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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Egypt’s return of the “noble” outlaws

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By Bel Trew and Osama Diab

Three years after a revolution against Mubarak-era cronyism, fugitive tycoons are scrambling to buy back their freedom… at knock-down prices.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

As crowds packed streets throughout Egypt during the 2011 uprising that overthrew autocrat Hosni Mubarak, it wasn’t only the politicians and generals in Cairo who were scrambling to protect their interests. With the old regime teetering, business tycoons connected to the regime packed up their bags – and their billions – and fled the country.

One of them was Hussein Salem, who was nicknamed the “Father of Sharm el-Sheikh” for his ownership of multiple hotels in the coastal resort city. Salem made billions of dollars in the energy, arms, and hospitality industry in Mubarak’s Egypt – he was so close to the former president that the two even invested together, according to documents obtained by Foreign Policy. It was a lucrative alliance for Salem: In the early 2000s, Mubarak granted him a monopoly over gas exports to Jordan, Israel, and Spain. Salem used this deal to sell gas at below-market rates for years, according to an Egyptian court ruling, costing the country more than $700 million.

Salem hasn’t been back to Egypt since Mubarak’s fall, and for good reason. As post-uprising Egypt looked to recoup the millions stolen by Mubarak and his cronies, a series of court cases focused on the corrupt business practices of Salem and his family. In October 2011, Salem – along with his son, Khaled, and daughter, Magda – were found guilty of making illicit gains on their gas sales, and sentenced in absentia to seven years in jail. In June 2012, he was convicted of selling gas to Israel at below-market prices, and sentenced in absentia to 15 years in jail, and ordered, along with other defendants, to pay $412 million in fines.

Salem, however, holds Spanish citizenship, which has allowed him to dodge the Egyptian legal system. He is now living in Majorca, Spain, and is wanted by Interpol along with his son and daughter. Spanish courts, however, have refused to extradite him to Egypt because the two nations do not have judicial or legal bilateral co-operation agreements and the courts’ uncertainty about the fairness of Egypt’s legal process.

But for the first time since Mubarak was toppled, Salem’s fortunes – and that of other Mubarak-era businessmen – may be shifting for the better. Since Egypt’s generals ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last July, Salem said he has been ecstatic and is planning his return to Cairo, his lawyer Tarek Abdel-Aziz told FP. The billionaire Mubarak confidant phoned in to a popular television program in January to offer a deal to the new military-backed government: cancel my convictions and I’ll give Egypt millions.

Egyptian officials publicly welcomed the offer.

“Mr Hussein Salem and other noble businessmen … your initiative is really appreciated,” said Hany Salah, a cabinet spokesman, during the phone-in on local channel CBC. “Anyone who proposes a noble and good offer, then the least we can do is listen to him for the best of our beloved country.”

Since the overthrow of Morsi, Salah continued, Egypt is more open to initiatives of “reconciliation” – and he expects other Mubarak-era fugitive businessmen to propose similar deals. Reconciliation deals can either be reached by committees appointed by the prime minister and justice minister, or they can be brokered by the general prosecutor, who is appointed by the president.

Reconciliation, however, seems to mean little more than dropping corruption charges in exchange for cash. During another phone-in on 9 January, Salem offered the government a $3.6 million fund to boost tourism and repair police stations, churches and mosques in exchange for his freedom. That’s actually a drastic decrease compared to his pre-coup proposal: in May 2012, just before Morsi became president, Salem offered at least half his estimated $1.6 billion in wealth in exchange for settling the charges against him, according to Abdel-Aziz.

Three years after protests against the sort of business cronyism that gutted Egypt’s economy, the country is now considering turning to the very people who robbed the country for a financial bailout. Despite protesters’ widespread demands for social justice, post-revolutionary Egypt has witnessed precious few improvements: Transparency International ranks Egypt 114 out of 177 countries on its “Corruption Perception Index,” and its position has actually fallen since 2011.

The relationship between Mubarak-era business tycoons and the Egyptian government appeared to have been severed long ago, as the prosecutions targeting these businessmen were launched by the interim military government that followed Mubarak. But “reconciliation” could allow the new military-backed government to reestablish the same powerful networks of loyal businessmen that flourished under Mubarak.

