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Did Israel Commit Genocide in Gaza?

9 Oct

[Prefatory Note: the post below is a somewhat revised version of a text published by The Nation, and to be found at the following link. I should also point out that in these proceedings in Brussels under the auspices of the Russell Tribunal I served as a member of the jury]

 

 

In a special session of the Russell Tribunal held in Brussels on September 24th, Israel’s military operation Protective Edge was critically scrutinized from the perspective of international law, including the core allegation of genocide. The process featured a series of testimonies by legal and weapons experts, health workers, journalists and others most of whom had experienced the 50 days of military assault.

 

A jury composed of prominent individuals from around the world, known for their moral engagement with issues of the day that concerned their societies, and also the wellbeing of humanity, assessed the evidence with the help of an expert legal team of volunteers that helped with the preparation of the findings and analysis for consideration by the jury, which deliberated and debated all relevant issues of fact and law, above all the question of how to respond to the charge of genocide.

 

 

It should be acknowledged that this undertaking was never intended to be a neutral inquiry without any predispositions. It was brought into being because of the enormity of the devastation caused by Protective Edge and the spectacle of horror associated with deploying a high technology weaponry to attack a vulnerable civilian population of Gaza locked into the combat zone that left no place to hide. It also responded to the failures of the international community to do more to stop the carnage, and condemn Israel’s disproportionate uses of force against this essentially helpless and beleaguered civilian population. Israel’s contested military operations targeted many legally forbidden targets, including UN buildings used as shelters, residential neighborhoods, hospitals and clinics, and mosques. In defense of these tactics, Israel claimed that rockets and ammunition were stored in these buildings and that Hamas rocket launchers were deliberately placed in the structures that had been singled out for attack. The evidence presented did not confirm these Israeli claims.

 

Although the Russell Tribunal proceeded from the presumed sense that Israel was responsible for severe wrongdoing, it made every effort to be scrupulous in the presentation of evidence and the interpretation of applicable international law, and relied on testimony from individuals with established reputations as persons of integrity and conscience. Among the highlights of the testimony were a report on damage to hospitals and clinics given by Dr. Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor serving in a Gaza hospital during the attacks, Mohammed Omer, a widely respected  journalist who daily reported from the combat zone, Max Blumenthal, the prize winning journalist who was in Gaza throughout Protective Edge and analyzed for the jury the overall political design that appeared to explain the civilian targeting patterns, and David Sheen, who reported in agonizing detail on the racist hatred exhibited by prominent Israelis during the period of combat, widely echoed by Israelis in the social media, and never repudiated by the leadership or public in Tel Aviv.

 

The jury had little difficulty concluding that the pattern of attack, as well as the targeting, amounted to a series of war crimes that were aggravated by the commission of crimes against humanity, most centrally the imposition of a multi-faceted regime of collective punishment upon the entire civilian population of Gaza in flagrant and sustained violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. A further notable legal finding was the rejection of the central Israel claim of acting in self-defense against rocket attacks directed at Israel.

 

There were several reasons given for reaching this conclusion: the claim of self-defense does not exist in relation to resistance mounted by an occupied people, and Gaza from the perspective of international law remains occupied due to Israeli persisting effective control despite Israel’s purported disengagement in 2005 (more properly characterized as a military redployment); the rockets fired from Gaza were partly at least in response to prior Israeli unlawful provocations, including the mass detention of several hundred persons loosely associated with Hamas in the West Bank and incitement to violence against Palestinians as revenge for the murder of the three kidnapped Israeli settler children; and finally, the minimal damage done by the rockets, seven civilian deaths over the entire period, is too small a security threat to qualify as “an armed attack” as is required by the UN Charter to uphold a claim of self-defense. At the same time, despite these mitigating factors, the jury did not doubt the unlawfulness of firing of numerous rockets into Israel that were incapable of distinguishing between military and civilian targets. This form of unlawful resistance was attributed to both Hamas and independent Palestinian militias operating within the Gaza Strip.

 

A focus of concern in the jury deliberations before and after the proceedings themselves was how to address the allegation of ‘genocide,’ which has been described as ‘the crimes of crimes.’ The jury was sensitive to the differences between the journalistic and political uses of the word ‘genocide’ to describe various forms of collective violence directed at ethnic and religious minorities, and the more demanding legal definition of genocide that requires compelling and unambiguous evidence of a specific ‘intent to destroy’.

 

The testimony made this issue complex and sensitive. It produced a consensus on the jury that the evidence of genocide was sufficient to make it appropriate and responsible to give careful consideration as to whether the crime of genocide had actually been committed by Israel in the course of carrying out Protective Edge. This was itself an acknowledgement that there was a genocidal atmosphere in Israel in which high officials made statements supporting the destruction, elimination, and subjugation of Gazans as a people, and such inflammatory assertions were at no time repudiated by the Netanyahu leadership or subject to criminal investigation, let alone any legal proceedings. Furthermore, the sustained bombardment of Gaza under circumstances where the population had no opportunity to leave or to seek sanctuary within the Gaza Strip lent further credibility to the charge of genocide. The fact that Protective Edge was the third large-scale, sustained military assault on this unlawfully blockaded, impoverished, and endangered population, also formed part of the larger genocidal context.

 

Further in the background, yet perhaps most relevant consideration of all, Israel failed to exhaust diplomatic remedies before its recourse to force, as required by international law and the UN Charter. Israel had the option of lifting the blockade and exploring the prospects for long-term arrangements for peaceful co-existence that Hamas had proposed numerous times in recent years. Such initiatives were spurned by Israel on the ground that it would not

deal with a terrorist organization.

 

Despite the incriminating weight of these factors, there were legal doubts as to the crime of genocide. The political and military leaders of Israel never explicitly endorsed the pursuit of genocidal goals, and purported to seek a ceasefire during the military campaign. There was absent a clear official expression of intent to commit genocide as distinct from the intensification of the regime of collective punishment that was convincingly documented. The presence of genocidal behavior and language even if used in government circles is not by itself sufficient to conclude that Protective Edge, despite its scale and fury, amounted to the commission of the crime of genocide.

 

What the jury did agree upon, however, was that Israeli citizens, including officials, appear to have been guilty in several instances of the separate crime of Incitement to Genocide that is specified in Article 3(c) of the Genocide Convention. It also agreed that the additional duty of Israel and others, especially the United States and Europe, to act to prevent genocide was definitely engaged by Israeli behavior. In this regard the Tribunal is sending an urgent message of warning to Israel and an appeal to the UN and the international community to uphold the Genocide Convention, and act to prevent any further behavior by Israel that would cross the line, and satisfy the difficult burden of proof that must be met if the conclusion is to be reached that the crime of genocide is being committed. At some point, the accumulation of genocidal acts will be reasonably understood as satisfying the high evidentiary bar that must be reached so as to conclude that Israel had committed genocide.

 

Many will react to this assessment of Protective Edge as lacking legal authority and dismiss the finding of the jury as merely recording the predictable views of a biased ‘kangaroo court.’ Such allegations have been directed at the Russell Tribunal ever since its establishment in the mid-1960s by the great English philosopher, Bertrand Russell, in the midst of the Vietnam War. These first sessions of the Russell Tribunal similarly assessed charges of war crimes associated with U.S. tactics in Vietnam, and in Russell’s words, represented a stand of citizens of conscience ‘against the crime of silence.’ This latest venture of the tribunal has a similar mission in relation to Israel’s actions in Gaza, although less against silence than the crime of indifference.

 

It is my view that such tribunals, created almost always in exceptional circumstances of defiance of the most elemental constraints of international law, make crucial contributions to public awareness in situations of moral and legal outrage where geopolitical realities preclude established institutional procedures such as recourse to the International Criminal Court and the UN Security Council and General Assembly. That is, these kind of self-constituted tribunals only come into being when two conditions exist: first, a circumstance of extreme and sustained violation of fundamental norms of morality and international law and secondly, a political setting in which governmental procedures and UN procedures are inoperative.

 

When the interests of the West are at stake, as in the Ukraine, there is no need to activate unofficial international law initiatives through the agency of civil society. However in circumstances involving Israel and Palestine, with the United States Government and most of Western Europe standing fully behind whatever Israel chooses to do, the need for a legal and moral accounting is particularly compelling even if the prospects for accountability are virtually nil. The long suffering people of Gaza have endured three criminal assaults in the past six years, and it has left virtually the whole of the population, especially young children, traumatized by the experience of such sustained military operations.

 

It should be acknowledged that the UN Human Rights Council has appointed a Commission of Inquiry to investigate allegations of war crimes associated with Protective Edge, but its report is not due for several months, Israel has indicated its unwillingness to cooperate with this official UN initiative, and it is almost certain that any findings of criminality and related recommendations will not be implemented due to the exercise of a geopolitical veto by the United States, and perhaps, other members of the Security Council. In view of these circumstances, the argument for convening the Russell Tribunal remains strong, especially if one recalls the fate of the Goldstone Report prepared in analogous conditions after the 2008-09 Israeli attacks on Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead.

