreciation society President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi enjoys with Donald Trump, and partly because Egypt has an ambivalent relationship with the Palestinians.

On the one hand, the Egyptian regime has helped Israel maintain its blockade of Gaza by keeping its Rafah crossing mostly closed and has stoked hatred and fear towards Hamas. On the other hand, Egypt has been a central mediator, though hardly an unbiased broker, in intra-Palestinian efforts to mend bridges, helping clinch the recent reconciliation accord between Fatah and Hamas.

Beyond the regimes, on the street, where outrage is generally more genuine, much of the anger has been on behalf of stones and symbols rather than flesh and blood humans, and has featured a troubling element of religious bigotry.

Over and above the chanting of tired and outdated slogans, there has been little in the way of creative new approaches to break the deadlock and support the Palestinians.

____

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared in German in Die Zeit on 14 December 2017.

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A US embassy in Jerusalem changes nothing and everything

 
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By Khaled Diab

Donald Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem changes nothing on the ground but everything on the horizon. It is the final death certificate of the peace process. Now it’s time for something completely different.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Saturday 9 December 2017

Donald Trump has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and pledged to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Moving the embassy to Jerusalem would change nothing on the ground, as America already recognises Jerusalem in deed, and even in words, as reflected in the constantly deferred Jerusalem Embassy Act which was passed by Congress in 1995.

In addition, numerous countries operate consulates-general in Jerusalem, which officially do not report to neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian authorities. This is both a throwback to the original conception of Jerusalem in the 1947 UN partition plan as an internationally administered ‘corpus separatum’ and a tool of convenience for diplomats wanting to deal with both the Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, some of these consulates-general are embassies in all but name.

Whether or not America or any other country recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Israel regards it as such and is pursuing that goal aggressively through a blend of policies. Immediately following its conquest of East Jerusalem, Israel annexed the Palestinian part of the city and widened its municipal boundaries to cover large swathes of the West Bank. In addition, the Knesset, the prime minister’s office and Israel’s ministries are all located there.

Recent years have brought about accelerated settlement building in and around the annexed municipal area, effectively joining greater Jerusalem into a contiguous ring suffocating East Jerusalem and splitting up the West Bank in such a way as to make a Palestinian state unfeasible To anyone who has spent any significant period of time in Jerusalem, like myself, the rate and speed of construction is truly breathtaking.

Add to this the various Israeli policies being used to squeeze or push Palestinian Jerusalemites out, such as the near impossibility of Palestinians acquiring permits to build, home demolitions, the revocation of residence permits, not to mention the economic, social and political isolation of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank thanks to the Israeli wall and barrier.

On the Israeli side of the equation, American recognition will not magically render Jerusalem Israel’s “united and eternal” capital, and not just because nothing is eternal, not even eternity, but also because Jerusalem is a bafflingly dysfunctional and divided city, and words and wishful thinking will not magically change that reality.

Over and above the headline fault lines dividing Jerusalem’s Israeli and Palestinian residents, there are also simmering tensions within each community between the religious and the secular. This has got so bad on the Israeli side that recent decades have seen an exodus of many secular Jerusalemites towards Israel’s more liberal coastal regions, transforming many Jerusalem neighbourhoods into pictures of black and white uniformity, the colours of choice of ultra-orthodox Jews.

Although America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital changes nothing on the ground, it has the potential to change everything on the horizon. Jerusalem, after all, is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is a potent cultural and religious symbol for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

This is reflected in how the old city’s skyline, dominated by the Dome of the Rock, features on everything from pre-partition Zionist posters inviting Jews to visit or come to Palestine, to the calendars and posters hanging on the walls of Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the diaspora. “Next year in Jerusalem,” is a Jewish payer recited in the disapora for centuries. Similarly, when Palestinian refugees think of return, they tend to picture Jerusalem.

Not being able to access Jerusalem is a constant source of frustration and disappointment for Palestinians who live in the West Bank, some within spitting distance of the holy city, and in Gaza because they lack the required Israeli permits. The number of Palestinian millennials I know who have never seen Jerusalem or last saw it when they were very young. One young Palestinian woman who was attending the same conference as me when the announcement was made could more easily travel to Brussels, where we were, than the half a dozen kilometres from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, which she’d last visited as a child.