The process “opens the door for more corruption and escaping justice,” said Ghada Ali Moussa, a political scientist who heads up the Governance Centre, a government agency dedicated to preventing corruption and advancing transparency. “[Salem’s prospective reconciliation deal] will be an ideal prototype for others to follow.”

Other businessmen with ties to the Mubarak regime are also lining up their reconciliation offers. Mubarak’s minister of foreign trade and industry, Rachid Mohamed Rachid, is in similar talks with the government and is set to put in another offer, Moussa said. Rachid, who was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in jail and at least $330 million in fines for squandering public funds and profiteering, fled to Dubai during the 2011 uprising.

Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s consolidation of power could also increase Egypt’s willingness to cut reconciliation deals. While much normal government business has been on hold under the current interim government, a strongman in the presidential palace and a new parliament could change that.

“There will be a climate for such reconciliation to materialise,” Ibrahim el-Henedy, Egypt’s deputy justice minister and head of the Illicit Gains Authority, the body in charge of investigating corruption, told FP. “It’s all about the offer of reconciliation: which is better for Egypt, to reconcile or not?”

Even though Salem was “among the worst” of the country’s corrupt businessmen and has been ordered to pay some of the biggest fines, Henedy said, the government was still interested in striking a reconciliation deal.

Salem’s lawyer, Tarek Abdel-Aziz, also believes that the time is ripe to settle his client’s disagreements with the Egyptian government. He told FP he is working on an official reconciliation offer, which will be submitted to the authorities now that Morsi has been ousted. His client is “very optimistic,” the lawyer said.

“Now, thank God, there is an existing system that takes care of all Egyptians,” Abdel-Aziz said. “Today we have a new regime – hopefully a just regime that will move things forward.”

Abdel-Aziz denied that Salem was tied to Mubarak and said the charges were politically motivated. However, a leaked document from the Illicit Gains Authority shows that the Salems and the Mubaraks – together with other businessmen tied to the old regime – invested together in an offshore fund registered in the Cayman Islands, a Caribbean tax haven.

The investment fund, which was called the Egypt Fund, invested in 18 Egyptian companies in the cement, banking, real estate, steel, oil, food, and agricultural industries. The head of investor relations at EFG Hermes bank, Hanzada Nessim, wrote in an e-mail that her bank set up the Egypt Fund in 1997. When asked whether EFG Hermes was aware of the investors behind the fund, Nessim wrote that the bank was fully informed of the investors’ identities and that no allegations of wrongdoing had been levied against them at the time.

While Salem and Mubarak were not personally listed as contributors, the fund included companies owned by their children: Clelia Assets Corporation, owned by Khaled and Magda Salem, invested $3 million; and Pan World Investments Corporation, owned by Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, invested $250,000. The offshore fund would have provided significant tax breaks to its investors, as well as allowing them to shield their investments from prying eyes.

Salem not only bilked Egypt – he also stole from the United States. In 1979, his company, the Egyptian American Transport and Service Corporation (EATSCO), was granted a contract to ship military goods from the United States to Egypt. The deal came in the wake of the Camp David Accords, when US military sales started to flood in to Cairo, making shipping a potentially lucrative business.

Salem, however, tried to boost his profits by charging the US Defense Department for inflated shipment costs. Between 1979 and 1981, according to US court documents, EATSCO submitted false invoices for 34 shipments, which overcharged the Pentagon by $8 million. In 1983, Salem pled guilty to felony charges in the US District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia. The fines and civil claims settlements paid by Salem and the companies involved in the scheme totaled more than $4 million.

Most of Salem’s millions came from sweetheart deals in Egypt, where he received preferential treatment from his allies at the top echelons of government. In April 2011, Mubarak-era spy chief Omar Suleiman testified before an Egyptian prosecutor that Salem’s company, the East Mediterranean Gas Company, was handed the monopoly over gas exports to Israel, Jordan, and Spain in the early 2000s, bypassing the usual bidding process. Suleiman was asked to testify as Egypt’s intelligence services were allegedly involved in brokering the gas deals.

Suleiman said Salem had been friends with Mubarak for more than 20 years, and that his experience in business dealings with Israel was the reason he was chosen for the deal.