 

The Russell Tribunal is filling a normative vacuum in the world. It does not pretend to be a court. In fact, among its recommendations is a call on the Palestinian Authority to join the International Criminal Court, and present Palestinian grievances to the authorities in The Hague for their investigation and possible indictments. Even then the realities of the world are such that prosecution will be impossible as Israel is not a party to the treaty establishing the ICC and would certainly refuse to honor any arrest warrants issued in The Hague, and no trial could be held without the physical presence of those accused. The value of an ICC proceeding would be symbolic and psychological, which in a legitimacy war would amount to a major ‘battlefield’ victory. It is notable that Hamas has joined in urging recourse to the ICC despite facing the distinct possibility that allegations against its launch of rockets would also be investigated and its officials indicted for its alleged war crimes.

 

As with the Nuremberg Judgment that documented the criminality of the Nazi experience, the process was flawed, especially by the exclusion of any consideration of the crimes committed by the victors in World War II, the Russell Tribunal can be criticized as one-sided in its undertaking. At the same time it seems virtually certain that on balance this assessment of Israel’s behavior toward the people of Gaza will be viewed as supportive of the long struggle to make the rule of law applicable to the strong as well as the weak. It is also reflective in the disparity of responsibility for the harm done by the two sides.

 

I recall some illuminating words of Edward Said uttered in the course of an interview with Bruce Robbins, published in Social Text (1998): “The major task of the American or the Palestinian or the Israeli intellectual of the left is to reveal the disparity between the so-called two sides, which appear to be rhetorically and ideologically to be in perfect balance, but are not in fact. To reveal that there is an oppressed and an oppressor, a victim and a victimizer, and unless we recognize that, we’re nowhere.”

 

After ‘Protective Edge’: What Future for Palestine and Israel

21 Sep

 

 

The 50-day Israeli military operation that killed over 2100 Palestinians, wounded another 11,000, and undoubtedly traumatized the entire Gazan population of 1.7 million also took the lives of 70 Israelis, of which 65 were soldiers. This last violent encounter has ended without a clear victory for either side. Despite this, Israel and Hamas are each insisting that ‘victory’ was achieved. Israel points to the material results, tunnels and rocket sites destroyed, targeted assassinations completed, and the overall weakening of Hamas capacity to launch an attack. Hamas, for its part, claims political gains, becoming far stronger politically and psychologically in both Gaza and the West Bank than before the fighting began, refusing to give in on the basic Israeli demand of the ‘demilitarization’ of Gaza, as well as further tarnishing Israel’s international reputation.

 

The UN Human Rights Commission has taken what for it is an exceptional step of appointing a commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of war crimes. The fact that William Schabas, a renowned expert on international criminal law, especially on the crime of genocide, was selected to chair the investigation is of great symbolic significance, and potentially of major relevance to the ongoing legitimacy struggle being successfully waged by the Palestinian people. Some have referred to this new initiative as ‘Goldstone 2.0’ referring back to the earlier high visibility fact finding undertaking of the HRC prompted by the Israeli military operation against Gaza in 2008-09 that had shocked the world by its ferocity and disregard for the international laws of war. Unlike Richard Goldstone, who was an amateur in relation to international law and ideologically aligned with Zionism, Schabas is a leading academic expert without any known ideological inhibitions, and with the strength of character to abide by the expected findings and recommendations of the report that the inquiry produces.

 

As earlier, the United States will use its geopolitical muscle to shield Israel from censure, criticism, and above all, from accountability. This lamentable limitation on the implementation of international criminal law does not mean that the Schabas effort lacks significance. The political outcome of prior anti-colonial struggles have been controlled by the side that wins the legitimacy war for control of the commanding heights of international law and morality.

This symbolic terrain is so important as it strengthens the resilience of those seeking liberation to bear the burdens of struggle and it deepens the global solidarity movement that provides vital support. In this respect, the Goldstone Report exerted a major influence in delegitimizing Israel’s periodic ‘mowing of the lawn’ in Gaza, especially the grossly disproportionate uses of force against a totally vulnerable and essentially helpless and entrapped civilian population.

 

The most startling result of this latest onslaught by Israel, which seems less an instance of ‘warfare’ than of ‘orchestrated massacre,’ is strangely ironic from an Israeli perspective. Its ruthless pursuit of a military victory had the effect of making Hamas more popular and legitimate than it had ever been, not only in Gaza, but even more so in the West Bank. Israel’s military operation seriously undermined the already contested claims by the Palestinian Authority (PA) to be the authentic representative of the aspirations of the Palestinian people. The best explanation of this outcome is that Palestinians as a whole prefer the resistance of Hamas, however much suffering it produces, to the passive compliance of the PA with the will of the occupier and oppressor.

 

For its part, Israel has signaled a less disguised refusal to move toward a negotiated peace under present conditions. Prime Minister Netanyahu has told the Palestinians once again that they must choose between ‘peace and Hamas,’ without mentioning that his use of the word ‘peace’ made it indistinguishable from ‘surrender.’ Netanyahu repeated his often proclaimed position–Israel will never negotiate with a terrorist organization that is committed to its destruction. Putting another nail in what appears to be the coffin of a two-state solution, Israel announced the largest confiscation of land for settlement expansion in more than 20 years, taking nearly 1000 acres of public land near Bethlehem to be added to the small settlement of Gvaot near the Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem. Some ask, “Why now?” rather than the more perceptive “Why not now?”

 

From these perspectives, the real impact of the Gaza carnage may be less the physical devastation and humanitarian catastrophe, imminent dangers of disease epidemic and $12 billion in damage taking at least 20 years to overcome, than the political effects. It looks like the suspension of inter-governmental diplomacy as a means of conflict resolution. Even the PA, seeking its political rehabilitation, is now talking about demanding that the UN establish a three year timetable for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. It is also threatening recourse to the International Criminal Court to empower an investigation of charges that the occupation of the West Bank itself involves the commission of crimes against humanity.

 

From these perspectives, the situation seems hopeless. The Palestinian prospects for their own state, which was the hope of moderates on both sides for many years, now seems irrelevant. Only the two-state template, however enacted, could reconcile the conflicting claims of Israeli Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. Of course, increasingly Palestinian critics questioned whether Zionism was consistent with the human rights of the Palestinian minority and its large refugee and exile communities, and tended to view the two state outcome as a triumph for the Zionist project and a sugar-coated defeat for Palestinian national aspirations. Now that it is ‘game over’ for the two-state solution, and the real struggle is more clearly being waged between competing versions of a one-state solution.

 

What can we expect? Even a sustainable ceasefire that allows the people of Gaza to recover somewhat from the dreadful ordeal of a cruel regime of collective punishment seems unlikely to persist very long in the present atmosphere. There is every reason to suppose that Israeli frustrations with the failure of its attack to subdue Hamas, and Hamas’ refusal to accept without acts of resistance the harsh realities of its continuing subjugation.

 

And yet there are flickers of light in the darkened skies. The stubbornness of Palestinian resistance combined with the robustness of a growing global solidarity movement is likely to exert intensifying pressure on the Israel public and some of its leaders to rethink their options for the future, and from an Israeli point of view, the sooner the better. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) campaign is gaining political and moral traction by the day. The kind of nonviolent international movement that unexpectedly helped cause the abrupt collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa seems as though it might at some point push Israelis toward reconsidering whether an accommodation is not in Israel’s interest even if it requires a rethinking of what is the core reality of ‘a Jewish homeland,’ and even if it falls short of a complete reconciliation. As the experience in South Africa, and also Northern Ireland suggest, the side with the upper hand militarily does not acknowledge mounting political pressure until it is ready for a deal with its enemy that would have seemed inconceivable just shortly before it was made.

 

The outcome of the Israel-Palestine struggle is presently obscure. From the territorial perspective it appears that Israel is on the verge of victory, but from a legitimacy struggle perspective the Palestinians are gaining the upper hand. The flow of history since the end of World War II suggests a hopeful future for the Palestinians, yet the geopolitical strength of Israel may be able to withstand the intensifying pressure to acknowledge the fundamental Palestinian right of self-determination.

