Arab leaders as human shields in Gaza

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By Khaled Diab

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

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

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

Monday 21 July 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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The Arabs, apartheid South Africa and Israel

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By Khaled Diab

Reactions to apartheid South Africa differed across the Arab world and were coloured both by anti-colonial solidarity and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nelson Mandela with troops from the Algerian Liberation Army. Photo:

Nelson Mandela with troops from the Algerian Liberation Army. Photo:

Friday 27 December 2013

Like just about everywhere else, the death of Nelson Mandela triggered passionate responses across the Arab world. “Men and women everywhere feel they have lost someone very close to them,” said the respected international diplomat and peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

“Humanity has lost its greatest son,” tweeted former IAEA chief, prominent anti-Mubarak opponent and short-lived transitional vice-president Mohamed ElBaradei, himself also the winner of a Nobel peace prize.

Egypt even took the extraordinary measure of announcing three days of national mourning to mark the great man’s death. Algerian president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika went a step further and ordered eight days of national mourning during which all flags were to be flown at half-mast.

Unlike in the West, however, Arab sentiment and sympathy towards Nelson Mandela stretch back decades, back to the days he was a radical rebel and not yet a hallowed peacemaker – some Arabs even prefer that Mandela of yesteryear.

Previous generations of Arabs saw in the long and bitter struggle against apartheid and its precursors in South Africa – spearheaded by the African National Congress (ANC) – the reflection of their own plight under the boot of European colonialism and imperialism. This was particularly the case in North Africa, which also felt a sense of African solidarity.

According to Mandela himself, who admired Algeria’s long battle for independence, the situation in French Algeria most closely paralleled that of South Africa.

In this light, it is unsurprising that the ANC received training, funds and support from Algeria. In 1961, during his clandestine Africa tour after which he was arrested, Nelson Mandela spent time with the Algerian Liberation Army and the rebels of the National Liberation Front in Algeria.

Although Mandela was impressed by what he saw, even back then he realised that “there was no point in trying to overthrow the apartheid regime; the ANC had to force them to the negotiating table.”

Algeria also provided the ANC with constant diplomatic support, such as helping spearhead the pan-African charge against apartheid South Africa. For instance, Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, when he was president of the UN General Assembly in 1974, ruled that South Africa could not participate in its proceedings.

And Algeria was there right to the end. For example, Lakhdar Ibrahimi was the UN Special Envoy for South Africa and monitored the transition to democracy. Ibrahimi is also a member of The Elders, a group of world leaders founded by Mandela to promote global peace.

Nasser’s Egypt also provided the ANC with strong support, in its multiple roles as a member of the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Non-Aligned Movement. Although Egypt did not shut down the South African embassy in Cairo until May 1961, the Egyptian capital hosted offices for the ANC from the late 1950s.

Mandela’s time in Egypt clearly impressed him, both in cultural and historic terms, but also for the new regime’s efforts to develop the country. “President Nasser had an impressive programme of economic development based on African socialism,” he wrote in his unpublished memoirs written on Robben Island.

Solidarity was not one way either, and the ANC supported Egypt whenever it could. In Egypt’s hour of need during the Suez Crisis, known as the Tripartite Aggression in Arabic, the ANC said: “We pledge our solidarity with the Egyptian people and are confident that the people of Africa will not allow themselves to be used against their fellow Africans in any predatory war.”

Showing early signs of his conciliatory humanism and inclusiveness, Mandela spoke up and lobbied robustly in 1962 against strong sub-Saharan African opposition to the entry of North Africa to the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East and Central Africa (PAFMECA), which became the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) and eventually evolved into today’s African Union.

“An aspect that particularly disturbed me was the attitude of most delegates in the PAFMECSA area to visitors from West Africa and the Arab countries,” Mandela recalled. “The whole issue upset me and I felt I could not keep quiet.”

“The trouble Nelson is that in North Africa you have Africans who are not Africans,” one delegate yelled out, not without justification. Nevertheless, Mandela carried the day and paved the way to Egypt, Algeria and the rest of North Africa to become full members of the African club.

It should be pointed out that the Arab world was not uniform in its stance towards apartheid. North Africa and the secular, revolutionary states were generally more sympathetic to the ANC than the conservative monarchist regimes, which feared that the contagion of radical socialist politics would spread within their own borders.

Moreover, some corners of the Arab world, namely some countries in the Gulf, still lived under the dark shadow of perhaps the worst form of apartheid: slavery. Saudi Arabia, for instance, did not abolish slavery until 1962, and only under immense pressure from Egypt’s then-unrivalled propaganda apparatus.

This may in part explain the Saudi regime’s ambivalent attitude towards apartheid and how Riyadh was quite happy to supply South Africa with oil until the oil embargo which accompanied the 1973 war with Israel forced its hand. This may have not lasted long, however, as there is some evidence to suggest that Saudi became South Africa’s leading supplier during the sanctions-busting secret trade of the 1980s.

That said, Saudi Arabia, despite its contradictions, also deserves credit for being among the first nations to push for international action against the apartheid regime. It was, for instance, a co-signatory of a 1952 letter to the UN Secretary-General asking for South Africa’s apartheid policies to be placed on the General Assembly’s agenda.

In addition to anti-colonial solidarity, many Arabs saw South Africa through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drawing parallels between the two. This remains the case, as the rest of the region, the general view goes, has gained its independence but the Palestinians continue to live under occupation and subjugation. While this is sadly true, this overlooks the fact that there are others who remain deprived of their right to self-determination, such as the Kurds and Sahrawis.

The ANC and Mandela’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause has won them many Arab hearts and minds, as illustrated by the genuine sense of grief felt across Palestine at Mandela’s passing.

However, what both Palestinians and Israeli critics of Mandela do not seem to realise  is that the great reconciler’s solidarity with the Palestinian struggle did not equate to hostility towards Israelis. “I always thought it unrealistic to ignore the existence of Israel and maintained that the Jewish people are as entitled as any other nation in the world to have their own national home,” Mandela reflected on Robben Island.

Beyond the Holy Land, South Africa’s experience continues to resonate and remains relevant. As Arabs struggle against dictatorship, Mandela stands as a shining example of a liberation leader who not only established a largely functioning democracy but also stepped down graciously, in stark contrast to the Arab model of leader-for-life or until revolution strikes.

