31 January 2009

The roots of the Middle East conflict

By Nicola Pratt

Much mainstream reporting of the recent episode of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians neglected, like previously, to explain the historical background to this conflict. As a result, members of the public are left to think that this is a never-ending fight between Arabs and Jews, who are unable to live together in peace.

The problem is not that Arabs / Muslims are fundamentally unable to coexist with Jews. Arabs - who are Muslims and Christians - and Jews coexisted for centuries in the Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of the Middle East until its downfall after WWI. Indeed, the Ottoman Empire gave refuge to many Jews fleeing pogroms and persecution in Europe.

The conflict in the Middle East is the result not of historical enmities but of a grave injustice committed by the British government in the early twentieth century and perpetuated ever since by the failure of the international community to implement a just solution.

During WWI, the British government sought to improve its position within the Middle East as a means of defeating its Ottoman enemy. Towards this end, in 1917, Britain responded to lobbying by a relatively recent and minority movement amongst European Jews called Zionism, and recognised the Jewish claim to a homeland in a part of the Ottoman Empire called Palestine (the Balfour Declaration). Britain had also promised independence to the Arabs under Ottoman rule, in return for Arab support in the war (an episode of history made famous in the film, Lawrence of Arabia).

When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after WWI, Britain took control of Palestine and allowed for an increase in Jewish immigration. They put down the growing unrest by the Arabs of Palestine, who were unhappy with British domination and the rapid growth in what was a predominantly European Jewish population.

After WWII, and in the wake of the Holocaust, the international Zionist movement pushed for an independent Jewish state immediately to enable unrestricted migration of European Jews to Palestine. This demand was strongly supported by the United States, which emerged from the war as a world power.

Unable to deal with both Jewish and Palestinian resistance, Britain handed the matter to the newly created United Nations. In 1947, a UN commission recommended partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. This was vehemently opposed by the Palestinians and Arab governments since the Jews, making up 33 per cent of the population, would get 57 per cent of the land, including the fertile coastal region. However, the US and USSR supported partition since they were both keen for Britain to withdraw from Palestine.

The declaration, in 1948, of the State of Israel sparked a war between Israel and its Arab neighbours. The Arab armies, divided and weakened by their dependence upon their colonial masters, were defeated by Israel. Israel succeeded in establishing a state in 77 per cent of Palestine and almost two thirds of Palestinians (780,000) were displaced to the West Bank, Gaza Strip and neighbouring countries.

In the wake of the war, rather than attempting to implement UN Resolution 181 (the partition plan), the UN oversaw the negotiation of ceasefire agreements between the belligerent parties. This informally confirmed the borders of the new Jewish state. The UN also passed Resolution 194, calling on Israel to either allow the return of the refugees to their homes or to give them compensation. However, Israel, with the backing of the US and Britain, refused to implement this resolution and hoped that Palestinians would be resettled in other Arab countries.

Today, the world has forgotten these resolutions and instead the Palestinians have been forced to bargain for even the remaining 23 per cent of historic Palestine. Therefore, is it surprising that some Palestinians resort to violence to put forward their long-standing claims for self-determination?

24 January 2009

A hunger for peace

By Rupert Read

The recent critically-acclaimed film Hunger brought home powerfully to many of us the brutality of the regime that faced republican hunger-strikers in Northern Irish prisons back in 1981. Fast forward a generation: who in the early 1980s would have thought that Northern Ireland would now (in 2009) be at peace?

I was a witness to one small part of the earliest stages of that real-life drama, the drama of the Northern Irish peace process.

Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, first rose to prominence as a result of the hunger-strikes recently dramatized in Hunger. He was elected an MP in 1983, but refused to take his seat in the House of Commons, because he did not accept the legitimacy of British rule over Northern Ireland. In 1984, he was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt by 'ultra-loyalists'. In 1987, while I was in my last year studying at Oxford, he was invited by my friend Simon Stevens, then President of the Oxford Union, to speak in a major debate over 'terrorism'.

The invitation was extremely controversial. Adams had only recently been allowed onto British soil at all, being considered persona non grata by Thatcher's government. This was to be his first major speech in Britain as an MP and Sinn Fein’s Leader. Many did not want the visit to go ahead.

I helped Simon work on ensuring the visit could successfully happen after all. I vividly recall several phone calls discussing the arrangements, during which we heard various clicking noises on the phone – phone-tapping was a less sophisticated operation, in those days…

Simon had to go through a great deal more, to get things straightened out. He was taken to secret meetings with Sinn Fein officials in safe locations; so fearful were they for the safety of their leader after what had happened to him a few years before.