“[Salem] had dealt with the Israelis before with MIDOR,” Suleiman said, referencing Salem’s time as chairman for the Middle East Oil Refining Company, an Israel-Egyptian project established in 1993 to build a joint refinery on the North coast of Egypt and to extend an oil pipeline to Israel.

Seven years later, Salem sold 37% of the East Mediterranean Gas Company for $4.2 billion, according to the Israeli business news website Globes.

It’s not hard to see why Salem is pushing so hard for reconciliation. If Egypt refuses to cut a deal and negotiates an extradition agreement, it could win back his frozen assets in Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Spain. The extradition would allow Egypt to convict Salem in person, and many countries – including the ones where Salem stashed his wealth – require such a final verdict if they are to return his stolen assets.

If successfully extradited back home, Salem would also be obliged to pay more than $4 billion in fines and restitution, and he would serve 22 years in prison based on his combined sentences by Egyptian courts.

A reconciliation deal, on the other hand, would not only place Salem back in the good graces of the Egyptian government, it would also effectively end foreign investigations into whether his wealth is the result of illicit gain.

“It would be very difficult for the Swiss authorities to continue prosecution against Hussein Salem if the Egyptian authorities drop any charges against him,” said Olivier Longchamp, officer for international financial relations at the Swiss NGO Berne Declaration. “Money can only be seized if it has been proven to be of illegal origin.”

Now, three years after a revolution against Mubarak-era cronyism, Salem appears closer to his goal than ever before. In an ironic turn, he is now hailing the military-backed government for combating the same underhanded business dealings of which, for many Egyptians, he is the symbol. As he put it in January, “the era of corruption and injustice is gone now.”

This feature first appeared in Foreign Policy on 7 February 2014. It is republished here with the authors’ consent.

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Palestine@UN: From national to civil rights

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By Rachel Lever

As the two-state solution enters its final death throes, it is time for campaigners to switch their demands to equal rights in a single democratic state.

Thursday 8 September 2011

Mark Twain once asked, on hearing news of the death of a less-than-dynamic American politician, “How did they know he was dead?” What we are now asking about the two-state solution is: how will we know it is dead?

The formula of two states for two peoples has been so dead for so long that it has been dubbed the “undead”. Nevertheless, the powers-that-be will never declare the death of the two-state solution.  

Israel’s establishment will not do it because it has been a brilliant cover for the acquisition of the West Bank and the throttling of Gaza. The Palestinian Authority will not do it because their status and salaries depend on it. Washington will not do it because they think their votes depend on it. Israel’s “peace camp” will not do it because their illusions depend on it. And most Palestinians will not do it because they feel that a state, however limited and nominal, is their only hope of getting some control over their destiny.

UN tactic to resurrect the undead 

As for the UN recognition tactic intended to resurrect the two-state option, it might gain Palestinians a better bargaining position for a separate state. But this bargain would cost the Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes, and leave Palestinians inside Israel open to further ethnic cleansing. 

And how many of the countries that will vote for recognition have committed themselves to supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) to isolate Israel until it ends its military rule over the new “state” they’ve just voted to recognise and until it fulfils the provisions of various UN resolutions? Has the PA even asked them to apply such sanctions? 

Kick-start without the kick 

The UN bid did seem to promise a bit of a departure from the tired old business-as-usual negotiations. It was still a two-state compromise, but its highlight was to insist, and get it voted on at the UN, that Palestine’s territory consisted of nothing less than the pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem (as it stood pre-1967) as its capital. 

 Israel was, of course, dead set against this, and also hated the short-circuiting of negotiations and the bad behaviour of its prisoner appealing to the UN over its head. 

Now this has apparently been junked, Haaretz reported, and the whole concept drastically watered down in a new draft “crafted” by the Fatah leadership. Now, instead of recognising Palestine within the 1967 borders, it will say that the permanent borders will be determined by, yes, you guessed, negotiations with Israel “based on” the borders of 4 June, 1967. This is the position the negotiations were at five years ago. 

The idea is to make the resolution so feeble that even the United States and Israel could vote for it. So after all the excitement, what is the point of it at all? 