Despite post-apartheid South Africa’s many imperfections, this rainbow nation also provides our bitterly divided region with an inspiring model of reconciliation and healing.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 December 2013.

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A peace of the people, by the people, for the people

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By Khaled Diab

Palestinians and Israelis don’t need more US diplomacy but a people’s peace process… and this requires mutual understanding and humanisation.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Photo: US Department of State

Photo: US Department of State

John Kerry recently returned, yet again, to the Middle East on an impossible mission to revive stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. In an effort to allay Israeli fears, the US Secretary of State was expected to present Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, on Thursday, with a plan for security arrangements in the West Bank following the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Even though this is the Promised Land, the facts on the ground do  not look so promising. Just ahead of Kerry’s visit, Israel defiantly bulldozed Palestinian land earmarked for settler homes, according to media reports.

It was exactly this issue of settlement building and how it makes the establishment of an integrated and contiguous Palestinian state impossible that prompted Palestinian negotiators to quit last month, even though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has not yet accepted their resignation.

For his part, Abbas has reportedly said he will appeal to the United Nations if peace talks fail.

On the Israeli side, Netanyahu focused on the Iran nuclear issue during his encounter with Kerry, despite the fact that, in my view, the unresolved Palestinian question is the greatest threat to Israel’s future security.

In addition, prior to the Secretary of State’s arrival, Israeli officials voiced loud criticism of Washington. For instance, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett expressing his view that Israel must reduce its dependence on the US, which was holding it “hostage”. This echoes the findings of a poll in which half of Israeli Jews believed that Israel should seek new allies other than the United States.

But judging by his previous statements, John Kerry seems undeterred by the obstacles ahead. He has warned Israel that it faces the prospect of a “third intifada” if it fails to forge a durable peace with the Palestinians, and Washington may push through its own deal in January if an agreement is not reached before then.

Despite this uncharacteristically active US diplomacy, I am unconvinced John Kerry will succeed in his mission. This is partly because the two-state formula has lost the race against space, Washington is not an honest and impartial broker, not to mention poor political leadership on both sides, a reality which favours the status quo and the downward inertia this imposes.

The Oslo process has also been undermined by its quest for a “comprehensive peace”.  This raised unrealistic expectations. In a conflict this deeply entrenched and with the massive disparity in power, there can be no ultimate, one-time, all-or-nothing resolution.

But possibly the most fatal flaw of Oslo has been its largely top-down, outside-in nature which sidelines and ignores the most vital ingredient in any truly lasting peace: the people. That is why I have repeatedly advocated a people’s peace process.

For such a grassroots effort to work and to stand a chance of success requires a high degree of mutual understanding and a good dose of empathy. This conviction is what spurred me, as an Egyptian, to climb down from the ivory tower of the outside spectator and to engage directly with Palestinians and Israelis, despite the mainstream hostility towards such encounters in the Arab world and Israel alike.

Like only a handful of Egyptian journalists and writers before me, I have embarked on a personal journey of discovery in the unholy mess of the Helly Land. I have visited Israel and Palestine, lived there for nearly two years and now have returned to live among the people again.

In my time here, I have encountered the good, the bad and the ugly, not to mention the outright eccentric, from Palestinian women race drivers to Israel Jewish Sufis who fast Ramadan. Along the way, I have had many adventures and misadventures.

To construct a proper understanding and a realistic picture, I have striven to challenge and push myself, not only questioning every aspect of the conflict, but also forcing myself to meet people from all walks of life, including those who are hostile to who I am and what I stand for, such as ideological settlers.

On the whole, Palestinians are thrilled to have an Egyptian here, given the Hollywood-like appeal of Egypt in these parts, and Israelis, who are more hospitable than their hard exterior suggests, are flattered to find an Arab willing to learn more about them.

This has enabled me to see the human face veiled by the conflict, and to witness how people on both sides are, for the most part, ordinary folk caught in an extraordinary situation – a conflict inherited from their great-grandparents which most expect to hand down, as an unenviable legacy, to their great-grandchildren.

My journey has radically altered my view of the situation and has unearthed some surprising realities, such as just how much in common Israelis and Palestinians have, their massive political differences notwithstanding, and how confoundingly diverse each society is, despite being so small that, combined, they would only make up half the population of my hometown, Cairo.

In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that, if it weren’t for the artificial political and physical constructs keeping them largely apart, many Palestinians and Israelis would find greater common cause among members of their enemy camp than among their own side.

In a bid to promote understanding, or at the very least a modicum of human sympathy, I have tried hard to capture this complexity and ambiguity in my journalism. I am also writing an ambitious book about those most intimate of enemies, those forgotten people, the Palestinians and Israelis.

Even though Israel-Palestine has become overshadowed by the recent uprisings and upheavals in the region, it is probably the most written-about conflict in the modern Middle East. But I believe my book of the people is different. Most of the literature out there deals with the geopolitics and history, focuses on the land, as if a nation is a piece of dirt and not the sum total of its people, and/or is partisan in nature.

Based on extensive interviews and thorough research, I profile both peoples in all their rich variety, relate my personal experiences living among them, explore the two societies, examine the culture, plot the differences, investigate the commonalities, and much more.

Although my book is not primarily about the politics or history, I do explore both through the prism of the people. I dig into the annals to uncover the shocking and shameful history of missed opportunities for peace over the past century, and I propose what I call the ‘non-state solution’ to the conflict.

But at the end of the day, it is up to the Israeli and Palestinian people to find the path to peace and coexistence that best suits them. And, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, to forge a peace of the people, by the people, for the people.


If you would like to keep abreast of the latest developments relating to Khaled’s book, please drop him a line at


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post  on 5 December 2013.

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Syria needs joint Arab action to end violence

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By Khaled Diab

It is up to the Arab world to stop the bloodshed in Syria – unlikely as this may sound, and despite Arab League failure so far.