 

 

 

RUSSELL TRIBUNAL SESSION ON PALESTINE

5 Sep

[Prefatory Note: On September 24 a special session of the Russell Tribunal will examine war crimes allegations against Israel arising from the 50-day military operation that commence on July 8th. The RT has developed a record of examining the criminality of state actors that enjoy impunity internationally because they are insulated from accountability by what I have called a ‘geopolitical veto’ in this case exercised by the United States and several major European countries. Where governments and the UN fail to implement international law, there exists a right of peoples to play a residual lawmaking function. It is somewhat analogous to the residual role that the General Assembly is empowered to play when the Security Council is unable or unwilling to perform its primary role in relation to international peace and security. To fill this normative vacuum the RT has long played made an honorable contribution to what might be called ‘the empowerment of legal populism.’ I encourage attentiveness to this event, including publicizing its occurrence and disseminating the results of its deliberations. As the announcement below indicates, I am proud to be a member of the jury for the session along with a series of truly distinguished and qualified high profile international personalities known both for their professional achievement and for their principled stands as ‘citizen pilgrims’ dedicated to a humane future shaped by global justice.]

Israel’s Crimes in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge – Extraordinary session of the Russell Tribunal

RT Israel’s Crimes in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge – Extraordinary session of the Russell Tribunal th

 

 

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24-25 September – Brussels – Albert Hall, Brussel

 

A few weeks ago, members of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, outraged by Israel’s terrible assault on Gaza and its population, decided to start working on an extraordinary session of the Tribunal that will look into Israel’s Crimes (including War Crimes, Crimes against Humanity and the Crime of Genocide) during the still ongoing “Operation Protective Edge” as well as third States complicity.

During this session, that will take place on one day in Brussels on 24th September, our jury, so far composed of Michael Mansfield QC, John Dugard, Vandana Shiva, Christiane Hessel, Richard Falk, Ahdaf Soueif, Ken Loach, Paul Laverty, Roger Waters, Radhia Nasraoui, Miguel Angel Estrella and Ronnie Kasrils will listen to testimonies from Paul Behrens, Desmond Travers, Pierre Barbancey (TBC), Max Blumenthal, Eran Efrati, Mads Gilbert, Mohammed Abou-Arab, Mads Gilbert, Paul Mason, Martin Lejeune, Mohammed Omer, Raji Sourani, Ashraf Mashharawi, Agnes Bertrand, Michael Deas and Ivan Karakashian.

The jury will give its findings on 25th September in the morning during an international press conference at the International Press Center (IPC, Brussels). In the afternoon, the Jury will be received at the European parliament and address a message to the UN General Assembly for its reopening.

To register for the session (free), email us your name and organisation at : rtpgaza@gmail.com

Do mention if you are coming as a journalist and would like to record parts of the session.

To stay in touch with our work, “like” our facebook page! Thanks. (https://www.facebook.com/russelltribunal)

Looking forward to seeing you all in Brussels.

 

Israel’s Crimes in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge – Extraordinary session of the Russell Tribunal

24-25 September – Brussels – Albert Hall, Brussel
A few weeks ago, members of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, outraged by Israel’s terrible assault on Gaza and its population, decided to start working on an extraordinary session of the Tribunal that will look into Israel’s Crimes (including War Crimes, Crimes against Humanity and the Crime of Genocide) during the still ongoing “Operation Protective Edge” as well as third States complicity.

During this session, that will take place on one day in Brussels on 24th September, our jury, so far composed of Michael Mansfield QC, John Dugard, Vandana Shiva, Christiane Hessel, Richard Falk, Ahdaf Soueif, Ken Loach, Paul Laverty, Roger Waters, Radhia Nasraoui, Miguel Angel Estrella and Ronnie Kasrils will listen to testimonies from Paul Behrens, Desmond Travers, Pierre Barbancey (TBC), Max Blumenthal, Eran Efrati, Mads Gilbert, Mohammed Abou-Arab, Mads Gilbert, Paul Mason, Martin Lejeune, Mohammed Omer, Raji Sourani, Ashraf Mashharawi, Agnes Bertrand, Michael Deas and Ivan Karakashian.

The jury will give its findings on 25th September in the morning during an international press conference at the International Press Center (IPC, Brussels). In the afternoon, the Jury will be received at the European parliament and address a message to the UN General Assembly for its reopening.

To register for the session (free), email us your name and organisation at : rtpgaza@gmail.com

Do mention if you are coming as a journalist and would like to record parts of the session.

To stay in touch with our work, “like” our facebook page! Thanks. (https://www.facebook.com/russelltribunal)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Israel as An Outlaw State and U.S. Complicity

26 Aug

[Prefatory Note: The following post, was previously published as a co-authored two-part article by Akbar Ganji and myself  in AlJazeera English on August 20-21, 2014; its basic premise is that the persistent defiance of international law by a sovereign state should carry delegitimizing consequences; the geopolitical grant of impunity to Israel evident throughout the aggressive military operation being carried out against an essentially helpless civilian population in Gaza suggests that neither the UN, nor governments in the region, nor leading governments in the world possess the political will to challenge such a frontal assault upon the authority of international law. We write from two very distinct backgrounds as members of civil society devoted to human rights and the global rule of law, and invite others to join in reflecting upon how civil society can bring law to bear more effectively on the behavior of the Israeli government, and in the process, help empower the people of Palestine in their quest for national self-determination and the fulfillment of their rights under international law so long denied. We try to make this central argument by positing the idea of 'Outlaw State' as a descriptive designation that might have some influence in civil society mobilizations of the sort associated with the global solidarity movement backing the Palestinian struggle and supporting such militant nonviolence as animating the BDS Campaign.]

 

 

 

The United State and the Outlaw State of Israel

Richard Falk and Akbar Ganji

Israel has become an outlaw state. In his book, The Law of Peoples, John Rawls defines (pp. 5 and 90) an outlaw state as one that systematically violates the universal principles of human rights, and commits aggression against other nations. Israel is guilty of repeated such violations as well as several massive acts of aggression, making it reasonable and responsible to identify it as an outlaw state. Such a pattern of behavior also contradicts the most basic principles of international law as embodied in the UN Charter pertaining to the use of international force, and obstructs the fundamental promise in the Preamble of the Charter “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.

It has become appropriate for the international community and global civil society to act accordingly

Israel’s military aggressions against other countries

Israel was born in 1948. Resolution 181 of the United Nations General Assembly is widely regarded as the most convincing legal basis for founding the State of Israel. We should recall that the Palestinians were awarded 45% of the historic Palestine, while 54% was allocated to Israel, and 1% was set aside as a special zone to be used for the internationalized city of Jerusalem. After the 1948 War with the neighboring Arab nations, Israel’s territorial gains reduced the Palestinian share to only 22%. In the 1967 War Israel proceeded to occupy the Palestinian territorial remnant that had been temporarily administered since 1948 by Jordan and Egypt, and since that time has encroached on Occupied Palestine in several unlawful ways—by establishing and expanding large and numerous Israeli settlements, constructing a network of settlers-only roads, building a separation wall deep in Occupied Palestine declared illegal by a 14-1 majority of the International Court of Justice in 2004, keeping the 1.8 million people of Gaza under siege since mid-2007 in ways that constitute collective punishment, and annexing and enlarging the metropolitan area of Jerusalem. These actions called ‘facts on the ground’ have been accepted as new “realities” by the U.S. Government and by several European governments, making the establishment of a viable Palestinian State virtually impossibility. Present trends in Israel make permanent the denial of fundamental Palestinian rights, above all, the right of self-determination, and accompany this with a unilateral “validation” of Israeli expansionism. Furthermore, Israel has attacked Gaza three times in the last six years (2008-09, 2012, 2014) in a manner that constitutes aggression under international law and the UN Charter and involves numerous violations of the law of war

This denial of Palestinian rights and deviation from the rules of international law and norms of global justice should not be interpreted in isolation from a wider pattern of unacceptable Israeli behavior. In this regard, it is highly relevant to take note of various acts of aggressions committed by Israel against several other sovereign states as well:

Military attacks on Iraq in June 1981 that destroyed Osirak nuclear reactor that was under construction, with the apparent purpose of disrupting an Iraqi program to develop nuclear weapons and to preserve Israel’s undeclared, yet clearly existent, regional monopoly over nuclear weaponry

Invasions of Lebanon in 1978, and 1982, coupled with the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon until 2000. In September 1982 Israel was charged with complicity in the Sabra and Shatila massacre carried out by Maronite Phalangist militia units in which between 1500 and 3000 Palestinian civilians were murdered in cold blood. The Kahan commission, established by the government of Israel to investigate allegations involving Israeli complicity associated with the 1982 Lebanon War, found that then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon “bears personal responsibility” as the military commander on the scene who facilitated Phalangist entry into the camps and watched the massacres unfold.

Military attack on the PLO Headquarters in Hamman, Tunisia in October 1985, killing 60, which was condemned by the UN Security Council.

Invasion of southern Lebanon in 2006 that resulted in the 33 days warfare directed at Hezbollah, the destruction of residential sections in the southern Beirut associated with the formulation of the ‘Dahiya Doctrine’ rationalizing and justifying Israeli reliance on disproportionate uses of military power.

