The encirclement of Iran

Thousands of US troops are deploying to Israel. The Israeli military announced it as a major missile defense exercise with its ally. The reason for this “defense” preparation is the big, scary country on the other side of the Middle East.

CBS news reports the Israeli military as saying the drill had been long anticipated and was unrelated to recent events. The article explained the drill would take place “as tension between Iran and the international community escalates”, as if Iran is defiantly taking on the world, rather than being pummeled into submission. If we are not sure who the aggressor is in this conflict, let us review the facts.

  • Iran is, at present, surrounded by US military bases. If everyone in your neighbourhood were armed to the teeth and yelling about how dangerous you were, would you feel threatened?
  • In recent years, the US has invaded and occupied two of those neighbours, Afghanistan and Iraq, for all the same reasons it may want to occupy Iran. Iran has oil; it is strategically located; it is a manufactured enemy; Americans do not know anything about the country except that it’s evil, and will thus give the green light to their politicians.
  • Israelis have been subjected for years to media bombardment about the perils of an Ahmadinejad-led, nuclear-armed Iran. There seems to be broad consensus in the Israeli right wing and other circles that the Islamic Republic cannot wait to “wipe Israel off the map”. Again, the enemy is largely manufactured and sold by elites who want more war.

John Tirman of the MIT Center for International Studies points out the “peculiar” time for the march to war: the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Is it time for Operation Iranian Liberation? The foolishness with which the US stumbled into Iraq in 2003 is repeating itself.

Politicians in the US and Israel are screaming about the need to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities before Iran attacks the countries with the two most dangerous militaries in the world. The think tanks, who said US troops would be treated as liberators and that the oil would pay for the war, and media commentators, who did not question the government’s assessments of the threat from Iraq, are helping bring public opinion in line once again.

The US and the EU (“the international community”) are ramping up economic sanctions (but why?). Most recently, EU politicians have willingly endangered the European economy by moving toward choking Mediterranean countries’ oil supplies. Paul Stevens of Dundee University in Scotland says that Greece, which imports 30 percent of its oil from Iran, would be pushed off the cliff on which it is already perched. “It would utterly destroy the Greek economy.” Tough enough sanctions on Iran will not stop it from producing a nuclear weapon, which is, in fact, a very rational exercise for a state expecting to be attacked. (In fact, Iran has been under attack for thirty years. They may, however, repeat the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, as the sanctions on Iraq did to that country during the 1990s.

Needless to say, full-blown war with Iran would be devastating. The war on Iraq killed hundreds of thousands of people and rendered the country intractably unstable for a long time to come for no other reason than to please the Washington power elite. And what is the desired outcome? National security? Can national security ever be achieved by waging endless wars? No, suggest the history of Israel and the 9/11 attacks. The entire Middle East and Central Asia could be engulfed in war.

Warmakers are not merely shortsighted, though. They understand the consequences. More devastation, more instability, more religious extremism, more terrorism, more pain: these are all foreseen and desired outcomes. More instability in western Asia will mean two things that keep the powerful happy: higher oil and gas prices, and more enemies to fight and justify more military intervention. If the elites can benefit, the war with Iran will no longer be clandestine, and millions of people could die as a result.

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The causes of 9/11

In this post, I will outline the evidence that 9/11 was an “outside job”. If that upsets you, consider the following. I do not rule out the possibility that it was also an inside job. There is evidence that it was, and it is wrong to close one’s mind to evidence. I do not know if the terrorists were found or trained or paid off by some CIA operative. Because of government secrecy, it is extremely difficult to know the complete truth. Neither am I an engineer, least of all a demolitions expert, so it is hard for me to know which engineers are right and which are wrong. This post presents the evidence that a small group of radicals swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, believed the US and Israel were at war with Islam, and took it upon themselves to destroy a symbol of American power, hoping to lure the superpower into a cosmic war in which Islam would prevail.

Ron Crelinsten, a terrorism expert at the University of Victoria, says that terrorism is about communication. Every terrorist attack sends a message. It is important to listen to them, or else how are we supposed to stop terrorism? Terrorists are not irrational. They are not crazy. Those accusations are a smokescreen designed to make you listen to the government and Thomas Friedman for explanations rather than the terrorists themselves. But the terrorists can tell you why they are angry, and if we had listened to them, we might not have witnessed their anger in September of 2001. Let us look at a timeline of events that could have given clues to those paying attention that something was going to happen.

May 31, 1996: Four Saudi men were executed for the bombing of a US military mission in Riyadh the year before. The attacks were aimed at American “infidels”, 6 of whom died. Three of the four men executed had fought in Afghanistan, and one had fought in Bosnia. This is where you could trace their radicalisation to. They all claimed to have links to Osama bin Laden. They felt that Islam was under attack worldwide, and that they were part of what they believed was a global jihad. They had discussed the Saudi state and were disgusted that it embraced secular law, rather than Quranic law, and how the ulema, Islamic scholars supposed to be independent of lawmakers, “were conspiring with the state to undermine Islam….Saudi Arabia [was] an infidel state.” Many Saudi dissidents believe the ulema should have a strong consultative role in politics, as this would mean policies along Islamic lines.

June 25, 1996, less than a month later: In Khobar, Saudi Arabia, an explosion killed 19 Americans and wounded hundreds more in a complex that housed foreign military personnel called the Khobar Towers.

It is around this time that Osama bin Laden begins appearing in the headlines. Naturally, after the 9/11 attacks, millions of Americans asked “why us?” Bin Laden had already outlined very clearly why, and if Americans had realised that, they might have been less likely to use words like “evil” and “senseless” after the attacks.

Journalist Robert Fisk met with bin Laden three times, in 1993, 1996 and 1997.

When I met him again in Afghanistan in 1996, he was 39, raging against the corruption of the Saudi royal family, contemptuous of the West. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Bin Laden told the House of Saud that his Arab legion could destroy the Iraqis; no need to bring the Americans to the land of Islam’s two holiest places. The King turned him down. So the Americans were now also the target of Osama’s anger.

