Gaza Interview- Truthout

24 Jul

 

[Prefatory note: This is an interview with a knowledgeable Greek journalist covering a range of issues associated with the Gaza ordeal]

 

“Blood on American Hands”: Richard Falk on Palestine

Monday, 21 July 2014 13:03

By CJ Polychroniou, Truthout | Interview

 

A man holds the body of a child during a burial for a family of seven people killed yesterday in an Israeli attack in the Shajaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, July 21, 2014. As the bloody conflict entered its 14th day amid diplomatic pressure for a cease-fire, the Palestinian death toll reached 500, and thousands of people streamed toward Gaza City from the north Monday. (Photo: Tyler Hicks / The New York Times)

For over 20 years, Israel and the United States have been working to separate Gaza from the West Bank, in violation of the Oslo Accords they had just signed declaring them to be an indivisible territorial unity. The latest carnage in Gaza is part of an ongoing Israeli imperial policy which, as Noam Chomsky wrote to me just a couple of days ago, seeks “to take over what’s of value ‘in the land of Israel,’ reduce the population to marginal existence (with the usual neocolonial exception: an enclave for the rich and Westernized sectors in Ramallah), and if they leave, so much the better.” But, as Richard Falk, Albert G. Milbank professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, former UN special rapporteur for Occupied Palestine, and author of the forthcoming book Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope, which will be published in October by Just World Books, underscores in this exclusive interview, Israel always claims that its attacks against Palestinians are provoked by the Palestinians themselves.

  1. J. Polychroniou: Professor Falk, here we go again: Israel, one of the world’s mightiest military powers, has launched yet another ground offensive into the Gaza Strip on the rather bogus proposition that Hamas provoked Israel to attack Gaza. What is Israel’s real purpose in attacking Gaza this time around?

Richard Falk: I believe that Israel periodically “mows the grass” in Gaza as one right-wing Israeli advisor to Sharon distastefully expressed the goal of Israel policy toward Gaza several years ago. There were factors present in the context of this Israeli attack that help explain why now. The main two factors in my view were the unwelcome establishment of an interim “unity government” on June 2 by the leadership of Fatah and Hamas, which undermined the Israeli approach of keeping the governing authorities in the West Bank and Gaza as divided as possible. The second element was Israel’s strong incentive to weaken Hamas in the West Bank so that Israel could justify its moves in April to end direct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and move ever closer to incorporating the West Bank, or most of it into Israel, and fulfill the expansionist Zionist dream to move beyond the 1967 borders.

The June 12 kidnapping incident involving the three teenage settler children from the Gush Etzion settlement near Jerusalem provided the Netanyahu government with the pretext it needed to mount an anti-Hamas campaign that started as a supposed hunt for the perpetrators, detaining up to 500 suspected of a Hamas connection and generally imposing a variety of oppressive measures, including house demolition, lockdowns of Palestinian towns, and random violence that led to six Palestinian deaths. As has been shown, the incident was manipulated in a most cynical fashion by the government pretending to search for the kidnapped youth, while knowing that they were already dead, using public anxiety and anger to incite the Israeli citizenry to justify the oppressive tactics of the government and to create an atmosphere of vigilante vengeance.

Having denied any involvement in the kidnapping incident, it is hardly surprising that in retaliation for Israel’s provocations that Hamas in retaliation began firing rockets at Israeli towns. Israel used its formidable propaganda machine to tell the world that its third major military assault on defenseless Gaza in the last five years (2008-09, 2012, 2014) was a defensive response to unprovoked rocket attacks. With mock innocence, Netanyahu told the world that Israel needed to act to protect its citizens from the rockets, without any mention, of course, of the prior anti-Hamas rampage that included ugly Israeli racist slurs directed at the Palestinians and revenge attacks on Palestinian children.

Why did the ceasefire negotiations in Cairo fail?

The ceasefire failed for several reasons. Hamas was excluded from the process leading up to the proposed ceasefire, and was informed only by the public media. Beyond this, the previously announced Hamas conditions for agreeing to a ceasefire were ignored: release of Palestinians who had been part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange three years ago (in which a single captured IDF soldier was released in exchange for the agreed Israeli release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners) and were rearrested in recent weeks as part of the crackdown on Hamas; lifting the blockade and opening the crossings; cease interference with the unity government; restore the 2012 ceasefire. Also, Sisi’s Egypt is hardly a suitable or trustworthy intermediary from Hamas’ perspective. Not far in the background is the brutal repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and related hostility to Hamas, which is regarded by the Sisi government as an offshoot.

Would Israel have launched an attack if the new Egyptian government was not also bent on seeing Hamas destroyed?

This is a very speculative issue. Israel did initiate a major attack on Gaza in November 2012 while Mohamed Morsi was president despite his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, and did then accept a ceasefire arranged under Cairo’s diplomatic auspices. Having General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president of Egypt is certainly a favorable development from Israel’s perspective. Sisi has substantially destroyed the extensive tunnel network on which Hamas depended to receive needed supplies as well as to collect tax revenues required to administer Gaza. Egypt in recent months has been cooperating with Israel and the United States, including in relation to control of the passage through the Rafah crossing to Egypt, which is the only escape route available to the people of Gaza, including those needing medical attention only available in Cairo. I believe that the Israeli attack occurred at this time principally for reasons of Israeli state policy, and would have taken place without regard to the attitudes of the leadership in Cairo.

With 1.8 million people trapped in an overcrowded war zone, it should be obvious that the Israeli jets’ attacks constitute a blatant violation of international humanitarian law. Yet, once again, Israel is allowed to get away with murder because it enjoys US diplomatic backing as well as US military and financial support. As such, doesn’t this make the United States just as complicit in crimes against humanity as Israel itself?

I do agree that the United States for the reasons you give is definitely complicit in relation to the criminal nature of the Israeli attack. Whether this kind of complicity involves legal culpability, as well as moral and political complicity is an open question. The United States is not, so far as is known, directly involved in planning and carrying out this “aggression” against Gaza and “collective punishment” against its people. Giving military assistance or providing military equipment to a foreign government does not by itself constitute a sufficient connection with the attack as to satisfy legal tests of complicity.

What is clear is that the continuing and unconditional diplomatic support given by the US to Israel, including shielding Israel from formal censure at the UN, and the failure to discourage war crimes being committed, results in much blood on American hands. Activist opponents of this American policy are now more committed to calling upon churches and universities to divest from corporations doing business with the settlements or facilitating Israeli militarism, and there are increasing national and international calls for an arms embargo on Israel, which would be of mainly symbolic force, given Israel’s robust arms industry, which is supplying weapons to many countries, with the grotesque selling point that they have been “field-tested,” that is, used, in Gaza.

Hamas has been faced with a similar situation before, yet, every time it gets into a military confrontation with Israel, it seems to be emerging stronger than before. Should we expect things to be any different this time around?

It is difficult at this point to say. What the encounter did reveal was that Hamas and other militias in Gaza have a considerable supply of longer-range missiles able to strike any city in Israel, including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It also seems that Israel’s reliance on air attacks and naval shelling was not able to curtail the numbers of rockets being fired. True, despite firing more than 1,000 rockets, no Israeli has yet been killed by a Palestinian rocket (apparently the only Israeli so far killed died from a mortar shell fired from Gaza while he was rushing to a shelter, an option Gazans do not have) [as of interview conducted on July 19]. At the same time, the psychological and political effects of being unable to stop the launch of rockets has damaged Israeli prestige, and may push it to pursue more ambitious goals than destroying tunnels into Israel from Gaza, the stated objective of Operation Protective Edge, the code name Israel has given for its military operation. The high proportion of civilians among the Palestinian casualties (75 to 80 percent) also suggests that Hamas has become more sophisticated in protecting its militants from Israeli firepower as compared to the results of the two earlier attacks.

Of course, to the extent that Israel is politically weaker, Hamas emerges stronger, withstanding the mighty Israeli military onslaught, demonstrating resilience under the most difficult circumstance, and mounting stubborn resistance that frustrates Israel’s announced war goals.

Has Israel become a “fundamentalist” state, betraying all dreams and aspirations that led to its original founding?

