Releasing Gilad Shalit and the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace

A major security issue in Israel at the moment is the fate of Gilad Shalit. As I write in my recent essay on last year’s war in Gaza, Shalit is a corporal in the IDF who was captured by Palestinian militants in a border raid on the Gaza Strip in 2006. He has been in captivity ever since. A few weeks ago, it looked as though negotiators had reached a breakthrough, and Shalit would be released in exchange for 450 Palestinians in Israeli jails, though that number may be as low as 100 now. (The uneven numbers give you one idea of how important this issue is to Israelis; more below.) That deal fell through, but there is more hopeful talk of releasing Shalit all the time (here, for instance). Some say a prisoner swap could be the key to peace. I disagree.

Call me a realist, but as readers of the Menso Guide to War know, I have never been hopeful about the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. I study, among other things, the cultural roots of conflict. Culture can legitimise war or peace, and needs to be taken into account when prospecting for either. Neither Israeli nor Palestinian culture is conducive to a real, lasting end to the war. The bitterness would not simply end because one condition for ceasefire has been met. Militant Israelis will continue to push for anything that will protect every last Jewish life. Militant Palestinians will continue to do anything they can to end the occupation. Where does that leave Shalit?

Gilad Shalit has become a kind of national hero in Israel. One TV news anchor ends every broadcast by tearfully counting how many days Shalit has been under lock and key. Haaretz, considered one of the more dovish of Israeli newspapers, runs a counter at Haaretz.com displaying the same time to the second. On his birthday in August 2009, Twitter’s second highest trend was Gilad Shalit. Over a Jewish holiday in 2009, newspapers displayed pictures of Gilad as a toddler, dressed in a sad clown costume. Poor Gilad: an innocent boy kidnapped by terrorists. (The 7700 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, apparently, are all guilty.)

So surely, when Hamas releases Gilad Shalit, Israelis will be so grateful they will demand an end to the blockade of Gaza, right? Why would they? The thing they care most about Gaza will have been returned to them. Hamas’ one bargaining chip will be gone. Where is the incentive to continue negotiations? Though a majority of Israelis favour the current deal, the hardliners are not willing to give up Palestinians with “blood on their hands” to get Shalit back. Many Israelis would see the release of 100 Palestinians as a huge concession to a group everyone hates (Hamas). But attacks on Israeli targets would not end, because they will never end while the occupation continues and in the West Bank, expands. The Israeli right wing would probably push even harder to punish Hamas and refuse to talk. Impoverished Palestinians would be caught in the middle again. Under these conditions, extremism will not go away.

The best we can hope for is that the prisoner swap succeeds and leads to more negotiations. There have been very few moves toward peace of late, but if earnest negotiators can persuade their constituents to give up more for peace, there will be progress. Meanwhile, long term solutions such as intercultural education are necessary to end the cycle of racism that portrays the other as only understanding force. Finally, what Shalit says when he is released will influence public opinion. He could be Nelson Mandela and say that he feels no bitterness, only greater understanding; or he could say nothing constructive and perpetuate the culture of anger. We must hope for the former. Release Gilad Shalit, release the Palestinian prisoners and see it as a chance to end the war.

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“Prohibiting a market does not mean destroying it”

It is an industry worth 15 to 20% of the world’s GDP. It boasts among the most global of operations. We see its results all around us, even in our own homes, without realising it. In these difficult economic times, this sector of the economy is thriving. We are supporting it with many of our purchases and people are dying for it on the streets. The industry in question is organised crime.

Misha Glenny’s book McMafia: a Journey through the Global Criminal Underworld is a fascinating thrill ride that traces the roots of the scourge of modern organised crime. He paints a clear picture of the origins, rapid international spread and possible solutions to the enormous problem of the illegal multinational. He begins in Eastern Europe.

As the communist world was imploding, law enforcement was going with it. In the USSR, state companies, the commanding heights of the economy, were being sold at firesale prices. The new oligarchs, as they were soon to be known, needed protection, and they found it in the ranks of the newly unemployed. (For more on the relation between unemployment and violence, see here.) Mob wars became the defining characteristic of Russia in the 1990s. The oligarchs ran complex corporations where the legal and the illegal were indistinguishable. Thousands of criminal organisations arose to work with them and kill for them. Then, they spread.