The House of Saud invited thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia as protection from Saddam Hussein. We can identify the first two causes of 9/11 here: the corruption of the House of Saud and the American military presence in the land of the Islam’s two holiest places.

In 1996, bin Laden said

When the American troops entered Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holy places [Mecca and Medina], there was a strong protest from the ulema [the religious scholars] and from students of the sharia law all over the country against the interference of American troops… After it insulted and jailed the ulema 18 months ago, the Saudi regime lost its legitimacy….

The Saudi people have remembered now what the ulema told them and they realise America is the main reason for their problems. The ordinary man knows that his country is the largest oil producer in the world, yet at the same time he is suffering from taxes and bad services. Now…our country has become an American colony… What happened in Riyadh and Khobar is clear evidence of the huge anger of Saudi people against America. The Saudis now know their real enemy is America.

What bin Laden was saying was basically truthful. Most Saudis objected to the presence of non-Muslim troops in the land of Islam’s holiest places, even though they had been asked by the House of Saud to come to protect them from Saddam Hussein, and they weren’t actually in the holy places themselves. But by 1996, the threat from Saddam was gone. He was under sanctions, no fly zones and bombing raids. But American troops were still there, just like they are still in Germany, Spain and Japan, long after the threat from a powerful army is gone.

In 1990, there were 31,636 US troops in Saudi Arabia.

1991: 14,943 troops

1992: 4,159

1993 and 4: fewer than 2,000

1995: 2,526

1996: 7,780

2001: 12,075

By 2001, it was clear that the US had not got the message the terrorist attacks over the 1990s had attempted to convey.

In 1997, bin Laden told Robert Fisk he would turn America into a shadow of itself.

We declared jihad against the US government, because the US government is unjust, criminal and tyrannical. It has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous and criminal whether directly or through its support of the Israeli occupation of the Prophet’s Night Travel Land [Palestine]. And we believe the US is directly responsible for those who were killed in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq.  The mention of the US reminds us before everything else of those innocent children who were dismembered, their heads and arms cut off in the recent explosion that took place in Qana [Lebanon]…. The US government hit Muslim civilians and executed more than 600,000 Muslim children in Iraq by preventing food and medicine from reaching them….”

At a different time, bin Laden called the war and sanctions on Iraq “the oppressing and embargoing to death of millions…the greatest mass slaughter of children mankind has ever known”.

Now we are adding reasons for 9/11: support for Israel and its war in Lebanon, the sanctions on Iraq that crippled the economy and the people. I do not know if 600,000 children and millions of other people truly died as a result of these policies, but it is not truth that makes decisions but perceptions. Most Americans had no idea about any of this, and were every time misled by their representatives. For nearly twenty years after the first Gulf War, Bin Laden issued specific demands, such as “get US troops out of Arabia” and American politicians responded with “stop trying to force our women into burkas”. As a result, we have millions of people believing that “the terrorists” cannot be reasoned with and must be killed. Their solution is to escalate the wars that are, in fact, the causes of the anger and hatred that might lead to another major terrorist attack. They are wars that do not make anyone safer or freer. They kill and terrorise innocent people, including Americans, for the purpose of strengthening the US government overseas and domestically.

August 7, 1998: Hundreds were killed in truck bombs at US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. Bin Laden was then placed on the FBI’s ten most wanted list. Some other things happened in 1998.

Bin Laden issued a fatwa, a religious opinion on Islamic law by an Islamic scholar. (Incidentally, bin Laden is not an Islamic scholar and is thus not qualified to issue fatwas.) He called the US military presence in the Arabian Peninsula crusader armies spreading like locusts through the Muslim world and gobbling up its resources. “First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.” Second, he claimed that the “crusader-Zionist alliance” had killed more than a million Iraqis through war and embargo. (Bin Laden often refers to “crusaders” when talking about the US, in order to show that he sees little difference between the Crusades and current US foreign policy regarding the Muslim world. Right after the 9/11 attacks, George Bush called the War on Terror that was about to begin a crusade. Probably wasn’t the ideal choice of words for winning Muslim hearts and minds.) Third, “the aim is also to serve the Jews’ petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there. The best proof of this is their eagerness to destroy Iraq, the strongest neighboring Arab state, and their endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel’s survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the Peninsula.”

Why did he mention Jerusalem? What is so special about Jerusalem? Jerusalem is the third holiest site in Islam, because it is where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven. And many Muslims in the world consider Jerusalem and all of Palestine under occupation by foreigners, supported by the US.

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. Here is what bin Laden said about it in 2004.

The events that affected my soul in a direct way started in 1982 when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon and the American Sixth Fleet helped them in that…Many were killed and injured and others were terrorised and displaced. I couldn’t forget those moving scenes, blood and severed limbs, women and children sprawled everywhere. Houses destroyed along with their occupants and high rises demolished over their residents, rockets raining down on our home without mercy. The situation was like a crocodile meeting a helpless child, powerless except for his screams. Does the crocodile understand a conversation that doesn’t include a weapon? And the whole world saw and heard but it didn’t respond.

He is not just making stuff up. The US has been indirectly responsible for the deaths of many innocent Muslims at the hands of Israel.

April 18, 1996: During its occupation of southern Lebanon, Israel shelled the village of Qana, killing 106 civilians and injuring around 116 others who had taken refuge there to escape the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. I’ll spare you the pictures. Look them up if you are not faint of heart.

Lawrence Wright, in his 2006 book The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, says that Mohamed Atta, one of the masterminds of the attacks, signed his will during the operation against Qana, because he was enraged and wanted to offer his life in response. So Israel was a major factor in perceptions of injustice against Muslims and desecration of Palestine and Jerusalem.