Beyond the symbolism, Jerusalem is a microcosm of Palestinian suffering under occupation and their dispossession. For a bitterly disenchanted, disappointed and divided people, it is also a potent issue around which to rally. Where years of talks have faltered, Donald Trump has succeeded in uniting all Palestinian political factions in their opposition to his move, prompting them to call for “days of rage”, with the Friday protests leading to sporadic clashes and the death of at least two Palestinians, in Gaza.

Whether or not this leads to a fresh outbreak of prolonged protest or a new intifada depends on many factors. But with an intransigent Israel, no clear and consensual vision for Palestinian politics and no visionary leadership to channel public sentiment, any coming wave of protest is likely to be as directionless and futile as recent waves have been.

Meanwhile, some fear that Trump’s decision will embolden Israel to accelerate its settlement building. However, what this overlooks is that Trump’s very presence in the White House has emboldened the extremist Israeli government, and this is not the first nor will it be the last green light the US president will give the settler movement.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has cautioned that moving the embassy would have “dangerous consequences” for “the peace process and to the peace, security and stability of the region and of the world”.

Trump’s announcement has already brought protesters out on the streets of many Arab and Muslim countries, with some of the largest demonstrations in Tunisia, which is a bastion of pro-Palestinian sentiment and where freedom of assembly and expression are a protected right. How long such street protests will last and what effect they will have is unclear.

Moreover, it is impossible to predict what consequences this decision will have on an already volatile and inflamed Middle East. It could lead to a regional flare up and conflagration, as many fear and some even hope. But if it does, it will be more a function of already brewing tensions and longstanding grievances than this decision specifically.

However, it could also have no immediate consequences because much of the region is embroiled in its own problems and some, like Saudi Arabia, are interested in forging a cynical, implicit or explicit, alliance with Israel against Iran. What is certain is that it will fuel popular resentment, and with it hatred and bigotry.

As for fears about what this will mean for the peace process, I ask, what process? As I and many other critics of the Oslo accords have argued for years, the ‘peace process’ died a long, long time ago. In fact, it was still-born, partly due to its fatal birth defects and partly due to the events which followed. This latest move is an implicit confirmation of this reality by Washington, which has never been an “honest broker”.

It is high time for the Palestinian leadership to recognise this fact and to replace this futile process with a civil rights struggle, and to demand that the international community, especially Europe, support Palestinians in their efforts to gain concrete equal civil, political and economic rights, instead of forever chasing the mirage of a independent state for which no space exists any more.

—–

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared in Italian in Corriere della Sera on Wednesday 6 December 2017.

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Donald Trump’s terrifying Middle East playbook

 
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By Khaled Diab

America’s decision to democratically elect a dictator has Middle Eastern reformers bewildered, but the region’s despots are celebrating Donald Trump’s victory – a sure sign of troubling times ahead.

Wednesday 25 January 2017

Donald Trump on the USS Iowa. Those who believe that President Trump will be a non-interventionist in the Middle East ignore his sabre-rattling and declared policies. Photo: Trump campaign website

In the Middle East, where millions have risked their lives and livelihoods in the cause of freedom and democracy, it is truly baffling to watch a people squander their freedom, and to do so democratically. To paraphrase a popular English adage, America electing Donald Trump is like turkeys voting for Christmas.

Many Middle Easterners have watched the unlikely rise of Donald Trump from tycoon reality TV star to leader of what remains the world’s most powerful nation with a mixture of dismay, bemusement, apprehension and even fear.

The country that made it its stated mission to export democracy, in words if not in deeds, to our part of the world has, instead, imported a brand of authoritarian leader with which we are all too familiar.

Moreover, if the unconfirmed allegations of Russian meddling in the elections prove founded, then Americans will face the novel situation of experiencing the kind of regime change their country has practised in our region for decades.