Another revealing comment from the Haaretz report noted that: “This approach made it possible to enlist the support of leading moderates in Hamas, who claim that recognition of the 1967 borders before the signing of a final-status deal means waiving the claim to the right of return.” So their only worry was that it would be given away cheaply at the start of the process rather than sold for a price at the “final status” point.

The two-state roadblock

This dead, useless and hazardous project to repartition historic Palestine stands four-square in the way of a perfectly feasible political solution that reunites the country based on universal human rights, an equal democracy, multicultural tolerance, and reconciliation. All of which could add up to real and lasting peace. 

This whole, complete and single state would have no internal borders. It would need no high-profile evictions of dangerous, armed and militant settlers (who have just vandalised an IDF base as a “price-tag” for losing three houses); no security arrangements, and no “population transfers” or land swaps. Palestinian refugees could be welcomed back to help build a new society. Jerusalem would be a united city, liberated from shameful ethnic cleansing and the racist rewriting of its history – house by house and street by street. 

Those who say this is impossible because of racial or communal hatred are simply pandering to such hatred. All evidence shows that separation, and unjust separation especially, serve to inflate fear and hatred.

A constitution created jointly would guarantee the most beneficial rights, and respect and nurture of the variety of identities, because its joint authors will insist on them on behalf of those they represent. Equality means what’s “good for the gander is good for the goose” – no exceptions, no double standards. 

The new country would no longer be a Jewish state. But it will still remain a very Jewish country in the best sense, finally able to reclaim Judaism’s core values that command us to respect “the other”. 

To ensure that the state will treat all cultures and faiths equally, there has to be strict separation of “church and state”. This principle has been tried and tested over hundreds of years in secular democracies, and withstood strong organised religion, even where one faith is dominant. 

A country with two strong faiths would have cast-iron defences for its constitution. In Israel and Palestine and among potential incomers, exiles, and expats, only a small minority is known to favour any state-enforced religion. It is not credible that such a constitution could be overturned if it required a massive, popular, across-the-board majority of all communities in a referendum. 

By far the strongest guarantee is that all the people would have an equal stake in the new state, and an equal interest in making it work and isolating rejectionists and extremists on either side. And a one-state solution is fast: work to create a merged society could start very quickly, transforming the political landscape from day one. Many joint projects will have been created as part of the struggle and ahead of formal transition. Some exist now, already forging strong bonds.

Anyone can see that the two-state train has been sitting up against the buffers for decades now, with the one-state express stuck behind it. The big problem has been opening up the line to let the fast train through.

A common scenario outlined by a number of historians, politicians (including Israel’s former prime minister Ehud Olmert) and Israel’s own leading think-tank Reut is that once the two-state option is closed off, Palestinians will start to demand civil rights in one country. 

Ethnocracy or democracy?

Israel calls itself Jewish and democratic, and obsessively seeks to maintain this strange hybrid by fiddling the franchise so that it will always have a massive ethnic majority. Its  complicated and flexible “apartheid” system, helped by the zones set up in the Oslo “peace process”  allowed it to take the West Bank land but leave the Palestinians there without a vote, which means they effectively live in a military dictatorship.

But if the zones and borders are taken away, all this will be in full view, and Israel will be left with the choice of Jewishness (by openly denying the franchise to people who share the country) or democracy, which will end the present guaranteed ethnocracy, whose establishment and maintenance have called forth massive and continuing ethnic cleansing. Already, the issue is up for debate, as a new quasi-constitutional Basic Law has been tabled under which, if there is a choice, democracy must lose out. 

Choosing democracy

A grassroots Palestinian movement demanding an end to zones and borders, and waving the banner of equality under one law and universal franchise, could drive a wedge into Israeli thinking, separating those who choose democracy from those who prioritise Zionism. 

The universalism of this demand makes it far more powerful than national demands which are, after all, stuck behind their national boundaries. Civil rights slogans can penetrate into the liberal hearts of the majority ofIsrael’s Democrat-voting American Jewish outriders, weakening Israel’s lifeline lobby in Washington. 

Civil rights demands can get under the skin of the fervent old Zionist peace campaigners who thought the two-state solution would return Israel to its supposed days of innocence before 1967. And they can make big inroads into Israel’s mass movement that is campaigning for social justice – but only on its side of the Green Line. 