Bin Laden’s anger had foundation, and Muslims around the world knew it. Most Muslims do not support terrorism, but at least as many have the same complaints as the jihadis. For instance, though most Saudis do not like al-Qaeda, 95% of those asked wanted American troops to leave Saudi Arabia. Terrorists are supported by communities. If the communities are sympathetic to the terrorists’ causes, they will fund, shelter and supply them with recruits. People support al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and whoever else not because they are under some misapprehension but because they have seen injustices before their own eyes and they know who did it.

Also in 1998, a memo from Mohamed Atef, al-Qaeda’s military chief, said that al-Qaeda was aware of negotiations between the US and the Taliban on a UNOCAL oil and gas pipeline through Afghanistan, and that a terrorist attack would be the way to draw the US in to Afghanistan, otherwise known as the graveyard of empires. Both Clinton and Bush administrations negotiated with the Taliban. After the embassy bombings, the Clinton administration imposed sanctions and continued talking to the Taliban, mostly pressuring them to hand over bin Laden.

In another response to the embassy bombings, Bill Clinton signed off on Operation Infinite Reach, a series of US cruise missile strikes on terrorist bases in Afghanistan and Sudan. Operation Infinite Reach took place in August 1998. Does anyone remember anything else that was going on at this time? The Monica Lewinsky scandal. It has been speculated that Operation Infinite Reach was a way of deflecting attention from Clinton’s sex life and raising public opinion of him by killing terrorists. Anyway, one of the attacks destroyed al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. The US claimed the factory was making VX nerve agent and its owners had ties to al-Qaeda. The US State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research said the evidence was highly dubious. Noam Chomsky and other critics say that tens of thousands of Sudanese civilians died because they would not have the drugs they needed.

In 2000, a suicide attack on the US Navy destroyer the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen. 17 US sailors were killed and more were injured. Al-Qaeda proudly claimed responsibility. Bill Clinton declared, “If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act. We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable”. (That said, being an attack on a military target, the USS Cole bombing does not actually meet the official US definition of terrorism.) The 9/11 Commission Report says that bin Laden supervised the bombing, chose the location, and provided the money, and that an unidentified source said bin Laden wanted the United States to attack, and if it did not he would launch something bigger. (By the way, bin Laden has been indicted for the USS Cole bombing but not for the 9/11 attacks.) The Report goes on to say that he

instructed the media committee… to produce a propaganda video that included a reenactment of the attack along with images of the al Qaeda training camps and training methods; it also highlighted Muslim suffering in Palestine, Kashmir, Indonesia, and Chechnya…Portions were aired on Al Jazeera, CNN, and other television outlets. It was also disseminated among many young men in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and caused many extremists to travel to Afghanistan for training and jihad.

Things were heating up, and not just for al-Qaeda.

The Report also says that during spring and summer 2001, US intelligence agencies received a stream of warnings that al-Qaeda was planning something huge, CIA Director George Tenet saying that “the system was blinking red.” Between January and September 2001, the FBI issued 216 internal warnings about the possibility of an al-Qaeda attack.

The form it did take was a kind of suicide bombing. Suicide bombing is a pretty new phenomenon in terrorism, going back about 30 years. Why suicide bombing? Under what conditions does suicide bombing occur? Since the most visible and horrific acts of terrorism are suicide bombings committed by Muslims, it might seem obvious that Islamic fundamentalism is the central cause. But it is not. Robert Pape has compiled a database of every suicide attack around the globe since 1980.

The data [for all attacks between 1980 and 2003] show that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions. In fact, the leading instigators of suicide attacks are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion. This group committed 76 of the 315 incidents, more suicide attacks than Hamas.

Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.

Nearly all suicide attacks are parts of organised campaigns; democratic states are most vulnerable to suicide terrorists; they have a strategic objective: trying to establish or maintain political self-determination by compelling a democracy to withdraw from  the territories they claim (nationalist, not religious, goals); their goals, if not necessarily their tactics (taboos on suicide exist in every culture, especially Islamic ones), are supported by the distinct national community they represent (enough people must think them worth defending that they will allow them to recruit, help them hide and consider them martyrs) (for instance, as I said, almost all Saudis want US troops out of the country); loyalty among comrades and devotion to leaders; suicide terrorism is more lethal than non-suicide attacks, which are used for a wider variety of goals; and finally, they work, at least sometimes.

To sum up the causes:

-The perceived occupation of Saudi Arabia

-The “infidel” House of Saud

-US support for Israel

-The 1991 invasion of Iraq and the sanctions that hurt Iraqi civilians

-And the conclusion from all of this that Islam itself was under attack.

Ten years ago today, these factors combined to cause the most spectacular terrorist attack in history.

Cool heads must prevail in the Israel-Egypt-Gaza conflict

When conflicts arise, as they inevitably will, we should maintain perspective. When I attack you in order to take your money or your land, it is clear who the enemy is, and you have a legitimate claim to self defense. But not all conflicts are that simple. In many cases, the attack that riles us is a case of revenge. Revenge can be considered justified by anyone who believes they have been wronged in the past. If you took my land five years ago, I might take revenge on you today. Many nationalists believe that revenge can take place hundreds of years after the initial wrong, as the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. Our memory of the wrongs of others is comprehensive, and we tally the score of every misdemeanor to prove our enemy is our enemy. However, our memory of our own wrongs is highly selective. To us, any action taken against us or our national groups is an inexcusable act of aggression. If we keep in mind our mental limitations, we can control our reactions and reduce the severity of the conflicts in which we find ourselves embroiled. This week, an incident in southern Israel sparked a dangerous conflict that can only be understood with calmness.