Whereas many Arabs may disdain America’s foreign policies, they nevertheless envied and admired the apparent freedom those on American soil enjoyed. We, of course, had no idea that the feeling was mutual, and that Americans were envious of our lack of freedom. In fact, rather like al-Qaeda, they seem to have despised America’s freedoms so much that they have decided to beat radical Islam to the chase and destroy their democracy with their own hands.

Of course, we understand all about self-serving politics, crony capitalism, economic stagnation and social immobility. But, really, how exactly is a self-centred, opportunist billionaire whose proposed economic policies would serve himself and the 1% the anti-establishment qualify as an anti-establishment “outsider” who will empower the regular Joe?

In addition, many in the Middle East are extremely alarmed by Trump’s anti-Muslim, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant rhetoric, not to mention his proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States, even if he has downplayed it since being elected.

However, there are some whom, despite all these troubling signs, are actually pleased that Trump won – not out of any love for Trump or his policies, but out of disillusionment with America’s destructive track record in the Middle East and the global South, as it is called.

Among some, this has created an unhealthy level of vindictiveness. “Many of us feel that if America could not choose the best option, then it deserved the worst,” claimed one Arab blogger in a widely read article. “Also, there’s a harsh desire for rough truth, rather than hypocritical garnish.”

Although I never expected Barack Obama to alter radically the American empire’s modus operandi, and warned against the risks of wishful thinking before Obama was even elected, the notion that Donald Trump would deliver “rough truth” free of “hypocritical garnish” is naive in the extreme, at best, willfully self-deceptive, at worst.

Not only has Trump proven on countless opportunities to be a pathological liar of the first order, his ideological (if it can be called that) opportunism – such as his far-fetched claim that he is a devout Christian and that “nobody reads the Bible more than me” – has seen him swing erratically from one populist position to the next.

More importantly, values have an important value. Obama failing to live up to his espoused liberal and progressive values is one thing, a president who takes pride in tearing up what he denigrates as the “politically correct” handbook and replacing it with a fascist moral lexicon is something altogether different. The first can be constrained and held to account to some degree by his own words and ideas; the other’s words and ideas empower him to abandon ethical oversight altogether.

Beyond values, there are those who have convinced themselves that, compared with his predecessors, Donald Trump will be the “non-interventionist” president. “Trump might be good news for millions of people in the Middle East and Africa who have endured for nearly a decade the roughest edges of Hillary’s and Obama’s ‘decency’,” an Indian friend, with whom I have argued the point endlessly, is convinced.

But this confuses economic isolationism with military non-intervention. With his stated attitudes towards NAFTA, China and bringing American jobs home, Trump talks the talk on economic isolation, but even here, there are signs he will not walk the walk.

Although he has harshly criticised Clinton and Obama’s war-mongering, while being silent about the real architects of this aggressive militarism (George W Bush and his administration), Trump has done some serious sabre-rattling – towards ISIS, Iran and even China.

In his foreign policy “vision”, Trump claims he will abandon the policies of “nation-building” and regime change. But delving into the details of his blueprint, this appears disingenuous, to say the least.

Trump vows to work with Arab allies (you know, those tyrants who oppress their people) to defeat ISIS through “aggressive joint and coalition military operations”. No mention is made of Bashar al-Assad, the original author of Syria’s destruction, with whom Trump has repeatedly indicated his administration could work because he is “much tougher and much smarter” than American leaders.

For a man who is supposedly non-interventionist, Trump certainly likes his toys. In his vision, the new president pledges to “rebuild our depleted military… enhance and improve intelligence and cyber capabilities”. In a country which already spends more than $1.6 trillion dollars a year on its army, Trump wants to ratchet up military spending.

With all these shiny new weapons; with his erratic, machine-gun approach; with his tough guy persona and fragile ego, all it requires is a domestic crisis or a foreign government or radical group to challenge or insult him for Trump to go off the rails and on the war path.

