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"

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Muslim attitudes toward extremist groups

The Menso Guide to War may appear as a vehicle for teaching the world about its author’s perspective. However, as much as anything, it is about his own learning. It is a chance to study an issue sufficiently to write about it, and to put information out for others to evaluate (and argue with) for themselves. I assume nothing about the veracity of factual statements I say beyond well-established facts and my personal experience, not because I lack any conviction, but because I know I could always be proven wrong. Others have their own perspectives, and on most issues, I am more interested in hearing what others say than I am in hearing the truth. The truth is usually very difficult to ascertain when studying such issues as history, politics and conflict, given that some aspects of the truth vary by individual account. Those accounts may be biased by fault of memory, affiliation or ignorance. For example, we can know who won the Battle of Agincourt (the English) because the chroniclers agree on that fact; however, they give different accounts of the details. Indeed, so they should. If all records of Agincourt were the same, we would have more reason to be suspicious than if they differed, as they do, as it would imply some conspiracy or hoax. Moreover, if a new record of the battle came to light, after authenticating it, historians would need to incorporate it into their body of knowledge and assume that, all other things being equal, it is as valid as the others. Certainty, on the other hand, closes the mind to new accounts and potentially-valid perspectives.

That is why I want to know how others perceive the issues discussed on this blog. Polls are a reasonably reliable source of such insight. It is important not to extrapolate beyond the face of the question or assume that all of those polled who said “approve” have identical feelings. Nonetheless, within the limit of the question one can learn much about how millions of people think. The Pew Research Center released a poll of Muslim attitudes in Jordan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey toward “extremist” groups Hezbollah, Hamas and al Qaeda. Some interesting results:

-Hezbollah was most popular in Jordan, with 55% of those surveyed expressing favourable views of the group. Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based, is deeply divided over it: 94% of Lebanese Shiis support Hezbollah; 84% of Sunnis do not. This result may reflect Hezbollah’s polarising effect on Lebanon; it undoubtedly reflects Lebanon’s older sectarian divisions.

-Hamas, too, received highest approval in Jordan–60%–with Lebanon, Egypt and Nigeria offering a half-hearted 49% approval each. Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt are home to many Palestinians, and to anti-Israeli sentiment, having decades-long histories of conflict with Israel, and these figures might indicate lingering bitterness toward Israel rather than a love of Hamas’ actions and ideology. If that is true, however, a different explanation is needed for why Egyptians polled clearly preferred Hamas to Hezbollah (30%); my guess is, Hamas in Gaza is closer and more familiar (since it came from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood), and thus more sympathetic, than Hezbollah.

-Opinions on al Qaeda are less divided: with the exception of Nigeria (49%), support for al Qaeda is weak, ranging from 34% in Jordan to 3 and 4% in Lebanon and Turkey respectively.

-Turks, on the whole, had little sympathy for any of these groups, and have more mixed feelings than others about the role of Islam in politics.

-Finally, large majorities of Muslims in the countries surveyed said suicide bombings against civilian targets are never justified. These figures were higher at beginning of the War on Terror, and have since experienced double-digit drops.

These results matter. If vast majorities of Muslims viewed violent extremist groups favourably, the latter would have freer rein to cause problems. More people would shelter, feed and fund them. If almost no one liked them, they would be more easily dealt with, much in the same way as American authorities deal with weapon-stockpiling cults. The effects of ambivalent attitudes such as are expressed in this survey are harder to pin down. The future of this approval will depend on how governments of the US, Israel, and others to a lesser extent, are seen to treat Muslims around the world. A simple rule seems to be that bombs beget bombs, and peace begets peace.

Whether one considers these survey results discouraging or promising, according the Who Speaks for Islam? project conducted by Gallup and compiled by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Muslims show themselves as not significantly different from others in the world. They are as likely as others to aspire to peace, to condone terrorism, and to want democracy. They certainly do not “hate us for our freedom”.

