Archive | December, 2014

Terrorism, Torture, and the Problem of Evil in Our Time

31 Dec

Reading Confessions of a Terrorist: a novel by Richard Jackson (published by Zed Books, London & New York, 2014, $24.95, £16.99)

 

Richard Jackson, a professor of peace studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, has written a probing political essay that takes the form of an imagined dialogue between a British interrogator and an Egyptian terrorist who is apparently thought at the time of their conversation to be the mastermind of an imminent attack on Great Britain. Jackson is a well-regarded expert on the politics and tactics of terrorism and counterterrorism.

 

The novel complicates our understanding of such fundamental questions as ‘what is terrorism?’ ‘who are the terrorists?’ ‘when is violence justified?’ ‘is torture ever justified?’ ‘what is the proper balance between resistance and violence against the innocent?’ ‘is there an effective alternative to violence in conditions of foreign occupation? The motivation of those who choose violent resistance against various forms of oppression are depicted in a balanced and perceptive way, as well as the life choices made by individuals who forsake ‘normalcy’ to pursue radical political goals are sensitively explored.

 

There is a narrative line that keeps the reader engaged, and slightly disoriented. The text of the novel is presented to the reader in the format of an official government transcript replete with redactions and occasional italicized comments made by a higher ranking bureaucrat who recommends various deletions so as to avoid causing adverse impressions on politicians and public opinion. The interrogator acknowledges from time to time the validity of his captive’s arguments, but by contrast the commentary by the bureaucrat is totally devoid of affect, concerned only with saving face in the event of exposure, and has recourse to various devices to cover up any disclosures in the transcript that could prove awkward if exposed.

 

Part of what makes Confessions such an effective book is its non-judgmental tone that accepts this role-playing dynamic in which the two characters largely choose their respective ‘careers’ on the basis of their distinct social locations and individual experience. Neither is presented as morally superior to the other. Above all, morality and legality are sidelined by according priority to the higher callings of ‘freedom’ and ‘security’ by both characters—by the interrogating official and by the terrorist (addressed as ‘professor’ because he had been a professor economics in Egypt before joining the struggle). There is a spirit of mutual recognition, which occasionally lapses into an attitude of appreciation. Each person is responding to a challenging situation in an understandable manner, and yet each at the same time passes judgment on the dirty work of his counterpart. The interrogator is dragged through the counterterrorist mud by ‘the professor’ while the terrorist is humanized by linking his violent behavior to his deep experience of intolerable realities of inequality and oppression. In the end both men seem to coexist on a plane of ethical equivalence, with each destined to play out their part as if entrapped in a tragic drama. The tone of Confessions contrasts with American neocon Manicheanism, epitomized by the simplistic language of George W. Bush who insists that the CIA torturers were ‘patriots’ (and good) while their victims were ‘terrorists’ (and evil).

 

Jackson leaves readers on their own to contemplate the carnage and suffering caused by the actual encounters taking place in the real world, inevitably raising concerns as to whether there might be a better way to organize the collective life of the planet. In other words, can the characters in the novel escape from their assigned roles?

 

With nuclear weapons under the control of as many as nine governments and trends toward global warming showing few signs of abatement, the hegemonic and militarized dynamics of control and resistance seem dangerously precarious compulsions, threatening future catastrophe, and maybe even species annihilation. It seems to me that the sub-text of Confessions, if I am not (mis)reading is the question that haunted many of Jacques Derrida’s later reflections: are societies capable of finding ways to live together in peace and harmony? Not just to get along or cohabit, but to enjoy the reality of the other in sustainable and mutually satisfying ways. Even positing such an aspiration amid the turmoil and strife of our lifeworld strikes an irresponsibly utopian note. Perhaps, Jackson doesn’t want us to go there at all, but to stop short, and be content to decode what these archetypal adversaries of contemporary state/society relations are really saying and doing. If this is indeed the intention, we can thank Jackson for bestowing an excellent pedagogical tool that can serve us well in classrooms and life circumstances.

 

While the dialogue proceeds, there is also a drama of sorts mysteriously unfolding. It becomes unclear toward the end who is the prisoner of whom, and the entire plot thickens, raising the broad question as to which side has the upper hand in these titanic struggles of our time. In effect, is there ‘a right side’ of history that will eventually prevail, or are we forever doomed to be afflicted by the toxic dialectics of violence? The collapse of European colonialism suggests one kind of answer, but the rise of neoliberalcapitalism suggests another. These larger concerns are not addressed directly by this fundamental interplay between violence from below and violence from above, which is what our preoccupation with whether such a struggle can be restrained within limits (respecting prohibitions on torture, refraining from targeting schools and hospitals) or is inevitably controlled by revolutionary absolutes.