Switching the points: from statehood to rights

In any other context, a demand for the right to vote would be obvious. But here it is a demand to vote in national elections for the Knesset, in what amounts to de facto (if, hopefully, temporary and transitional) acceptance of Israel in its current form.

So switching the points and turning the struggle around from demanding statehood (however nominal and symbolic) to demanding votes in the occupier’s state will not be easy.

Israel’s adamant and threatening opposition to the UN vote has made the compromise of 22% of historic Palestine look like a great act of defiance. Whereas the truly radical demand, for an equal share in and equal right to all of Israel-Palestine, looks uncomfortably like the ultra-Zionist demand for annexation. 

 A civil rights movement could also help to create a new, elected and accountable Palestinian leadership that stands its ground and speaks with one voice, and which might appeal across the national divide not by compromising and cringing but by expressing the inclusive and anti-racist values that are already gaining ground in the grassroots struggles. 

There may not be a better time than the September UN vote to declare that with the blocking of statehood comes the final death of the two-state solution, and to start the turn from a national territorial struggle to a fight for  one person, one vote, one law, for no borders and no more barriers.

At a time when a brave minority of Israel’s J14 protests, such as Tent No.1948, are trying to connect the “social justice” demands and concerns with the Palestinian struggle, what better way to start a one-country civil rights movement or party than to raise the same demands for social justice from the other side?

Ideally, the organisations that have questioned the value of the UN bid will now get together with others and put out a joint call immediately after the vote, titled, in the words of Palestinian lawyer Noura Erakat, “Statehood blocked: equality struggle ahead”.

This article is part of a special Chronikler report on the Palestinian quest to seek United Nations recognition.

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Love thy neighbouring enemy

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By Khaled Diab

Recognising the good qualities of the other side can be a first step to healing Arab-Israeli wounds.

Friday 2 September 2011

The recent coordinated terror attacks in southern Israel were a tragedy and my condolences go out to the bereaved families and friends of the victims. Continued violence is not the answer to this conflict, and targeting civilians is a war crime, and for good reason, regardless of who commits it or why.

While Israeli grief and anger are understandable, Israel’s predictable decision to respond to terror with terror is not, especially since, in this decades-old conflict, every ugly action is seen as a justified reaction to a perceived uglier precedent by the other side.

Bombing Gaza, like the cruel blockade against the Strip, is a form of indefensible collective punishment made all the more unjust by the fact that Israel decided Gazans were guilty until proven innocent, even though evidence is emerging suggesting that the unknown attackers were probably not Palestinians.

Equally predictably, Islamic militants in Gaza responded with a barrage of primitive and inaccurate rockets against civilian targets, another form of unjustifiable and counterproductive collective punishment.

In addition, Israel’s decision to trample over Egypt’s sovereignty, shooting dead a number of border guards in the process, was not only illegal but incredibly reckless. What if Egypt had decided to respond in kind and follow Israel’s example by crossing the border to apprehend the killers?

Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate about that because Egypt responded sensibly and called for an apology and a joint investigation into the incident – something Israel should have done after the attacks from Sinai.

What this futile and bloody exchange of fire illustrates is that an eye for an eye achieves nothing except to create the kind of blind rage that keeps the bloody cycle of conflict turning. That is why I believe that Palestinians and Israelis should reject all forms of violence and not just that committed by the other side.

The last few days have also set in motion an ugly war of words between Israelis, Palestinians and Egyptians. With so much animosity and hate in the air, as an antidote, I would like to invite Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians and other Arabs to engage in a thought experiment in which they write a short passage on what they admire and respect about the other side.

Here are my suggestions.

In a little over six decades of existence, Israel has built itself into a prosperous, democratic and technologically advanced society, not to mention a cultural melting pot. The successful revival of the Hebrew language, used only liturgically for centuries, also has to count as an impressive success story.

All of this is made the more remarkable by the fact that Israel has achieved this against the backdrop of being in a constant state of conflict and following the near-extinction of European Jewry.

While a number of Arab regimes traditionally used the conflict with Israel and other security threats to limit freedoms, Israel has managed to build a fairly vibrant democracy, especially for its Jewish citizens, despite the passage of some repressive legislation in recent years, such as the Nakba and the anti-boycott laws.

