Wednesday, July 19, 2006


For a while I wondered how come I don't get any comments. I guessed it was because nobody reads. But just now I realized I have to press on the right tab. So my apologies to readers who sent comments - they're now published. Hope it didn't make you stop reading the blog.

two war comments

The first point is more analysis, the second is on how I feel.

1. For a lot of people the whole middle east situation mashes into one big mess. I think that it's important to distinguish between Gaza and Lebanon. While the two situations may look the same - abducted soldiers, retaliiatory bombing - but there are considerable differences.

Fighting in Gaza has been continuous in the last few years, and did not stop after the Israeli 'disegnagement'. On the Lebanese front, the border has been largely quiet since 2000, Hizbullah has been actively prveneting other groups from launching attacks on Israel. This was a privelge it kept to itself, and in six years it launched some 6-7 attacks on Israeli troops - usually in very specific locations (Shaba farm, Rajjar), in an attempt to create contained escalations.

Gaza is still under effective Israeli control, and the West Bank is under direct military occupation. Unlike in Lebanon where since June 2000 there are no Lebanese living under Israeli occupation; Hizbulla claims Israel is still occupying a stretch of Lebanese land (the shaba farm) but according to the UN this is Syrian occupied territory. Syria has been silent on the issue, providing Hizbulla with a convinient excuse to keep up the 'resistance', and its para-military presence in Lebanon.

There are 3 Lebanese in Israeli prisons, compared to 9000 Palestinians.

And Lebanon is a soverign state with a functioning economy (at least until last week), unlike the 'Palestinian Authority' which has less power over Palestinians' lives and economy than your average municipality, and is not soveign in any meaningful way.

So while in Gaza the capture of the soldier is one episode in a long series of tit-for-tat, and it really is rediculous to ask 'who started', the Hizbulla operation last week was a clear provocation, an unprovoked attack on Israeli troops on the other side of the border.

And Hamas are not Hizbullah. Both are militant Islamic movements with wide grass-roots support. But Hizbullah can sit on the other side of the border and talk about the destruction of Israel as the only way. Yes it could take decades but they're not in a hurry, and they have no desire to negotiate with Israel. Hamas operate under Israeli occupation and
they can't afford this stoic stand, especially since coming to power. They have had to come to terms with Israel. Anyone reading Ismail Haniya's article last week could see that they came a long way from their official position of 'one Islamic state between the river and the sea'.

I feel a need to state these things because they are being mashed by the media, and for more than one agenda. Critics of Israel see it as one story: the crazy bully Israel bombing its neighbours for hardly any reason. Israel-supporters see it as one story: Israel being attacked by Arab terrorists who would never accept its right to live in peace.

I agree with neither. First, I think that attacks on military troops are not terror. Even when they are not justified. But similarly it's only reasonable to expect Israeli troops to defend themselves and react to such attacks. (This does not mean that any reaction is legitimate: targetting civilians is wrong - and I don't care if you call it 'infrastracture'; had Hizbulla bombed the Ben Gurion Airport it would have been considered a 'terror attack', no?)

Second, I see a difference between the resistance of the Palestinian people under occupation, to Hizbulla's unjustifyable provocation designed (I think) to assert its role in Lebanese and regional politics. It was a big gamble and a stupid one. Hizbulla pride themselves at being cool-headed and calculated, so they should have known better. When you tease an angry and wounded beast you should expect it to react violently.

2. I read of international support for the Israeli operation. They're talking about the decommissioning of Hizbullah, and an international peace force in the south as possible outcomes. This would not be a bad thing. So I start wondering: maybe I should rally behind the IDF like 99 percent of my compatriots? Maybe it's actually a great thing what they're doing? Maybe I should forget about the 300 dead Lebanses civilians (and counting)? Maybe I'm just a defeatist who since living for five years out of the country forgot 'the reality of the middle east' etc etc.

But then I see these pictures of cute girls in the Galilee writing on artillery shells (AP, via Niki). 'I've been waiting for this so long' says one grafitti, with a spelling mistake.

I have no interest to debate the strategic benefits or risks of the current Israeli operation. I have my doubts but they belong to a geo-political discourse which I am not keen on right now. I am far more concerened about people who teach their kids to write cheerful slogans on missiles. These pictures scare me much more than pictures of houses hit by rockets. Israeli society is strong enough to sustain rocket attacks. Is it strong enough to teach its children not to hate 'the other side'? Is it strong enough not to find joy in the act of killing? Is it strong enough to be able to find empathy - an obscene word in our part of the world - for victims other than 'its own'?

When one stops seeing the people on the other side as human beings, inevitably one will not see the atrocities committed in one's name. Then one can comfortably maintain one's self-rightousness and moral indignation. A very grim prospect, as far as I'm concerned.

Monday, July 17, 2006


Exactly a week ago I received a package from Beirut with books I ordered from the Institute for Palestine Studies. It was the first two volumes of the Sakakini diaries. It seems a long time ago now. I hope the people who sent me the books are safe.