It is difficult to know what has happened, as we rely purely on official Egyptian and Israeli accounts. Many people who would agree that we cannot simply believe everything governments tell us do not think critically about every government press release, especially when emotions run hot. Some media assume government information is true and present it as such, instead of doing the journalism themselves. We should not claim to know anything for sure. As far as one can determine, some Palestinians attacked a bus in southern Israel, killing eight Israelis, mostly civilians, and wounding more, in a coordinated terrorist attack. (Regular readers of this blog will know I do not throw around the word “terrorist”. It is appropriate in this case. And saying “the Israelis are the real terrorists” may have some truth to it, but it does not help our understanding of the situation.) The attack came from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and was blamed on the Popular Resistance Committees, a Palestinian terrorist group operating from Gaza. How did they get into Egypt?

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) chased the militants into Egypt. Egyptians are calling this a violation of Egyptian sovereignty and of the Camp David Accord, which it was. But what were the terrorists doing in Egypt? The IDF then killed and wounded some Egyptian soldiers (the number of which depends on the source). Did the Israelis target the Egyptians? Did the Palestinians use the Egyptians as cover? Or were the Egyptians covering for the Palestinians? If so, they violated the spirit of the Accord as well. These questions will probably never be answered to anyone’s satisfaction, except in the minds of those who are willing to accept arguments that justify their prejudices. How can we fairly apportion blame under such conditions?

That evening, the Israeli Air Force bombed the homes of the leaders of the Popular Resistance Committees and killed five of them, plus a boy. Assuming this information is correct, the killings were targeted, thereby minimising civilian deaths, and legitimate, in response to terrorism. Dozens of rockets have hit southern Israel since Thursday. For all its faults, Israel sometimes acts purely in self defense.

What should be done? Demanding official apologies, as Egyptians have done of Israel, will help nothing. The dead will not come back to life, nor will there be fewer deaths in future. The attitude that accompanies the demand for an apology is one of blame: it is entirely their fault. Assigning blame paints others into a corner, making them more self righteous and defiant. It tends to reduce conflict only if employed after the conflict is over and when there is a clear aggressor, as when Germany and Poland coordinated efforts to educate schoolchildren on the Second World War.

Should we hate the other? History shows that hate, like revenge, keeps conflicts going until one side is dead, unless the hate can be suppressed long enough to see the long-term benefits of peace. It does not help us as individuals, either, as it consumes and destroys us, making us neither safer nor wiser.

Some Egyptians say their government should reject the Camp David Accord, a treaty that has brought peace to Egypt for three decades. Why would they want to reject it? To go to war with Israel again? The IDF is perhaps the sleekest and deadliest military in the Middle East. I hope Egyptians are not so angry they become suicidal. As I have written elsewhere, the ending of a peace treaty (like the recalling of an official envoy, which Egypt did yesterday) does not mean war is inevitable or even desirable. It is more like an insult. Nonetheless, the existence of a treaty lends legal legitimacy to the state of peace and its violation by any party would mean international condemnation. I am not accusing Egyptians of wanting war; indeed, I would be surprised if more than a few people truly wanted it. But war is not usually a sudden action in response to something small, as it is when swatting a fly. Rather, it tends to come at the end of a spiral of conflict propelled by anger, accusation and propaganda.

Besides, while Israel is not likely to attack Egypt any time soon, it could well wreak havoc on the Gaza Strip again. Provocation from Egypt, whether in the form of young Egyptians’ attacking Israeli embassies or perceived Egyptian complicity in terrorism against Israel, will make the task easier. Like Operation Cast Lead, any major assault on Gaza will be a signal to the surrounding states that Israel can hit hard and fast, suffer minimal casualties and experience little guilt.

Times are tense in the Middle East. Israelis have seen polls of Egyptians indicating that most of the latter would like to rescind the peace treaty between the two countries. Israelis are afraid that the attack on its embassy and its borders could mean it is under greater threat internationally than any time since the international terrorist attacks of the 1970s. And the (supposed) opening of the Rafah crossing of the Gaza Strip could mean Gazan militants pouring into Egypt and attacking Israel from there. Egyptians have no love for Israelis, whom they see as the occupiers of Palestine, the oppressors of Palestinians and the murderers of Egyptians. These attitudes are not helpful.

The best way to prevent the escalation of this conflict is to remain calm, and work to understand one another. This is easier said than done. Governments and their multimillion-dollar communications budgets are adept at making us think we are thinking for ourselves when we are, in fact, being fed information and told how to think. We need to learn to think critically and listen to our enemies. We must avoid giving in to anger and hatred and fear, and instead choose our actions carefully. Otherwise, we will drag ourselves and innocent others into endless conflict.

The PA, the UN, Egypt and the flotilla: no help for the Palestinians

Two states?

In September of 2011, the Palestinian Authority will approach the United Nations for a resolution recognising Palestine as a new member state. Against the backdrop of what are still hopefully being called the Arab revolutions, much of the world believes that UN recognition will force Israel to follow suit and recognise, and thus leave in peace, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

The government of Israel often warns that a sovereign Palestine would mean Hamas’ taking power, probably violently, and then using a new state as a launching pad for the destruction of Israel. However, one must doubt that Hamas is so irrational. Its leaders are well aware that they would be blown to dust if they initiated a war with Israel. Their being religious does not change that. Religious governments are not crazy, and are as likely as non-religious ones to make war. Iran, for all the Israeli and US rhetoric attacking it, seems to have no intention of starting wars. Why would a poorly-armed, dishevelled group like Hamas?

However, with a state, a legitimate government would set up legitimate defense forces against Israeli aggression. It would enable Palestine’s acceptance as a member of the UN. It would also mean the possibility of self-reliance for its citizens, instead of depending on foreign aid under the constant threat of land expropriation and housing demolitions. Finally, it could end the Palestinian refugee issue (though not satisfactorily, as many insist on the “right of return” of all refugees to their previous homes and parents’ and grandparents’ homes, which could be anywhere in Israel or the Palestinian territories). Of course, given Israeli government interests in the status quo in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, and its continual proving its ruthlessness in pursuing those interests, all these hopes are mere hopes. After all, asked one West Bank resident, “who cares if we get recognised as a state if the Israelis can still block the roads?”