Moreover, despite the disenfranchisement of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian-Israelis enjoy, unofficial discrimination notwithstanding, more or less equivalent rights as their Israeli compatriots and greater than most Arabs elsewhere in the region.

By Middle Eastern standards, Israel traditionally has an admirable record on freedom of expression and tolerance of dissent, though its media freedom ranking has taken a battering in recent years (93rd out of 178 countries) due to military censorship and restrictions on the movement of international and Israeli journalists. The gap between it and some of its Arab neighbours is also narrowing in light of the Arab Spring.

This respect for freedom of thought, along with a culture that prizes originality and creativity, has transformed this small country into the Middle East’s science and innovation powerhouse. One recent index ranked Israel 14th in the global innovation stakes, while another placed Israel in the top group of ‘global innovation leaders’.

On the individual level, though Israelis can behave with an overconfident swagger and be direct to the point of rudeness, there is a refreshing honesty in their manner and beyond this lack of surface gloss lies a keen sense of Mediterranean warmth and hospitality. Mixed in with this individualism is a traditional Jewish sense of solidarity that kicks in especially in times of need.

Steadfastness is perhaps the word that best captures the spirit of the Palestinian experience over the past 60-odd years, whether in exile or under Israeli control, and a sense of loss and irretrievably lost worlds, similar to that felt by the remnants of European Jewry, permeates through Palestinian art, culture and conscience.

Palestinians have been betrayed and let down by just about everyone, yet they remain resolute survivors and resourceful adaptors. This is reflected in the daily struggle of West Bankers and Gazans to live in dignity, and for the most part peacefully strive for freedom, amid the hardships and degradation of occupation.

Despite having to endure the double oppression of occupation and domestic repression, Palestinians demonstrate an admirable level of determination to advance themselves as individuals and as a nation. A number of prominent Palestinian tycoons, including the “Palestinian Rothschild” Munib al-Masri, have even taken a leaf out of the Zionist manual and are engaged in quiet background “nation-building” in preparation for their eventual independence.

This determination in the face of adversity is reflected in the fact that Palestinians, despite restrictions on their access to education, are said to be the most-educated people in the Arab world. This is particularly so in the Palestinian diaspora which is gradually growing to resemble its Jewish counterpart in terms of education and economic well-being.

For instance, without the massive exodus of Palestinian professionals, intellectuals and entrepreneurs to neighbouring Jordan, the country may have remained a backwater, rather than the relatively prosperous and modern society it has become. Prior to their expulsion from Kuwait, Palestinians played a pivotal role in that emirate’s development. Further afield, Palestinians in the United States, along with Arab-Americans in general, are the most-educated and best-paid minority, according to a recent survey.

Similarly to Israel’s political landscape, Palestinian politics, though less free, have traditionally been dominated by secularists, despite a parallel rise of religious extremism on both sides in recent years. One of the reasons behind this long secularist tradition is the pluralistic nature of the Palestinian population, which is not only divided between Muslim majority and a significant Christian minority, but is made up of numerous ethnic groups.

In fact, both Palestinians and Israelis have a proud tradition of integration and tolerance that, if utilised successfully, can bode well for a future of coexistence.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 30 August 2011.

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Reinventing the Palestinian struggle

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By Khaled Diab

Inspired by the Arab spring, a new generation of Palestinians plan to fight the occupation with olive branches.

Friday 13 May 2001

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Palestinian struggle for statehood once occupied centre stage in the Middle East, especially prior to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.

But the youth-led revolutionary wave rocking the region has captured the eyes and imagination of the world and diverted attention to many places that previously floated in the media backwaters or were simply uncharted territories: Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya. For a few unprecedented weeks, Egypt even caused a total eclipse of the international media.

Amid all this tumultuous change, one may be excused for thinking that all is quiet on the Palestinian-Israeli front. But the conflict grinds on ceaselessly under the world’s radar and the factors that make it explosive continue unabated: settlement building, home evictions and expulsions in Jerusalem, a repressive Israeli occupation and oppressive Palestinian leadership.