Attacks on October 2, 2007 on Syria destroyed its nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zor region.

The attack of May 2010 in international waters on the Turkish passenger ship Mavi Marmara that was part of the Freedom Flotilla bringing humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza in defiance of the international blockade, killing nine Turkish nonviolent peace activists.

At least three additional military attacks on Syria during 2013 and 2014 that involved bombing of targets to stop weapons from going through the country to reach Hezbollah in Lebanon, targets associated with location of Syrian Army units to lend assistance to the anti-Assad insurgent forces, and in retaliation for causing the death of an Israeli Arab in the Golan Heights.

Repeated military attacks in Sudan in 2009, 2011, and 2012, supposedly to disrupt the supply of weapons to Hamas in Gaza, causing many deaths.

In addition, Israel has occupied Syria’s Golan Heights since 1967, built unlawful settlements, and established a permanent presence. Israel has refused to withdraw from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as called for by unanimous Security Council Resolution 242.

Add to these infringements on the sovereignty of Arab states the destabilizing fact that Israel secretly and illegitimately acquired and has continued to develop an arsenal of an estimated 300 nuclear warheads, the only state in the Middle East that has a nuclear arsenal, and the only country in the world that refuses to acknowledge its possession of nuclear weapons.

Systematic violations of human rights and the apartheid regime

Israel has always declared that it is the only democratic state in the Middle East. As pointed out by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in his book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, Israel’s occupation regime in the West Bank has systematic discriminatory features of an apartheid regime. Further, the Palestinian minority resident in Israel is subject to as many fifty discriminatory laws that greatly restrict their individual and collective rights.

Recall that the South African regime also had a nominally “democratic” government, but it served only the white minority. The African black majority population was governed by a different set of laws, a cruel and exploitative apartheid regime in which the majority’s human rights were violated systematically. Palestinians in the West Bank have been living without the protection of law or the possession of rights since 1967, being subject to military administration and the oppressive practices of the Palestinian Authority, while the unlawful settler population enjoys the full protection of Israel’s rule of law.

As Gideon Levy, the progressive Israeli journalist writes Israel is “really only a democracy for its Jewish citizens who are quick to fall in line with the mainstream every time Israeli tanks roll across the border,” because even Israeli citizens that are opposed to their country’s aggression are attacked and threatened. A large number of Israelis are relatively recent immigrants, particularly from the former Soviet Union and Easter Europe, who enjoy a far more protected status than the several millions of Palestinians live under an apartheid regime in which they cannot vote in Israeli elections, do not have passports, cannot own property in many parts of Israel, and do not enjoy the social mobility that every human being is entitled to possess. The Palestinian people are also denied the right of self-determination, do not have any prospect of having an independent sovereign state of their own, or to join with the Israelis in the shared existence of a bi-national state in which the two peoples seek to live together on the basis of balanced unity, equality, with distinct spheres of autonomous administration and governance that is organized within the framework of a single sovereign state.

Israel’s war crimes against Palestinians

Not only does UN Security Council 465 speak twice of “Palestinian or Arab territories occupied since 1967,” but also declare and affirm that the Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories represent a violation of 4th Geneva Convention. Grave violations of this Convention – as for example the defiant refusal to dismantle the settlements as unlawful under Article 49(6), or to dismantle the separation wall as mandated by the International Court of Justice – appear to be war crimes of great severity.

Israel removed its military forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip in its ‘disengagement’ initiative in 2005, but in actuality kept effective control of Gaza, and remained bound by the obligations contained in international humanitarian law as applicable to an Occupying Power. In effect, Israel transformed the conditions of life in Gaza from direct military administration to life imprisonment of the population in the largest open-air jail on earth. Israel retained its total control of Gaza’s entrances and exits, of its airspace and offshore waters, disrupting life within the prison walls by lethal periodic violent incursions Most Palestinian people living in Gaza have effectively been locked in there ever since 1967, and more unconditionally since 2007. At the same time, Israel has periodically launched massive military operations against Gaza, imposed and maintained an illegal blockade, committed frequent acts of cross-border violence, and committed numerous grave war crimes there over a period of many years:

Israel attacked Gaza in 2008-2009, killing 1417 Palestinians, injuring 5303, creating 51,000 internal refugees, destroying 4000 homes, inflicting $2 billion economic damage, and disallowing the delivery of materials needed for reconstruction efforts.

Israel’s attacks on Gaza in 2012 killed 105 and injured 971, provoked by the Israeli targeted assassination of the Hamas military leader, Ahmed Jabari, as he was delivering a signed truce document.

Israel’s 2014 aggression against Gaza launched on July 8 has so far killed 2130 Palestinians , injured nearly 11,000, with 75-80% of the casualties being civilians. This massive Israeli military operation has caused more than 660,000 Gazans to be internally displaced, highlighting the denial of any right of Palestinians to leave the combat area throughout the military onslaught that has terrorized the entire population of Gaza. 577 Palestinian children are estimated to have been killed and as many as 3300 injured. In contrast, Israel’s losses in this attack have led to 68 Israeli deaths, of whom 65 were soldiers. The casualty disparity and the ration of both sides as between military and civilian deaths are both very significant indicators of relative moral responsibility of the carnage caused.

Israel has carried out 59,000 attacks on Gaza, dropping 15,000 tons of explosives on Gaza, which amounts to about 30% of the explosive power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The United States as Israel’s servant

The United States has supported Israel without reservations since its founding in 1948. According to an agreement between the two countries, that has become a law in the U.S., The United States has committed itself to preserve Israel’s strategic and military superiority in relation to other countries in the Middle East. From 1949-2014 the U.S. has provided Israel with nearly $122 billion in aid, calculated by reference to fixed dollars. Counting the aid to Israel in 2003 dollars, from 1949 – 2003 the U.S. has provided Israel with $140 billion worth of military assistance, which has been increasing since 2003. The basic annual commitment to Israel is $3.1 billion, which is far more than military aid that has been given to any other country in the world, and this figure is an understatement, hiding a variety of supplemental appropriations and other benefits accorded uniquely to Israel. In effect, the United States has been subsidizing Israel’s aggressions, and ignoring American military assistance legislation that seeks to withhold such aid to countries that are not acting defensively and in accordance with international law.

 

The Obama administration has even increased the aid to Israel through its reliance on various special appropriations. Most recently Congress appropriated an additional $225 million for further development of the Iron Dome defensive weapons system.

The U.S. Senate has even approved a resolution according to which if Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear sites in the future defying international law, the U.S. is obligated to help Israel. It reads in part, “If the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with United States law and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.” Of course, the language as written of ‘legitimate self-defense’ is understood to mean any action taken by Israel that is alleged to be ‘defensive,’ whether or not in conformity to international law, which limits such claims to situations of response to prior armed attacks. (See Article 51, UN Charter).

Among the many UNSC resolutions that seek to criticize or condemn Israel for its actions against the Palestinians, almost all have been vetoed by the United States. In fact, the U.S. government opposes virtually every resolution approved by any UN organ, including UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), if it is deemed to be critical of Israel, and this includes even initiatives to establish fact-finding commissions of inquiry to determine whether charges of war crimes are well-founded. When Israel attacks the defenseless and completely vulnerable Palestinian people, the U.S. justifies such high-intensity and disproportionate violence as ”self-defense,” obstructs the issuance of a UN call for an immediate ceasefire, and gives diplomatic and material aid and comfort to Israeli aggression from start to finish.

After a fact-finding report on Israel war crimes in Gaza in 2008-2009 was approved by UNHRC, the U.S. and Israel successfully intervened with the Secretary General to prompt him to urge the non-implementation of the report in relation to Israeli accountability for war crimes. The US Government also used its leverage to prevent even the discussion of this important report, generally known as ‘the Goldstone Report,’ in the UNSC. When recently, the UN HRC approved a resolution to investigate Israel’s possible was crimes in Gaza, the U.S. cast the only negative vote.

Amnesty International has reported that the evidence of systematic attacks by Israel’s military forces on schools and hospitals in Gaza during the current warfare is overwhelming. It includes targeting those civilians seeking to escape the worst ravages of the Israeli attack by seeking shelter in United Nations schools and other buildings marked with the UN logo.

Human Rights Watch has reported on evidence of intentional shooting of Palestinians who were fleeing their homes, even after they had been ordered to do so by Israel’s military, and has declared such behavior to be a war crime.

We can only comprehend this partisan pattern of U.S. policy toward Israel by taking account of the leverage exerted on the government by the formidable lobby working on behalf of Israel known as AIPAC. Former President Jimmy Carter and the former President of Ireland and prior head of the UN HRC Mary Robinson have condemned this one-sidedness of American policy toward Israel and Hamas, insisting that as a first step Israel immediately ends without conditions the blockade of Gaza, allowing the long suffering people of Gaza to have finally some semblance of a normal life.