While the world watches on, millions of Syrians have been displaced internally or made refugees. The Zaatari camp has become Jordan's third largest population centre. Photo: Anastasia Taylor-Lind/Oxfam

While the world watches on, millions of Syrians have been displaced internally or made refugees. The Zaatari camp has become Jordan’s third largest population centre. Photo: Anastasia Taylor-Lind/Oxfam

Thursday 19 September 2013

Like back in 1958, Syria is again the volatile battlefield of a medley of rival local, regional and international actors. But unlike then, Syria has not managed this time to edge back from the brink. Instead, it has become embroiled in a bloody and devastating civil war – not to mention a proxy war – that shows no sign of letting up.

When the tyrant insisted on making peaceful change impossible, he ended up making violent change inevitable. What had started as a non-violent social uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship quickly escalated as bloody repression led disgusted army officers to defect and take up arms against the state’s increasingly violent repression.

Divisions within the Arab world over Syria are rife, as they are among the major international players, between hawks and doves, ideologues and pragmatists, humanitarians and power brokers. Bizarre allegiances have formed and shifted. Currently backing the Syrian government are Russia, Iran, China and Hizbullah, with the opposition supported by the US, the UK, France and wealthy Gulf monarchies, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Turkey has gone from being an ally of Damascus (early in the conflict) to headquartering the Free Syrian Army.

Meanwhile, Egypt is shifting towards a more pro-Assad position, on the back of the threat of US air strikes against a fellow Arab state, a public sense of grievance against Washington for its perceived backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and anti-Islamist sentiment which has turned many Egyptians against everything toppled President Mohamed Morsi stood for.

As each state and non-state player competes to advance or safeguard its own “vital interests”, few of the active players seem to have an interest in the well-being of Syrians and Syria. And it is the conflict mongers who are enjoying the upper hand, with arms flooding into Syria, escalating the fighting further.

At the United Nations, it looks like a sequel of the Cold War is at play, with the United States trying to preserve its dwindling hegemony in the Middle East, and Russia struggling to claw back some of its lost influence. Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama both seem to be suffering from chronic irony deficiency, the symptoms of which are a severely inhibited ability to see the plain hypocrisy of their rhetoric and the destructiveness of their positions.

 The UN should have been the right address for defusing this conflict from its earliest days, but such is the nature of this world body that when it is most needed, it is usually at its most impotent.  This has to do with its faulty architecture, which concentrates real power, including the dreaded veto, in the hands of just five countries.

Even today, it is not too late for the United Nations to redeem itself. The permanent members of the Security Council can decide to set aside their narrow self-interests and, for a change, agree to pursue the greater good of humanity by deploying tens of thousands of blue helmets with a robust mandate to end the violence. But given the ongoing deadlock, despite the relative breakthrough on chemical weapons, this seems highly improbable.

But with the international community fixated on chemical weapons but in paralysis over action to stop the plentiful non-chemical killings, it must be time now for the region to pull up its bootstraps and pitch in to sort out this mess, depressingly unlikely as it may seem – and that means action by the Arab League.

Like with many other crises before, the Arab League’s efforts, genuine as they were at some points, have amounted to nothing. Even the Arab League’s daring act of suspending Syria and imposing sanctions on the Damascus regime did little to intimidate Assad, underscoring just how little leverage Arab countries seem to exercise over each other.

Like the Arab Peace Initiative for Israel and Palestine, the Arab League peace plan  for Syria lies on the shelf collecting dust following the withdrawal of its monitors from Syria in January 2012 owing to “a harsh new government crackdown”, in the words of Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi.

These failures do not encourage optimism, especially in light of how divided the League is over the way forward and how some of its members in the Gulf are actively sending arms and funds to the rebels.

However, the situation has changed dramatically. Although the civil war in Syria is far away for members of the UN Security Council and so does not immediately challenge their security, the Arab League cannot afford to be so complacent, especially given the danger that the conflict can spill over into the wider region in an unpredictable and unexpected ways.

The Assad regime, now that it has turned much of the country into rubble and displaced millions, may be suffering from war fatigue, and could be looking round for an exit strategy. The rebels are at a military disadvantage and are in deadlock in their efforts to dislodge the regime militarily, and so may also be looking for a return to more peaceful means. This may make Arab mediation efforts more fruitful this time around.

Moreover, Arab League efforts are likely to be seen as more legitimate by the regime and the main rebel factions, not to mention the wider Arab world. In fact, the eventual prospect of returning Syria, where the ideology of pan-Arabism was born, to the Arab fold, could be used as a carrot to draw Damascus towards a negotiated solution.

So what can the Arab League do? The top priority upon which everyone should be able to agree – even those helping to bankroll the conflict – is that the violence needs to stop, both for humanitarian reasons and for pragmatic self-interest.

Taking a leaf out of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council and its peacekeeping efforts across the continent, the Arab League can work towards negotiating a ceasefire and deploying peacekeepers from Arab countries that do not have a direct stake in the conflict. In fact, the Arab League needs to forge its own mutual security mechanism, in light of the growing likelihood of armed conflict within and between states in the region, while success could help pave the way to more enduring regional integration once this specific volatile period has passed.

Once the guns fall silent, Arab League mediators can help hammer out an interim agreement for the peaceful transition of power.

Although this seems like an unlikely scenario, especially in light of the Arab League’s reputation as an ineffectual talking shop, largely due to the absence of mechanisms to enforce its resolutions, there are precedents. Arab mediation efforts successfully stopped Black September in Jordan from turning into a full-blown civil war and, eventually and after too much bloodshed, helped end the Lebanese civil war.

Today, the stakes are arguably far higher, as Syria is a more pivotal state in a region which is already far more volatile, making it in every Arab state’s interest to take action. Whether they will step up is a very open question. For example, the Gulf states, who wrongly think they are far away and who have for decades seen Syria’s secular pan-Arabism as a threat, are trying to use their petrodollars to hold back the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions or to give them a conservative, Islamic hew, may feel less inclined to join efforts to end the conflict.

But ultimately, when fellow Arabs are being slaughtered and their country turned to dust, allied Arab action is the human and humane action to take.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 16 September 2013.

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The Arab world’s missed opportunities

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By Khaled Diab

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

Tuesday 6 November 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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Settlers for Palestine

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By Khaled Diab

Israeli settlements are one of the greatest obstacles to peace, but could settlers also help build a Palestinian state?