If Palestinians want a state, international law states that certain conditions must be met. First, it must have a stable population. Check. Second, it must have a government. The Palestinian Authority is not great, but it has the necessary institutions of a government. Check. Third, it must have a defined territory. This issue is contentious, to say the least. It is hard to know exactly where Israel begins and Palestine ends; but the hope is that a Palestinian state would be built on the pre-1967 lines: the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. More recent negotiations (not to mention the settlements) have reduced the size of the West Bank that could belong to Palestine but have partly compensated for the loss of territory with the idea of land swaps between the two states. The solutions are on the table, though the current Israeli government continues to require conditions that make reaching those solutions all but impossible. Fourth, it must have the capacity to enter into relations with other states. That requires recognition by other states. Most of the world’s states now recognise Palestine as sovereign, with the exception of the most powerful ones. But some governments do not recognise Israel as a state either, and some of its territory is considered illegal (the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem were annexed and settled—an unequivocal violation of international law) and yet it is obviously sovereign. But getting and holding a state will not be easy for anyone.

First, the Security Council needs to recommend statehood to the General Assembly, which might not happen. The US government, which can veto any Security Council resolution, has always vetoed resolutions that are not in the Israeli right wing’s self interest, and has done so recently. In doing so, it goes against the international consensus; but the powerful are not constrained by others’ opinions. Despite its posturing for decades, the US government has done little to promote peace and allow the recognition of a Palestinian state. It is possible that the PA can use General Assembly Resolution 377, which can be invoked to bypass the Security Council when it fails to act to maintain international peace and security (its main function), though it may not be valid for the purpose of recognising a new member state. Second, Israel’s diplomats are flying around the world to drum up support for the Netanyahu government’s Bantustan vision for Palestine. The US, of course, supports Israel in this endeavour, as does Germany.

Third, if somehow Palestine is recognised, the US government will not be its friend. The US senate voted unanimously last week that statehood should (a non-binding resolution) be obtained through negotiations and not unilateral declaration. In fact, not only will the US not negotiate with Hamas, whose participation in talks is just as legitimate as that of any other party, the PA opted to approach the UN because there was no peace process to speak of. The resolution consists entirely of conditions directed at the Palestinians (eg. “any Palestinian unity government must publicly and formally forswear
terrorism, accept Israel’s right to exist, and reaffirm previous agreements made with the Government of Israel”, including, presumably the humiliating Oslo Accords), as the US government never puts any pressure on Israel. Susan Rice, White House ambassador to the UN, has also threatened to suspend all aid to the PA if it gains statehood. Though much of that aid goes into the pockets of the corrupt PA, some of it is nonetheless recycled back into the economy. If a sovereign state will lead to rapid growth in the private sector, Palestine has a chance for self-sufficiency. If not, the Palestinians might be worse off than before. Do the Palestinians have any powerful friends?

Egypt

Egypt’s revolution held promise not only for Egyptians, but for Palestinians as well. In 2007, at Israel’s behest, Egypt blocked all access to the crossing at the town of Rafah that straddles the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. In post-(or mid-) revolutionary Egypt, under pressure from the people, the transitional government promised it would open the crossing. A legitimate Israeli fear was that the crossing would become the transfer point for masses of weapons, but it was to be screened for such things like a normal national border. But since the Egyptian junta’s announcement, little has changed. Palestinians applying to leave Gaza—some 20,000—are being told to come back in September. Aside from a few hundred travelers (on a good day) and a mere two truckloads of exports a day, mostly only journalists and ambulances can leave the Strip. One official said it might take months for the Egyptian government to send enough personnel to man the border. Perhaps they are walking there. It has also been reported that, despite pledges of independence from the US and Israeli governments, these two have been reportedly pressuring Egypt not to ease restrictions. Disappointing, to say the least.

The flotilla

The Freedom Flotilla of over a dozen ships is headed for Gaza. The purpose of the flotilla is partly to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza but mainly to bring international attention to the terrible plight faced by the Strip’s inhabitants. It is carrying three thousand tons of aid and its members are from dozens of countries. It is easy to understand why so many people feel strongly about Gaza. Gaza is the most crowded area on earth, with 1.5m people crammed into 360km2. Four out of five Gazans rely on humanitarian aid; 40% of Gazans are unemployed; 80% live in poverty.

Given the impossibility of legitimate trade with the outside world, Gazans long ago resorted to transporting goods by tunnels, which are sometimes bombed by Israel (see here and here for two articles on the latest such attack). Middle East Online says that “[p]rior to Israel’s ‘easing’ of the blockade in 2010 [following the first flotilla debacle], an estimated 80 percent of goods in Gaza’s stores were smuggled through the border with Egypt. Now most consumer goods in the markets and corner shops come from Israel.” Gazans are as enterprising and rugged as anyone else. They do not really need humanitarian aid; they need the ability to trade. According to deputy head of the ICRC in Gaza Mathilde De Riedmatten (and everyone else who has been there), the Strip, essentially a large prison camp, continues to experience crises in health care, water and sanitation. Agriculture has suffered, not only because fertilizers are on the long list of items banned under the blockade, but also because the IDF periodically levels the land and uproots trees. Construction materials cannot enter the Strip, and since Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, they have been needed to repair all manner of buildings. God knows what would happen if Israel repeated its indiscriminate slaughter of Gazans from two years ago, with Gazans still unable to leave. But despite implausible claims that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the powerful do not want the flotilla to continue.