Even if he starts no new wars, he is likely to continue and escalate current ones, and to pursue a hostile, aggressive policy towards Tehran that could easily spin out of control. Also, as his presidency goes pear-shaped, as it almost certainly will, Trump will need a distraction – and there is nothing like a foreign war (so easy to start for American leaders) to whip dissidents into line and shut down dissent.

In addition, being a “strongman” and an authoritarian leader himself, constrained only by America’s checks and balances, Trump is instinctively drawn to the region’s dictators. Trumps presidency is likely to embolden the Middle East’s despots and that is why, with the exception of the mullahs in Tehran, they have been in celebratory mood.

Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi courted Candidate Trump and when Trump won, the Egyptian president, according to Egyptian media reports, was the first foreign leader to call and congratulate him. Troublingly, the two strongmen see eye-to-eye on many issues. Bashar al-Assad has said that Trump’s focus on ISIS would make him a “natural ally” to Damascus.

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has declared war on the media in his own country, has praised Trump’s attitude to the press and said “we will reach a consensus with Mr Trump, particularly on regional issues”.

In Israel, despite the anti-Semitism of many in Trump’s cabinet and support base, Binyamin Netanyahu and the settler movement are overjoyed that Trump supports the settlement movement and that he has vowed to move the US embassy to Jerusalem – which has set off alarm bells in Palestine and Jordan.

With a rogues’ fan club like this, Trump’s presidency promises to be a nightmare for the Middle East.

However, some are holding out hope that Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin will end the destructive rivalry between the two powers in the Middle East and guide them towards forging joined solutions.

Again, I feel such hopes are likely misguided, as both men are obsessed with rebuilding their countries’ perceived lost glory and to pursue their national interests robustly.

If Trump and Putin manage to co-operate and to do so consistently, this is not necessarily a good thing for the Middle East, as it could well result in the 21st-century equivalent of the Sykes-Picot carve-up, but this time between Russia and America.

If the two narcissists fall out, as they are likely to do once they actually interact, because the world, let alone the Middle East, is not big enough to contain both their egos, then that is also bad news for the Middle East. In fact, with both the Russian and American armies’ involved in Syria, future disputes between Putin and Trump could have potentially dire global consequences.

Although it is ultimately impossible to foretell the future under Trump, the signs seem to point to the likelihood that the Middle East will lose a great deal with “The Donald” at the helm in Washington.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on German in Die Zeit on 22 January 2017.

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FICTION: Escaping terror firma, Part 4 – Drowning in a sea of dashed dreams

 
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By Khaled Diab

“I fully expect to be escorted off the ship and onwards towards oblivion, first in a prison cell in Israel and then in the prison of Gaza… But then…”

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 7 October 2016

Alone and lonely, I feel a deep sense of melancholy overcome me. How could I have expected my prison guard to understand my predicament and release me? I scold myself for my naïve streak. I feel an immense fatigue wash over me and, despite everything or perhaps because of it, I succumb to the comforting embrace of slumber. I curl up as best I can on the hard bunk and am immediately overwhelmed by blank darkness. While asleep, I sense we have hit rocky waters… or perhaps it is my rocky dreams that have suddenly erupted upon my inner eye. On the verge of waking, the rocking subsides and rocks me back to sleep.

When I awaken, I am not sure how much time has elapsed. It feels like hours but it could have been minutes. I sit and patiently await a return visit, during which I fully expect to be escorted off the ship and onwards towards oblivion, first in a prison cell in Israel and then in the prison of Gaza, where the chains binding my soul bound to feel thicker and heavier after having come so close to escape.

But the moment refuses to arrive. I wait and I wait and I wonder how it can take so long to reach an Israeli port.

Eventually, I hear the clanking thud of boots on metal and I know my time has arrived. I brace myself. The door swings open to reveal Major Beige and a couple of his subordinates. “Follow me,” he instructs in a neutral tone. When we come up on deck, I am surprised to discover we are still in open waters.

But where?!

My inner compass cannot determine. I interrogate Major Beige with my eyes.

“I’ve never accepted my lot,” he says cryptically, “and neither should you. You’ve done nothing wrong and you’ve wronged no-one. You don’t deserve prison, so I’m returning you to the sea.”