 

The decision to have the interrogator be British, not American, seems odd at first, appearing to divert attention from the core global encounter, but on further thought, there is a supporting rationale. The colonial background of Britain in the Middle East may be a more valid perspective than the more conventional focus on the post-colonial role being played by the United States throughout the world.

 

Whatever else, Jackson has written a page-turning and thought-provoking book, which is highly recommended to anyone perplexed by this incurable scourge of violence. Although its characters are invented and the dialogue imagined, the reading experience is uncomfortably closer to non-fiction than fiction. In this instance, the imagined world is the real world! You can get a fuller sense of Richard Jackson’s thinking by visiting his consistently intelligent blog <richardjacksonterrorismblog.wordpress.com> The foreign offices and intelligence services of the world should have been required to read his posts on ISIS, which might have encouraged some thinking outside the militarist box, which is long overdue.

 

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Remembering 2014 (Badly)

25 Dec

 

Considering the year that is about to end is a time to pause long enough to take stock of what went wrong. In the United States not much went right aside from Barack Obama’s surprising initiative to normalize relations with Cuba after more than 60 years of hostile and punitive interaction. Although the sleazy logic of domestic politics kept this remnant of the worst features of Cold War diplomacy in being for a couple of extra decades, it is still worth celebrating Obama’s move, which when compared to the rest of his record, seems bold and courageous. As well, Obama exhibited a strong commitment to doing more than previously on climate change, using his executive authority to circumvent Congressional unwillingness to act responsibly. Obama’s immigration reform proposals also seem on balance to be positive, although whether they will be implemented remains an open question.  

 

Drifting Toward Cold War II: Remembering World War I

 

There are several signs of a worsening global setting that seemed to gain an ominous momentum during 2014. Perhaps, worst of all, is a steady drumbeat of anti-Russian rhetoric backed up by Western sanctions, that seems almost designed to produce Cold War II. No less a figure than Mikhail Gorbachev, speaking at the Brandenburg Gate an event observing the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, warned of a renewed Cold War, and wonder aloud as to whether it had already started. There is little reason to praise Vladimir Putin, but there is far less reason to transform the tensions generated by the confusing and contradictory happenings in the Ukraine into a renewal of high profile geopolitical rivalry, replete with crises and confrontations that pose world-shattering threats that could be actualized by accident, miscalculations, or the over-reactions of extremists bureaucrats and leaders.

 

In this year when the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I is being observed in many countries it is helpful to remember that this ‘Great War’ was started rather frivolously and proclaimed to be “the war to end all wars.” Instead, it is better remembered as the war that helped produced political extremism in Europe, unleashed forces that led to an even more devastating Second World War, and created the conditions that brought the nuclear age to the world. Perversely, as well, the origins of the contemporary turmoil in the Middle East today can be traced back to the world war one diplomacy that produced both the Sykes-Picot Agreement carving up the region by establishing artificial states to satisfy the greedy appetites of British and French colonial ambitions and the Balfour Declaration that committed the British Foreign Office and the League of Nations to the Zionist Project of establishing a Jewish homeland in the heart of historic Palestine without ever bothering to consult the indigenous population. Although some of the mistakes associated with the punitive aspects of the peace imposed on Germany by the Versailles Peace Treaty were corrected after World War II, these colonialist moves converted the collapse of the Ottoman Empire into an ongoing regional catastrophe that shows no signs of abating in the near future. We cannot rewind the reel of Middle Eastern history to learn if things would have turned out better if things had been handled more in accord with Woodrow Wilson’s premature advocacy of a self-determination ethos as the foundation of legitimate political communities deserving of membership in international society as sovereign states. These developments of a century ago are to an extent lost in the mists of time, but we should at least be alert about the roots of the present ordeal of chaos, strife, and oppression.

 

Torture Revelations

 

On December 9th after months of delay and controversy, the 500 page Executive summary of the 6,000 page Senate Intelligence Committee Report on CIA Torture was released. It contained some grizzly additional information and interpretations to what had been known previously, adding such practices as ‘rectal re-hydration’ to the repertoire of state terrorists, and indicating that there were at least 26 individuals tortured by the CIA who were improperly treated as suspects.