I think Israel has definitely moved gradually in the direction of a maximalist understanding of the Zionist project, which is now quite clearly intended to exercise permanent sovereign control over “Judea and Samaria,” what the world knows as “the West Bank.” The new president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, due to take over very soon from Shimon Peres, belongs to the right wing of Netanyahu’s Likud Party. He is an undisguised advocate of an enlarged Israel that claims the whole of biblical Palestine and repudiates all diplomacy associated with establishing peace on the basis of a Palestinian state, in effect, a one-state approach with Palestinians as permanent minority. Additionally, the Israel of today has moved far to the right; many Israelis have developed a consumerist mentality, and the conflict with Palestine, except during crises as at present, has posed serious threats in recent years to the stability and serenity of the country. Also, due to high fertility rates and the importance of the settler movement, religious Judaism has been playing a larger role, and injects a certain measure of religious extremism and ethnic intolerance into Israeli political and social life.

The two-state solution, long proposed by supporters of the Palestinian cause, including the late Edward Said, seems to be a dead end – at least in my own eyes. Do you agree with this assessment, and, if so, what is the alternative for securing lasting peace among Israelis and Palestinians?

To clarify Edward Said’s position: He did favor for a time in the late 1980s, as did the PLO, the two-state solution, but in the last years of his life he strongly endorsed a single, secular bi-national state as the only workable arrangement allowing the two peoples to live together in peace and dignity. Said rejected the idea of an ethnic state for either people, and believed that Zionist claims to have a Jewish state in historic Palestine would never result in a just and sustainable peace that acknowledged Palestinian rights under international law, including the right of return and equality for the Palestinian minority living in Israel.

I share Said’s latter assessment, and believe that the scale and resolve of the settlers is such as to make their removal politically impossible. For this reason, I have opposed the sort of direct negotiations that the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, pushed so hard a year ago as creating false expectations and artificial pressures. The political preconditions for two states with equal sovereign rights living side by side definitely do not presently exist, and may never have existed. To negotiate with that awareness of futility is to play Israel’s game of endless talks, while the building cranes in the settlements continue their unlawful work at an accelerated pace. Time has never been kind to the Palestinians. Their territorial prospects have been continuously diminished and have now reached the point of a virtual zero. Recall that the UN partition plan in 1947 seemed unfair to the Palestinians when it offered them only 45 percent of Palestine, which then was reduced to 22 percent by the outcome of the 1948 war, and related expulsion of the Palestinians, and still further by “the facts on the ground” (settlements, wall, settler only roads) steadily created since 1967.

The best hope of the Palestine national movement at this time is to proceed via a unity government, also engaging the refugee and exile community of 7 million, by working together with the global solidarity movement that is growing rapidly. In other words Palestinian prospects in the future will depend on the continued mobilization of global civil society to support nonviolent coercive action on a worldwide scale. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) campaign has been growing at a rapid rate recently, with analogies to the anti-apartheid struggle that toppled a racist regime in South Africa against all odds and expectations becoming more relevant. This shift in Palestinian tactics in the direction of what I have called “waging a legitimacy war” seems reinforced in its plausibility by the growing global outrage in response to Israel tactics, especially in callous disregard of Palestinian civilian innocence.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

 

CJ POLYCHRONIOU

C.J. Polychroniou is a research associate and policy fellow at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College and a columnist for a Greek daily national newspaper. His main research interests are in European economic integration, globalization, the political economy of the United States and the deconstruction of neoliberalism’s politico-economic project. He has taught for many years at universities in the United States and Europe and is a regular contributor to Truthout as well as a member of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project. He has published several books and his articles have appeared in a variety of journals and magazines. Many of his publications have been translated into several foreign languages, including Greek, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Levy Economics Institute or those of its board members.

 

Palestinian Recourse to the International Criminal Court: The Time has Come

21 Jul

[Prefatory Note: "Palestine’s Dilemma: To Go or Not to Go to the International Criminal Court" was published on July 13, 2014 on the website of Middle East Eye, a site I strong recommend to all those with an interest in Middle East issues; this post represents a somewhat revised text, but within the framework of the original; the political plausibility of invoking the Inteernational Criminal Court to investigate allegations of criminality directed at Israel increases with each passing day.)

 

 

 

Ever since this latest Israeli major military operation against Gaza started on July 8, there have been frequent suggestions that Israel is guilty of war crimes, and that Palestine should do its best to activate the International Criminal Court (ICC) on its behalf. The evidence overwhelmingly supports basic Palestinian allegations—Israel is guilty either of aggression in violation of the UN Charter or is in flagrant violation of its obligations as the Occupying Power under the Geneva Convention to protect the civilian population of an Occupied People; Israel seems guilty of using excessive and disproportionate force against a defenseless society in the Gaza Strip; and Israel, among an array of other offenses, seems guilty of committing Crimes Against Humanity in the form of imposing an apartheid regime in the West Bank and through the transfer of population to an occupied territory as it has proceeded with its massive settlement project.

 

Considering this background of apparent Israeli criminality it would seem a no brainer for the Palestinian Authority to seek the help of the ICC in waging its struggle to win over world public opinion to their struggle. After all, the Palestinians are without military or diplomatic capabilities to oppose Israel, and it is on law and global solidarity must rest their hopes for eventually realizing their rights, particularly the right of self-determination and the right of return. Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank are demanding that their leaders in the Palestinian Authority adhere to the Rome Statute, and become members of the ICC without further delay. It has become part of the message of Palestinian street politics that the Palestinians are being criminally victimized, and that the Palestinian Authority if it wants to retain the slightest shred of respect as representatives of the Palestinian people must join in this understanding of the Palestinian plight and stop ‘playing nice’ with Israeli authorities.

 

Such reasoning from a Palestinian perspective is reinforced by the May 8th letter sent by 17 respected human rights NGOs to President Mahmoud Abbas urging Palestine to become a member of the ICC, and act to end Israel’s impunity. This was not a grandstanding gesture dreamed up on the irresponsible political margins of liberal Western society. Among the signatories were such human rights stalwarts as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Al Haq, and the International Commission of Jurists, entities known for their temporizing prudence in relation to the powers that be.

 

Adding further credence to the idea that the ICC option should be explored was the intense opposition by Israel and United States, ominously threatening the PA with dire consequences if it tried to join the ICC, much less to seek justice through its activating its investigative procedures. The American ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, herself long ago prominent as a human rights advocate, revealed Washington’s nervous hand when she confessed that the ICC “is something that really poses a profound threat to Israel.” I am not sure that Power would like to live with the idea that because Israel is so vulnerable to mounting a legal challenge that its impunity must be upheld whatever the embarrassment to Washington of doing so. France and Germany have been more circumspect, saying absurdly that recourse to the ICC by Palestine should be avoided because it would disrupt ‘the final status negotiations,’ as if this pseudo-diplomacy was ever of any of value, a chimera if there ever was one, in the elusive quest for a just peace.

 

In a better world, the PA would not hesitate to invoke the authority of the ICC, but in the world as it is, the decision is not so simple. To begin with, is the question of access, which is limited to states. Back in 2009, the PA tried to adhere to the Rome Statute, which is the treaty governing the ICC, and was rebuffed by the prosecutor who turned the issue over to the Security Council, claiming a lack of authority to determined whether the PA represented a ‘state.’ Subsequently, on November 29th the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly recognized Palestine as ‘a nonmember observer state.’ Luis Moreno–Ocampo who had acted in 2009 for the ICC, and now speaking as the former prosecutor, asserted that in his opinion Palestine would now in view of the General Assembly action qualify as a state enjoying the option of becoming an ICC member. Normally, ICC jurisdiction is limited to crimes committed after the state becomes a member, but there is a provision that enables a declaration to be made accepting jurisdiction for crimes committed at any date in its territory so long as it is after the ICC itself was established in 2002.