Disbelieving, I stare wordlessly at him, while his comrades look on, some with supportive gazes, others with barely concealed disgust and contempt.

“Over there is Cyprus,” he points, though I can’t see any land in sight. “I can’t get you any closer without infiltrating Cyprus’s territorial waters, and I’m in enough trouble…

“So you’ll have to swim from here,” he says. “If you can,” he adds, his eyes betraying doubt and concern.

“Thank you,” I say, wondering what comeuppance awaits him for his act of mutiny, trying to convey my concern with my eyes.

Discomforted by my gaze, he motions to me with his eyes to move closer.

The officer unlocks my shackles and leads me towards the edge of the ship. I climb back into the sea, barely able to believe that my insane scheme is on the verge of succeeding, unless I drown on the home stretch, and that in a short time I will be taking off my skinsuit to reveal the bikini underneath for the first time ever on a beach.

I turn in the water, drag in a deep breath, and dance ahead. As I head towards my salvation, my mind drifts and swims to the places and, more importantly, the people I’m leaving behind. I wonder when I’ll next see my parents, family and friends and under what circumstances. As I swim towards my escape, I am buoyed by the prospect of possibility after all the impossibility I have lived through, but I am also pulled down by the sinking realisation that even if I survive the sea and find freedom, I will never truly be free.

[The end]

Read part 1 – Hell from the heavens

Read part 2 – Breaking out of the fish bowl

Read part 3 – Shipwrecked delusions

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Podcast: Concrete canvas

 
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By Khaled Diab

Like the Berlin Wall and other political barriers, the Israeli wall has witnessed an explosion of protest art on its concrete canvas.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 6 September 2016

From where I live on the Mount of Olives, I have a sublime view over the Jordan Valley, all the way to the Dead Sea and beyond. But the divine landscape conceals an unholy reality.

The territory I can survey with my naked eyes is sliced and diced into numerous zones, including the Israeli-annexed Jerusalem municipality, settlements, West Bank Palestinian towns and villages, and more.

If you look carefully, this geopolitical reality is underscored by the Israeli wall, which goes by various names, depending on who is speaking: the separation or security fence or wall, by the Israelis, or the apartheid or segregation wall, by the Palestinians.

The wall runs across the landscape like an open gash or a badly healed scar. Even though Israel insists its sole purpose is to ensure the safety and security of its citizens, the concrete monstrosity swallows up land, disrupts lives, ruins livelihoods, segregates Israelis and Palestinians, and reinforces the psychological and emotional barriers between the two peoples.

Like the Berlin Wall and other political barriers elsewhere, the Israeli wall has witnessed an explosion in artistic expression since its construction. And this artwork has become the target of political pilgrims.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

During the recent Palestine marathon, I stopped, like many others, to take snaps of the more striking artworks on the wall. Surreally, a surprisingly high number of Palestinians were posing for individual or group selfies, making the barrier seem more like a tourist attraction than a prison wall.

The most famous artist to have worked on this concrete canvas has to be British graffiti artist Banksy. With his trademark mix of humour and poignant socio-political commentary, Banksy figuratively tears through the barrier.

One of his large murals features a huge, misshapen crack in the wall through which a child climbs. This puts me in mind of the street murals painted on to the walls erected by the Egyptian military in Cairo to curb the movements of revolutionaries. To reclaim the streets, revolutionary artists simply and painstakingly painted what was on the other side, transforming the concrete barriers into a transparent window.

One amusing Banksy art piece features a large, rectangular dotted line with scissors on its edge, rather like what you find around a cut-out coupon in a newspaper. Another expresses more explicitly the desire to escape. In it, a rope ladder dangles precariously off the wall with a boy at the bottom tugging on it.

Armed with sledgehammers, some activists have emulated this desire to smash through the barrier in real life. Others have actually scaled the wall in daring stunts aiming to show that no barrier can hold back the human determination to be free.

But it is not just political activists. Thousands of ordinary Palestinians find creative ways to get over, under or around the wall and fences which cage them in, so as to make a living or see family and friends.