 

Perhaps, the most disturbing feature of this phase of the controversy about the treatment of terrorist suspects is the absence of remorse on the part of those associated with the policies relied upon during the Bush presidency in the period of hysteria following the 9/11 attack. Dick Cheney was particularly out front about his readiness to do it all over again, and refused even to lament the abuse of those detained by mistake.

 

The former Deputy Director of the CIA, Mike Morrell, has attempted to insulate the CIA from blame by suggesting the reasonableness of CIA’s reliance on the ‘torture memos’ prepared by John Yoo and Jay Bybee that encouraged the CIA to think that their forms of coercive interrogation were ‘legal,’ and argued the reasonableness of the post-9/11 inclination to take exceptional measures to gain information given the fears that abounded at the time within the U.S. Government of further attacks, including according to him, of a credible threat of al-Qaida’s access to a nuclear weapon within national borders. George W. Bush, never one bothered by nuance, assures us that the CIA torturers were ‘patriots’ who were engaged in doing the good work of protecting the security of the country. Bush seems to be saying that patriotism wipes clean the slate of individual criminal accountability.

 

Morrell, and his colleagues, conveniently ignore the fact that the Nuremberg Judgment concluded that even ‘superior orders’ are no defense for someone charged with violating fundamental rules of international humanitarian law. If we stop for the briefest of moments, and consider how we would view the interrogation practices of the CIA if roles were reversed, and white American males were seen as the victims rather than dark Muslim men from the Middle East, it would seem clear beyond a reasonable doubt, that the label ‘torture’ would fit, and the description ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (further euphemized as EITs) is a malicious evasion of reality.

 

Even liberal centers of opinion, including the ever cautious New York Times, have reacted to the Senate Report with calls for criminal investigations leading to probable indictments of those responsible for implementing torture, with the ladder of responsibility leading up at least as high as Cheney as Vice President, and conceivably to George W. Bush. [See editorial, “Prosecute Torturers and Their Bosses,” Dec. 22, 2014] The even more cautious American president, Barack Obama, has disconcertedly combined his repudiation of EIT culture and practices with a steadfast refusal to besmirch the reputation of the CIA or to look backward in time. Obama’s strange view, which is entirely destructive of any notion of governmental accountability ever, is that with respect to torture allegations the effort should be to prevent such behavior in the future, but not to investigate or impose any accountability for what was done in the past. I am led to wonder why he does not apply a similar logic to the leaks associated with such well-intentioned whistleblowers as Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and above all, Edward Snowden! Perhaps somewhere in the dark recesses of Obama’s mind he distinguishes between crimes of government (deserving impunity) and crimes against government (deserving severe punishment).

 

It is not that Obama is necessarily wrong in his disposition to overlook the past when it comes to torture revelations, although he supplied the citizenry with no appropriate justification for this de facto conferral of impunity. It is not at all certain that the United States political system could manage such self-scrutiny without experiencing such a deep polarization as to put domestic and world peace at risk. It is evident that the country is split down the middle, and the risks of strife and a surge of support for the extreme right in the event of arrests and prosecutions are far from being paranoid excuses of the timid. We need to face the reality, with all of its shortcomings in relation to law and justice, that we live in a world of pervasive double standards when it comes to the official treatment of criminal accountability for international state crime, whether perpetrated within the American domestic legal structure or at black sites around the world. It is plausible to hold defeated dictators like Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Qaddafi, accountable, but quite another matter to indict Bush, Cheney, and Tony Blair, although both groupings have been responsible for heinous crimes.

 

Part of the liberal concept of legality is to overlook what it is not feasible to do and focus on what can be done. From this perspective it was good to prosecute surviving German and Japanese leaders at Nuremberg and Tokyo because those charged were associated with vicious behavior and it was important to discourage and deter in the future. The fact that the indiscriminate bombing of German and Japanese cities by the victorious democracies, and the unleashing of atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would also by any criminal court be deemed as crimes is true but irrelevant. It is better not to go there, and leave it to dissident anti-imperialist scholars to whine about ‘victors’ justice’ and ‘double standards.’ “We liberals do what we can to make the world better, and to fight against the nihilistic nationalism of the extreme right.” Such is the liberal credo.