Professor Stephen Zunes said in a recent piece on the flotilla that “nothing frightens a militaristic state more than the power of nonviolent action.” Israeli newspapers have printed the foreboding words of many Israeli officials that Hamas is involved in the organisation of the flotilla, that its intent is to smuggle arms, and that its members plan to attack Israeli soldiers, while others have ridiculed such claims. In his inimitably clever way, Christopher Hitchens attempts to take apart the members of the flotilla. He assumes that the humanitarian convoys will bolster Hamas, rather than help the people; and he questions the motives of the organisers by implying they are associated with the regime of Bashar al Assad of Syria and Hezbollah, which seems, I think any reasonable reader can agree, a stretch. Then he mentions al Qaeda, having learned from George Bush that saying two words in the same speech (“Saddam” and “al Qaeda”) forces listeners to associate the two mentally, when of course they have nothing to do with each other. Despite their use of words such as “proof”, there is little reason to take anything these people say seriously.

The only argument they have worth considering is that any feeding of the people of Gaza bolsters the Hamas government. However, that is only true if the blockade of Gaza had any hope of turning the people against Hamas, and so far it has not worked. How could it? History suggests that people punished collectively for supporting a certain group do not turn on the group but on their punishers. It is obvious that the true oppressors are the ones turning the screws on Gaza: Israel, and to a lesser extent the US and Egypt. The stated goal of the siege of Gaza has not and will not work. The inhumanity of punishing 1.5m people for 44.45% of voters’ electing a terrorist group when their alternative was a corrupt, unresponsive, collaborator party also escapes those who insist on maintaining the blockade.

All manner of coercion is taking place to prevent the flotilla from reaching Gaza. The Greek government, in a move that presumably will not make it any more endearing to its people, banned all ships in the freedom flotilla from leaving its ports. When a Canadian ship left Crete, Greek authorities intercepted it and took all 50 people on board into custody. Israel’s government threatened to jail any journalists found covering the flotilla for up to ten years. It dropped the ban not long after, though having changed their minds so quickly, one wonders if they might change them back. There is evidence that Israelis had sabotaged some of the flotilla ships.

However, there is no evidence any of the ships that are attempting to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza have been found to contain weapons or materials that could be used for military purposes. No evidence was found for the claim that the flotilla organisers have links to Hamas or other terrorists. In fact, flotilla organisers have likely done everything they can to assure there is no legitimate cause for Israel to attack any of its members, as it did last year when nine activists died in a confused fracas. Their non-violent resistance seems in line with the thinking that produced the phrase “If you want to beat Mike Tyson, you don’t invite him into the ring, you invite him to the chessboard.”

Though there is no real evidence the flotilla poses any threat to Israel, the US government has stated it is not willing to protect the US citizens on board against an Israeli attack, and that such an attack is well within Israel’s right. The ships will not be passing into Israeli waters but international waters, followed by the coast of Gaza, which is only blockaded by Israel. It seems unlikely any state has the right to attack unarmed people in international waters; either way, it leaves the Palestinians and those who want to help them find justice without a friend or saviour.

How about one state?

Does all this mean the only hope for a Palestinian state for the PA to take matters into its own hands? Much has been made of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, with its possibility of integrating Hamas into a new PA. But not only will such a government be rejected by Israel and the US, Palestinians do not seem to hold out much hope for it either. The PA, set up by the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, is seen by many in the West Bank as collaborators: the police of the occupation. The two parties presumably feel the need to work together to obtain statehood, but where would they go from there?

Another question that others have asked is, is a Palestinian state the best way to achieve freedom? Again, if Israel is still in the neighbourhood, still wary to the point of paranoia about any Arab provocation, still hungry for land based on ancient myths of an Eretz (Greater) Israel, an independent Palestine will mean little. One often hears the phrase “facts on the ground”, usually used to imply that settlements have changed Israel’s requirements since 1967, but which obfuscate the issue by making the settlements of the West Bank and East Jerusalem seem irreversible, when the settlements of the Sinai and Gaza were not. In spite of the mess on the ground, it has been said since the beginning of the Arab Spring that Israel will have to make peace sooner rather than later. I do not share this optimism; but since many of the people who do are people who know the issue better than I, let us consider an audacious, less realistic but vastly improved possibility: the one-state solution.

Ali Abunimah, founder of the Electronic Intifada, writes in his book One Country: a Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, “There is no credible ‘peace process’ to provide hope that the misery on the ground is merely a transitionary phase on the way to deliverance, and the one big idea that is supposed to save us—the Palestinian state—lies in tatters.” His thesis is that, if the inhabitants of the Holy Land can just learn to share, they would all be far better off. It is hard to escape his logic. Jews and Palestinians boast roughly equal numbers in Israel and the territories (6m each). They both claim ownership of the land on which they live. The fact that the West Bank and Jerusalem are so important to both Palestinians and Jews alike provides legitimacy to the claim that they should be shared. One state could mean the true right of return that gives all Palestinian refugees a place to live outside the squalid camps so many still inhabit. The two-state solution may in fact be the movement of the old guard. Fatah and Hamas may become (even more) irrelevant as the one-state cause picks up steam among young people in the Palestinian territories.

Israelis would need to abandon their unswerving claims to a purebred Jewish state in all the land of Israel/Palestine, which at the moment seems more distant than ever. Hamas would need to permanently abandon its rhetoric and violence. But if the flotilla achieves its PR goal, if non-violent Palestinian resistance continues to succeed, if the two-state bid fails and if international pressure on Israel increases, one state for Jews and Arabs might be the answer to the question of peace that everyone claims to want.

A glance at Egyptian political attitudes: the mood is high

Today, on the three-month anniversary of the start of the Egyptian revolution, a new Pew Global Attitudes Poll of Egypt has come out. Now that freedom of speech is a reality, everyone is talking politics, and they are bursting with opinions.

The past:
77% of those polled said Mubarak’s resignation was a good thing. (Judging by the party blazing in and around Tahrir Square tonight, people are still pretty happy with the outcome of the revolution. I have met few young people here who had no involvement in the revolution.)

When asked what has concerned them most in Egypt in recent years, respondents answered corruption, lack of democracy, and then the economy. The first two of those are likely to change thanks to the revolution, as from now on Egyptian governments will need to listen to the people. (An end to corruption could help the economy, though a democratic government could create any kind of misguided economic policy.)