 

Is this enough? Israel has never become a party to the Rome Statute setting up the ICC, and would certainly refuse to cooperate with a prosecutor who sought to investigate war crimes charges with the possible intention of prosecution. In this regard, recourse to ICC might appear to be futile as even if arrest warrants were to be issued by the court, as was done in relation to Qaddafi and his son in 2011, there would be no prospect that the accused Israeli political and military figures would be handed over, and without the presence of such defendants in the court at The Hague, a criminal trial cannot go forward. This illustrates a basic problem with the enforcement of international criminal law. It has been effective only against the losers in wars fought against the interests of the West and, to some extent, against those whose crimes are in countries located in sub-Saharan Africa. This biased form of international criminal law implementation has been the pattern since the first major effort was made after World War II at Nuremberg and Tokyo. Surviving German and Japanese leaders were prosecuted for their crimes while exempting the winners, despite Allied responsibility for the systematic bombing of civilian populations by way of strategic bombing and the American responsibility for dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

 

Unfortunately, up to this time the ICC has not been able to get rid of this legacy of ‘victors’ justice,’ which has harmed its credibility and reputation. All ICC cases so far have involved accused from sub-Saharan African countries. The refusal of the ICC to investigate allegations of war crimes of the aggressors in relation the Iraq War of 2003 is a dramatic confirmation that leading states, especially the United States, possess a geopolitical veto over what the ICC can do. The ICC failure to investigate the crimes of Bush and Blair, as well as their entourage of complicit top officials, vividly shows the operations of double standards. Perhaps, the climate of opinion has evolved to the point where there would be an impulse to investigate the charges against Israel even if procedural obstacles preventing the case from being carried to completion. Any serious attempt to investigate the criminal accountability of Israeli political and military leaders would add legitimacy to the Palestinian struggle, and might have a positive spillover effect on the global solidarity movement and the intensifying BDS campaign.

 

Yet there are other roadblocks. First of all, the PA would definitely have to be prepared to deal with the wrath of Israel, undoubtedly supported by the United States and more blandly by several European countries. The push back could go in either of two directions: Israel formally annexing most or all of the West Bank, which it seems determined to do in any event, or more likely in the short run, withholding the transfer of funds needed by the PA to support its governmental operations. The U.S. Congress would be certain to follow the lead of Tel Aviv even if the Obama presidency might be more inclined to limit its opposition to a diplomatic slap on the PA wrist as it did recently in reacting to the June formation of the interim unity government, an important step toward reconciling Fatah and Hamas, and overcoming the fragmentation that has hampered Palestinian representation in international venues in recent years.

 

A second potential obstacle concerns the jurisdictional authority of the ICC, which extends to all war crimes committed on the territory of a treaty member, which means that leaders of Hamas would also likely be investigated and indicted for their reliance on indiscriminate rockets aimed in the direction of Israeli civilian targets.There is even speculation that given the politics of the ICC such that crimes alleged against Hamas might be exclusively pursued.

 

If we assume that these obstacles have been considered, and Palestine still wants to go ahead with efforts to activate the investigation of war crimes in Gaza, but also in the rest of occupied Palestine, what then? And assume further, that the ICC reacts responsibly, and gives the bulk of its attention to the allegations directed against Israel, the political actor that controls most aspects of the relationship. There are several major crimes against humanity enumerated in Articles 5-9 of the Rome Statute for which there exists abundant evidence as to make indictment and conviction of Israeli leaders all but inevitable if Palestine uses its privilege to activate an investigation and somehow is able to produce the defendants to face trial: reliance on excessive force, imposing an apartheid regime, collective punishment, population transfers in relations to settlements, maintenance of the separation wall in Palestine.

 

The underlying criminality of the recent aggression associated with Protective Edge (Israel’s name for its 2014 attack on Gaza) cannot be investigated at this point by the ICC, and this seriously limits its authority. It was only in 2010 that an amendment was adopted by the required 2/3 majority of the 122 treaty members on an agreed definition of aggression, but it will not become operative until 2017. In this respect, there is a big hole in the coverage of war crimes currently under the authority of the ICC.

 

Despite all these problems, recourse to the ICC remains a valuable trump card in the PA thin deck, and playing it might begin to change the balance of forces bearing on the conflict that has for decades now denied the Palestinian people their basic rights under international law. If this should happen, it would also be a great challenge to and opportunity for the ICC finally to override the geopolitical veto that has so far kept criminal accountability within the tight circle of ‘victors’ justice’ and hence only accorded the peoples of the world a very power-laden and biased experience of justice.

No Exit from Gaza: A New War Crime?

16 Jul

 

(Prefatory Note: this is a modified version of a post published online, July 15, 2014, at the recently established very informative website, Middle East Eye; as the casualty totals continue to mount while the world looks on in stupefied inaction, the attacks go on; at the very least, from a humanitarian perspective,there should be a global outcry demanding that children, mothers, and those sick and disabled be allowed to leave the Gaza Strip until current hostilities end. Yet this is a gap in international humanitarian law, refugee law, and the moral sensibilities of the combatant states.)

 

 

As the hideous Israeli assault on Gaza, named Operation Protective Edge, by the IDF enters its second week, overdue international appeals for a ceasefire fall on deaf ears. The short lived July 15th ceasefire arranged by Sisi’s Egypt had many accompanying signs of bad faith from its inception, including the failure to allow Hamas to participate in the process, insultingly conveying the proposed terms of the ceasefire through public media. The vague terms depicted, alongside the failure to take any account of Hamas’ previously announced conditions, suggest that this initiative was not a serious effort to end the violence, but rather a clever ploy to regain moral credibility for Israel thereby facilitating the continuation and even intensification of its violent military campaign that was never defensive in conception or execution. Rather than being a real effort to end the violence, such a ‘ceasefire’ seems best understood as a sophisticated for form of escalation produced by a descent into the lower depths of Israeli hasbara. Such an Israeli tactic was facilitated by the active complicity of the Egyptian government that shares with Israel an undisguised wish to destroy Hamas. Cairo regards Hamas as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that has been criminalized and viciously repressed, and has collaborated with Tel Aviv ever since Sisi took over control of the Egyptian government.

 

Throughout Protective Edge Bibi Netanyahu has been telling the world that no outside pressure will alter Israel’s resolve to reach its military and political goals to disable Hamas for the indefinite future. The main official justification for such aggression is to make sure this time that Israelis will never again have to seek shelter from Hamas rockets, an elusive result that Netanyahu acknowledges could require a prolonged military campaign combining ground forces with a continuing air and naval assault. Others claim on Israel’s behalf that this attack on Hamas is a just response to its involvement in the kidnapping incident a month ago in which three Israeli settler teenagers were seized by two Palestinians, and soon afterwards brutally executed. Such a rationale would still be a hyperbolic form of collective punishment directed at the entire civilian population of Gaza, even if there had been a Hamas connection to the earlier crime, an involvement alleged from the very first moment, and yet up to now not substantiated by evidence even in the face of Hamas’ denial of any involvement. The internationally respected human rights and international law specialist resident in Gaza, Raji Sourani, has written that the scale and ferocity of Protective Edge is an application of what he labels the ‘Gaza Doctrine,’ a deliberate reliance on disproportionate force in any encounter in Gaza. The Gaza Doctrine is a renewal of what was originally known as the ‘Dahiya Doctrine’ after the destruction of the Dahiya residential neighborhood in south Beirut, where many of Hezbollah’s faithful were living, during the 2006 Lebanon War. The inability of Hamas to mount any sort of defense for the people of Gaza or even to provide protection via shelters and the like, epitomizes the criminal nature of Protective Edge, and more generally, of totally one-sided warfare.

 

Leaving aside the debate on causes and justifications, the civilian population of Gaza, estimated to be about 1.8 million with women and children comprising 75% of the total, are trapped in an overcrowded war zone with no shelters and no apparent exit from terrifying danger. Even if families are lucky enough to avoid direct physical injury, the experience of screaming jet fighters attacking through the night, targeting, attack, and surveillance drones flying overhead 24 hours a day, sustained naval artillery barrages, not to mention the threats and warnings of an imminent ground invasion combine to create a nonstop horror show. It has been convincingly confirmed by mental health specialists that these realities result in a trauma inducing phenomenon on a massive scale with prospects of lasting and irreversible psychological damage, especially to children.

 

With these elements in mind, the idea of fulfilling the basic objective of international humanitarian law to protect civilians caught in a war zoneis being violated by Israel, although not altogether. Israeli officials claim that leaflets dropped on some intended targets, otherwise forbidden, that give residents a few minutes to vacate their homes before their living space is reduced to rubble, exhibits a humane intent and satisfies the requirements of international humanitarian law. Such a self-sanitizing gesture fails to discharge the obligations of an Occupying Power under international humanitarian law.