How to destroy the PKK

The Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, has just extended a ceasefire it declared in August. The Turkish government seems in a conciliatory mood, at least toward the PKK (though not toward Israel). We could be at a peaceful crossroads. But there are signs that might not be so.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has usually adopted a tough stance toward the PKK, perhaps most starkly in 2008 with his willingness to break international law and intervene in Iraqi Kurdistan to avenge the deaths of Turkish soldiers. He has been courting Syria, presumably with a view to isolating the PKK diplomatically. (The PKK received ideological support, training and arms from Syria during the Cold War.) The ceasefire might not hold, and might not be worth the breath that produced it: clashes between the PKK and the Turkish military have not ended. Commentator Ali Bulaç considers all this activity a sign that Erdoğan is trying to vanquish the PKK, whether militarily, diplomatically or legally, but that doing so is impossible without addressing “the major sources of the Kurdish issue”.

It is likely the PKK is no longer fighting to secede from Turkey. There is already a nearly-independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Furthermore, the PKK seem to be holding out for amnesty, rather than independence. In fact, if one is to believe Erdoğan and Syria’s President Bashar al-Asad, amnesty is on the table. But, beholden to an angry Turkish public weighing its options for the next election (scheduled for July 2011), Turkey’s ruling AKP may still have no appetite for measures of rapprochement. Moreover, the AKP recently achieved constitutional amendments limiting the power of the military in Turkish politics. The military is not averse to seizing power again, however (it was only earlier this year 20 senior officers were charged with plotting a coup), and in all likelihood the generals will want Erdoğan to stay truculent. If it is unwilling to compromise, the Turkish state might instead push to continue the war.

The war option

One lesson that could be drawn from last year’s utter defeat of the Tamil Tigers is that separatist-terrorist groups can be defeated if they are corralled and crushed militarily. But the Sri Lankan army cornered the Tigers by pushing them onto a beach at the north of the island. The PKK, by contrast, live somewhere in the formidable mountains in southeast Turkey and northwest Iraq. Without, say, extensive helicopter warfare, locating and beating the PKK is next to impossible.

Before the unilateral ceasefire, the PKK successfully committed raids in Turkish territory, killing more than 80 Turkish soldiers this year and blowing up the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline, Iraq’s largest crude oil export lines. Can they be trusted never to attack again? And barely a month before the ceasefire, Erdoğan had declared “they will drown in their own blood.” Is there any reason to think he has softened since then?

Turkey wants to be accepted by Western Europe, and it wants to destroy the PKK. Though the politics of the recognition of the PKK mean that many EU states and possibly the EU institutions themselves would not look kindly on destroying the group, that could change. Politics tends to have a short memory: destroy the PKK now, turn the attention of the state’s security policy to other things and within a few years, the only criticism will continue to get will be from powerless European Kurds who cling to faith in an independent Kurdistan. Considering that it customarily gets criticised for taking action against the PKK, the Turkish state might do well to end the conflict now, by fair means or foul, and restart reconciliation with estranged Turkish Kurds.

Ahmet Türk, a politician of Kurdish origin, warns against continuing the war. “If the army operations continue and the ceasefire is ignored,” he says, “it will not only cause grave harm to Kurds but to the whole Turkish public.” We have seen how angry the conflict makes Turkish nationalists and how Kurds have suffered from the PKK. This ceasefire, if that is what it is, is an opportunity to stop the pointless killing.

Why probe the Gaza flotilla?

The UN has announced it will launch a probe into what happened at the Gaza “Freedom Flotilla” incident. Nine Turks were killed two months ago when Israeli soldiers boarded one of the vessels. We know that. Why are they probing any further?

Perhaps the move is to embarrass Israel. It is the latest in a long series of attacks on Israel by the UN and many Arab states. These attacks have grown so numerous and disproportionate to all the other terrible things that happen in the world that they have become meaningless and counterproductive. The incident may have been a debacle, but what effect will a committee investigation have? Even if it produced a report showing that Israel’s leaders were the most devious people in the world, would they change? Would a new round of voting be held immediately, followed by the election of a flock of doves? More likely, Israelis who are not doves themselves would become self-righteous and more entrenched in their defiance than ever.