Consequences

The U.S. policy toward Israel has had dire consequences:

It has completely discredited the claim of United States to act as an impartial arbitrator between Israel and the Palestinians.

Hatred and resentment toward the United States has been increasing throughout the region, not only because of the blind support of Israel by the U.S., but also due to the military onslaughts directed against Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, and by drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere.

According to a poll right before the current war, 85% of Egyptians and Jordanian, 73% of the Turks, and 66% of the Palestinians view the U.S. unfavorably, while 84% of Israelis have a positive view of the U.S.

What Israel has done in the region with the support of the U.S. has contributed greatly to the growth of extremism and discord throughout the Middle East. If such policies are not reversed even more chaos, extremist violence, bloodshed, and devastation are likely to emerge in the future.

The Middle East and North Africa have been unstable for decades, and the consequences of the intensifying instability are spreading to other regions and endangering world peace.

These policies of unconditional support for Israel have long been against the national interests of the United States. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is the mother of all problems in the Middle East. Israel has undermined all efforts to find a peaceful solution by way of diplomacy. It has rejected both the Arab Initiative of 2002 and ‘the roadmap proposed by the Quartet – the U.S., Russia, the European Union, and the UN – which require that Israel to withdraw to its pre-war green line borders of 1967 with the expectation that a sovereign and independent Palestinian state would emerge. This view of what is required of Israel as a precondition for peace have been consistently endorsed by the United Nations and enjoy wide support of world public opinion, already set forth in Security Council Resolution 242 that has been frequently reaffirmed since its unanimous adoption in 1967. It should be understood that ending the occupation of Palestinian territories is not by itself sufficient to achieve a sustainable peace. Of paramount relevance is also some arrangement that acknowledges the rights of several million Palestinian refugees who were forcibly expelled over the course of many years from Israel, most dramatically in 1948, as part of the catastrophe of national dispossession known to Palestinians as the nakba.

There are also serious questions at this time as to whether the two-state solution is any longer a viable and desirable goal, if it ever was. The question of Palestinian self-determination as the proper foundation for a sustained just peace is more open to debate and reflection in 2014 than ever before. Israel’s expansionism has put the international two-state consensus under a dark storm cloud, and the international community, along with representatives of the Palestinian people must now consider new ways to achieve a just peace for both peoples, which cannot be realized without upholding Palestinian rights.

We believe that a crucial step in this direction is the widespread acknowledgement by civil society, by governmments, and by the UN that Israel has become an outlaw state, and that appropriate adjustments to this reality must be made.

 

Syria: What to Do Now

26 Feb

 

            There is a new mood of moral desperation associated with the ongoing strife in Syria that has resulted in at least 135,000 deaths, 9.3 millions Syrians displaced, countless atrocities, Palestinian refugee communities attacked, blockaded, and dispersed, and urban sieges designed to starve civilians perceived to be hostile. As the second round of negotiations in Geneva-2 ended as fruitlessly as the earlier round, there is a sense that diplomacy is a performance ritual without any serious intent to engage in conflict-resolving negotiations. Expectations couldn’t be lower for the as yet unscheduled, but still planned, third round of this Geneva-2 process.

 

The Damascus regime wants an end to armed opposition, while the insurgency insists upon setting up a transition process that is independently administered and committed to the election of a new political leadership.The gap between the parties is too big, and getting bigger, especially as the Damascus government correctly perceives the combat tide as turning in its favor, leading the main opposition forces seemingly to seek to achieve politically and diplomatically what they appear unable to do militarily. Also, it is unclear whether the opposition presence in Geneva has the authority to speak on behalf of several opposition groups in the field in Syria.

 

In light of these frustrations it is not surprising to observe an acrimonious debate unfolding between American interventionists who believe that only force, or at least its threat, can thread the needle of hope. The interventionists, invoking the responsibility to protect norm that was used effectively to mobilize support in the Security Council to mandate a no fly zone in Libya back in 2011, suggest that such an approach should be used again in 2014 either to establish a no fly zone opening a corridor that will allow humanitarian aid to flow to besieged cities or to achieve regime change in Syria as the only way to end the ordeal by ridding the country of a governing process guilty of repeated mass atrocities against its own people.

 

The anti-interventionists point out that the Libyan precedent of 2011 is tainted by the deliberate expansion of the humanitarian scope of what was authorized by the UN Security Council to undertake a much wider campaign with the clear intent of regime change, which in fact ended with the capture and execution of Qaddafi, then the head of state in Libya. It is also somewhat tarnished by the post-Qaddafi realities of widespread militia violence and the failure to develop a coherent and legitimate governance structure. The anti-interventionist argue that introducing external military force almost always makes matters worse, more killing, more devastation, and no politically sustainable outcome, and there is no good reason to think this will not happen in Syria. Furthermore, without a Security Council mandate such a use of military force would once again be undertaken in violation of the UN Charter and international law as it could not be justified as self-defense.

 

Providing humanitarian relief in a situation mainly free of internal political struggle should be sharply distinguished from the realities amid serious civil strife. The response to the Somali breakdown of governability during the presidency of George H. W. Bush in 1992, is illustrative of a seemingly pure humanitarian response to famine and disease characterized by a posture of political non-interference and by the shipment of food and medical supplies to a people in desperate need. This contrasted with the supposedly more muscular response to a troubled Somalia during the early stages of the Clinton presidency in 1993 when the humanitarian mission was fused with anti-‘warlord’ and political reconstruction goals. Difficulties soon emerged as robust national armed resistance was encountered culminating in the Blackhawk Down incident that resulted in 18 deaths of American soldiers, prompting an almost immediate American pullout from Somalia under a cloud of intense criticism of the diplomacy of ‘humanitarian intervention’ within the United States. This had the disastrous spillover effect of leading the supposedly liberal Clinton White House to discourage even a minimal humanitarian response to the onset of genocide in Rwanda in 1994, which might have saved hundreds of thousand of lives.  In the Rwanda context the United States Government even discouraged a modest upgraded response by the United Nations that already had a peacekeeping presence in the country, and whose commander urged reinforcements and authority to protect the targets of genocidal massacres. This failure to act in Rwanda remains a terrible stain on America’s reputation as a humane and respected world leader, and is frequently interpreted as a racist disregard of threats confronting an African population when no major strategic interest of Western countries were present on the side of the victims.

 

The Syrian reality since its inception was dominated by a political uprising, later an insurgency, demanding regime change in Damascus.  It was also beset with a leadership deficit and by factionalism that only became worse with the passage of time. It was further complicated and confused by its proxy dimensions, both in relation to the supply of arms and with respect to diplomatic alignment.

 

The humanitarian relief argument to be credible, much less persuasive, needs to deal with the complexities of Somalia 2, and not act as if the humanitarian response can be addressed in detachment from the political struggle as was the case in Somalia 1. When political objectives become intertwined with a humanitarian rationale, forces of national resistance are activated on the reasonable assumption that the real goal of the mission is the political one, and the humanitarian relief is being used as a cover. As we can foresee, this complexity makes for a stiffer climb facing an advocate of humanitarian intervention in the current Syrian tragedy. There exists a more difficult burden of persuasion, although not an impossible one. Indeed, against the background of recent failed interventions, every proposed intervention confronts such a burden at some level. The Syrian case makes this burden more formidable, given the record of past interventions in the region and considering the mixture of forces that make up ‘the opposition,’ which is so far from unified even in carrying on the struggle against the Assad regime, on occasion diverting attention to take action against a rival faction.

 

In fact, the Syrian situation has an originality that makes the Somalia template clarifying, but hardly definitive. The Syrian political struggle is more acute and vicious than was the case in Somalia 2. Also the humanitarian crisis is deeper and the plight of many Syrians caught in the maelstrom of this horrifying war that is both internal and contains regional proxy elements in ways that make it more confusing as to the probable effects of threats and uses of force on behalf of genuine humanitarian goals.

 

My basic contention is that there are no easy answers at this stage as to what should be done about the Syrian situation, and dogmatic discourse for or against intervention misses the deeply tragic nature of the policy predicament for all political actors. I would feel more comfortable about the intervention debate if it were expressed in a discourse that accords prominence to the virtue of humility. Too much in Syria remains unknowable to have any confidence that a clear line of advocacy will be historically vindicated.

 

For me the fundamental question is what it is best to do or not do in such a desperate situation of radical uncertainty. It is not only that the interventionists, and perhaps the anti-interventionists are motivated by a convergence of humanitarian/moral considerations with geostrategic ambitions, but that the nature of these hidden calculations are discussed in governmental circles behind locked doors and transcribed in secret policy memoranda. Until we address these questions of consequences and secret goals in the context of uncertainty and unknowability, the public discourse on what to do about Syria offers limited insight into how best to evaluate policy options being endorsed by policymakers and leaders. I hope that such a discussion will ensue, and replace the rather pointless and dogmatic self-righteous indignation of both interventionists and anti-interventionists.