I read the secretary general of Hizbulla, Hasan Nasrallah, who always reminded me of the smug cheshire cat from Alice. As always, his speech is lucid and challenging, but this time it rings dangerously megalomaniac. He is describing the current conflict in grand heroic terms as 'the model' for the Arab world, and seems to believe that the psychological gains, for example the hit Israeli gunship, are well worth the devastation of his country. Nasrallah speaks of Hizbullah's 'restraint' in targeting civilian population, which, 'unfortunately' it had had to break, (eight railway workers killed yesterday), and threatens to hit the chemical industry near Haifa. My brother lives not far.

In Israel they speak too of 'restraint' which had claimed so far 160 civilian lives, not to mention thousands of refugees, and a bombed airport. 'It is important to minimize the targeting of Lebanese civilians' is a sentence one comes across often. 'Minimize' not so much because they're innocent human beings (after all, they're Lebanese, and THEY STARTED) but because too many pictures of dead children could prompt the international community to stop the Israeli bombing binge before its objectives are met. The problem is that the main objective seems to be the bombing binge itself, as well as 'teaching them a lesson' (no doubt, a clearly defined military objective). I read Israeli websites and find little but gang-ho, almost jubilation. It's revolting.

So I turn back to Khalil Sakakini's diaries. On the 4th of April 1920 he went to watch the Nabi Musa procession at Jaffa Gate. It soon became an anti-Jewish riot, the first in the history of Modern Palestine. Sakakini watched in dismay as a Jewish shoe-polisher near him was savagely beaten up by a Hebronite, and Jewish shop windows smashed. Sakakini, a staunch Arab nationalist and anti-Zionist, had many Jewish friends and students.

He walked away, he wrote, his soul digusted and depressed from the madness of the human race.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Writing about the Conflict

After the publication of Raed and my article, a friend sent me an email:

'What about the chaos in the PA? The disintegration of Hamas? the Kasam rockets? Going into Israeli territory to abduct a soldier? Some minor, understated criticism of the Palestinians? Or are they really simply wonderful neighbours?...
I think that blaming only Israel for what is going on, like you do, is the easy option. The Israeli policy is no doubt horrible, but this does not absolve the other side from minimal responsibility to what is going on on their side. ... I don't think articles should always be balanced. But you can write an article against Israel and mention in the margins that the Palestinians should do something as well'.

These are legitimate questions. Are the Palestinians completely powerless? Are they not responsible to what is happening, in some way? Wasn't our analysis a little simplistic and one-sided?

I want use these questions to say something about the difficulty of writing about the conflict.

First, very briefly, my answer is: describing the Palestinians as mere passive victims of Israeli aggression would make no sense, for me. Clearly decisions taken by various Palestinian groups can affect the situation, whether they are reacting to Israeli policies or acting independantly. But the 'share of responsibility' should be determined within specific contexts. Looking at the Gaza situation (pull-out, siege, Hamas election, embargo, rockets, bombings, abduction etc) I would say that the actions - or lack of actions - on the part of the Palestinian Authority played an insignificant part; and that the decisive factor was, as we wrote in the article, a set of unilateral policies pursued by the Israeli government; that these policies over-determined the situation in a way that left very little room for other action.

But let's stop here and not go into details, because this is not my point.

Even if we agree with this analysis, there might be an emotional reason to frame things differently. Since many readers are emotionally involved, writing an article is not only a matter of reasoning; one has to consider the emotional effect of one's words, if one wants to be effective. That is: we could have, for example, condemned the rocket attacks on Israel in a clearer language. We didn't - but we also didn't condemn the bombing of civilians in Gaza, which claimed a much higher price in civilian lives. In my view both are symptoms, not causes, and 'calling to stop them' doesn't make much sense; what we need is a cease-fire, proper talks, etc etc. But we could have included such gestures - to signal that we are not 'one-sided'.

But this brings me exactly to my main point. What I read in my friend's reaction is the underlying belief in the two-sidedness of this conflict: Israelis on the one side, and Palestinians on the other, and both contribute in their own way to the disaster. So even if you criticize Israel - which my friend does frequently - you have to say something about Palestine. You need two for tango, don't you?

I long stopped thinking like this. You see: I took a tango class some while ago, and I realized you need far more than two for tango: you need an orchestra to play music (or a tape), you need other couples to not get in your way, but you need them to dance besides you, otherwise there's no point. And the way you dance, your steps and your rythem all depend on these factors, and on the 'rules' of tango. Without overstretching this metaphor, what I want to say is: there's far more than two sides in this story. The 'Israeli side'? Do you think me and the settlers are on the same side? Do you think me and the Israeli government are on the same side? Similarly, any analysis that talks about 'the Palestinians' as a tribe is meaningless. Who are you talking about? the Palestinian Authority? the Palestinian refugees? the Palestinian middle class? Palestinian women? Gazans?