Perhaps this probe is intended to benefit Israel. Until a few months ago, people were still talking about Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report. Now, they have been distracted by a shiny object and have bitten the hook. Operation Cast Lead was truly a disaster, bad for Israel’s already tarnished image and a nightmare for the Gazans who lived through it. The Gaza flotilla incident was an accident. As such, the government of Israel is taking up the probe commission idea with gusto, offering its choice of investigator for this “independent” investigation. The probe can thus be seen as a way to show Israel is complying with international commissions and has nothing to hide. Just don’t mention the Gaza war.

Or perhaps the probe is to provide work for bureaucrats. Either way, if the UN wants to do good, why does it not focus on the big things? The 1400 dead in Gaza from Cast Lead only a year and a half ago have gone unapologised for. The blockade of Gaza continues to cripple the economy and freedom of 1.5m people. The occupation and settlement building continue in the West Bank. This was never supposed to be about a few dead Turks who were presumably just provoking Israel with the flotilla in the first place. Israel will be seen as making one concession and pressure on it will abate, while its hardcore opponents will not change their stance whatever happens. The UN is just wasting its time.

Funerals, the Turkish public and war with the PKK

Anti-PKK demonstration in Turkey

For the past two decades, the Turkish military has been at war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terrorist group once fighting for independence from Turkey for the nation’s Kurds (but now probably just fighting for amnesty). The conflict has become a drawn out war of attrition, and some 40,000 have been killed. Some of the 40,000 have been Turkish soldiers. We see in Turkish public reaction to the killing of Turkish soldiers a hardening and increased polarisation of attitudes, a push for an escalation of the fighting against the terrorists. This reaction can be found at the soldiers’ funerals.

Like most modern nationalists, Turkish nationalists consider Turkey’s territorial integrity inviolable. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey (Atatürk means father of the Turks), laid out the principles of the new Turkish nationalism in the 1920s, and one of them was complete independence and sovereignty over the land Turkey covers. Moreover, while Turkey comprises some 73 ethnic groups, they are all considered Turks. Ethnic Kurds, whose ethnic consciousness stretches back before the 20th century, and who make up about 20% of Turkey’s population, had their dreams of independence turned down. Atatürk’s successor, Ismet Inonu, stated “Only the Turkish nation is entitled to claim ethnic and national rights in this country. No other element has any such right.” Any movement perceived as inimical to the homogenisation of Turkey’s people and the unity of its borders needed to be crushed. The Turkish military would ensure, and die for, this principle. When soldiers die defending nationalist principles, nationalists grieve.

Though different cultures face death differently, such grieving mechanisms as crying, fear and anger are universal. People most commonly go through feelings of shock, disbelief and numbness, then guilt, attempting to comprehend the death, and in the end, recovery. Funerals take place near the beginning of this process, when people are still shocked, afraid, angry and ready to point fingers. Far from being a catharsis, funerals may fuel anger at the perpetrator. For years now, funerals for Turkish soldiers have become rallying grounds for expressions of anti-PKK sentiment.

In September 2006, dozens of Turkish soldiers died in skirmishes with the PKK in the latter’s one time stronghold, the southeast of Turkey. At the funeral of one soldier, thousands of people protested. The protest was as much pressure on the Turkish authorities to act as it was protest against the PKK. The government had recently introduced legal reforms proposed to let the air out of some Kurdish grievances, but they may have been too little, too late. The reforms may also have been merely cosmetic, designed to appease the European Union but do nothing to stop terrorism. An election was ten months away, and no party expecting to win could afford to look soft on terror.

October 2007 saw more fighting and killing between Turkish soldiers and Kurdish militants. Headlines in Turkey declared that the PKK wanted to split Turkey, they wanted war, they wanted to damage Turkey as much as possible. During one soldier’s funeral in Bursa, in northwest Turkey, 10,000 people are said to have paralysed traffic to protest and, in effect, demand military action against, the PKK. “We are all soldiers, we will smash the PKK“, they chanted in front of a mosque. Government and military officials attended the funerals, which were held 11 provinces in Turkey and broadcast live on several television stations. About a fifth of the population of a town southeast of Ankara demonstrated, shouting “the martyrs are immortal, the motherland is indivisible,” and “hang Apo”, the PKK’s jailed founder and leader. Each protest reflected and spurred a rising anti-PKK (and inevitably among some, anti-Kurd) nationalism in Turkey.