 

I remember hearing the senior State Department diplomat, George Ball, speak just weeks after he left the government in the closing years of the Vietnam War. His primary message was that he only began to understand the war when he stopped reading the cables, that is the secret highly classified messages being sent by the military commanders and their civilian counterparts in the war zone. In effect, rather than make policy more transparent its counter-intuitive reality was to shroud the reality of Vietnam in greater obscurity. It is easy to explain why. Those in the field were committed to achieving victory, and were determined to provide reassurance, however false, to the leaders back in Washington so that they could deal with growing anti-war pressures that were a combination of public fatigue after almost a decade of engagement  and skepticism based on what became known as ‘the credibility gap’ between the claims of continuing progress in the war and what was actually taking place in Vietnam.  

 

OMAR: Uncovering Occupied Palestine

4 Feb

 

            OMAR is the second film directed by Hany Abu-Assad to be a finalist among foreign language films nominated to receive an Oscar at the 2014 Academy Awards ceremony on March 2nd. The earlier film, PARADISE NOW (2005), brought to life the preoccupation at the time with suicide bombing as the principle tactic of Palestinian resistance by exposing the deep inner conflicts of those who partake, the tragic effects of such terror on its Israeli targets, and the hardened manipulative mentality of the leaders who prepare the perpetrators. Abu-Assad born in 1961 in Nazareth, emigrated to the Netherlands in 1980, writes the screen plays for his movies as well as directs. He has a profound gift for story telling that keeps an audience engaged with the human drama affecting the principal Palestinian characters while illuminating broader issues of profound moral and political concern without stooping to didactic means of conveying ‘the message.’ So understood, Abu-Assad’s achievement is artistic in the primary sense, yet attunes us to the dilemmas of oppression and servitude.

 

            In these respects OMAR is superior even to PARADISE NOW, telling the story of what life under Israeli occupation means for the way Palestinian lives are lived, the normalcy’s of romantic attraction contrasting with the abnormalities of humiliating lives lived behind prison walls. The film opens with Omar climbing the high domineering security wall to overcome the separation of Arab families living on either side, being detected by the Israeli guards who sound sirens and fire a shot. Omar manages to clamor back down and leap to safety. Israeli police on foot and in cars pursue Omar through the alleyways and streets of an impoverished Palestinian neighborhood. The underlying poignancy of Omar’s situation is to be at once ‘a freedom fighter’ and a sensitive young man deeply in love with Nadia, the younger sister of Tarek, his militia commander. In an unspoken realism, Omar is unconditionally bound to both causes, jeopardizing his chance to live a shadow life of acquiescence to the realities of occupation by his choice to dedicate himself at great risk and little hope to the liberation of the Palestinian people and their land.

 

            The wall reinforced by the Israeli security forces, portrayed as cunning and unscrupulous, with an occupiers’ fear and loathing for those who cower under the rigors of occupation, provides an unforgettable visual metaphor that captures the daily ordeal of the Palestinian people. In a subtle touch, the rope used by Omar throughout the film to avoid the checkpoints and overcome the separation of his home from that of Tarek and Nadia also conveys an understanding that the wall is much more about humiliation and land than it is about security. The rope remains untouched during the entirety of the film, although its presence and illegal use must have been obvious to the Israeli occupation forces that never bother to remove it.

 

            What emerges most vividly as the story unfolds is the dehumanizing effects of prolonged occupation. Omar and Nadia have charm and humor to give their love for another an unforgettable credibility that is brought to life by their awareness of what it means to live without the right to travel beyond the wall. They talk in the language of fantasy about where to go on their honeymoon: he proposes Mozambique, she counters with Bangla Desh, and then more truly, admits that Paris is her dream, while they both fully realize that they will never get the opportunity to get beyond the dingy confines of the West Bank. Nadia’s biggest trip outside of her immediate neighborhood was a visit to Hebron, the tensest, most humiliated city in occupied Palestine, notorious for daily settler violence against the large residentPalestinian community.

 

            The film conveys better than any book the interactive intimacies of occupier and occupied. The Israeli lead security agent, Rami, calls his mother to ask her to pick up his daughter from school, and when she asks why he can’t do it, he responds “I am stuck in the middle of the fucking West Bank.” Yet the most abiding realization is the horrible dehumanizing effects of this mixture of fear and hatred in contexts of unspeakable inequality, with total control seemingly on one side, and complete vulnerability on the other side. The torture scenes, like the wall, are both horrible in their own enactment, but also metaphors of what it means to live your entire life within master/slave structures of relationship.

 

            The reality of Palestinian violent resistance has two important consequences even though it seems currently futile from the perspective of challenging the occupation in any way that promises to liberation: it gives dignity to Palestinians who seem united in their will to live-unto-death despite their defenselessness and it makes Israelis vulnerable despite their seeming total control of the situation as a result of their weaponry, police, surveillance technology, and arrogant sense of racial superiority. In effect, the desperate slave when life is deprived of all personal meaning can sacrifice himself in a symbolic act of vengeance, and inflict pain and loss on the master. Seen from an Israeli perspective, there is no way to achieve total security (this side of total genocide) no matter how clever, sophisticated, and oppressive the systems of control put in place. Technology is incapable of doing the whole job, and for this reason, human fallibility always produces some sort of payback from the incompletely vanquished subjugated population.

 

            For this reason, from the Palestinian side, nothing is worse that becoming a collaborator, and yet only a hero among heroes, would have the super-human capacity to avoid such a fate given the brutality used by Israelis to acquire the information they need to enforce their will on a hostile population. For the occupier recruiting collaborators is a vital part of improving security; for the occupied, it is the final humiliation, making the fate of the traitor far worse than that of the slave. Omar is portrayed in a fascinating manner because he succumbs, and yet in the end he doesn’t succumb. Amjad, his friend collaborates with the Israelis to steal Omar away from Nadia, with the biopolitical insight that romantic longings may take lethal precedence over political loyalty and lifelong friendship. In this respect, the power of love is greater than the power of power. The film also is faithful to the traditional social norms that bind Palestinians to family relations in ways that also enslave, including the total disempowerment of women. Nadia is portrayed as strong in her dual attachments to love and resistance, and yet is deprived by Palestinian norms of freedom in relation to her body and choice of partner. In this sense, Nadia is doubly occupied.

 

            OMAR makes no effort to depict the larger issues of resistance tactics, to portray some vision of a realizable peace, or to bring into play the behavior of politicians, the UN, the international community. Such considerations are ignored, and seem irrelevant to the forces that impact daily on Palestinian lives. It takes the present as a seemingly permanent given, in effect, a society of prisoners sentenced for life with no hope for parole or escape. So understood, the actual Israeli prison that is depicted in the film is a prison within a prison, that is, a walled enclave that exists within a walled country.

 

            The great achievement of Hany Abu-Assad in this film is to make you feel and think, and maybe hopefully act. I left the theater with the overriding sense that the continuation of this occupation is intolerable for both sides, that it dehumanizes Israelis as much as it does Palestinians, two peoples caught in a vicious circle of subjugation and resistance. But not equally so caught as the masters live life in more satisfying ways than the slaves, at least for now, at least until the walls come tumbling down.

 

Imperiled Polities: Egypt and Turkey—Two Visions of Democracy

25 Jan

 

The Meaning of a 98.1% Vote

 

In mid-January there was a vote in Egypt as to whether to approve a constitution drafted by a 50-person committee appointed by the interim government put in place after the military coup carried out on July 3, 2013. The constitution was approved by 98.1% of those who voted, 38.6% of the eligible 53 million Egyptians. This compares with 63.8% support received by the constitution prepared during the presidency of Mohammed Morsi from the 32.9% of the Egyptian citizenry that participated in the vote. It should be observed that this new constitutional referendum was boycotted by both the Muslim Brotherhood and various of the youth groups that has been at the forefront of the anti-Mubarak upheaval in 2011. Also the validity of the vote was further discredited because of the atmosphere of intimidation in Egypt well conveyed by the pro-coup slogan: “You are either with me or with the terrorists.” Not only had the MB been criminalized, its assets seized, its leaders jailed, its media outlets shut down, but anyone of any persuasion who seemed opposed to the leadership and style of General el-Sisi was subject to arrest and abuse.