So why haven’t Palestinian youth risen up like their counterparts elsewhere in the region to demand their rights?

Well, it is not for want of trying. Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, and following the date-based example of counterparts elsewhere in the Arab world, a new youth movement dubbed by some as the March 15 movement has emerged in Palestine.

The date refers to the day when organisers employing social media, text messaging and word of mouth managed to draw thousands of protesters on to the streets of Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank, as well as Gaza City.

However, in contrast to other popular uprisings in the region, their demands were not wholesale regime change, despite the undoubted failings of both Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, and the absence of a democratic mandate for both parties.

“Our top priority is to end the divisions within Palestinian society. This is the only way to deal with the occupation,” explained Z, one of the founders of the movement in Ramallah, who wished to conceal his identity for professional reasons.

Some of the others involved in March 15 are also reluctant to reveal their identities, partly as an expression of the decentralised and “leaderless” approach preferred by Middle Eastern protesters tired of authoritarianism, and partly to avoid popping up on the radars of security services run by the PA, Hamas or Israel.

Despite its relative success on 15 March, the movement has not managed to replicate the most successful ingredient of the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain: constant pressure from the streets. This is partly due to the two-tiered nature of the oppression facing Palestinians, and the restrictions on their movement imposed by the occupation. “Unfortunately, we have two levels of repression in Palestine: Israeli and domestic,” says Z, who is in his early 20s.

In addition, there is the psychological barrier of widespread despair and disillusionment afflicting wide swaths of the population, which the Arab spring is just beginning to chip away at. Most Palestinians I have met since I moved to Jerusalem a few weeks ago speak enthusiastically and excitedly about the Egyptian revolution.

“The problem among Palestinians is that revolutions are nothing new, yet nothing changes or things get worse,” Z observes. “Neither uprisings nor negotiations have worked, Palestinians believe – we’re still under occupation.”

And after two intifadas separated by the Oslo peace process, the net outcome for Palestinians has been to witness the gradual vanishing of their historic homeland and the space for a future nation spliced and diced into ever smaller portions, with many of the choicest cuts going to settlers.

Nevertheless, hope is emerging, Z insists. The surprise recent reconciliation agreement signed by Fatah and Hamas, which many reckon was partly due to youth activism, as well as the rapidly changing regional realities, has been a boost.

Z told me that a new generation of Palestinians, many of whom were born around the time of the first intifada, are ready to reinvent the struggle.

Drawing lessons from the failure of the violent second intifada and the success of the largely peaceful first intifada, as well as the now-proven power of mass, nonviolent protest to instigate change in the region, this generation of upcoming leaders plan to fight the occupation with weapons of mass disobedience. “We want to employ ‘smart’ resistance,” Z says.

“A moderate, peaceful intifada is coming. Can’t say when, but it is inevitable,” he adds confidently. “We’re trying to create a snowball effect. In Egypt, it took a decade to get to this stage.”

Palestinian activists, often in collaboration with the Israeli peace movement, have been quietly laying the groundwork for nonviolent resistance in recent years, as demonstrated, for example, by the constant stream of protests against house demolitions and evictions, and the Israeli separation wall.

Being the dreamer that I am, I cannot shake the vision in my head of the joint Israeli-Palestinian activism infecting the masses, with large-scale joint action as the most effective way to end the occupation and bring about peace.

In my vision, squares in cities across Israel and Palestine would be filled with people rallying around a single goal: “The people demand an end to the occupation.” Protesters on both sides would also pitch tents at checkpoints to demand their removal and, who knows, perhaps one day have their own Berlin wall moment.

But Z doesn’t believe there is much scope for broader joint action. “We have no problems working with Jews and Israelis. We’re against racial discrimination and so shouldn’t discriminate ourselves,” he says. “However, we don’t feel the majority of Israelis care enough or are interested in our plight to do anything about it. Besides, there isn’t enough mutual trust.”

Z and his comrades are busy formulating a post-reconciliation strategy that seeks, first and foremost, to strengthen the Palestinians internally and prepare them for statehood, and employ this greater unity and strength to bring the occupation to an end.

“We need new political faces and parties. We need renewal through youth,” Z says.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 12 MaY 2011. Read the full discussion here.