As a result of this pressure, along with political battles also taking place at the time, Turkey’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to grant the military greater freedom in the war on the PKK and approve of incursion into northern Iraq, where the PKK were hiding out. On February 21, 2008, between 3000 and 10,000 Turkish soldiers deployed in the region in Turkey’s biggest offensive in a decade. (See more on the incursion here.) But the violence did not abate, and five months after the conclusion of hostilities, the PKK struck again, this time on a street in Istanbul. Such incessant terrorism leads quite easily to the feeling among Turks that the terrorists are insatiable and will stoop to any level.

I should note that anti-Kurdish racism is not exploding. A survey of Turks and Kurds in 2009 found most willing to have the other marry into their families. Moreover, terrorism was not the most important issue to those surveyed–it was third, after the economy and unemployment. Nonetheless, the pressure on the government to act to end the war has not ended.

Attacks have occurred more recently (see here and here, for example). One online Turkish news outlet describes the soldiers killed and their funerals. At one, thousands of people, including senior military officers, attended. The crowd chanted “the homeland is indivisible” and “Kurds and Turks are brothers, separatists are hypocrites”. Eight Army Corps Commander Mustafa Korkut Özarslan spoke at the funeral, vowing that the Turkish army would never allow the PKK to achieve its goals. The people of Turkey are not about to let this conflict end inconclusive.

Time for Turkey and Armenia to forget

President Barack and the EU Presidency have urged Turkey and Armenia to reconcile and build relations after about a century of tension. If we push aside our collective memory (Armenia) and collective forgetfulness (Turkey), we will have the chance to bond.

The barriers to reconciliation in this case are basically collectivist pride. Armenian President Sarkisian said that the matter of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the naming of it a genocide, is not up for discussion. In other words, he is living in the past. I do not see any reason to deny that the Armenian Genocide was less than a genocide (over one million Armenians died, some systematically and in the most brutal fashions), but I see equally little purpose in the symbolic naming and labeling of historical events. Of course, many Armenians would feel some form of catharsis if a high official of Turkey used the word “genocide” to describe the actions of a group of long-dead soldiers and rulers of a different regime but a coinciding nationality. But how could one truly feel the pain of something that happened years before one was born? Only by imagining it.

Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey, for the same reasons, should have no problem saying that his country (actually, its predecessor) committed genocide nearly 100 years ago. After all, what responsibility could he or any of his living compatriots possibly bear? But collective pride restrains much human progress. In the eyes of millions or perhaps billions of people, the nation state has become an idol, the cardinal source of identity and legitimacy. What one does, one does for one’s country. And apparently, 100 years is not long enough for a country to admit it has done wrong.

Political battles are being fought in parliaments around the world to recognise or deny the Armenian Genocide. Why? About twenty countries officially recognise that it was a genocide. Why not more? Conversely, why is it important that they do so? If we could only let sleeping dogs lie, they would stop hurting. Instead, we use history to create enemies that pose no threat, or deny facts for fear of losing face.

Diplomatic talks between top officials in Turkey and Armenia continue in every conceivable venue, from the World Economic Forum to the nuclear security summit. There are other issues between the two states, but this one will loom in the background of any negotiations over the others. I may be jumping the gun, but I think it is inevitable that Turkey will officially recognise and apologise for the Armenian Genocide. Armenians are looking forward to that day. I am looking forward to the day no one cares anymore.

Turkey’s Incursion in Iraq: Why No Legal Consequences?

Between October 2007 and February 2008, Turkey intervened into northern Iraq several times, by air and on the ground. On the face of it, without having been invited by either the Iraqi government or the Kurdistan Regional Government of northern Iraq, these acts were illegal. According to UN Charter Article 2(4), Turkey should not have used force against Iraq’s “territorial integrity or political independence”. But there are reasons it might have been permissible under international law.

This essay explores the legality of Turkey’s incursion and then the political discourse around it. It argues that, whether or not its incursion was legal, the reason no one attempted to charge Turkey with violating international law is that they consider good relations with Turkey more important than law.