 

What liberalism ignores is the relevance of structure and the organic connectedness of equality with the rendering of justice. If we are unwilling to prosecute the most dangerous perpetrators of state crime, is it not hypocritical to go after only those whose behavior appalls or angers the reigning hegemon? Does it not make the rule of law susceptible to dismissal as a cynical exercise in the demonization of ‘the other,’ whether belonging to an adversary religion, ethnicity, a marginalized class, or defeated nation? The experience of the International Criminal Court during its first thirteen years of operation is illustrative of this two-tier discriminatory approach to individual accountability. This parallels the more overtly discriminatory approach to nuclear weaponry adopted via the profound shift away from the initial concern about apocalyptic dangers posed by the weaponry to anxiety about its spread to certain unwanted others.

 

Although these questions about criminal accountability are rhetorical, the prudential dilemma posed is genuinely challenging. I am not convinced that it would on balance be constructive in the present national atmosphere to attempt the punishment of political leaders in the United States who in the past authorized the practice of torture. The potential costs and risks seem too high compared to the benefits. The related question is whether or not to create some kind of equivalence at lower levels of expectations. If ‘well-intentioned’ torturers are given a free pass why not do the same for ‘idealistic and responsible whistleblowers’? It would seem almost beyond debate that the whistleblowers should not be prosecuted if the torturers are beneficiaries of such a pragmatic form of impunity. I would make the case that Assange, Manning, and Snowden deserve an honorific form of pardon, namely, the application of a doctrine of ‘principled impunity” as distinct from the notion of ‘pragmatic impunity.’ Here I think the social system in the United States would benefit despite producing some severe political strains that would almost certainly follow. I would argue that the highest pragmatic virtue of prudence would mandate taking such steps, namely, protecting one of the few safety valves available to citizens living in a modern national security state, which when added to the principled recognition of selfless and virtuous citizenship makes an overwhelming case for decriminalization. If we cannot have accountability for certain categories of abhorrent state crime, at least we should encourage transparency, making whistleblowing integral to the preservation of political democracy.

 

It would be a mistake not to connect the torture revelations to related issues of police brutality associated with the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and of Eric Garner in Staten Island New York. Beyond this, the militarization of American political culture has been reaffirmed at the level of the citizenry by polls confirming the highest level of support for gun rights in the history of the country. It is little wonder that the elected leadership, as reinforced by the entrenched bureaucracy, cannot think much outside the military box when it comes to conflict resolution. Above all the resources of the moral and legal imagination have been degraded for so long as to be virtually irrelevant, which of course satisfies the comfort zone on ‘political realists’ who continue to distort our perceptions of 21st century realities.

 

 

 

Multiple Atrocities

 

More than in previous years, 2014 seemed to be a time of multiple atrocities, events that went beyond the ordeals of warfare and massive poverty, to shock the conscience by their violent aggression against the purest forms of innocence—deliberate brutality directed at young children, exhibiting depraved political imaginaries. By calling attention I have no intention of downplaying the widespread suffering associated with such continuing struggles at those taking place in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Kashmir, and many other places on our tormented planet.

 

ISIS or Daesh: This extremist movement, claiming an Islamic identity, emerged suddenly in the early part of 2014 as an occupying force in Iraq and Syria, proclaiming a new Sunni caliphate under its authority, and representing a sociopathic and sectarian response to the failed American occupation of Iraq. Initially welcomed by many Sunni Iraqis living in the northeastern parts of the country as liberation from Shiite abusive domination that resulted from American policies of debathification following the 2003 regime change in Baghdad, ISIS outraged the world by its televised beheadings of Western journalists, by its uprooting and slaughter of Shiite males belonging to the mainly Kurdish-speaking minority Yazidi community, and its alleged practice of turning Yazidi girls and women into sex slaves. Yazidis are considered an old religious sect that adheres to a pre-Muslim syncretist beliefs drawn from Zoroastrianism and ancient Mesopotamian religions, and drawing on other later religions as well. It would seem that the American-led response to ISIS is proceeding by way of yet another military intervention mainly in the form of air strikes. Although the political impact are yet to be clear, this does not a constructive path to restore peace and order.

 

Boko Harem: Another manifestation of sociopathetic extremist politics gained world attention in April by the kidnapping in Nigeria of some 200 schoolgirls who were later abused in various ways, including being sold into slavery. Boko Harem has controlled parts of northern Nigeria since 2009, and has continued to engaged in behavior that constitutes crimes against humanity, and a total disregard of the innocence of Nigerian children, repeatedly engaging in kidnappings and wholesale destruction of villages. As recently as December 18th, Boko Harem forces kidnapped at least 185 young men, women, and children from a village in northern Nigeria. Its political goals, to the extent evident, are to protect Muslims in the country and establish a strict version of sharia law for areas under their control.