Khaled Jarrar, the hard-hitting and provocative Jenin-born Palestinian artist who lives in Ramallah, made a hauntingly raw, unstructured documentary, called Infiltrators, about this. Over the course of four years, Jarrar filmed workers, patients, worshippers and smugglers as they embarked on risky journeys to the other side. Despite the overall grimness, there are moments of surreal comedy, such as the Palestinian boy squeezing bread through a hole in the wall, apparently oblivious to the world around him.

For wry humour and true laughs at the absurdity of it all, one must turn to Suad Amiry’s book Nothing to lose but your life. In it, the intrepid architect, academic and author disguises herself as a man and joins a group of workers in the dead of night as they attempt to cross into Israel.

With her eye for the ironic and quirky, and her no-holds barred straight-talking, Amiry brings to vivid life the rogues parade of characters she encounters on her journey. And it is all done with the eccentric, zany, chatty wit she exhibits in person, as well as on the page.

But the wall separating Israelis and Palestinians is not just a canvas and subject for art, it can also provide its raw materials. Khaled Jarrar chips away chunks of the wall and uses the concrete to fashion or sculpt footballs, basketballs and ping-pong rackets, like those abandoned by kids playing by the wall.

Palestinians may dream of dismantling the wall and ending the restrictions it imposes on their lives, but, in the meantime, life goes on. Under its long concrete shadow, in front of its dizzying array of street art, people go about their days until the day arrives when it, like its predecessors elsewhere, will vanish.

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FICTION: Escaping terror firma, Part 1: Hell from the heavens

 
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By Khaled Diab

Poetry and song talk of soaring free as a bird, but the heavens are where hell resides. People talk of taking wing, but, me, I’d rather take fin, be free as a fish.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 17 August 2016

Part 1: Hell from the heavens and taking fin

The sun setting over the Mediterranean is a magnificent sight. It is also the perfect optical illusion. When I feel I need a moment of escape, I often return to this very spot, about as secluded as you can get around here, and watch the fading light as it shifts from a hot, unforgiving yellow, to a warm, caressing orange.

Looking out to sea, I feel myself transported from the land-bound misery on terror firma behind me, that land of fear, misery and hopelessness. For a few, short, glorious moments, I can even imagine myself as someone else, in another time, another place, the product of a different accident of birth – one that involves relaxed holidays with my best friends, cocktails at sundown, selfies of our other selves, rather than the salafis constraining our current selves, and even kissing and telling. I can see myself on a beautiful Mediterranean island, idling on the beach roasting my olive skin until it’s almost ebony, dressed in the bikini that I have only ever worn in the bathroom, but which I now have on under my wetsuit, and which my mother bought me during a rare trip abroad to attend a medical conference.

“I couldn’t book you that holiday you’ve been dreaming of but I got you the next best thing,” she giggled conspiratorially as she passed me the package, her emerald eyes twinkling in a beam of sunlight that had entered the room. Despite her evident fatigue, she reminded me of those gorgeous Red Sea lagoons I also fantasised of floating on and under, like a carefree mermaid and good friend of the rainbow nation of the nearby coral reef.

The sea is my tormenter. Like its illusionary promise of quenching the thirst of the parched desert dweller, it rubs salt in the wounds of my longing to be free. The vast oceans in their depths and breadths contain the prospect of liberation, of release from this fenced-in prison. For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of being carried away by an irresistible current to a far-away land where people live in peace of mind and body, where the only ruins are those being conserved by the antiquities authorities. Or better still, plunging into a submerged world, an aquatic Atlantis.

Poetry and song talk of soaring free as a bird, but the sky for me has lost its allure. The heavens are where hell resides, our infernal graveyards, where death rains down, where a superhuman force greater than ourselves keeps watch over us, its numerous eyes droning high above our heads, buzzing intolerably like giant wasps.

People talk of taking wing, but, me, I’d rather take fin, be free as a fish, return to the waters from which we came, even if some sheikhs say it’s haram to believe in evolution. Perhaps I don’t wish to devolve into our scaly ancestor but to evolve into a mermaid, with the boundless ocean my oyster, instead of this land-bound coffin in which I dwell.