Before the Oxford Union debate, I met Gerry Adams, and noticed the way he walked, still affected by the bullet lodged in his body. At dinner, I sat beside one of his bodyguards, a man from a background so different from my own, that, by the end of the meal, I felt I could start to understand why someone might take as hard-line a position on the possible use of violence - as a means of resisting what they saw as an occupation - as he and Adams did.

The debate was a little landmark, an early public moment in the slow journey towards negotiations and then, after a decade, peace.

Why rehearse this history? Because my mind is on the terrible conflict in Palestine / Israel. Ireland was colonially occupied by British people, much as Palestine was colonially occupied last century by Jewish (now Israeli) people – therein lies the root of the trouble(s). Decades of violence however seem hopefully to have come to an end in Northern Ireland; not so in Palestine / Israel. Might one dare to hope that, if we fast forward a generation, there could be peace there, too?

But first, there must be a real peace process. That means, for starters, that we all have to be willing to talk to Hamas, the democratically-elected government of Palestine. The Israelis say they will not speak with Hamas until Hamas recognises Israel. But why should Hamas recognise Israel, when Israel occupies Palestine and will not recognise Palestine as a state?

To overcome this mad impasse, it is necessary to talk. If there is ever to be a 'Good Friday Agreement' in Israel / Palestine, then the US, UK, EU and Israel must be prepared to talk with Hamas. After all, if our government is willing to parler with Israel, which has just killed a thousand Palestinians, then should it not be prepared to parler with Hamas, too? Let's hope that Obama sees sense on this and agrees to open up a dialogue with Hamas.

Hamas are allegedly 'terrorists', Israel allegedly not. But: were not the IRA terrorists? Hamas are the elected government of Palestine. After Adams and some of his colleagues were elected, we talked with them. And we talked even with the IRA, who were never elected by anyone.

If there is to be peace in the Middle East, there needs to be enough hunger for it that one is prepared to parler with people who one doesn’t much like. Even with people who kill civilians. As Israel has cruelly killed many hundreds of civilians, in Gaza, in the last month. The dozens of police officers it has killed: civilians. The people sheltering in schools and basements that it has killed: civilians. The hundreds of young children it has killed: civilians…

Visit Rupert's new website: http://www.rupertread.net/.

17 January 2009

Burying hope in Gaza

By Liam Carroll

Hovering in the background of the current war in Gaza lie the extreme views of the two main opposing camps; hardliners in the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and the hawks in the Israeli national security state.

On the Hamas side, Nizar Rayan, recently assassinated by an Israeli bomb in Gaza, had allegedly proclaimed "we will never recognize Israel. There is nothing called Israel, neither in reality nor in the imagination."

In the opposing Israeli camp Yitzhak Shamir, Israeli prime minister from 1986 to 1992, believed that moderation "should relate to the tactics, but not to the goal (to reestablish Biblical Israel in the remnants of Palestine)".

By contrast the international consensus recognizes the 'the right to existence and security of all states in the region', including Israel, and 'justice for all the people's', which implies the recognition of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people (1980 European declaration).

In view of the failure to achieve these 'rights' for Israel or Palestinians, either through violence or through a political process, the conflict persists. From the Israeli point of view the problem is clearly Hamas which is described by Ron Prosser, an Israeli ambassador as "toxic for Israel, toxic for the Palestinians, toxic for the region and for anyone who really wants to achieve peace."
For Hamas member Dr Naser El-Din Al-Shaer the problem is the inability to achieve Israeli disengagement from the Palestinian West Bank: "If there is any attack on the Israelis, they speak of terrorism and terrorism, and more terrorism. If Hamas and Islamic Jihad and all of these armed groups cease attacking Israel, then Israel will say: 'Look, they've lost their power; and they can do nothing against us, so we are not going to give them anything.' So by which means will Israel give our land back to us?"

For some of Israel's supporters, such as ex-US administration official Barry Rubin, there is really only one long term solution, "the biggest peaceniks—and this is true in Israel—know that Hamas must be defeated if Israel is ever to make peace with the Palestinian Authority (PA)."

Sir Lawrence Freedman however reminds us in his recent book on the Middle East A Choice of Enemies that such talk has been heard before, only then it was about the Palestine Liberation Organisation, "The constant line from Yitzshak Shamir as the PLO sought to render itself respectable was that this was all a sham, a propaganda exercise designed to convince the feebleminded that there was hope for peace, when with such people there could be no peace."

These ruminations beg the question then as to whether or not Israel may be prepared to try and defeat Hamas militarily. Barry Rubin thinks that in the current assault on Gaza "It would be nice to believe that Hamas will be overthrown and less extreme Palestinians will take over," but, he adds, "these are not real options. No one should have any illusions that this conflict is going to go away." Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni concurs, "this is a long war against terror", clearly aligning the policy with outgoing president Bush's 'war on terror.'