Tuesday 16 October 2012

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned that Israel’s ongoing settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank revealed that the “Israeli government rejects the two-state solution” and that if no action was taken urgently, the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel would become “extremely difficult if not impossible”.

It is not only Palestinians who see Israeli settlements as one of the main obstacles to peace – the international community does too, as do many Israeli peace activists. Personally, I have been convinced for many years now that the race against space to implement the two-state solution has been lost.

Today, more than half a million Israeli settlers live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In what the Oslo Accords calls Area C – which makes up 60% of the West Bank and would provide the bulk of the land upon which the Palestinian state would be built – there are currently twice as many settlers as Palestinians (300,000 v 150,000), and Israel controls 70% of this territory.

Despite these facts on the ground, there is a small but growing group of religious settlers who believes not only that they are not an impediment to peace, but that they can help build it. This movement is led by the charismatic and influential Rabbi Menachem Froman.

Rabbi Froman cuts an unlikely figure as a peace activist. He is an ideological settler, yet believes in the two-state solution along the pre-1967 Green Line. He is one of the founders of the messianic, religious settler movement, Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), and supports continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank, yet believes in and promotes coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs.

Adding to his maverick credentials, Froman was friends with the late Yasser Arafat and met regularly with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas. He is also close to Abbas, meets regularly with Binyamin Netanyahu, and negotiated, along with Palestinian journalist Khalid Amayreh, a ceasefire agreement with Hamas, which would have ended the blockade on Gaza, to which the Islamist group agreed but Israel simply ignored.

This renegade rabbi so intrigued me that I visited him, along with an American-Israeli filmmaker making a documentary about this enigmatic figure, in his modest home in Tekoa, an Israeli settlement near Bethlehem.

So, how does Rabbi Froman propose to square the circle between his support for Jewish settlements and Palestinian statehood? Religious Muslims and Jews believe, he says, “that this land is holy… that this land belongs to God. This can be a very strong basis for peace”.

In his view, since it is the land itself that is holy and not the political structure governing it, settlers should be given the choice to become part of a Palestinian state or move to Israel. Froman also believes that the presence of an Arab minority in Israel and a Jewish minority in Palestine would have the additional benefit of promoting tolerance and understanding between the two neighbouring countries.

The Palestinian Authority has, on a number of occasions, floated the possibility that Israeli settlers can be given the option to live under Palestinian sovereignty. However, this option elicits fears. Palestinians worry that the settlers would remain Israeli citizens and hold on to their privileged status, as well as possibly provide Israel with an excuse to carry out military incursions, even invasions, at will on the pretext of looking after the interests of the Jews there.

I asked Rabbi Froman whether, in his vision, the settlers would become Palestinian citizens and live according to Palestinian law, and whether the settlements would become mixed neighbourhoods for all. “Yes, yes, yes,” he responded emphatically. “The keyword here is to be open, to be free.”

Froman’s vision chimes with that of some pro-Palestinian Israeli leftists. However, even many of Rabbi Froman’s neighbours – such as the American settler who expressed his disapproval of the Rabbi’s politics to us when we asked him for directions – do not agree with him. Economic settlers are unlikely to want to become Palestinian citizens, though they could more easily be persuaded to move under the right conditions.

Ideological settlers, who generally see the land and Israel’s control over it as vital, do not share Froman’s vision. “I reject the two-state solution,” David Wilder, the spokesperson for the radical settlers in Hebron, told me some months ago. “I want to live in Israel. I came to live in Israel, under Jewish leadership. I didn’t come to live under the rule of anybody else, certainly not an Arab.”

“The question is not the Palestinian attitude,” Rabbi Froman freely acknowledges. “The question is the Israelis: if Israel and Israeli settlers are ready to be part of the Palestinian state.”

But he believes that, once they overcome their fear and distrust, people can be persuaded. “It’s all a matter of confidence,” the rabbi insists, his bright blue eyes glimmering energetically in his ailing frame, as his body gradually succumbs to cancer. And it is building this foundation of trust that the rabbi is dedicating his remaining time to. “I have not got long now,” he reflects sadly.

Rabbi Froman is also a strong believer in the power of religion to help resolve the conflict and build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians. This, you could say, was something of a revelation to me, as I have long viewed religion, though it is often only used as a pretext by fundamentalists, as a major stumbling block on the path to peace – it is what I call the “God veto”.

In fact, Froman believes that one major factor behind the failure of the peace process is that it ignored or did not pay enough attention to the religious dimension. “[Sheikh] Ahmed Yassin used to say to me: ‘I and you, Hakham [Rabbi] Froman, can make peace in five minutes, because both of us are religious.’”

The very idea that an Orthodox rabbi and an Islamist sheikh would engage in dialogue, let alone believe that they can resolve a conflict that has defied everyone else for decades, is likely to confound both Palestinians and Israelis alike.

“Religion is like nuclear energy: you can use it to destroy or to kill. You can also use it for peaceful purposes,” the renegade rabbi observes. “The Dome of the Rock or the Temple Mount can be a reason to quarrel or a reason to make peace.”

Despite his fine words, I left the meeting sceptical that Froman’s vision would, especially in the current climate, attract many takers. However, our encounter did drive home some important lessons: the situation is never black and white, peacemakers can be found in the most unlikely places, and that we must understand the obstacles to peace if we ever hope to remove them.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 12 October 2012.

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Robert Mugabe and ethical tourism

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By Christian Nielsen

Was Robert Mugabe’s appointment as UN ‘tourism ambassador’ an unforgivable travesty or can ‘guilt-edged tourism’ trigger reform in dictatorships?

Thursday 7 June 2012

Despite no formal title being bestowed upon the controversial ‘dear leader’ of Zimbabwe, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird said the association with Robert Mugabe in the UN’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) was “outrageous” and symbolised “what is wrong with the UN”.

So, how did this farce come about? The story goes that UNWTO’s Secretary-General Taleb Rifai recently met the ageing Mugabe, along with Zambia’s President Michael Sata, at Victoria Falls on the country’s shared border.