The present:
Most have very or somewhat favourable opinions of the Muslim Brotherhood and the April 6 Youth Movement. The Muslim Brotherhood has been the largest opposition group in Egypt since 2005, when its members ran as independents (because the party was illegal) and won 20% of the vote. The Brotherhood came a little late to the party, officially joining the revolution after its inception and declaring that the revolution was not an Islamic but an Egyptian revolution. Now, having maintained its organisation, it remains one of the most powerful political parties in Egypt. The April 6 Movement started as a Facebook group in 2008. They demanded democracy and an end to corruption. April 6 was one of the groups encouraging young people to come out into the streets on January 25. April 6 was also one of the reasons some observers said that, though the outbreak of the revolution was a black swan, some kind of uprising had been a long time coming.

The poll found Mohamed Tantawi, head of the Egyptian Armed Forces (and thus de facto head of state) and Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, the most popular leaders, though Tantawi will probably not contest the fall presidential election and Moussa probably will. The military is still seen in a positive light, with 88% approval. The people are more cautious about the religious leaders, though they approve with similar numbers. The police, widely viewed as agents of Mubarak’s oppressive regime, are seen by 61% of respondents as unfavourable. In the kind of irony typical of public opinion, Mohamed El Baradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the man who stood up to the US on Iraq and Iran, came fourth in the polls, after Tantawi, Moussa and Ayman Nour. He is seen as something of a sop to US warmongers, when in fact he defied them. Amr Moussa, meanwhile, seems to have lost no popularity despite his affiliation with the Mubarak regime.

Egyptian opinions of the US and Barack are low (20% and 35% favourable respectively) but have not changed much since last year. 52% disapprove of Barack’s approach to the other Arab revolutions. Now that the people’s views need to be considered more strongly by Egyptian politicians, these low ratings have become more important, and will affect Egypt’s future responses to US foreign policy.

More significant might be Egyptians’ attitudes toward Israel. By a margin of 54% to 36%, Egyptians believe their country should annul the three-decade-old peace treaty between the two countries. The end of a peace treaty does not mean the start of a war. Canceling the treaty would be a kind of rebuke, an insult, or a demarche, saying “we are not happy with you”. It is one way to put pressure on another state. Knowing Israel’s habit of not caring what the rest of the world thinks, this poll result, and even the cancellation of the treaty, is not likely to change much. I suspect that there will be meaningful pressure on the next Egyptian government to end Egypt’s role in the blockade of Gaza; however, for strategic reasons, I doubt it will cancel the peace treaty or end the blockade.

The future:
65% said they were satisfied with the way things were going in the country, and 57% said they were optimistic about the future. I think it is safe to say that the 77% who are happy Mubarak is gone are happy with the outcome of the revolution, implying that they believe Egypt is better off now. That too is a kind of optimism.

41% believe a free and fair election is very likely, and 43% say it is somewhat likely. Again, the mood is very or cautiously optimistic. And so it should be. Egyptians, like Tunisians, accomplished a great feat in a matter of weeks, and have become a beacon to the rest of the world’s oppressed peoples.

Revenge does not work: Israeli policy and the failure of deterrence

Revenge is a natural impulse with a rational purpose: to deter future violent actions by one’s opponents. But due to the complicated twists and turns of our thinking, revenge only brings pain. One clear lesson from the history of Israel is that revenge, however overwhelming, however clear the message it sends, does not work.

Through many incidents of tit for tat violence before Israel’s declaration of statehood, conflict between Jews and Arabs raged in British Mandate Palestine. The Jews gained the upper hand, and by the end of 1948, some 700,000 Arabs had been kicked out of their homeland. This event was known as the Nakba, or catastrophe. Though comparisons to the extermination of 6m Jews may seem unfair, this event was the Palestinian Holocaust. It served as the unifying event that created the Palestinians as a people, at the same time millions of Jews became Israelis.

For a few years after 1948, Israel felt the need to define and secure its unsteady borders. The newly-constituted Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were always on the lookout for the next invasion, but instead of coming in the form of a unified Arab assault, it tended to be Palestinians crossing the armistice lines. Though most of them simply wanted to visit relatives (150,000 Arabs had remained in Israel) or return to their homes, some attempted to exact revenge for the Nakba. They rarely did much damage, but because Israeli security forces adopted a policy of shoot first and ask questions later, somewhere between 2700 and 5000 people were killed crossing the border, most of them unarmed.

In addition to territorial integrity, massive retaliation was Israeli policy. In 1953, some people infiltrated Israel and murdered an Israeli mother and her two children near the Jordanian town of Qibya. The IDF responded with a devastating raid on Qibya, led by Ariel Sharon, blowing up 45 houses and killing 69 civilians. Guerrilla attacks escalated and in 1954, the IDF attacked Egyptian military outposts in the Gaza Strip (then under Egyptian rule but inhabited by 300,000 Palestinian refugees) and killed 37 Egyptian soldiers. The message was clear: control the Palestinians or you will be sorry. It did not work out as Israelis hoped.

At the funeral of an Israeli farmer killed by Arab marauders in 1956, Moshe Dayan cogently summed up Arab feeling toward Israel.

Let us not today fling accusations at the murderers. What cause have we to complain about their fierce hatred for us? For eight years now, they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we turn into our homestead the land and villages in which they and their forefathers have lived.

He went on to say

We are a generation of settlers, and without the steel helmet and the gun barrel, we shall not be able to plant a tree or build a house…. Let us not be afraid to see the hatred that accompanies and consumes the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who sit all around us and await the moment when their hand will be able to reach for our blood… The only choice we have is to be prepared and armed, strong and resolute, or else our sword will slip from our hand and the thread of our lives will be severed.