 

In a further escalation of the attacks, perhaps the prelude to a ground invasion, residents of northern Gaza are being told to flee the area, and tens of thousands have apparently done so. Hamas apparently urged these same people not to leave their homes dismissing Israeli threats as intimidating propaganda. Cynically interpreted, Hamas appears to be informing Israel that if they go ahead and invade, there will be responsible for causing many Palestinian civilian casualties, and the shock caused by such carnage will help eventually swing the international balance of opinion strongly in their favor.

 

The entrapment of the Gazan population within closed borders is part of a deliberate Israeli pattern of prolonged collective punishment that has for the past several years been imposed on Gaza. This amounts to a grave breach of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and as such qualifies as a potential Crime Against Humanity. The morbid clarity of criminal intent is further disclosed by Israel’s willingness to allow 800 or so Gazans who have dual citizenship and hold a foreign passport to leave Gaza by entering Israel at the Erez Crossing, including 150 with American passports. No other Palestinian residents of Gaza have the option of leaving even if disabled, sick, elderly, or young. The civilian population of Gaza is denied the option of seeking refugee status by fleeing Gaza during this time of intense warfare, and there is no space available within Gaza that might allow Palestinian civilians to become internally displaced until Protective Edge completes its dirty work.

 

In countries such as Iraq and Syria we grieve appropriately for the millions becoming refugees or ‘internally displaced,’ compelled by the dangers of the raging conflict to seek refuge somewhere in the country that is removed from the immediate dangers of inhabiting the war zone. We can sense the extremity of the humanitarian tragedy in Gaza by realizing that these people whose lives are being acutely jeopardized, have no place to hide from the brutalities of war. There is no doubt that the whole of the Gaza Strip is a war zone. Gazans who have endured many mortal threats and a siege since 2007, currently find themselves in situations of extreme hazard, and yet have no possibility of seeking temporary safety as refugees by crossing an international border. The idea of internal refuge is almost inapplicable given the ferocious nature of Protective Edge that has spared not one corner of the tiny and overcrowded Gaza Strip. To be sure, in response to Israeli warnings to abandon their homes tens of thousands of Palestinians are fleeing south from north Gaza. At present writing , an estimated 17 thousand Palestinians have obtained refuge in the 20 UN-run schools situated throughout Gaza. UNRWA is doing its heroic best to handle these desperate people but its buildings have limited space and lack the facilities to handle properly this kind humanitarian emergency–insufficient bathrooms, no beds, and not enough space to meet the demands.

 

This is not the first time that this exit challenge has been posed in Gaza. Back in 2008-09 and 2012, Israeli launched major military operations in Gaza, and the issue of the entrapped civilian population was brought to the attention of the UN and the international community, a challenge met as now with scandalous silence. The encirclement of Gaza by Israeli controlled crossings and fences, even worse than in the past due to an Egyptian political leadership that makes no secret of its hostility to Hamas. The overall humanitarian crisis is catastrophic in the risk it poses to the totally vulnerable Gazan social reality.

 

For some perspective, it is useful to recall that just prior to the Kosovo War in 1999, up to a million Kosovars crossed into Macedonia to escape anticipated NATO air strikes and because of a credible fear of an imminent ethnic cleansing campaign carried out by Serbian forces then controlling the country. As soon as the war was over and Serbia abandoned Kosovo, these refugees returned, having safely navigated the dangers of the war.

 

In Libya, too, the international community meaningfully responded in 2011 to the urgent crisis of an entrapped civilian population. In the Libyan crisis Security Council members talked piously about relying on the emergent norm of international law known as the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, that validated intruding on Libyan sovereignty by way of a No Fly Zone that was established to protect the civilian population of Benghazi facing the vengeance of Qaddafi’s forces. This 2011 intervention has been much criticized because the humanitarian justification on which authorization for the undertaking was transformed immediately into a controversial regime-changing intervention that raised many objections. What is most relevant here is that the UN and the member governments of the Security Council acknowledged their responsibility to do something to protect a civilian population unable to remove itself from a combat zone. It should not be forgotten in comparing Libya with Gaza that humanitarian appeals seem much more effective when the country in question is perceived to have strategic value, especially large oil deposits.

 

The UN , aside from the admirable field efforts of UNRWA noted above, and the international refusal to adopt measures protective of the people of Gaza is unforgiveable, particularly as Gazans are being subjected to severe forms of violence that are approaching genocidal thresholds. Even so the UN and its leading member governments turn their heads and look away. Some do wors by actually endorsing Israel’s aggression. This pattern of behavior exhibits either a sense of helplessness in the face of Israel’s military juggernaut or even more disturbingly, a silence that can be construed as tacitly blessing this infernal entrapment of innocent and a long victimized people.

 

International law has little to say. International refugee law avoids issues associated with any right to escape from a war zone and does impose a duty on belligerent parties to provide civilians with an exit and/or a temporary place of sanctuary. International humanitarian law offers little more by way of protection to an entrapped people, despite the seeming relevance of the Fourth Geneva Convention devoted to the Protection of Civilians in Time of War. There is accorded to foreign nationals a right of departure with the onset of war, including even repatriation to an enemy country, but no right of nationals to leave their own country if under attack. And the generalized obligation of an Occupying Power to protect the civilian population is legally subordinated to its security needs, including military necessity, and so is generally of little practical use during an ongoing military operation.

 

What is evident in relation to the entrapped civilian population of Gaza is that no legal obligation exists to provide for safe havens either within the country experiencing the warfare or beyond its borders. At minimum, this horrible cauldron of violence and vulnerability reveals serious gaps in international humanitarian law, as well as the absence of self-imposed moral constraints that might limit belligerent violence. Such unattended vulnerability to atrocity urgently calls for a supplemental international agreement, perhaps taking the form of a treaty protocol to the Geneva Convention conferring an unconditional right of exit on civilians entrapped in a war zone. There is also a need to make any denial of the right of exit a species of war crime within the purview of the International Criminal Court. It should also be considered whether there should be conferred a right of internal displacement, imposing an obligation upon the Occupying Power, a territorial government, and insurgent actor to establish and respect enclaves set aside for displaced persons and to allow unimpeded civilian departure from war zones so as to take advantage of internal displacement. There are further complications that need to be addressed including whether the territorial government or Occupying Power can invoke security considerations to deny exit and displacement rights to those it has reason to believe are entitled to respect as civilians.

 

For the present it is enough to observe that the civilian population of Gaza finds itself totally entrapped in a terrifying war zone, and that Israel, the UN, and neighboring governments have refused to accept responsibility to offer some form of humane protection. It is one aspect of the unacceptability of the Israeli military operation from a moral/legal perspective and the related failure of international humanitarian law to lay down suitable rules and procedures that respect the human dignity of civilian innocence so entrapped. Yet, as almost always in such situations, it is the presence or absence of political will on the part of leading geopolitical actors that is the decisive factor in determining whether victimized people will be protected or not.And so it is with Gaza.

Tormenting Gaza

15 Jul

(Prefatory Note: the Israeli military operation, code name Operation Protective Edge by Israel, being carried out in the Gaza Strip continues, and seems poised to mount a ground attack that will further intensify the suffering of the Palestinian people, and lend additional credibility to the accusation of ‘collective punishment,’ both a grave breach of international humanitarian law and a crime against humanity. The post below is a somewhat edited republication of an opinion piece published in AlJazeera English several days ago at the start of Operation Protective Edge.]

 

For the third time in the last six years Israel has cruelly unleashed the full fury of its military machine against the defenseless 1.7 million people of Gaza, inflicting heavy civilian casualties and further devastation on the long besieged and impoverished Gaza Strip. With cynical disregard of the realities of this latest one-sided confrontation between Israel and Palestine, instead of condemning such recourse to massive violence as ‘aggression’ that violates the UN Charter and fundamental international law principles, the reaction of Western diplomats and mainstream media has so far perversely sided with Israel, citing the bland rationalization repeatedly stressed by Netanyahu that ‘every nation has the right to defend itself.’ And so it does, but not by way of aggression! From the UN Secretary General to the President of the United States, the main insistence has been that Hamas stop must all rocket attacks while Israel is requested ever so politely to show “maximum restraint.”