According to a story in the UK daily,  The Telegraph, the three signed an agreement that UNWTO’s 20th General Assembly would be hosted there in 2013. Both presidents were then invited to “join hands with other world leaders and add [their] voice to our effort to position travel and tourism higher on the global agenda”. Rifai reportedly praised Zimbabwe for its hospitality. “By coming here, it is recognition, an endorsement on the country that it is a safe destination,” he said.

But criticism has poured in from around the world about the UN’s poor judgement, not only in this case, but in several other high-profile decisions in recent months. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the US House Foreign Affairs chair, went as far as to accuse the UN of “propping up dictators“, but that it had hit a “new low” naming Mugabe as a tourism envoy.

“[As] if North Korea chairing the Conference of Disarmament and Cuba serving as vice-president of the Human Rights Council had not been enough,” she is quoted as saying. “The continued rewards the UN bestows upon the world’s dictators has reached the point of absurdity. An organisation devoted to world peace and stability is propping up and aiding the very regimes that oppose such ideals.”

In its defence…

The World Tourism Organisation is a relative newcomer to the United Nations table and is perhaps showing its inexperience. And it is not even the only international tourism organisation on the block, with the World Travel and Tourism Council also exerting significant influence in the sector – which may grow if  UNWTO continues to bungle international relations on this level.

The UN describes its association with the WTO, a “specialised agency”, as a global forum for tourism policy issues and a practical source of tourism know-how. “UNWTO plays a central and decisive role in promoting the development of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism, paying particular attention to the interests of developing countries … [It] encourages the implementation of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, with a view to ensuring that member countries, tourist destinations and businesses maximise the positive economic, social and cultural effects of tourism and fully reap its benefits, while minimising its negative social and environmental impacts.”

Even a cursory glance at this manifesto reveals a few major missteps in cozying up with Mugabe, despite his country clearly qualifying for much-needed economic development. Under Mugabe’s three decades of rule, Zimbabwe’s economy has deteriorated from a mini-powerhouse of southern Africa to a spluttering basket-case. Crony politics has all but destroyed the country’s once robust and well developed agricultural sector. Combined with a decade of hyperinflation, low growth, massive debt, decrepit public services and knowledge flight, as the skilled and educated seek opportunities elsewhere, and you have a potent compote for a failed state.

According to the African Economic Development Institute (AEDI), President Mugabe’s Land Acquisition Act of 2000, which led to a massive redistribution of arable lands from thousands of experienced white farmers to less experienced black farmers, set the scene for economic failure. The plan was reportedly supported by Kofi Annan, then the UN Secretary-General, who said at the time, “The equitable distribution of productive capital, such as land, is not only economically important, but also essential to ensure peace and stability.”

The AEDI explained in a 2009 report on ‘The failing economy of Zimbabwe’ that Zimbabwe’s Land Acquisition Act had amplified a serious food shortage crisis. “If Zimbabwe cannot provide itself the basic elements of survival, such as clean water and food, there is very little prospect of any economic development,” it concluded.

So, Zimbabwe was in terrible shape in 2009, but what about 2012? There are some positive signs, at least when it comes to the economy. According to Africa News, Zimbabwe‘s economic outlook is bright. “The establishment of a government of national Unity (GNU) in February 2009 and the adoption of a multi-currency regime brought about economic recovery and price stability, and strong recovery will continue this year.”

Agricultural output, it reported, rose 15% in 2009 and 34% in 2010, largely from increased tobacco production. However, growth in manufacturing output slowed down to less than 3% in 2010 compared with 10% in 2009. This year, farm output is expected to increase as more land was put under tillage last year.

Guilt-edged tourism

The pariah state of Myanmar springs to mind as a similar international relations debate to that facing Zimbabwe now: do you prop open the door of a dictator by maintaining dialogue, or in the case of tourism encourage visitors to go there, or do you nail it closed, thus blocking any chance of light or change getting in?

This ‘guilt-edged tourism’ debate (read about it in my book Tourism and the media), has swirled mostly over the skies of Cuba and Myanmar, with the jury perhaps still out on both. But there are signs that greater openness and exposure to tourists and (it should be said) their dollars, euros, yens and yuans, at least opens the door to these notoriously tricky leaderships.

Could the same be said of Zimbabwe? Has the UNWTO acted in the spirit of its doctrine of “promoting the development of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism” or has it overstepped its mark, or just plain lost its way in a misguided attempt to sew up the world’s tourism patchwork?

In my humble opinion, the door needs to be open just enough to nourish any grassroots democratic and economic seeds worth reviving. Zimbabwe is clearly showing some signs of improvement since the GNU entered power in 2009, with opposition figure Morgan Tsangeri as prime minister. But there is too much bad blood – both internal and with the international community – with Mugabe still on the political scene.

The ageing leader will clearly jump on any warming in international relations at this stage of his career. At 88, he will be looking at legacies. Forgotten is his earlier role as the statesman who steered the country out of colonial rule. Remembered will be his role in the country’s economic decline and political repression, and perhaps even his newly bestowed title of tourism “ambassador” with a small ‘a’. Another dictator addicted to power goes from hero to zero.


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High time for a fly-in to Syria

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By Yovav Kalifon

Though risky, a civilian fly-in to Syria will send out a clear message that the world cannot stand idly by while ordinary people are slaughtered.

Friday 18 May 2012

I’ve been thinking a lot about Syria.

What started as an ‘Arab Spring’ wave of demonstrations in early 2011 has developed into a bloody civil war, with 10,000 civilians dead in over a year of fighting. We keep receiving video footage and eye-witness accounts from Syria portraying widespread atrocities, such as massacres, torture, rape, burying people alive, maiming adults and children, just to name a few.

Syrian hopes and calls for reform have turned into barbaric chaos, misery and death.

I won’t try to play the political analyst and tell you who is fighting whom and for what aim. For what I am about to suggest, it is not even necessary for us to agree on who’s the good guy and who is the bad guy in this story. Even if you subscribe to the theory that foreign agents are at play in Syria and that it’s not a real rebellion, you should keep reading. All we need to agree on at this point is that the situation in Syria is bad, that it is out of control, and that civilians are caught in the middle of it.