 

Pakistani Taliban: The mid-December attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School by the Pakistani Taliban produced the massacre of an estimated 134 children and 14 others. The writer, Pervez Hoodbhoy, says that the Taliban, in ways that he believes parallel the ambitions of the Afghani Taliban, Boko Haram, and ISIS, are “fighting for a dream-to destroy Pakistan as a Muslim state and recreate it as an Islamic state.” The implication is a radical transformation from some kind of religious normalcy into a fearsome embodiment religious fanaticism.

 

Israel’s Military Operation ‘Protective Edge’ Against Gaza: For the third time in less than six years Israel launched a vicious attack against Gaza that continued for 51 days, with the resulting humanitarian crisis caused accentuated by imposing a punitive ceasefire that has hampered recovery. The entire viability of Gaza is at severe risk. The attacks, known by the IDF code name of Operation Protective Edge, produced heavy civilian casualties (over 2,100 Palestinians killed including 519 childen, about 11,000 wounded, and as many as 520, 000 displaced, many homeless; on the Israeli side 70 were killed, 65 of whom were IDF, and one child) including among children, and traumatized the entire population locked into Gaza, with no exit available even for women, children, and disabled seeking sanctuary from the attack.

 

Identified above are just a few highlights from this year’s catalogue of atrocities. It is also evident that there exists a pattern of numbed response around the world that amounts to a collective condition of ‘atrocity fatigue.’ Beyond this these incidents and developments illustrate the inability of many governments in Africa and the Middle East to exert effective sovereign control over their own territory, as well as the inability of the United Nations to protect peoples faced with threats underscoring their acute vulnerability. Account must also be taken of geopolitical priorities that accords attention to ISIS and Pakistan’s Taliban but much less to Boko Haram and none at all to Israel’s IDF. If there is any hope for effective responses it is a result of national and transnational activations of civil society that do their best to fill these normative black holes.

 

Climate Change and Nuclear Weapons

 

Without dwelling on these familiar issues threatening the future of the entire human species, it is worth noticing that little of a constructive nature took place during the year. A notable exception, which may make a difference, was the U.S./China agreement in November to regulate emissions and to cooperate in an effort to prevent the global buildup of greenhouse gasses. These two dominant states are responsible for almost 50% of this buildup, and suggest that geopolitical cooperation may produce more positive results than the dilatory movements of unwieldy UN mechanisms that involve the more than 190 states that make up its membership. On its surface the agreement was not impressive with the U.S. agreeing to cut emissions by 26-28% by 2025 and China agreeing to peak its emissions in 2030, and by meet its energy needs by relying for 20% on zero emissions sources, but the very fact of such an agreement was looked upon as ‘a game changer’ by some. I would be more skeptical, especially of the American side of the commitment, given the possibility that a Republican could become president in 2016, and might well ignore such an agreed target, especially if it is perceived as slowing economic growth. The UN Conference in Peru a month later ended up doing little more than issuing the Lima Call for Climate Action was one more disappointment. The bickering among states pursuing their distinct national interests was manifest and a resulting race to the bottom. It does not generate any confidence that the hope for a 2015 breakthrough in Paris will actually address climate change in a manner that heeds the warnings of climate scientists. Relying on voluntary guidelines so as to circumvent domestic debate, especially in the United States, is not an encourage feature of what is expected.

 

As for nuclear weapons, the less said the better. Obama’s Prague visionary statement in 2009 has been swept aside by the nuclear weapons establishment, not only in the United States, but in all the nuclear weapons states. And even the possibility of bringing a measure of stability to the Middle East by eliminating nuclear weapons from the region has been taboo because of Israeli sensitivities. Instead the United States is embarked upon an expensive program on its own to upgrade its arsenal of nuclear weaponry. There is no serious initiative evident within international society to move toward the one solution that has long been obvious and yet unattainable—phased and verified nuclear disarmament as a prelude to a wider demilitarization of the global security system.

 

What is at stake, above all, is whether the species as a species can manifest a collective will to survive in strong enough forms to meet these mounting unprecedented challenges of global scope. The species will to survive has never been seriously challenged previously, with all past survival collapses being of civilizational or sub-species scope. Humanity has been facing something new since the advent of nuclear weaponry, but has responded managerially rather than either with moral clarity or prudential wisdom.