 

In the background here are questions about the nature of ‘democracy,’ and how to evaluate the views of people caught in the maelstrom of political conflict. On one level, it might seem that a vote of over 90% for absolutely anything is an expression of extraordinary consensus, and as a result el-Sisi’s constitution is far more popular than Morsi’s constitution, and hence more legitimate. Reflecting on this further makes it seem evident, especially when the oppressive context is to taken into account that the one-sided vote should be interpreted in the opposite manner, making Morsi’s vote more trustworthy because it reached plausible results. Any vote in a modern society that claims 98.1% support should be automatically disregarded because it must have been contrived and coerced. In effect, we cannot trust democratic procedures to reveal true sentiments in a political atmosphere that terrorizes its opponents, and purports to delegitimize its opposition by engaging in state crime. The consent of the governed can only be truly ascertained if the conditions exist for the free and honest expression of views for and against what present power-wielders favor.

 

Maybe, however, the connections made between democracy and legitimacy, seeking this populist signal of approval by the ritual of a vote, is itself a kind of blindfold. It would seem that a majority of Egyptians did, in fact, welcome the el-Sisi coup, believing that a military leadership would at least ensure food and fuel at affordable prices and restore order on the streets. In other words, most citizens in crisis situations posit order and economic stability as their highest political priorities, and are ready to give up ‘democracy’ if its leaders fail to meet these expectations. In my view, what has happened in Egypt is the abandonment of the substance of democracy by the majority of the Egyptian people, as reinforced by the suppression of a minority hostile to the takeover. This dynamic is hidden because the discourse and rituals of democracy are retained. It is this process that I believe we are witnessing as unfolding in Egypt. In effect, polarization of the first two-and-half years following the overthrow of Mubarak has been followed by the restoration of autocratic rule, but due to the intervening embrace of political freedom, however problematic, the new autocrat is even harsher than what was rejected at Tahrir Square three years ago.

 

The Politics of Polarization and Alienation  

 

Amid this political turmoil that has been spoiling the politics of the Middle East is a conceptual confusion that contributes to acute political alienation on the part of those societal elements that feel subject to a governmental leadership and policy agenda that is perceived as hostile to their interests and values. Such circumstances are aggravated by political cultures that have been accustomed to ‘one-man shows’ that accentuate tendencies toward adoration and demonization. Each national situation reflects the particularities of history, culture, values, national memories, personalities, and a host of other considerations, and at the same time there are certain shared tendencies that may reflect some commonalities of experience and inter-societal mimicry, as well as the deformed adoption of Western hegemonic ideas of modernity, development, constitutionalism, and governance, as well as of course the relationship between religion and politics.

 

The recent disturbing political turmoil in Turkey and Egypt, each in its own way, is illustrative. In both countries there are strong, although quite divergent, traditions of charismatic authoritarian leadership, reinforced by quasi-religious sanctification. Very recently, however, this authoritarian past is being challenged by counter-traditions of populist legitimacy putting forward impassioned demands for freedom, integrity, equity, and inclusive democracy, which if not met, justify putting aside governmental procedures, including even the results of national elections. Within this emergent counter-tradition is also a willingness to give up all democratic pretensions so as to restore a preferred ideological orientation toward governance, that is, resorting to whatever instruments are effecting in transferring control of the state back to the old order that had lost control of the governing process by elections, and had poor prospects of democratically winning power in the future.

 

In Egypt, this circumstance led to unconditional opposition to the elected leadership, especially to Mohammed Morsi, the president drawn from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood. The aim of this opposition, whether or not consciously espoused, seemed to have been to create a crisis of governability of sufficient depth to provoke a crisis of legitimacy, which could then produce a populist challenge from below that brought together ideological demands for a different orientation and material demands for a better life. It is true that Morse lent a certain credibility to this rising tide of opposition by a combination of incompetence and some clumsy repressive moves, but this was almost irrelevant as his secular and fulool opponents wanted him to fail and never allowed him even the possibility of success. For such opponents, the idea of living under a government run by the MB was by itself intolerable. In the end, many of those who had pleaded so bravely for freedom in Tahrir Square were two years later pleading with the armed forces to engage in the most brutal expressions of counter-revolutionary vengeance. Whether this will be the end of the Egyptian story for the near future is difficult to discern, the downward spiral suggests insurrection and strife for the foreseeable future.  

 

In Turkey, such a collision has recently produced turmoil and highlighting the dangers and passions that accompany lethal polarization, initially, in the encounters of the summer of 2013 at Gezi Park and some months later in a titanic struggle between Tayyip Recip Erdogan and Fetullah Gulan generating a rising tide of mutual recriminations and accusations that threatens the AKP dominance of the political process, a threat that will be soon tested in the March local elections, especially those in Istanbul and Ankara. Turkey is different than Egypt in at least two major respects. First of all, its economy has flourished in the past decade, producing a rising middle class, and a business community with lots to lose if investor confidence and currency exchange rates decline sharply. This reality is complicated by the fact that part of those that have gained economically have been aligned with the AKP, and by the degree to which the Turkish armed forces are also major stakeholders in the private sector. Secondly, a major achievement of the AKP leadership has been to depoliticize the role of the Turkish military, partly to protect itself against interference and partly to satisfy European Union accession criteria.

 

Alienation and emotional distress is more a symptom than an explanation of why there exist such strong political tensions. Better understood, these conflicts are about class, religion, status, political style, the benefits of governmental control, and availability of capital and credit. An additional source of public antagonism is the unresolved, and mostly unacknowledged, debate about the true nature of democracy as the legitimating ideal for good governance in the 21st century. One perplexing element is language, especially its use by politicians concerned with public opinion. There is this impulse on one side to base governmental legitimacy on pleasing the citizenry, and the impulse on the other side is to insist upon fidelity to law and constitutionalism. Both sides have powerful arguments that can be invoked to support their claims. There is no right and wrong, which is infuriating for polarized discourse that can only raise its voice to shout in higher decibels, but can never reach a conclusion of the sort that might resolve a scientific debate or solve a mathematical puzzle. Each side is motivated by unshakeable convictions, and has no disposition to listen, much less appreciate, what the others are saying. In effect, good governance is impossible in the absence of community, and what has become evident is that society unity is currently unattainable in the presence of the sort of alienation that has gripped the publics in Egypt and Turkey, and elsewhere. 

 

Part of the controversy, but only part, can be reduced to these differences over the very nature of democracy. Another part, as discussed in relation to the vote on the Egyptian constitution, involves the abandonment of democracy in substance while insisting on its retention in form.

 

Varieties of Democracy

 

The word democracy itself needs to be qualified in one of two ways: majoritarian or republican. And here is the central tension: the public myth in all countries that deem themselves ‘modern’ endorse the republican tradition of limited government and internal checks and balances, while the political culture is decidedly ambivalent. It can spontaneously legitimize the majoritarian prerogatives of a popular leader with strong backing on the street and among the armed forces, even at the cost of republican correctness. Because of this reality, there exists a tendency by those social forces being displaced through societal power shifts to view a newly ascendant leader through a glass darkly. They suddenly lament authoritarian tendencies that never troubled them in the past when their elites held the reins of governmental authority. Part of the recent confusion is that sometimes the authoritarian tendency gets so corrupted that it loses support even among those who share its class and ideological outlook, and a reformist enthusiasm emerges. This happened in Egypt, but its tenure was short lived as its adherents, drawn from the ranks of the urban educated elites, quickly realized that their interests and values were more jeopardized by the ‘new’ order than it had been by the excesses of the ‘old’ order. 

 

We find in Egypt this pattern played out through the wildly gyrations in the perception of the armed forces as a political player. In the Mubarak Era the armed forces were the central pillar of the state, and a major beneficiary of governmental corruption, neoliberal inequities, and a principal perpetrator, along with other security forces, of state crime. In the Morsi period of governance the armed forces seemed to stay in the background until either responding to or prompting the populist mandate of the opposition exhibited by mass demonstrations and media mobilization based on a paranoid image of Muslim Brotherhood rule and widespread genuine distress about economic stagnancy and political disarray.

 

After the July 3rd coup led by Morsi’s Minister of Defense, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the armed forces set aside the constitution, installed a transitional government, promised new elections, and set about drafting a constitution that embodied the hegemony of the armed forces. What has taken place, however, is an undisguised exercise of authoritarian closure based on declaring the former choice of the citizenry, the Muslim Brotherhood, to be a ‘terrorist’ organization whose leadership were victims of several atrocities, imprisoned, forced underground, and fled the country. Nevertheless, despite these repressive measures, the armed forces are proceeding on a basis as if their action has been mandated by ‘democracy,’ that is, by majoritarian demands for change enacted on the streets of Egyptian cities and through the subsequent endorsement of the repressive steps to be undertaken by the regime, eventually validated through demonstrations, voting, and electoral ratification. In the background of such a counter-revolutionary turn, of course, were weak institutions of government accustomed to operate for decades within a strict authoritarian political space, and a governmental bureaucracy whose judiciary and police continued to ideologically aligned with the old order. Such an entrenched bureaucracy seems to have regarded the reemergence of authoritarian and militarized politics as natural, linked in their imaginary with Egypt’s ancient heritage of greatness and more comfortable with such domineering figures as Nasser and Mubarak as compared to the density and seeming incapacities of Morsi.