The other thing I hope you’ll agree with me on is that the situation in Syria has gone on for long enough. The UN, the Arab League, and Turkey in particular, have tried to exercise their influence over Syria, but to no avail. UN observers are having a hard time getting into the country and reaching the necessary places. Humanitarian aid is concentrated mostly outside the borders of Syria, where refugees find help only after they have already lost everything.

With the situation as complex as it is, there is no obvious solution that will satisfy all sides of the conflict. Still, the sounds and images coming out of Syria leave no room for doubt – there is an ongoing slaughter which must be stopped, and our governments are not up to the challenge.

Seeing how all other attempts end in failure, I would like to suggest a civilian, multinational, self-organised fly-in to Syria:

What does a fly-in mean exactly?

The idea is for groups and individuals to make plans to travel to Syria, by land, sea or by air, and arrive there within a set time frame. The aim is to make it clear that the international community is not merely monitoring the horrors from far away, but actually mobilising itself to arrive on Syrian soil, out of genuine sympathy and concern.

A fly-in by whom?

The people who will travel to Syria will mostly be ordinary civilians, people like me and you, as well as private groups and relevant NGOs. As unofficial representatives of the international community, it will be easier for us as volunteers to cross into Syria and to move around. So far, official governmental workers who are required to coordinate their actions with the Syrian authorities were not able to move around effectively enough, for the reason of being official representatives, bound by rules and regulations.

Why a fly-in and not something else?

Our governments and their organisations have had over a year, and there is no obvious sign of them having much influence over the events. Signing online petitions is a nice gesture, but Syria is so deep in blood that they probably don’t notice and care even less. Sending more field hospitals and humanitarian aid to help fleeing refugees is important, but tte ongoing slaughter is creating more refugees.

We all remember what usually happens when our governments intervene militarily in remote conflicts, such as what happened in Libya, for example. I believe most people will prefer not to resort to military means yet again, not in Syria, and not anywhere else. There is reason to give internal disputes a chance to resolve themselves, and when they don’t, there is reason to think of non-violent means of intervention, and to give them a chance to work.

The only non-violent intervention I can think of that will deliver humanitarian aid into Syria proper, inject hundreds of (unofficial) observers and reporters, and breathe hope into a desperate situation, is to stage an international civilian fly-in and cross-in directed at Syria.

What will volunteers do there?

Once in Syria, volunteers should make their presence clearly felt. This will send an important signal, one which will ripple in two opposite directions:

First, the signal to Syria will be that it’s unacceptable, in the 21st century, to slaughter civilians, when we can all see them calling out to us from Youtube, Twitter, FaceBook, etc.

Second, the signal to all the world’s nations will be that it’s unacceptable, in the 21st century, to stand idly by while civilians are being slaughtered, when we can all see them calling out to us from Youtube, Twitter, FaceBook, etc.

The most practical thing volunteers should do in Syria is exactly the work of UN observers, reporters, and humanitarian aid workers. As much as circumstances allow it, volunteers should shed light on the situation, deliver humanitarian aid as best they can, and call on others to join them.

For that to happen, volunteers should equip themselves with cameras, laptops, cellphones, medical aid and equipment. They will function as humanity’s eyes, ears, mouth and conscience.

Hopefully, as more trained individuals and specialised NGOs join the initiative, experts will get involved, specific guidance will be circulated, equipment will be obtained, funds will be raised, logistical support will grow, and the effect will be much greater. Some of the organisations I’d like to see getting behind this initiative are Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, Amnesty International.

What will be the effect?

Already in the preparation phases, as more and more people apply for visas to Syria and contact their consulates, their respective governments will notice the rising interest in Syria, and may start to wonder. This alone might lead some countries to rethink their attitude towards the crisis in Syria, and its affect on them.

Assuming the situation continues as it does and the fly-in gets under way, one can expect Syria and other states to interfere with the plan. The Syrian authorities are likely to arrest people whom they suspect to be activists, and then deport them. That is fine since it still gets the job done; it occupies the authorities, it mounts diplomatic pressure on Syria and the international community, it raises global awareness in general, and it sends a message of hope and solidarity to the embattled Syrians. Giving Syrian authorities something of this sort to worry about might lead them to lower the levels of hostilities from their side. Having our governments prevent us from travelling to Syria will similarly compel them to act more responsibly and decisively, knowing full-well their public is greatly concerned about what is happening to Syrians.

Assuming the fly-in eventually gets off the ground and volunteers spread throughout Syria, the presence of international civilians on Syrian soil should have a pacifying effect on all fighting sides. Realising they are being watched in person and in real-time, fighters will adjust their tactics and become less openly brutal. By the same token, and as a later consequence, conflicts in other parts of the world will be affected by the precedent set in Syria of an international civilian fly-in to calm a civil war down.

Of course, a civilian fly-in will only be the beginning of change. It will affect the way the crisis is perceived and addressed, leading to change in how it develops. As the situation calms down gradually, official, trained workers will be able to follow suit and deliver much needed professional aid to Syrian civilians.

But is it safe?

Absolutely not. Syria is not safe, not for you, not for me, not even for Syrians. If it were, I wouldn’t be talking about a fly-in. Drastic times call for drastic measures. When no-one is willing to take risks for what is right, people should expect to see more wrong. This initiative is not for amateurs, thrill seekers or anarchists. It is a serious matter of global concern, a matter of life or death, right and wrong. The fly-in requires commitment, audacity, hard work, confidence, and perseverance. Responsible people should think hard before committing themselves to it, accept responsibility for themselves, and take their stand. The riskiness can be reduced if professionals with experience in conflict zones got involved and organised support and training for inexperienced civilians, that ‘fly-in’ activists who make it to Syria arrive in large groups and ensure that they always have a connection with the outside world.

Why Syria?

It is true that civilians the world over are facing hardships. They too could use our attention and our immediate support. But we don’t have to deal with one single conflict at a time. That would take us forever. Devoting too much global attention to one conflict only will allow other conflicts to flare up and spin out of control, all the while remaining out of sight. Media consumers should insist on having access to a balanced coverage of various issues.

Personally, I feel Syria deserves a lot of media attention right now; resulting in more immediate action. This crisis is still relatively fresh, and should be treated before it becomes the normal situation in Syria. In the Middle East, disputes like the one we see in Syria can easily spill over to engulf other groups and states. They can develop into something much bigger that lasts much longer.