 

Conclusion

 

Despite all, we can look to 2015 with some measure of hope, almost exclusively because there seems to be a slow awakening of civil society, at least in the domains of the BDS Campaign relating to Palestinian rights and in the form of the separate emergence of a transnational movement that takes global warming as seriously as the realities suggest. As for the future, we see, if at all, through a glass darkly, and thus have no excuse for refraining from a dedication to the struggle for global justice in its many shapes and forms. A posture of cynical hopelessness or despair worsens prospects for positive future developments, however empirically based such a negative assessment seems. All of us should recall that those who struggle for what seems ‘impossible’ today often turn out to be the heroes of tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

Human Rights Award to Shireen Issawi

18 Dec

Alkarama Human Rights Award to Shireen Issawi

 

[Prefatory Note: in this post I am presenting in the following order remarks that I made via Skype video recording at the 6th Annual Alkarama Award for Human Rights at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, December 14, 2014, a letter written from an Israeli prison by the recipient of the award, Shireen Issawi, and a press release prepared by the Alkarama Foundation describing the full event, including notable presentation by Norman Finkelstein and Alfred de Zayas. The Alkarama website describes itself as follows: “Alkarama is a Swiss-based, independent human rights organisation established in 2004 to assist all those in the Arab World subjected to, or at risk of, extra-judicial executions, disappearances, torture and arbitrary detention. Acting as a bridge between individual victims in the Arab world and international human rights mechanisms, Alkarama works towards an Arab world where all individuals live free, in dignity and protected by the rule of law. In Arabic, Alkarama means dignity.”]

 

 

 

Remarks of Richard Falk

 

I wish that I could have been present to take part in honoring Shireen Issawi as a brave, resolute, and inspiring human rights defender who has dedicated her professional career as a lawyer to the long Palestinian national struggle for freedom, human rights, and self-determination. Even more, I wish that Ms. Issawi could be present to receive this award in person rather than sitting alone in her jail cell day after day, facing trumped up charges of resisting arrest when the real criminal offense was committed by the arresting officers in carrying out an abusive arrest in a manner calculated to invoke fear and trembling. We realize that the political situation in Palestine is perverted when the real criminals are administering the law while the truly innocent are sitting in the dock awaiting a punishment meted out by a biased judicial process. Shireen’s life story, that of the whole Issawi family, and indeed that of the Palestinian people as a whole, is an embodiment of this prolonged perversion of justice, and as we honor her on this day we also are seeking to remind the world that it is past time to end the Palestinian ordeal.

 

In my own experience as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine in the period 2008-2014 I had my own slight taste of how the wheels of Israeli injustice grind on while most of the world averts its gaze. Arriving at Ben Gurion Airport in December 2008, with the intention of carrying out my mission of investigation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, I was detained for several hours at the airport before being transferred to a nearby makeshift prison where I remained overnight, expelled the following morning. The whole experience was not longer than 20 hours, but being confined with five other prisoners in a small cell that smelled of urine, was over lit and filthy, gave me an unforgettable glimpse of Israel prison life. It should be kept in mind that in my case Israel as a member of the UN had a treaty obligation to cooperate with the Organization so as to facilitate its official undertakings. Quite revealing as to the limits of international law, was the failure of the UN even to protest Israel’s breach of its duties as a UN member or my treatment as someone attempting to carry out a UN mission. An Israeli government spokesperson lied to the media by saying that I had been warned not to come to Israel as I would be denied entry. Contrary to this contention, the truth is otherwise. When we submitted our proposed itinerary of visits in Occupied Palestine to the Israeli mission in Geneva there was no objection or warning, and in fact, Israel issued visas to my two assistants knowing that they would be accompanying me. What is again emblematic is that the mainstream media wrote about the incident on the basis of the lies told by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and lacked the journalistic decency to check with me, and at least hear my side of the story or allow me to respond myself. One reason why this Alkarama event is so important is as counter to Israeli lies and hasbara (the systematic slanting of world news to support Israel’s claims), a bit of witnessing about real happenings.