 

Up to now, the Israeli attacks have caused some two hundred deaths (more than half of whom are women and children; 80% civilians) and more than a thousand physical injuries (plus countless more injuries to mental health). In this period hundreds of rockets have been fired into Israel from Gaza, but have yet to cause a single death. The only reported serious injury to Israelis has been suffered by a person on his way to a shelter, making one aware that there are no shelters for Gazans subjected to much more lethal forms of firepower. Granted that such rocket attacks, indiscriminate in nature, are unlawful forms of resistance, to single out this lesser type of violence out and overlook the greater violence distorts the context in biased and unacceptable ways, and helps explain the distorted discourse in Western diplomacy. Surely, the greater occasion of terror is that being inflicted on the hapless Gazans as disclosed by comparing the casualty disparity, and surely the political condemnation by responsible governments and even more so by the UN should be directed at the aggressor, who also happens to be the only political actor with the means to end the escalating violence, yet defiantly lacks the will. This international reaction to this latest crisis confirms for all with eyes to see that geopolitical alignments, not law or justice, dominates the diplomacy of leading Western states and the UN, when it comes to the Middle East, and especially if it concerns Israel-Palestine, and never more so than in relation to Gaza.

 

After several days of the Israel attack, self-servingly code-named Protective Edge by Israel, President Obama made a low profile offer to mediate a return to the 2012 ceasefire that had been arranged through the good offices of Egypt after this earlier onslaught on Gaza. Whether the U.S. Government, the undisguised patron and unconditional supporter of Israel, has the credibility to play such a mediating role rather doubtful, but in any event, Israel showed no interest. It is possible that Hamas, weakened by developments in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, and facing the desperation of a terrorized and totally vulnerable people entrapped in the Gaza Strip, with a health system on the verge of collapse, might accept such a move even if excluded from participating directly in the negotiations, which would mean depending on the Palestinian Authority to represent Gaza’s interests. After all, Hamas, although prevailing in fair elections back in 2006, remains ‘a terrorist organization’ according to the Western diplomatic establishment, even though it has been in recent years mostly on the receiving end of Israeli state terrorism, and should be allowed to act diplomatically on behalf of Gaza and enhance its credentials as a political actor. At present, the issue may be moot as Netanyahu belligerently insists that no amount of international pressure will lead Israel to stop its attack until the ambitious political goals of the military operation have been attained. These goals include as a priority the elimination of Hamas influence in the West Bank, which is the prize that the current Israeli leadership covets in its quest to complete the Likud maximalist version of the Zionist Project.

 

An aspect of the distorted approach to responsibility for the violence in Gaza is the refusal of the West to take note of the connection between Protective Edge and the June 12th kidnapping and killing of the three Israeli settler teenage children and the surge of public and private sector revenge violence culminating in the grisly murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 17 year old Arab boy a few days later in the Shuafat neighborhood of Jerusalem. Without ever disclosing evidence linking Hamas to such an atrocious crime the Netanyahu government and Israeli media reacted hysterically, immediately inciting a vicious campaign against suspected Hamas militants throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including air strikes in Gaza. In this atmosphere many Israeli officials and media stalwarts were provocatively calling upon the Israeli citizenry to strike back at the Palestinians. It was in this inflamed atmosphere that the Israeli government undertook a massive campaign of collective punishment, itself a war crime: hundreds of Palestinians thought to be associated with Hamas were arrested and detained; house demolitions of the homes of suspects; killings of at least six Palestinians; lockdowns of entire cities; air strikes against Gaza.

 

All this was done despite the mounting belief of independent observers that the crime against the Israeli youths was carried out by two Palestinians unaffiliated with Hamas, perhaps with an initial plan to bargain for the release of Palestinian prisoners in an exchange. Never has it been asserted in high profile diplomatic circles of the West that the horrible crime provided Netanyahu with a pretext for unleashing an anti-Hamas campaign to complete the process of de facto annexation of most of the West Bank. This campaign seems far less motivated by a response to the kidnapping/murder than by the political objective of punishing the Palestinians leadership for defying the Netanyahu government for recently achieving a measure of reconciliation as between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Further in the background, but part of the context, is the Israeli interest in shifting responsibility away from themselves for the failure of the Kerry direct negotiations that collapsed at the end of April. And in the foreground, are the settlers and the settlements with their avowed intention of incorporating Samaria and Judea into the state of Israel once and for all, whatever the consequences.

 

So far, Israel has met calls for restraint and a ceasefire with contempt. Rumors of Hamas’s receptivity to a ceasefire have not been tested. Israel’s leaders have responded defiantly, suggesting that Protective Edge will not cease until the Hamas’ infrastructure is destroyed, whatever it takes, supposedly to ensure that no rockets will ever again be fired from Gaza, which would imply that Gaza was totally subjugated and completely helpless. When Palestinian civilians are killed and terrorized in the process of pursuing such an elusive goal, this is rationalized by Israeli officials as a regrettable side effect of what Israeli leaders are claiming to be a legitimate military undertaking. In a characteristic warped statement Netanyahu declared: “We are not eager for battle, but the security of our citizens and children takes precedence over all else.” Some Israeli top officials were clearer about Israel’s objectives than was the prime minister. The Defense Minister, Moshe Yalon, called for the total destruction of Hamas, which is tantamount to seeking a genocidal hunting license in relation to the entrapped people of Gaza and the oppressed population of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Deputy Minister of Defense, Danny Dayon, publically urged Israel to cut off fuel and electricity to Gaza. If such a policy is implemented it would virtually guaranty a grotesque humanitarian crisis; he was later dismissed by Netanyahu for publicly declaring that Israel was humiliated because it allowed Hamas to set the terms for a ceasefire, an allegation that is obviously false as Hamas, so far as we know was excluded from the negotiations that led to the announcement that Israel had accepted a ceasefire. As it turned out, this unilateral ceasefire, rejected by Hamas, only lasted for six hours, and has been followed by intensified Israeli attacks on Gaza, especially targeting the residences of Hamas leaders. 

 

While Gaza burns, the fiddlers at the UN content themselves by worrying about the text of a proposed Security Council resolution, which never materialized. Israel and the United States were reported to be using all the leverage at their disposal to avoid condemnations of the Israeli air strikes on civilian targets in Gaza and even hoping that the final text of a resolution, if any, will include their preferred language about every sovereign state having a right to protect itself. It now seems that there will be no resolution as the United States is refusing to accept the language of the drafters, and only a rather innocuous non-binding Security Council ‘statement.’

 

On the basis of this disillusioning global response to Israeli aggression, it should become clear that the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and justice needs to be waged worldwide primarily at the grassroots level. It has never seemed more reasonable and morally necessary for persons of good will to lend maximum support to the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign that has been in any event growing rapidly. It is also time to demand that governments adopt sanctions seeking Israeli withdrawal from the occupation of Palestine. An appropriate furtheresponse would be for the UN General Assembly to recommend imposing an arms embargo on Israel, as well as a boycott on Israel’s arms exports. This would be, at first, a largely symbolic gesture as Israel has become a major weapons maker, exporting arms to many countries with a tasteless sales pitch that stress the benefits of Israeli weaponry because it is ‘field-tested.’ There is a special challenge to American governmental institutions and its taxpaying citizenry that have been providing more than $3 billion of military assistance aid, coupled with special arrangements beneficial to Israel, for many years.

 

It is painfully evident that state-to-state diplomacy and the UN have failed to produce a just peace despite decades of fruitless talks. It is time acknowledge that these talks have been carried on in bad faith: while the diplomats sat around the table, Israeli settlements relentlessly expanded, apartheid structures deepened their hold on the West Bank and Jerusalem, and Gaza was cordoned off as a hostage enclave to be attacked by Israel at will whenever a bloody sacrifice seemed useful from the perspective of national interests.