Dayan recognised the injustice of the advent of Israel and believed, I think rightly, that it had come to mean there could be no accommodation with the Arabs. Strong reprisals, he believed, meant that Arabs would see Israel’s strength and be less inclined to fight back. Far from preventing further violence, however, reprisals increased resistance to Israel, the Palestinians organised and eventually, the Six Day War began.

The causes of the Six Day War are numerous and complicated, but the initiation of the war was Israel’s attack on Egypt on June 5, 1967. Egypt had sent a large number of Egyptian troops into the Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. A major reason for Israel’s preventive attack on Egypt, according to Aharon Yariv, Israel’s chief of intelligence at the time, was to restore Israel’s deterrent capacity. If Israel had looked weak in the face of pressure from Arabs, it might have faced greater threats. Israel won the Six Day War, but the threats kept coming all the same.

In the 1970s, Palestinian terrorism went international. Of many attacks that brought international attention to the Palestinian cause, the most infamous was probably the Munich massacre. A group calling itself Black September entered the Israeli athletes’ compound at the 1972 Munich Olympics and took the team hostage. Black September called their operation “Ikrit and Biram”, after two Palestinian villages whose residents were killed or expelled in 1948. Clearly, it was itself an act of revenge. In the messy rescue attempts that ensued, Black September murdered 11 athletes and coaches. In response, Israel launched Operation Wrath of God, the assassination of those suspected of organising the murders at Munich (dramatised in the film Munich). Wrath of God was followed by plane hijackings and raids on Israeli territory, and the cycle of violence rolled on for decades.

When Gaza and the West Bank were sealed off to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel, the weapon of choice for Gazan militants became the Qassam rocket. Thousands of rockets and mortars fell on southern Israel, and 22 Israelis were killed. In order to punish all of Gazas 1.5m residents for their tacit or active support of these attacks, on December 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead. Cast Lead killed 1400 people, including 300 children, and wreaked untold devastation on the perpetual humanitarian crisis known as the Gaza Strip. The massacre on Gaza did not, in fact, end the rocket attacks (though it reduced them), and reciprocal violence has characterised life in southern Israel and Gaza since then.

Recently, the violence has escalated. On March 23, 2011, a bomb attack at a bus station in Jerusalem killed a British national and wounded 39 other people and setting off the latest pointless cycle of vengeance. The Israeli Air Force responded to the bombing with strikes on Gaza that killed eight people, including children, even though they did not reveal (presumably because they did not know) who committed the bombing. Last Thursday, members of Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, fired an anti-tank missile at a school bus in a kibbutz in southern Israel, critically wounding a teenage boy. Israel again bombed the Gaza Strip. On Saturday, Israeli officials said that 120 rockets had been fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel since the school bus attack, some 50 last Saturday alone. On the same day, while visiting the wounded teen in the hospital, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said there “is no immunity for anyone in Gaza.”

According to the International Crisis Group, the regional turmoil has raised Israeli anxiety that embattled Arab governments will seek to divert attention from domestic matters and provoke some kind of conflict between Israel and the terrorist groups that oppose it. It also says that Hamas has been emboldened by these developments “and is therefore less likely to back down from a challenge.” It may also need to prove itself in the face of challenges from more radical, rival Palestinian groups, who in turn may be the ones to bring on the next massacre of Palestinians. The blindness that righteous indignation induces is the root cause of all of these attacks.

The IDF has been warning since last year that something bigger than Cast Lead could result if the attacks on southern Israel do not stop. Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF chief of staff, said on the second anniversary of the beginning of Operation Cast Lead last December that Israel “will not accept” more rockets from Gaza, and warned that “the IDF is preparing for any scenario”. This week in Ashkelon, a town near Gaza that has been the target of many of the rockets, locals called on the IDF to do something. Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that “many residents still believe an extensive ground operation against Hamas is the only way to bring peace to the south.” They are, of course, wrong, as the inevitable carnage would simply provoke further attempts to even the score.

Egypt has called a conference in Cairo that has a chance of reducing tensions. Serious efforts by outside parties can temporarily defuse the situation but without substantial changes in attitudes, revenge will remain the bloody reality in Israel and Gaza.

The history of Israel is a history of revenge. Israel has consistently retaliated with massive violence in the face of guerrilla attacks, terrorism and other threats. The idea seemed sound: show them we mean business and they will not mess with us again. But they do. And retaliation has not, and never will, bring either Israelis or Palestinians the peace they claim to believe in.

If you are angry, you see your attack as nothing but attempting to right a wrong. One’s own actions are never aggression: we are the victims, they are the terrorists. But the real wrong is any attack that is not based purely on self-defence. If there is no immediate threat, we are better off mastering our emotions so that the cycle of violence stops. As hard as it is, controlling one’s anger and turning the other cheek are the only way to prevent further bloodshed and misery.

Operation Cast Lead, two years on

Two years ago, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) began the indiscriminate slaughter it named Operation Cast Lead. Some 1400 people were killed, thousands more wounded and displaced. Hundreds of sad people marched in Gaza in commemoration.

See here for the reasons Israel attacked Gaza.

Here I write about why the Mavi Marmara (the Gaza flotilla) incident may have been good for Israel, because it distracted the world from Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report.

I wrote here about attempts to try Tzipi Livni as a war criminal, which apparently did not go anywhere.

And here I wrote about how Israel’s culture legitimised Cast Lead (and other violence in Israel’s name).

Gaza is still under blockade, which means little rebuilding gets done. Things had been relatively quiet along the Gaza border for the past two years until recently, when more rockets have been fired from Gaza, Israeli air strikes have followed, and thus tensions are higher. There are fears (or hopes?) that another Cast Lead-like massacre might be “necessary”. Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF Chief of Staff, said Israel “will not accept” more rockets from Gaza, and “holds the Hamas terrorist organisation solely responsible for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip”, which means the IDF does not distinguish between rockets fired by Hamas or by any other group.

It is sad that this crime will go unpunished, and that it may even repeat itself.

"Ismail, Abed and Leila don't go to the infant clinic anymore"