Once, during a particularly intense bombardment of the last war, I cracked like the plasterwork in my room and something inside me snapped. The winds of blind rage carried me in a hurricane of hysterical screams to the nearby beach where I pummelled my fists and mocked the killing birds ripping through the darkness above. With explosions sounding from every direction and the cool sand vibrating, sometimes violently, under my bare feet, I saw a phantom emerge from the shadows and, at that moment, I was ready for it to snatch my soul. Instead, it snatched desperately at my arm, like the hopeless life I lead, trying to keep me away from the dark clutches of death. In the moonlight, I saw my father’s panic-stricken eyes search my face for a clue to my dark madness. “Maha, have you been possessed by jinn?” he said, shaking me angrily in a way that simulated an exorcism.

But you don’t believe in jinn, baba, was the involuntary thought that infiltrated my deranged brain, which was knocking about inside my rocking skull.

When I burst into tears, baba regained his senses, even though the mayhem in the sky was growing. Unrushed and apparently unperturbed by the missiles and shells, he gave me the kind of deep cuddle I could never get enough off as a child, the kind that crushed love deep into your bones.

Then it hit me. How did baba get here? Since the war before last, he has hardly been able to move his left leg, whose calf is sore and swollen, causing him bursts of excruciating pain every time he tries to walk on it, often flooring him. No doctor has been able to find anything wrong with him. A psychologist friend of my father’s suggested that it was in his head, caused by unprocessed trauma and depression – and urged him to seek professional help. Needless to say, baba refused. He has a stubborn streak that is bone-headed even by Gazan standards. On top of that, he believes psychology and psychiatry are bourgeois dark arts, indulgences for the rich and pampered, not legitimate medical disciplines to cure the underprivileged and destitute. I think he also secretly feared the traditional “you’re crazy” stigma attached to the field.

“Baba, your leg?” I yelled over the explosions, breaking loose of his embrace.

Surprised, he looked down at his swollen calf ballooning out of his trouser leg, and laughed in astonishment. “You know it doesn’t hurt. The pain of my fear for you is stronger than physical pain,” he said, taking me back in his warm embrace.

As he did so, I looked out towards the Mediterranean, hearing only the rhythmic waves, obliviously lapping away, unaware of the inferno metres away on the land.

The sea taunts me. Despite my deep azure love for it, it waves at me from afar, swishing and swooshing derisively in the distance. But today I will conquer you. I will ride your tide and your blue jinn will not be able to stop me. During the last war, I regularly felt the urge to take flight, to flee, that is, into the oblivious embrace of the sea. But the invisible hand of family and community held me back. Though I could not protect my parents and kid brother from the missiles, bombs and shells shaking the foundations of our lives, again, I was determined to shield them from the emotional shrapnel ripping away at their hearts and shredding their minds.

Though the world sits up and pays attention when the explosions are audible and death dramatic, it turns its gaze away when the implosions are emotional and the deaths are of the soul, not the body. Of course, war is traumatic, everyone knows or can imagine that. But what comes after can be far worse, especially here in Gaza, where our looped history has repeated itself so much that hope too escaped from our particular Pandora’s jar, to soar into the heavens, which have become our hell, unlikely ever to return.

And deprived of external hope, I have decided to create my own, to fashion it out of the abundant radioactive elements of despondency all around me, to modify genetically the DNA letters which spell despair and engineer them into hope.

I stand waist-high in water, dressed in my wet suit and a life jacket for the rest stops I’ll inevitably need to take, with a lightweight waterproof bag containing snorkels and some supplies. In a bright corner of my darkened brain, the scheme I have devised strikes me as preposterous, suicidal even. I silence my doubts and fears by telling my limbs, which stand frozen in the still-warm water, that death awaits us anyway – better to die pursuing your dreams than to die pursued by your nightmares.

Read part 2: Breaking out of the fish bowl

Read part 3 – Shipwrecked delusions

Read part 4 – Drowning in a sea of dashed dreams

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