 

At least, the Secretary General of the Arab League, Nabil ElAraby, condemned the “dangerous Israeli escalation,” urged the Security Council to “adopt measures to stop Israeli aggression against the Gaza Strip,” and warned of the humanitarian consequences. Turkish and Iranian issued official statements along similar lines. There is so much regional turbulence at present that it is unlikely to hope for anything more than scattered verbal denunciations from authorities in the region preoccupied with other concerns, but given the gravity of the situation, attention needs to be refocused on the Palestinian ordeal. Pressure on Israel is urgently needed to protect the Palestinian people from further tragedy, and the Arab neighbors of Israel and the European states that long held sway in the region, are challenged as never before to do the right thing, but it is doubtful that any constructive action will be taken unless regional and global public opinion becomes sufficiently enraged to exert real pressure on these governments, and hence on Israel itself. To pursue this goal now should be made a top priority of the Palestinian global solidarity movement.

 

Border Control: Blocking Uncivil Comments

11 Jul

On Blog Despair

 

Once again I feel deeply frustrated by the lack of civility in the flow of comments on this website, especially relating to Israel-Palestine, and the broader relations between Islam and Judaism. And again I feel that those who seem to have chosen as a vocation the validation of Israeli behavior however far it strays from international law and minimal ethical standards are determined to personalize the debate via the submission of defamatory and demonizing comments. There are also disingenuous attempts to engage me in senseless discussion where a cascade of questions will follow upon whatever responses I try to provide to the initial inquiry. I have been down that weary road before, and don’t intend to be so foolish as to attempt once more to explain what is self-evident to those committed to unconditionally justifying whatever Israel chooses to do or to claim. My interest is in dialogue, not argument or polemics. And I must say that the rabbi who often submits lengthy comments has no trouble finding severe fault with whatever I have to say, and manages to construe even posts far removed from the Israeli-Palestine battleground as evidence of my supposed ‘hatred’ of everything Israeli, alleging that I harbor an intention to destroy Israel. The only exception of any merit to such defaming allegations is that he encouraged me a while ago to write in detail and in the public sphere so to elaborate upon my mention in a post that it is time for Hamas to revise its Charter.

 

It seems that those who defend Israel to the outer limit are unable to refrain in their comments from repeatedly attacking me and others who hold similar views, or lecturing me as if I am their wayward pupil. I have been lax of late in blocking such comments, partly because there are often substantive issues also present, but I now re-commit myself to doing so, and also to those so deeply offended by such comments that they deliver their own insulting broadsides directed at those who seem so intent to attack my character and reputation. I appreciate this support, but do not wish it to take this form on this website.

 

I make no secret of my dislike of Israel’s policies and practices in relation to Palestine and its people. I believe these policies and practices are the root cause of decades of Palestinian suffering and of the failure to achieve sustainable peace. I take this opportunity to affirm my support for the growing global solidarity movement seeking the full realization of Palestinian rights. Israel’s disregard and defiance of international law has been so flagrant and persistent that the country stands shamefully alone in the world today.

 

Having said that, I remain comfortable with my Jewish identity, and always have. I believe that all ethnic identities touch the deepest wellsprings of our experience as human beings, and I regard them as all worthy of respect and even love, although sometimes tough love that interrogates and sharply criticizes to ensure conformity with ‘our better angels’ and in support of human wellbeing. After all, it is the tough love of the Old Testament prophets that makes this ancient biblical text live so vividly in our minds, hearts, and souls today.

 

As I have said often in the past, despite the disproportionate injustices done to the Palestinians for more than a century, I believe that the two peoples, along with other identities inhabiting the Holy Land, need to find ways to embody peace-with-justice in their modes of living together. Now they live together in the most wretched imaginable manner, essentially characterized by oppression, violence, and exploitation on one side and victimization and resistance on the other side. Regardless of ethnic identity if we align ourselves with the nonviolent quest for justice and dignity, we must given the lopsided relations between Israelis and Palestinians in my opinion side with the Palestinians. Also, bear in mind that what most Palestinians and their designated representatives have been willing to accept since the 1980s is moderate, modest, and reasonable, and what Israel has offered is the opposite, oblivious to Palestinian rights and scaled back expectations.

 

For those who reject this statement of unabashed political and spiritual faith on my part, I would urge them to abandon this website, and find a more congenial setting, especially if their assessment of the conflict rest on either or both of these two premises: (1) the Israelis are basically right, have sought a fair peace in the past, are victims of Palestinian terrorism, and do what any sovereign state will do to uphold its security; (2) both Israelis and Palestinians have prevented the end of the conflict, and are both essentially and more or less equally responsible for the present terrible circumstances. 

 

As I have long indicated, I welcome and believe in the give and take of substantive discussion so long as it is not accompanied by insulting language and nasty innuendo. Please relieve me of this odious role of acting as monitor and censor! I fully understand that my fiercest critics detest my views, and seem unable to disentangle their content from my authorship. The idea that I should be told by a comment writer to show my good faith by denouncing this or that is also unacceptable. This is a forum of opinion, not a political platform; I have neither power nor influence, and have no ambitions in these directions, and never have had. If dissatisfied, go elsewhere!

 

Again, I thank those who have found the posts of interest, and have remained loyal, despite the many (who like me) dislike the daily skirmishes. My hope remains to continue writing on a range of themes, and to invite dialogue pro and con, and in between, hoping to realize occasional moments of illumination, even aspiring to spiritual excess.

 

Let me end by observing that given the Israeli violence against besieged Gaza that has occurred in recent days, continuing the appalling orgy of collective punishment inflicted on the Palestinian people that has followed upon the terrible crime of kidnapping and killing of the three Israeli teenage boys on June 12, it feels almost indulgent to be concerned about blog civility. Yet I feel that harsh incivility in discourse wherever it occurs is not unrelated to the official and unofficial forms of Israeli incitement to violence that is taking place as I write, and that in some ways, the mentalities blend, producing tragic results, especially for those living under the heels of an oppressor.

 

 

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Remembering Fouad Ajami

9 Jul

 

 

 

Christopher Hitchens and Fouad Ajami are probably the two foremost once progressive intellectuals who turned right in their later years, and reaped rich career rewards for doing so. I was an acquaintance of Hitchens, who died in 2011. We participated on a couple of occasions in the same event and he publicly ridiculed me. I was appalled by his contemptuous dismissal of those who disagreed with him or whom he regarded as lesser beings, that is, not less than 99% of humanity. His informed brilliance made him always worth reading or listening to even if his views were dogmatically uncongenial, never more so than in his self-righteous championing of the Iraq War as a humanitarian rescue mission undertaken on behalf of the Iraqi people. When Hitchens died I was impressed by his brave struggle against cancer, but he was never a friend, and his death never tempted me to mourn.

 

Fouad Ajami was at one time a dear friend, a close colleague, and someone whose worldview I once shared. I had been partly responsible for bringing Fouad to Princeton where I was on the faculty, and was deeply impressed by his incisive mind, deep reading of difficult scholarly texts, and ethical/political engagement with the world that seemed to express intellectual independence. In this time of friendship we shared a critical outlook on the follies of the American imperial role and felt a deep sympathy for the Palestinian struggles for their place in the sun. I introduced Fouad to Edward Said and Eqbal Ahmad, believing them to be kindred spirits in a shared commitment to justice in all its manifestations with a focus on the deep processes of decolonization being pursued in the countries of the South. At first my social impulse was affirmed as there occurred a rapid bonding of these three extraordinary intellectuals, but before too long, Fouad’s unexpected welcoming of the 1982 Israeli attack on Lebanon, and then a more intense fight among three as to whether or not to attend a CIA-sponsored conference on the Middle East at Harvard led to an open break, with Fouad not only deciding to attend but to write a letter to Edward and Eqbal declaring that he wished no further contact with either of them.

 

In the process, without any such dramatic break, my friendship with Fouad lapsed without ever ending either formally or psychologically. I continued to read his journalistic and scholarly writing, admiring his stylistic gifts and literary sensibility despite my disappointment with the kind of beltway, Israeli-oriented sophisticated polemics he had cast his lot with in the manner of Naipaul, but worse because overtly political. He was warmly welcomed into the establishment, first by the Council on Foreign Relations, and then later an influential participant in the inner sanctum of neocon retreats, ending his career and life, as a senior scholar attached to the notorious Hoover Institution, where even Donald Rumsfeld found sanctuary after his disastrous tenure as Secretary of Defense.