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Palestinian reconciliation through the ballot box

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By Khaled Diab

To break the destructive deadlock between Fatah and Hamas, Mahmoud Abbas should step down as Palestinian president, call immediate elections and organise referenda on the future course of the Palestinian struggle.

23 October 2009

Cursed as they are with bad leadership, the sad saga of the Palestinian people fluctuates between tragedy and farce. As if contending with a crushing occupation, embargoes, closures and the complete physical separation of the West Bank and Gaza were not enough, over the past couple of years, they have also seen the two parties supposedly representing them descend into petty and bloody factionalism.

To top it all off, one party is pragmatic and moderate but has failed to deliver peace or improve life for Palestinians. Instead, it has become aloof to the population, is rotten to the core with corruption and is widely perceived, with all the international funds flowing into its coffers and the American general Keith Dayton wielding significant control over the Palestinian Authority’s  security forces in the West Bank, to have become a kind of mercenary force for the Israeli occupation.

But the frying pan of the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority may prove to be nothing compared with the fire and brimstone of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas). Hamas may be less corrupt – for now – but it is ideologically fanatical, has been working hard to purge dissent in Gaza, is already restricting the freedom of Palestinians on the Strip, especially women, and, given its ideological rejection of Israel as a Jewish state, is far less willing to compromise with the Israelis. Of course, Israel and the international community did nothing to engage with Hamas’s early overtures towards moderation and, instead, punished Gaza, causing the party to harden its position and rhetoric.

With this poison and bitterness filling the air, it was perhaps optimistic to expect Egypt’s efforts – despite the country’s long experience as a mediator – to broker a truce between the two parties to reach fruition, especially since US president Barack Obama’s shift in rhetoric has not yet been matched by any shifts in reality.

The talks ostensibly broke down because of Hamas’s anger over the PA’s delay in endorsing the Goldstone report into Israeli war crimes in Gaza, which also criticises Hamas – albeit to a lesser extent – for targeting Israeli civilians. The party went so far as to accuse Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of betraying the victims of the Israeli offensive.

However, given how fundamentally the two factions differ and how Hamas appears to want to take over the helm of the Palestinian cause, it could just as well have been anything else. So, even if Egyptian diplomats manage to pull a rabbit out of the hat, any deal could quickly run against the rocks, particularly as trust of both Fateh and the Egyptians – who are perceived as agents of America and collaborators with Israel by certain segments of the Palestinian and wider Arab population – is low.

It is abundantly clear that Abbas, whose position keeps changing with the winds, has lost the plot and the only parties who continue to support his presidency are the Americans and Israelis. But this support is misguided. The presence of a weak and unpopular Palestinian president may serve the interests of extremists, for whom the prospect of continued Palestinian infighting is convenient, but it does little to forward the long-term prospects for peace.

To my mind, it is time for Abbas – who was once respected as a key architect of the Oslo accords and hammered out a workable blueprint for comprehensive peace with Yossi Beilin, which was derailed by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin – to go, in dignity, and make room for the people to decide.

Abbas has already said repeatedly that the only way out of the impasse with Hamas is through the ballot box. But instead of delaying elections till the middle of next year, as Egypt has proposed, they should go ahead as scheduled in January – or earlier, if possible. In the meantime, Abbas should resign and hold his position only in a caretaker capacity until a new president is elected.

In addition, the issues facing the Palestinians are too controversial and complex to be left to any one party to decide. I believe that a series of referenda – financed by the international community – should be conducted on crucial questions of war and peace: negotiation v’s confrontation; violence v’s non-violence; two states or one; civil rights or national rights; Jerusalem, refugees, etc. A similar exercise should also be carried out among Israelis to crystallise what kind of future they desire.

Equipped with such clear expressions of popular will, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators can engage with a clear mandate, assuming that both sides’ vision for the future is compatible or, at the very least, reconcilable.

Personally, I hope neither Fatah nor Hamas win the elections. The Palestinians deserve a change of guard. Though I’m not Palestinian, my vote goes to Mustafa Barghouti and his Palestinian National Initiative.

This is an extended version of an article written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNS). It first appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 21 October 2009, and in the Kuwait Times and Newsobserver.com on 22 October 2009.

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