 

My UN job was to assess Israel’s human rights record in its role as an occupying power governed by international humanitarian law, and specifically, the Fourth Geneva Convention, which is the principal treaty instrument for regulating belligerent occupation. In its general applicability, Geneva IV prohibits harming all those subject to the authority of an occupying power that are uninvolved in active resistance. This refers especially to the civilian population, but also extends to those detained in prisons and even to the treatment of wounded soldiers. Above all, it obliges the occupier to maintain human rights in territories under its administration, to provide decent living conditions for the occupied population, and not to change underlying conditions in a manner that allows the occupied society to resume its normal existence when the occupier leaves. As I became familiar with Israel’s policies and practices, I became more and more convinced that neither the letter nor the spirit of the Geneva Convention was being observed by Israel, which is a legalistic way of informing the world that the daily life of every Palestinian was nightmarish in myriad ways.

 

Overall, rather than maintaining a temporary occupation, Israel from the outset fundamentally encroached upon the future prospects of the Palestinian people to realize their rights in two fundamental ways: first, by building and expanding settlements for as many as 650,000 settlers, then by constructing a network of settler only roads to link the settlement blocs with Israel, and by building an ugly separation wall that turned out to be a thinly disguised land grabbing exercise. These developments were each flagrant violations of Article 49(6) of Geneva IV and in defiant disregard of the authoritative 2004 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice. Again the pattern observed is one of massive and severe Israeli violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights standards aggravated by a lack of political will within the UN or in international diplomacy to take any enforcement action designed to uphold Palestinian rights.

 

And secondly, by engaging in various forms of collective punishment of the Palestinian civilian population, thereby violating Article 33 of Geneva IV that unconditionally prohibits all forms of collective punishment. I will mention two of the most notorious practices, although there are many others that contribute to the ordeal of ordinary Palestinian lives, including closures, curfews, checkpoints, restrictions on mobility. The blockade imposed on the entire civilian population of Gaza since mid-2007 is a comprehensive and cruel form of collective punishment imposed by Israel as soon as Hamas assumed governing authority, which has been gravely intensified in its adverse effects by three major Israeli military onslaughts in the last six years against an essentially defenseless population, and exhibit the deliberate reliance by Israel on excessive and disproportionate force producing heavy one-sided casualties on defenseless Palestinians who have no place to hide and are denied an option to leave the combat zone, and thus are unable to exercise the default escape option of becoming refugees.

 

A second form of unlawful collective punishment involves house demolitions carried out against the family residence of those Israel convicted of security crimes. Due to an international uproar this practice was abandoned by Israel for ten years, but has been revived and applied in some recent cases, cruelly depriving a family of their dwelling place so as to allow the Israeli state to avenge an alleged crime of resistance committed by a Palestinian who is often no longer even alive.

 

In the background is an occupation that has gone on far too long, and in the process has become something other than a holding operation until agreed arrangements for withdrawal can be implemented. It should be recalled that Israel was instructed to withdraw from occupied Palestine in Security Council Resolution 242 unanimously adopted back in 1967, incorporating the international law principle that territory could not be acquired by a state through the use of force. Not only has a failure to implement this principle, but a contradictory process has taken place over the course of more than four decades, which has transformed ‘occupation’ into de facto ‘annexation’ and has distorted the IHL duty to protect an occupied people into an oppressive administrative structure of systematic discrimination, a clear instance of apartheid that is defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as a distinct crime against humanity.

 

The Palestinian people have struggled over the years, and have experienced many frustrations and defeats. Their early hopes of being liberated by their Arab neighbors were dashed in a series of failed wars. Their expectations that UN resolutions supporting their basic claims would be implemented were consistently disappointed. The energetic PLO efforts after the 1967 to gain freedom by armed resistance came to nothing so far as a lasting solution is concerned. And in the most recent period, the false optimism associated with the 1993 Oslo Framework of Principles and the handshake on the White House lawn led to a growing disillusionment among Palestinians that such a diplomatic path would ever produce a just and sustainable peace.

 

With such an anguishing experience of frustration, disappointment, and defeat, it is not surprising that the Palestinians would seek other ways to achieve their rights. This search in recent years has centered on nonviolent militancy, involving various forms of non-cooperation at home and pressures brought to bear on Israel through a global solidarity movement. The roots of this turn to nonviolence can be traced to the first Intifada of 1987, a popular mobilization from below that expressed impatience with diplomacy from above and the tactics used by their own Palestinian PLO leadership. It is in the last decade that this turn to nonviolence has gathered momentum, official endorsement, and caught on internationally by way of the Palestinian led BDS Campaign and through various expressions of resistance to the occupation that has included ad hoc recourse to violence by individual Palestinians acting on their own seemingly in pursuit of some kind of remedial vengeance, having lost faith in any peaceful outcome and finding the daily ordeal of their situation unendurable.