Setting a memorable precedent in Syria, such as conducting a massive fly-in, will have a positive effect on other countries in the region, and far beyond. A demonstration of that sort will advance human rights in an area where it is clearly needed. The Arab Spring happened for a reason, and as the results remain undecided in Syria, a fly-in seems necessary to get the process back on track.


Note: The Chronikler advises any civilians interested in taking part in such a fly-in to consider the risks involved carefully and to seek professional advice.

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A civil compromise to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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By Khaled Diab

With the Palestinian bid to join the UN likely to get them nowhere, there is a more civil way out of the impasse that will give both Israelis and Palestinians what they want.

Thursday 29 September 2011

Is it possible to have statehood without a state? This is the puzzling question raised by the dramatic Palestinian bid to seek United Nations membership which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas launched with a rousing speech to the General Assembly last Friday.

However, for the Palestinian plan to work requires not only that the Palestinians succeed in acquiring UN membership, but also in mobilising the international community, despite its dismal track record over the past two decades, to bring pressure to bear on Israel.

The likelihood of either happening is highly questionable, as the US threat to veto any possible resolution at the Security Council amply demonstrates. This underlines the fact that the UN bid is unlikely to change the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic on the ground and could even make matters worse.

So, with the two-state solution caught between the rock of Israeli-Palestinian deadlock and the hard place of international dithering, what can be done?

In my view, the space to create two states on the pre-1967 borders has largely disappeared. The upshot of this is that Israelis and Palestinians are effectively living in a single state, albeit one that is largely segregated and in which millions are disenfranchised.

Since questions of statehood seem irreconcilable for the foreseeable future, it is best to focus on tangible ”bread and butter” issues until the situation improves enough to enable an honest and broad public debate on the bigger picture. In short, the Palestinian national struggle should be transformed into a civil rights movement for equal rights. Activists on both sides should join forces to demand full citizenship, the right to vote and full mobility for both Palestinians and Israelis to live and work where they please.

For different reasons, this course terrifies many Israelis and Palestinians. Such worries reflect historical and psychological anxieties, heightened by the maximalist visions of extremists on both sides, more than they do real future possibilities.

Most Israelis currently worry that a single-state resolution would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state. However the demographic trend – a growing Palestinian population – underpinning Jewish fears will not go away regardless of the outcome. So the question is whether to handle this growing segment of the population justly or unjustly.

With a secular democracy guaranteeing the rights of all, the millions of Jewish Israelis will give the future state an unmistakable Jewish character, albeit one that is part of a melting pot of other identities.

Though the single state is more popular among Palestinians, many are apprehensive that by choosing this path, they will be legitimising the occupation and surrendering their rights. But this process will act as the final nail in the coffin of the occupation as everywhere in mandate Palestine becomes open to Israelis and Palestinians alike, and the future army – drawn from both sides – redefines its role as the protector of all.

Once everyone in Israel-Palestine has become enfranchised, the groundwork will be laid for a truly democratic, grassroots resolution to this conflict. Although the de facto single state may act as only a stepping stone on the path to two independent nations, Israelis and Palestinians may, after years of intense collaboration, decide that their future is best served by continuing to live closely together in one bi-national, democratic, secular country.

Or they may opt for a looser union. In that case, the state can adopt a federated model which affords Jews and Arabs the bells and whistles of statehood, such as separate flags and national anthems. Non-territorial community governments would represent them wherever they live on the land, while issues common to both sides, such as defence and foreign policy, would be decided in a federal parliament.

Or, instead, the equal citizens of this future state may ultimately opt for a magnanimous divorce, though the intertwined nature of their existence on this tiny land may mean that their independent countries are effectively a one-state “light”.

A single democratic state could well be the best option because it ensures that both Israelis and Palestinians, individually and collectively, enjoy unhindered access to the entire land, including the crown jewel for both: Jerusalem. More pragmatically, in Israel-Palestine’s diversity, and the creative energy this promises, lies its most unsung and under-utilised strength.

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

This article was first published by The Common Ground News Service on 27 September 2011.

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Palestine@UN: Too few cooks spoil the peace

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By Maryam Darwich

The asymmetry in power between Israelis and Palestinians and the exclusion of key players mean that the quest for UN recognition of an independent Palestine is like the icing on an uncooked cake.

Thursday 8 September 2011

September 1993 marked what many at the time described as a revolutionary breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It was the month that saw the sealing of the Declaration of Principles – commonly known as the Oslo Accords – between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), represented by Yasser Arafat, and the Israeli state.

On the 18th anniversary of the failed accords, analysis has focused on the role of the potentially significant United Nations recognition of an independent Palestinian state. The real question, for those interested in conflict resolution, is not whether the UN recognises Palestine but to what extent have things changed since Oslo? Have the ‘spoilers’ of the peace process learnt from the lessons of Oslo? Has the environment in anyway changed to create a context that is more conducive to resolving the conflict?

Essentially, has the situation really changed to allow for the current diplomatic initiative to transcend legal rhetoric and elite jubilance and deliver significant change for those living, day in and day out, this conflict?

Looking at peace processes broadly, especially seemingly successful ones, such as the Northern Ireland case, the essential elements for success are inclusiveness, accountability and an environment that limits spoiler success. Spoilers are actors who attempt to derail the peace process for their own interests.

So did the Oslo recipe include these vital ingredients?

Oslo could in no way be described as inclusive. An elected Israeli government representative could be described as representative of the Israeli people but on the other side of the negotiating table sat Arafat and his clique. Despite it being described as a negotiation with the PLO, the umbrella group representing Palestinian factions, the reality was far from the case. 

The Palestinian side was Arafat-centric and, despite claims that the PLO was a representative of the Palestinians, the context in which they came to the negotiating table was one of a bedraggled, increasingly irrelevant group of people who not only physically but mentally were moving away from those whose cause they were representing.

The condition in which the PLO went into negotiation has been described as one of desperate need. Booted out of Lebanon, pushed into Yemen and Tunisia, lacking significant Arab state support following the PLO’s backing of Saddam Hussein during the 1990 Gulf war, not to mention the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of its major funders, all contributed to the organisation feeling very alone and isolated.