 

Challenging Democracy in Turkey

 

The situation in Turkey is much more subtle and less menacing, yet exhibits several analogous features. Despite the outcome of elections that brought the AKP to power initially in 2002, a development subsequently reinforced by stronger electoral mandates in 2007 and 2012, most of the opposition never accepted these results as politically acceptable, and immediately sought to undermine the elected leadership in a variety of legal and extra-legal ways. In the background of this alienation was the implicit and feared belief that the AKP was mounting a challenge to the hallowed legacy of Kemal Ataturk, as well as to the rigid Turkish style of secularism that was periodically reinvigorated by the armed forces that staged coups, which in 1982 had imposed a highly centralized, security oriented constitution on the country. With political acumen, the AKP maneuvered pragmatically in an impressive manner, creating a rapidly growing economy, seeking to play a conflict resolving role throughout the Middle East, and repeatedly proclaiming a fidelity to the secular creed as the foundation of public order, and by stages subjecting the armed forces to civilian control. Despite the magnitude of these achievements the AKP and Erdogan never gained an iota of appreciation or respect from the anti-religious Kemalist opposition that claimed to be the only legitimate guardians of Turkish ‘secularism.’  Strangely, this alienated opposition was never able to present a responsible political platform that could give the Turkish people a positive alternative, and so the prospects of mounting an electoral challenge remained poor, especially given the accomplishments of the AKP.

 

In such a setting this intensely alienated opposition seemed increasingly dependent on manufacturing a crisis of legitimacy that would restore the old state/society balance that had prevailed since the founding of the republic in 1923. The Ataturk legacy included a somewhat reluctance acceptance of procedural democracy in the form of free and fair elections with the apparent implied assumption that the outcome would remain faithful to his modernist orientation, modeled on Europe, that accompanied the founding of the republic. The range of opposition was limited by a law allowing the closure of political parties that seemed to be straying from the prescribed Kemalist path. When the AKP defied these expectations in 2002, the opposition became quickly fed up with the workings of  ‘democracy,’ and seemed early on to count on being rescued, as in the past, by a military intervention that they hoped would be encouraged by the U.S., which was assumed to be unhappy about the Islamist leanings attributed to the AKP political base and leadership.  The disappointment among the old secular elites arising from the failure of these expectations to materialize deepened the alienation and frustrations of opposition forces, especially on the part of urban elites in the main cities of Turkey in the western part of the country, which exaggerated the faults of the government and ignored its achievements.

 

With such considerations in mind it was understandable that there would be exhilaration among the opposition generated by the Gezi Park demonstrations in the summer of 2013, especially in its initial phases that were as much a protest against the AKP’s embrace of an environmentally rapacious neoliberalism as it was against the authoritarian excesses of the Erdogan leadership. This enthusiasm weakened when the Gezi movement was substantially hijacked in its subsequent phases by the most extreme tendencies of the alienated opposition, which seemed to believe that Gezi presented an opportunity to fashion a full-fledged crisis of governability out of this narrowly focused protest that might force the resignation of Erdogan, if not the collapse of the AKP. There was an attempt to take advantage of escalating public outrage that resulted after excessive force was used by the police to maintain order in the Gezi context. Of course, Erdogan’s harsh style of discourse, including off the cuff opinions that reflected his Islamic devoutness, were part of the broader political atmosphere, and were particularly alarming to an already alienated opposition, reinforcing their their underlying beliefs that any alternative would be better for Turkey than what the AKP was bestowing upon the country. The situation was aggravated  after the AKP electoral success in 2011. It seemed to give Erdogan confidence that he need no longer adhere to his earlier cautiously pragmatic approach to leadership, and he adopted the sort of swagger that both frightened and disgusted an opposition that was not inclined to give him any leeway.

 

Similarly, the more recent, unexpected, and still obscure and bitter public falling out between the AKP and the hizmet movement has injected a new virus into the Turkish body politic posing unpredictable threats. It may turn out that this conflict represent nothing more fundamental than a struggle for relative influence and power that calmer minds will resolve before long. Perhaps also Turkey is experiencing some of the almost inevitable mishaps associated with keeping one political party with a strong leader in power for too long. Such prolonged control of government almost always produces scandal and corruption, especially in a political culture where the rule of law and the ethics of civic virtue do not have a very strong grip on behavioral patterns. In the more distant Turkish past are the memories of Ottoman times when the country was a regional power center, governed by highly authoritarian figures, a hallowed past that was secularized in the last century but not challenged in its essential role in Turkish political culture.

 

Majoritarian and Republican Democracy Assessed

 

With this mix of considerations in mind, the distinction between ‘Majoritarian Democracy’ and ‘Republican Democracy,’ although simplifying the actual political texture, seems important.  In Majoritarian Democracy the leadership is essentially responsible to the electorate, and if its policies reflect the will of the majority, the views and values of opposed minorities need not be respected. Critical views treat such forms of government as susceptible to the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ which has subjective and objective realities distinguishing between what is perceived and what is actually taking place. Arguably after Morsi’s election in 2012, and given the embittered opposition that seemed unwilling to accept the outcome of the vote, the Muslim Brotherhood used the prerogatives of office in a failed attempt to impose the majoritarian will, and may itself have been prepared to change the rules of the political game so as to retain control. Part of the majoritarian mentality is to locate a check on its excesses in the will of the citizenry, and thus when the people are mobilized to demand a new leadership for the country without waiting upon the niceties of the next elections, the path is cleared for the sort of military takeover that occurred last July. Of course, majoritarian dynamics are subject to manipulation by anti-democratic forces whose zeal is directed toward gaining control of the state.

 

‘Republican Democracy’ in contrast starts with a generally skeptical view of human nature, and seeks above all to find procedures and support the nurturing of a political culture that prizes moderate government over efficiency and transcendent leadership. The American self-conscious adoption of Republican Democracy at the end of the 18th century, as spelled out for the ages in The Federalist Papers, is a classic instance of molding a constitutional system that was wary of majorities and protective of minorities and of individual rights ( although totally blind to the human claims of slaves and native Americans). Unlike Egypt or Turkey, Americans were seeking to arrange a different future for themselves than was associated with British royalism, and its absolutist pretensions. In the background, were political thinkers such as John Locke with a stress on the link between good governance and rights and Montesquieu who argued along analogous lines about the cardinal relevance of separation of powers to the avoidance of the concentration and excesses of state power. Delinking government from religious claims of certainty was also consistent with republican sensitivity to human flaws and the general ethos of Lord Acton’s famous saying ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

 

Because over time every political system faces crises, the American founders realized that the envisioned arrangements would only survive the tests of time if two conditions were realized: first, reverence for the constitution by both lawmakers and citizens, and secondly, judicial supremacy to override legislative and executive swings toward either implementing the momentary passions of the mob or aggrandizing power and authority, and thereby upsetting the delicate balance of institutions. Despite this self-conscious commitment to the republican approach, in times of war and crisis, the democratic feature of accountable power-wielding tends to yield to claims of national security and public expediency. And once such departures from republicanism become entrenched, as a result of a long period of warfare or in relation to nuclear weaponry, and now transnational terrorism, the authoritarian genie is able to escape from the constitutional bottle. As the American motto of ‘eternal vigilance’ reminds us, there are no safe paths to moderate government, and its most influential advocates realized that their wishes might be so defeated that they recognized that the people enjoyed ‘a right of revolution’ if despite all precautions the governing process had become despotic.

 

It need hardly be argued that neither Egypt nor Turkey are remotely similar to the United States or Europe, but the superficial embrace of democracy by these and other countries might benefit from examining more closely the menace of Majoritarian Democracy in a fragmented polity and the difficulties of establishing Republican Democracy in political cultures that have been so long dominated by militarism and authoritarianism. Egypt is experiencing the essentially anti-democratic restoration of authoritarian militarism, while Turkey is trying to preserve sufficient stability and consensus to enable the self-restrained persistence of procedural democracy and a successful process of constitutional renewal that rids the country of the 1982 militarist vision of governance, and moves toward creating the institutional and procedural frame and safeguards associated with Republican Democracy. Beyond this, however, will be the immense educational challenge of shaping a supportive political culture that entrenches republican values in public consciousness, above all a respect for individual and group rights and an inclusive approach to policy formation that seeks participation by and approval from stakeholding constituencies opposed to the majority. Such a vision of a democratic future for Turkey implies a process, not an event, and will require an ongoing struggle inevitably distracted by both manufactured and authentic crises of legitimacy. The hope is that moderate minds will prevail, serving the long-term interests of a state and its peoples that retain great potential to be a beacon of light for the region and beyond.

 

  

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