Interestingly a recent Pentagon commissioned study by the RAND corporation has just delivered a damning report on the policy, describing it as "at best inadequate, at worst counter productive, and, on the whole, infeasible." Looking at some 90 conflicts since World War II, the report concludes that establishing "representative, competent and honest" local government is the way to defeat 'terror'.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) agrees, though it may be too late they say, "A massive intervention that in effect topples Hamas is looking increasingly possible. But who will take over on the back of Israel's occupation? How could a then discredited PA assume power? Even crushing military victory ultimately might not be that much, or that lasting, of a political win."

The ICG believes that, "Palestinian reconciliation is a priority, more urgent, but also harder, than ever before." They lament the international community's reaction to the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections when it "demanded Hamas turn from militant to political organisation without giving it sufficient incentives to do so," and the subsequent US-Jordanian training and arming of the rival Palestinian group, Fatah, in preparation for a rejection of Hamas rule. "As little of this was secret," claims Sir Lawrence Freedman, "Hamas was alerted to the coming power play" and fighting ensued.

This was the moment which led to the Hamas takeover of Gaza, and the subsequent tragic events of the last few weeks. One can't help but worry about the future prospects too.

10 January 2009

The ingredient missing from Gaza: mediation

By Marguerite Finn

Acres of print have been devoted to the plight of the citizens of Gaza and the disproportionate actions of the Israeli Government, which places the latter squarely in breach of the 4th Geneva Convention and international humanitarian law. However, little has been said about the failure of mediation by members of the Quartet – Europe, US, Russia, and the UN – or what might account for this.

The current attacks on Gaza are being presented as though Israel suddenly lost patience with the Hamas government, when the six-month 'cease fire' expired on 19 December, and decided to wage war.

But it didn't happen quite like that.

Aware that 'regime change' in Washington would take place in early 2009 and desirous of one taking place in Gaza before that happened, Israel formulated a PR strategy designed to win broad international support for its forthcoming actions in Gaza. A new body, known as the National Information Directorate, was set up eight months ago to 'sell' the Israeli position. The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said his government knew exactly what was coming: "The signs that Israel was determined to strike Hamas in Gaza were clear for the past three months. They practically wrote it in the sky". But the international community failed to act on the signs. Why?

To find out the answer, we are fortunate to have access to the End of Mission Report (2007), written by Alvaro de Soto, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Envoy to the Quartet, a job that put him right at the heart of things and should have guaranteed him access to all the main players. However, he found his efforts to speak to representatives of Hamas and Syria blocked for reasons he was never fully given. De Soto believed that contacts with Hamas, Syria, Iran and Turkey were vital to bring about peace but his report shows how America's blind support for Israel continually hindered efforts to broker a peace deal and how the Quartet failed to hold Israel to its obligations under the Road Map or UN Resolutions.

When Hamas won an overwhelming victory in the Palestinian elections in January 2006, De Soto tried to influence the Quartet to adopt a common, constructive approach to the new government. Hamas wanted to establish a broad-based government including members of the defeated Fatah party. This might have been achievable within a month had the US not led the Quartet to set impossible demands and opposed a National Unity Government in principle.

De Soto argued that the UN was best fitted to open a channel of dialogue with Hamas and that the Quartet should collectively register its concern about Israel's creation of conditions on the ground, which impinged on the achievability of a future Palestinian state, but, as he noted in his report: "Predictably I was unsuccessful in these endeavours; hence the punitive tone of the statement issued on 30 January 2006, which effectively transformed the Quartet from a negotiating-promoting foursome guided by a common document (The Road Map) into a body that was all-but imposing sanctions on a freely elected government of a people under occupation, as well as setting unattainable preconditions for dialogue."

Another interesting fact to emerge from his report was America's influence in fostering what De Soto calls a culture of "self-censorship" within the UN when it comes to criticism of Israel. Because of this the Quartet gradually lost its impartiality. In his words: "The fact is, that even-handedness has been pummelled into submission in an unprecedented way since the beginning of 2007."

This is why mediation by the Quartet did not work then and cannot work now.

Handicapped by their self-imposed ban on communication with Hamas, international 'power-brokers' found themselves without a presence in Gaza and consequently had no influence to prevent the descent towards war. UK Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, recently admitted to the UN Security Council in New York, that the Gaza crisis "is an indictment of our collective failure – all of us – over a long period."

Could this be a sign of a new realism and a signal of the UK's desire instead to be part of Obama's 'change'? We must wait and see.

It is to be hoped that the UN will extract itself from its disastrous involvement with the Quartet and play a truly independent role in the region. It is to be hoped too that a new breed of diplomats from neighbouring countries like Turkey, Quatar, Egypt and Syria will broker a peaceful and satisfactory solution to the Israel-Palestine question. The Quartet had its chance at mediation and it blew it.