 

In reacting to his death, commentators were sharply polarized as might be expected. In the Wall Street Journal Bret Stephens called Ajami “..the most honest and honorable and generous of American intellectuals,” [June 23, 2014] and went on to explain why. In contrast, Shakir Husain dismisses Ajami as an opportunistic fraud who will be mostly remembered for his enthusiastic and very public endorsement of the 2003 Iraq War and as a high profile apologist for the worst Israeli excesses, a classic example of Mahmood Mamdani’s ‘good Muslim.’ [Daily Sabah, July 8, 2014] Prior to the war Ajami had promised American on TV and his neocon friends, notably Paul Wolfowitz, that Iraqis would celebrate their liberation from the clutches of Saddam Hussein with flowers and dances, and should expect Iraqi crowds welcoming American troops and tanks in the streets of Baghdad and Basra. Ajami seemed so excited by the shock and awe aggression against Iraq that began the war ‘an amazing performance,’ an initial expression of his unflagging endorsement of the Bush-Cheney criminal foreign policy from which he never retreated. [CBS News, March 22, 2003] Adam Shatz constructed a devastating portrait of Ajami’s rightward swing, portraying him as a lethal combination of ‘native informant’ and ‘a cheerleader for American empire,’ dismissing his claim of ‘intellectual independence as a clever fiction.’ [The Nation, April 10, 2003]

 

Despite all this, Fouad was still in my mind and heart a friend with whom I had shared many intimate times, who had cared for my two sons while traveling abroad, who was both affectionate and stimulating, and who seemed to hold my views as to what it meant to be on ‘the right side of history.’ After his disturbing political ‘awakening’ to the realities of the world, we met one time by chance in the 1990s while walking on the streets of the nation’s capital; we stopped and had a friendly coffee together, almost avoiding politics while reminiscing mainly about common friends and his days at Princeton. I remember he was then worried by some comments critical of his role that Edward Said had apparently made to an Arab audience, Fouad telling me that such criticism amounted to ‘a death sentence’ given the high tide of emotions in the region. I can’t recall my response beyond expressing an opinion that Edward would never knowingly encourage violence toward someone with whose views he disagreed, however deeply. We never met again, although I saw Fouad from time to time on TV, and to my surprise, did not disagree with much of his early CNN commentary in seeming support of the Tahrir Square uprising against the Mubarak regime in late January 2011.

 

Reflecting now, I wonder if I can and should separate in my mind the man from his reactionary views and career choices, which will always remain an anathema for me. I wonder also if I was blinded by Fouad’s wit and brilliance and warmth, and failed to detect character flaws that surfaced politically later in his life. Or are political orientations inherently so subjective that what seemed to me an unforgivable ‘betrayal’ was for Fouad a genuine ‘epiphany,’ a swerve of conscience that just happened to land him in the gilded lap of the winners, that is, on the uppermost platforms of elite pampering? It is a whimsical moment that inhibits mourning such a loss, but not the sadness that always accompanies losing a once cherished and trusted friend. To be sure, thinking along these lines recalls Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’ I firmly believe that I chose the better road, but it will take decades for history to decide.

 

For me Fouad Ajami’s legacy is that of ‘sleeping with the enemy.’ And it is an enemy that is politically, morally, and legally responsible for millions of deaths, displacements, and devastating losses. In a just world such a responsibility would lead to criminal accountability, but such a prospect is for now situated in what Derrida called the ‘democracy to come,’ a polity in which there would be no impunity for crimes against humanity.

A Tale of Two Cities: Istanbul and Rome

7 Jul

[This is a corrected and slightly revised version of yesterday's post; I apologize for the various mistakes in the earlier text, maybe an effect of jet lag or something worse!]

Why Istanbul?

 

In earlier posts [Nov. 2 & 7, 2012], I urged that symbolically and culturally Istanbul deserved to be privately christened as the global capital of the 21st century. It is the only world city that qualifies by virtue of its geographic and civilizational hybridity, Western by history and experience, Eastern by culture and location, Northern by stage of development, modernism, and urban dynamism, Southern by some affinities, outreach, and partial identification. The feast for the eyes provided throughout much of the city includes the Bosphorus Straight (connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara) and Islamic architecture featuring the great mosques along its shores, at least one designed by the master architect Mimar Sinan (1490-1588), Ottoman memories preserved in picturesque and grand palaces, the nocturnal vitality of city life in a variety of exotic neighborhoods, excellent cuisine everywhere, and through it all, an intoxicating overall blending of modernity, hyper-modernity, and tradition. Trip Advisor, the influential online guide, confirms this enthusiasm by reporting recently that Istanbul is now the #1 favorite tourist destination among the cities of the world. Perhaps, this is enough of an objective certification. enough.

 

The fact that Ankara is the national capital of Turkey should not weaken the objective argument for designating Istanbul as the first global capital. In fact, it may be an advantage when we consider that a global capital has a different role than a national capital. What makes Istanbul so appealing is its cosmopolitan cultural, spiritual, and political heritage and everyday vivacity, its geographic locus at the crossroads of continents and civilizations for ideas, beliefs, trade, transport, and more recently its suitability as a multi-regional venue for conflict resolution and global dialogue. As global governance is currently institutionally dispersed, there is no need for the global capital to function as a governmental center of authority. In this sense, if Washington were ever proposed as world capital the idea should be immediately rejected. The yardsticks that could best support such an American claim are based on the combination of hegemonic status and global military capabilities. Such attributes of global leadership may be appropriate as indicators of hard power governance but are quite at odds with an imaginary that wishes that the emergent global polity will be based on peace, justice, and cultural depth. It is precisely because Istanbul’s status is linked to Turkish soft power ascendancy, even if the Turkish geopolitical signature has been compromised by several recent regional developments. Nevertheless, Istanbul more than other global cities seems best situated to serve the peoples of the world as the place where the geo-story of our times is unfolding.

 

Turkey’s emergence in the front rank of states in the last 12 years is mainly based on a combination of economic performance and political moderation, as well as the increasing outreach of its diplomacy reflected in being elected by an overwhelming vote to term membership in the UN Security Council in 2009-2010. Turkey is currently campaigning hard to reelected for another term of Security Council membership in 2015-2016. Instead of remaining the foot soldier of NATO guarding the southern flank of Europe during the Cold War and forgetting about the rest of the world, Turkey under AKP leadership dramatically widened its horizons, and in the process inevitably stepped on important geopolitical toes. Turkey looked beyond its borders to Central Asia, the Arab world and the Balkans, being alert to economic and diplomatic opportunities, but also revisiting lands once governed from the Ottoman imperial center in Istanbul. At the same time, Turkey was not merely nostalgically engaged in the recovery of past grandeur. It was reaching out in creative ways to Africa, launching a major assistance program to one of Africa’s most troubled countries, Somalia. It also established for the first time significant Turkish economic and diplomatic connections with Latin America. Despite straying some distance from the American led strategic ‘big tent,’ Turkey reaffirmed its fundamental engagement with the Euro-American alliance.

 

Contrary to some neocon allegations, the Turkish government never exhibited any intention to turn its back on the West. On the contrary, never waivered in its allegiance to NATO. Beyond this security commitment, the AKP proclaimed European Union membership as its primary foreign policy goal during the first years of its leadership, and only began to lose interest in this project some time later when it became apparent that Islamophobia had slammed the European door shut. By then it became clear that no matter how much the Turkish leadership met EU demands, the country was never going to be admitted as a full member of the EU. This courtship with the EU did serve the AKP well domestically as the reforms made to satisfy EU adhesion criteria created a useful pretext in Ankara for taking steps to civilianize the government and uphold human rights, thereby making constitutional democracy much more of a behavioral reality for ordinary Turks.

 It is also true that during this period, especially in the last several years, Turkey has hit several bumps in the road. Turkish domestic polarization, always intense, worsened after the AKP scored its third consecutive electoral victory in 2011. After receiving such a mandate, the charismatic populist leader, Recip Teyyip Erdoğan seemed to lose patience managing prudently the deep fissures in the Turkish body politic, and began acting in a more autocratic manner that infuriated the opposition that had deeply resented his leadership from the outset. The internal debate in Turkey shifted from allegations that the AKP, and Erdoğan in particular, were pushing the country toward Islamism, to concerns about his supposedly anti-democratic style of governance.