In addition, within the occupied territories, groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, later to become some of the key external spoilers to the conflict, had begun to gain ground. Islamic Jihad formed as a radical splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood and, alongside Hamas, played a role in igniting the first intifada. Yet, the two groups were excluded from the Israeli-Palestinian talks.

 This dismissive attitude towards militant groups was a hindrance to the peace process. And it is this continued ostracisation of important, even if controversial and questionable, groups that limits any future chance of effective conflict resolution. That said, the recent Fatah-Hamas unity deal in Cairo, although labelled as a setback for peace by the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, certainly forces an important, even if undesired, extra actor to any future negotiating table.

By comparison, the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland ensured inclusiveness from the outset through the participation – later democratic – of extremely opposing groups and potentially militant movements who were offered a non-violent platform to express their grievances and work towards democratic mobilisation of the masses.

Oslo, on the other hand, not only closed opportunities for participation in the early days but also failed to open up the spectrum for participation gradually. By centring the Palestinian side of the negotiations on an individual and his tightly knit group, it left no room for others to get involved. In addition, the responsibility and title the Oslo process bestowed on the PLO representatives encouraged them to close off the political system to other players. This has not only led to the rise of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but also the clear creation of an authoritarian regime, in the guise of the Palestinian Authority, led by Fatah.

As the late Edward Said once put it: “After years of being the victims of Arab and Israeli repression, Palestinians have finally earned the right of a repressive system of their own.”

Israel’s insistence on only negotiating with one party has closed the system off to the development of a more representative group of Palestinian negotiators. To this day, negotiations do not take place with those that the Palestinians feel represent them but rather the group, or more commonly the individual, that Israel and the United States deem should represent them. With such a chasm between the masses and the elite, the perfect gap is created for spoilers to do what they do best: spoil the process.

Essentially, a successful attempt at resolution of this conflict would see the Palestinians experiencing improvement in their daily lives and Israelis feeling more secure in their own homes. Unfortunately, Oslo set the tone for an environment of very little positive change, which gave the spoilers on both sides the perfect opportunity to wreak havoc with very little accountability.

The extremely violent, uncompromising, fervent settler communities of the occupied territories are never going to be satisfied with any compromise with the Palestinians on the issue of the land that they feel is rightfully theirs. An example of the actions of their most extreme fringe was the attack carried out by Baruch Goldstein, a resident of the Hebron settlement, who walked into the Ibrahimi mosque and shot 29 Palestinians as they prayed. The reaction from the Israeli state was to increase the number of IDF troops on the ground and impose a curfew on Palestinians to protect the settler community.

This incident continues to reverberate in the minds of Palestinians to this day. Hebron itself has come to be remembered as one of the biggest tragedies of the Oslo agreement. “For the sake of the 500 Jewish settlers, everyday life for the 35,000 Palestinians, who resided in the same area, became a living nightmare”, according to Ghada Karmi(???), and continues to be so.

What became clear after Oslo is that “the Israelis with all their military power cannot extinguish Palestinian aspirations and the Palestinians with all their anger […] will not force the Israelis to submit,” Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton’s special Middle East coordinator, once noted.

What was needed to contribute to a more peaceful coexistence was an understanding of leadership constraints. It is the case that both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership today fail to understand key traits of leadership, especially since they feel their position to be extremely vulnerable. Leaders make decisions, which sometimes anger or disappoint their constituency, and so they sometimes must pay the price with their own career. But no leaders on either side show that level of daring.

The desire for many Palestinian political actors to act as the symbol of Palestine makes the political elite lack a clear strategy, something which is desperately needed. Israeli leaders also lack a clear vision for peace, while the current leadership has a clear anti-peace agenda.

Binyamin Netanyahu, during the Oslo years and now, “showed hatred and bitter animosity towards the Palestinians”, according to the British-Israeli historian Avi Shlaim. This meant, in the words of Ron Pundak of the Peres Centre for Peace, that Netanyahu “sabotaged the peace process relentlessly and made every effort to de-legitimise his Palestinian partners”. The re-election of a leader with such a track record indicates that few lessons have been learnt.

Finally, whilst the Israeli-Palestinian conflict certainly fits the bill of being an intractable conflict, it is not one based on an equal stalemate. The reality of the asymmetrical nature of the conflict makes any negotiations, in themselves, a paradox, as the actors are unlikely to feel the harm of the conflict equally.

Asymmetry is evident in the nature of the relationship between the two sides: the relationship of the occupied to the occupier based on a history of power and military successes for Israel in the face of one loss after the other in the eyes of the Palestinians.

In such an environment, “when a peace process is being conducted between two utterly unequal parties in the context of a deeply asymmetric power relationship, the role of the third party becomes critical”, argues Sumantra Bose of the London School of Economics. Essentially the issue of asymmetry can only been resolved if a neutral third party is present, one that would balance the negotiating table.

The involvement of the United States in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been largely unsuccessful and Washington has taken no steps to change the conflict into some mutually beneficial arrangement. Whilst the United States appeared to act as a neutral party in brokering peace in Northern Ireland, it has traditionally been biased towards the Israelis.

The perception among Palestinians and their supporters is that the US just provides Israel with a cover for its violations on the ground. Washington’s approach is perhaps unsurprising, given that Israel is the largest beneficiary of American military aid, a strategic Middle Eastern ally and the protégé of the influential pro-Israel lobby. This leads to Palestinian resentment to brew against the foundations and the hypocrisy of the entire process.

So whilst reactions have been positive rhetorically, it is understandable why many in Palestinian society are sceptical about what positive changes a UN vote would actually bring.

In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not only are common external spoilers a threat, but those heralding peace and compromise have had a destructive impact. There is little intent from the Israeli government to follow through with promises and no one to hold it to account. Moreover, the blatant asymmetry between the Palestinians and Israelis is exacerbated by a biased broker and a self-interested approach to conflict resolution that, unfortunately, lead to any confidence-building efforts to become mutually destructive.

Combined, these factors make any potential UN recognition just the icing on an uncooked cake.

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

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