What we tried to do in the article is not to say 'it's the Israelis fault!' but rather that the policies of the Israeli government are creating the situation, for which civilians on both sides suffer, and that the Israeli government holds the key to changing it. In other words: we tried to point to a specific element within the picture. But I suspect this would be lost on most of the Israeli audience, who have a very high level of identification with their State; more I suspect than any other people in the Middle East.

More and more I think that the most important task, when writing about the conflict, is to question these divisions of Israelis/Palestinians, us/them. For me, just the fact that an Iraqi-Palestinian and a Israeli can get together and write something like this is a proof that reality does not stop at the national divide. That lines of solidarity can be built across them.

* * *

Maybe more about this in the next few days. I strongly recommend reading Ismail Haniyeh's article at the Washington Post. It is very well written, and is genuinely interesting and thought-provoking. If I have some time I'll post some comments.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Gaza Escalation

Raed Jarrar and myself have written a joint article on the Gaza escalation, 'A Unilateral Ride over the Edge', published by Foreign Policy in Focus. This is one paragraph from it:

"The Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Olmert, had pledged to carry these unilateral policies further into the West Bank promising voters that Israel could win security through unilateral withdrawals, tough military means, and the enclosing of the Palestinians behind fences and walls. The fallacy of this promise has been exposed with the current fighting in Gaza. Israel has the military power to attack Palestine but such approach cannot bring security. Rockets can fly above fences and tunnels can be dug under walls. If chaos and despair reign on the one side of the fence, no one should expect security on the other side."

"As strong as the desire is--on both sides--to separate, what has happened in the last few months in and around the Gaza strip has demonstrated that separation is not an option: Palestinians and Israelis share the land, and whatever fences, walls, watchtowers, or rhetoric will not change this fact. Brutal force will not amend grievances and will not remove fears. It is re-engagement, not disengagement that is needed."

Read more here.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The End of the Palestinian Authority?

It seems we are reaching the moment where we can talk of the fall of the Hamas government as a real possibility. This scenario will leave the Palestinian Authority hanging on the figure of President Mahmood Abbas; a burden too heavy for one man to carry. Without a functioning government, the entire PA edifice may collapse within weeks or months, probably amid spreading violence.
But stop a minute, and roll the clock back. Who has an interest in destroying the PA? At the moment - none of the main parties. Hamas were not elected to form a suicide-government, and it was not their intention to bring the whole thing down, but rather to prove that an Islamist government can rule and deliver a better life for the Palestinians. Fateh certainly have no interest in seeing the PA go - it's their project, since 1993, and they are heavily invested in it- most of the police/security are their people.

And believe it or not, the Israeli government has no interest in it either. Its unilateralist policies paradoxically depend on the existence of an internationally-recognized body on the other side of the wall. Otherwise, it will be more difficult to resist calls for international deployment (especially in Gaza). Through the Intifada years the PA has been keeping all the civilian infrastructure running - hospitals, water, electricity etc - with the help of European funding. If the PA goes, Israel is very likely to have to pay for these. Maybe not immediately, but a humanitarian crisis will soon force it to do so: this was shown by last week's events. After bombing the (U.S.- government-insured) Gaza power station, Israel is now being asked to supply the Palestinians with Israeli electricity. That's what I call smart.

So why is the Israeli Government pushing for this? I think it's a combination of hubris, short-sight, and the feeling that ultimately it has the complete backing of the U.S., no matter what. If this explanation is not convincing, let me try a parable, one I heard from Professor Sari Nuseiba (President of Al-Quds university) who gave a lecture here in London last year. When two men are wrestling, he said, and the stronger is holding the weaker to the ground, the man on top actually has less freedom of movement. He grips his opponent forcibly and dare not move, for he is afraid that any change or movement will lead to a reversal of the situation. Sometimes too much power is a weakness. This is how I see the current situation. Israel is locked within a set of policies which lead to a crisis, but it is too strong, and too entrenched to change course.

Some Palestinians think that, in the long run, they will be better off without the PA. In its 13 years it has been used by Israel as a subcontractor for the Israeli occupation, and as a scapegoat when things went out of control. Perhaps the PA dependence on Israel made it impossible for it to achieve the wishes of the Palestinian people. Some Palestinians say so openly and call to dismantle it. But they are, I think, a small minority. The majority would still want to make it work, despite the inherent flaws. Hamas participation in the elections is the best proof for this. And if the PA is gone, this may spell the end of the two-state solution.

For the last 13 years everybody has been playing according to the Oslo rules. Even when they called them dead and buried, the Oslo accords provided a framework which proved useful enough for the ruling groups on both sides to maintain. Perhaps we are reaching the end of this line. And again, perhaps not: the parties have a strong enough interest to pull back from the brink. But I am becoming more and more pessimistic: without any substantial pressure, either from the Israeli public or from the International community, I can't see Olmert making a U-turn and opening talks with Hamas. Whether he had planned to crush Hamas all along or he is being pushed to it by warmongers does not really matter in my view. But if the bombings and embargo continue, the PA will eventually go down - maybe not this time, but in the foreseeable future.