These fissures erupted in a severe storm of oppositional politics during the Gezi Park protests of 2013 that were initially provoked by grassroots concerns that the future of Istanbul was now in the hands of greedy commercial developers enjoying ğvirtually unregulated support from the Erdoğan leadership. Turkey’s international image during these years was also weakened by its intemperate and failed material support given to the anti-Assad uprisings in Syria and its unresolved tensions with Israel. These tensions, although the result of Israel’s unlawful and provocative behavior toward the Palestinians and Turkey, nevertheless fueled a surge in anti-Turkish sentiments in the West, especially among Washington think tanks.

 

Few would doubt that Turkey has been traveling a controversial path both domestically and internationally, but in regional and global setting beset by turmoil and uncertainty to an extent that the reputation of the country has not damaged the popularity or reputation of the city. Istanbul embodies the charm and tradition of its illustrious Ottoman past and retains the extraordinary picturesque resource of the Bosphorus wending its way gracefully through the city, a source of continuous spectacle. At the same time, in a process that preceded the AKP but has been accelerated during its period of leadership, Istanbul became overly receptive to the glitz and glamor of capitalist modernity, upscale shopping malls springing up all over the city and huge ungainly buildings and residential projects being constructed without sensitivity to coherent urban design or sustaining the gracious urban past. In this respect, the irregular modern skyline formed by a poorly sited series of skyscrapers is an insensitive failure to seek the harmony of old and new, raising doubts about the future. Yet it is precisely this unresolved struggle over the nature of urban space that makes Istanbul a strategic and ideological battleground in the unfolding narrative of a globalizing planet.

 

Given the way world order is constituted even a world city, such as Istanbul, is subject to the authority of the territorial state where it is located and exists beneath the shadows cast by Turkey. Istanbul can only be seriously considered qualified to serve as the global capital if Turkey offers an acceptable national setting. This means that Istanbul must be situated within a legitimate state that maintains the rule of law, human rights, public order, and an atmosphere of tranquility, as well as being hospitable toward and protective of foreigners. All leading states have severe shortcomings in relation to these criteria, and this includes Turkey, but such limitations should not be treated as disqualifying unless the state fails to meet minimum requirements. There are many among the political opposition within Turkey, and outside, who contend that the Turkish state does fall below this minimum threshold. I disagree. I believe that Turkey as a political actor enjoys a sufficiently favorable balance of positive attributes to enable Turkey to offer a proper national setting for Istanbul in relation to being designated as global capital. The situation could change for the worse in the future, and if so, it would become appropriate to reconsider Istanbul’s status as global capital. In this respect tourist popularity should not be confused with a designation of Istanbul as the city that best transcends its national boundaries by offering cosmopolitan satisfactions to all persons, regardless of civilizational, racial, and religious identity.

 

 A Global Capital: Of Governments, Of People

 

Arguably, the idea of a global capital was given institutional resonance after World War I with the establishment of the League of Nations in Geneva, embodying a conception of world order as Euro-Centric. This was followed, in line with shifts in geopolitical stature, by locating the United Nations in New York after World War II, an acknowledgement of both American global leadership and the persisiting West-centric character of world order as of 1945. It should be noted that New York was not a national capital, and its appeal rested on its fabulous urban facilities, cosmopolitan ethnic and religious makeup, and its unsurpassed cultural depth. In the second decade of the 21st century it would no longer seem appropriate to choose any urban site in the West as ‘the center’ of the world, but neither would it be appropriate to ignore the continuing prominence of the West. Turkey offers a perfect compromise, and within Turkey Istanbul has most of the endowments needed at this historical time for the sort of world capital that now provides an existential entrance to the multi-faceted global reality of the early 21st century, but also showcases the epochal tensions of the age: modernity versus tradition; societal permissiveness versus conservative social values; secular versus religious worldviews.

 

Appreciating Rome: “The Eternal City”

According to Trip Advisor the second favorite tourist city is Rome, which continues to live up to its reputation at ‘the eternal city.’ It has a long lineage that traces back to its legendary founding in 753 BC. Rome more than even Athens is the birthplace of modernity, yet also the home of the most enduring of religious institutions, the Catholic Church, with its universally acclaimed papal leadership that resides in that unique polity, the Vatican, located within the confines of Rome. The restless political leaders of Rome in past centuries sought to extend the Roman political imaginary to the outermost parts of the known world. Our contemporary near universal sense of law and citizenship, political structure, transportation, urban vitality and even decadence all flow from the Rome’s rise and fall. The Roman Stoic philosophers also gave us the first glimmerings of belonging to a species as well as to an ethnos or religion or civilization. Although Rome was present at the creation of Western civilization, in modern times its destiny has been to let others carry the torch of the West to the far corners of the world, disastrously punctuated in the late 1930s by the rise of a populist version of fascism.

 To visit these two cities is to understand why Istanbul deserves to be the world capital and Rome deserves to remain the eternal city. While Istanbul draws strength from its Islamic/Ottoman past and present, its claims are reinforced by investing great energy and capital in establishing an identity that is fit for an era of continuing globalization. Its host country, Turkey, has recently learned to be an indispensable geopolitical player while at the same time becoming a focal point for efforts to forge ‘an alliance of civilizations.’ In contrast, Rome is content to keep what it has, admittedly at the cost of losing some benefits of modernity, not exerting influence in the telling of the contemporary geo-story. Perhaps, the biggest cost for Italy is public despair, especially among youth, many of whom feel they must leave country to find a sustainable future for themselves.

In Istanbul there is also a mood of some discouragement associated not with the absence of opportunity, but with the difficulties of achieving a satisfying life with too much demanded by way of work and daily tribulations in a crowded city of 15 million—too much traffic and pollution, insufficient income, clashing visions of a desirable future. All of this complexity is leading some Turkish youth to feel a new yearning for a simple life in the country. In architecture, as well, these complementary differences are evident. Rome discreetly hides its embrace of modernity rather convincingly, for some, too convincingly, and the old skyline and harmonious clusters of buildings dominate the city. While Istanbul has a jagged skyline of irregularly placed tall buildings, perpetual traffic gridlock of large and fast belligerently maneuvering cars, Rome is a city where the streets are filled with motorcycles, scooters, and smart cars, as well as varieties of automobiles. Rome mostly rests on past laurels, while Istanbul aspires, alive with a mixture of memory and ambition that exhausts, and even infuriates, many of its inhabitants, while enchanting visitors. In Istanbul the modern competes with and complements, often overwhelming the traditional, while in Rome the old classical city of fountains, squares, and parks holds uncontested sway.

 

Urban Pinnacles of our Time: Istanbul and Rome

 This global reality is strikingly different than what existed in 1918 or 1945. Although world order remains state-centric, its structure is more complex. It is less territorially governed and organized. Non-state actors play much more central organizing roles in the world economy and political system, both as providers of order and as its principal disrupters. The increased economic and technological integration of the life of the planet, as well as the global scale of the threats challenging its future, give a historical plausibility for the first time to the conception of a global capital that represents the authority and aspirations of the peoples of the planet rather than the functional projects of governmental elites. This conception of a global capital is essentially a cultural expression, and should not be confused with the creation of global problem-solving mechanisms or the harnessing of popular loyalties. It may be a refuge for those seeking a human identity that is neither the anachronistic idea of patriotic citizen nor the sentimental insistence of being a world citizen. Perhaps, the global capital will become an incubating haven and homeland for citizen pilgrims, those dissatisfied with the world as it is, those who have joined in a nonviolent pilgrimage in search of a future political community that embodies values of peace, justice, ecological wisdom, and spiritual fulfillment. It is against this background that I would nominate Istanbul to be the first capital of the world, not primarily because of its popularity among tourists. Rather because of its qualities that arouse and excite mind, heart, and soul.

 

In the end, we need them both—a global capital for the many faces of a globalizing reality, an eternal city that keeps alive its past while enjoying the present. It is no wonder that Istanbul and Rome are rated the first and second favorite cities in the world. Both share multiple imperial memories and plural religious traditions, and both contain architectural splendors, cultural legacies, while partaking of an exhilarating, often breathless, and richly satisfying lifeworld.

 

 

 

 

 

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