Glenny details how organised crime went everywhere in search of black markets to exploit. In Yugoslavia, a war that appeared to be tearing people apart was uniting the mafia across the new borders. Bulgarian gangsters tricked and then pimped prostitutes in Europe, Israel and beyond. He describes it as not only a lucrative business but one that pays consistent dividends. The trade in caviar from the Caspian Sea has enriched gang leaders, corrupted officials (further) and nearly depleted the sea of sturgeon. Dubai’s gleaming buildings belie its status as a hub for money laundering. Sanctions on trade with North Korea have pushed all its dealings under the table, and now a nuclear state is selling weapons to the Taliban. (See here.) British Columbia’s marijuana cultivation brings in 6% of its GDP and ecstasy production is rising and bringing Hell’s Angels with it. Sanctions and criminalisation did not end the trade in these things. This lesson, in fact, is central to Glenny’s thesis.

Innumerable women are exploited as prostitutes. They have no protection from violence or disease. Legalised prostitution would mean they have the law on their side. I have been writing for some time about why legalising drugs is the only sensible answer to the billions of dollars and no end of lives lost to fighting a problem that grows nonetheless. An estimated 70% of the global “shadow economy” is in narcotics.

Lev Timofeev, a former Soviet mathematician and analyst of the shadow economy, put it well in an interview with Glenny when he said the following.

“Prohibiting a market does not mean destroying it. Prohibiting a market means placing a prohibited but dynamically developing market under the total control of criminal corporations. Moreover, prohibiting a market means enriching the criminal world with hundreds of billions of dollars by giving criminals a wide access to public goods which will be routed by addicts into the drug traders’ pockets. Prohibiting a market means giving the criminal corporations opportunities and resources for exerting a guiding and controlling influence over whole societies and nations.” (Glenny, 225)

The idea that something is bad, therefore we must make it illegal means trying to end the economic law of supply and demand. Only market based policies will work. Everything else is doomed to fail. But public pressure is mostly conservative on the issue. (See, for instance, here.) I wrote to my member of parliament, Gary Lunn, to end drug prohibition, and he responded by assuring me that he was adhering to more of the same inept, wasteful policies.

The same simple thinking believes that restrictions on immigration can be effective ways of keeping the barbarians outside the gates. The demand for cheap labour has been rising for years, while barriers to it have been following suit. Many Americans see their country as the destination of poor workers, and while illegal immigrants face various dangers to enter and stay in the US, their counterparts all over the world are doing the same. Millions of people are trafficked to jobs under terribly hazardous conditions to wherever cheap labour is in demand. The criminals running operations kidnap the people and then beat or rape them. The free movement of labour across borders would reduce the risks of being a migrant worker. But being unwilling to embrace cultural change, not understanding interculturalism and scared of losing their jobs, people in the rich world prefer to forget about the problem and watch TV. But more attention to the trade going on under the rug would make our world safer.

The fingers of crime are in every pie, everywhere. Organised crime does not only deal in drugs and prostitutes. It corrupts police forces and governments everywhere. It sells cigarettes. Because of high taxes on cigarettes, cigarette smuggling has cost the UK alone $8b in tax revenue and fueled the brutal conflict in Yugoslavia. It sells diamonds, as we know from the movie Blood Diamond, a gripping, fictional (but true to life) story of a diamond industry that has brought down states and sold millions into slavery. It sells weapons, labourers, DVDs, gold, tin and coltan. Do you know what coltan is? It is a black ore found in almost all cell phones, DVD players, video game systems and computers. Though it is found in many parts of the world, much of it comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mafia from all around the world have cooperated to exploit the mineral resources of the Congo, and in doing so have been fueling the world’s deadliest war since 1945. (Read more here.)

Though we cannot know the origin of everything we buy, we can choose to stop taking drugs, visiting prostitutes and consuming so much. We can lobby our governments to legalise drugs and prostitution, and loosen restrictions on migration. We can set up regimes to verify the origins of things like diamonds, gold and coltan, like the Kimberley Process has done with some success. It is time to stop standing by and letting criminals corrupt our world when some unpleasant but necessary actions could end their party. I strongly recommend McMafia. You will never look at globalisation the same again.