 

One of the most vivid forms of nonviolent resistance is expressed by the hunger strikes of abused Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, including the extraordinary strike of Samer Issawi, Shireen’s brother, who reportedly refused food for an incredible 266 days. As with other efforts of Palestine to achieve a just peace, this turn to nonviolence has fallen below the radar screen of mainstream Western media that remains ever vigilant in magnifying the occurrence of every terrorist incident while by and large ignoring Israeli state terrorism, which is far deadlier in its humanitarian impacts. By honoring Shireen Issawi we repudiate such indifference to nonviolent resistance and at the same time invoke our commitment to nonviolence as the path to peace based on rights and justice, and also on the inalienable equality of the two peoples. In the end, it is less significant to talk about one state or two than to encourage discussion of how might these two peoples live peaceably together in view of all that has happened, is happening.

 

Let me end with some words of Reem al-Nimer from her brave book Curse of the Achille Lauro: “..I was once an active member of the Palestinian resistance and the wife of a Palestinian commando..Both Arabs and Jews are human beings. Both are entitled to a dignified life. The time has come when this bloodshed must end. We all have lives..The end of occupation and the termination of hostilities means that Arabs and Jews will need to accept the idea of living alongside one another. We have done this before 1948, and we can do it again. This is the foundation. This is the basis of peace.”

 

 

 

Shireen Issawi’s letter from prison accepting the award

 

In the name of God the Merciful,

 

I thank you for having awarded me the Alkarama Award, which I would like to share with all human beings carrying the flag of justice to enlighten, by the light of freedom, the night of injustice, as well as with all people who have adopted the just Palestinian cause, participated in their own way to support the march of the Palestinian people towards freedom, and the cause of Palestinian detainees in the occupier’s prisons, especially those conducting a hunger strike.

 

I obviously share this Award with my brother, Samer Al Issawi, “Samer Dignity”, who led the battle for freedom with an empty stomach, through the longest hunger strike in the history of mankind, and who unified us to become a single hand and a single voice before the injustice of the occupation, through his just battle for his freedom and his right to live in dignity.

 

I share the prize with my father and my mother, who taught us, me and my brothers, the love of our homeland and of dignity to continue on the path of freedom. Thank goodness the Palestinian people are not alone; other people share this struggle with him — whether those seeking their freedom, or those carrying our voice throughout the world for a better future where we will live freely and in a dignified manner, and where love will reign without bloodshed.

 

Some believe that the Palestinian people are defeated because they lives under occupation. Such an assertion is far from the truth; the Palestinian people are one of the proudest people who breathe and they feed on the love of their homeland. They do not feel defeated, they are defending their right to freedom and dignity; on the contrary, however inhumane the occupation is with its ability to block, kill and destroy, we must sustain the strength and courage to continue until we achieve our freedom. And that’s why the free men and women of the world gather around the just cause of the Palestinians, and brought their flag of freedom to the world, becoming their voice in the face of injustice.

 

The combination of the efforts of the legitimate Palestinian resistance against the occupation, and of the supporters of justice and freedom has united us as human beings through the silent language of faith in a trinity of virtues, which gives strength to our people — that is, the trinity of dignity, freedom and hope.

 

Humanity is the interest that we bear for each other, and our defense of the oppressed. The sense of freedom and its value can be understood only by those whose hearts beat for dignity and whose eyes shine with the hope that the sun will rise despite the darkness of the night. Let’s preserve our unity and our humanity to live in a free world where people can live freely with dignity and hope.

 

Shireen Al Issawi

Hasharon Prison, Israel

 

6 November 2014

 

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16 December 2014 Item title

2014 Alkarama Award Honours Palestinian Lawyer’s Commitment to Non-Violence as the “Path to Peace”

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Geneva, 13 December 2014

On 11 December 2014, the Alkarama Foundation presented its 6th annual Award for Human Rights Defenders in the Arab world to Palestinian human rights lawyer and activist, Shireen Issawi, in recognition of her courage and bravery in defending Palestinian prisoners and advocating for their rights. The ceremony held at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva focused on the Palestinian people’s strategy of non-violent resistance, a story largely under-reported in the mainstream media.

 

Speaking at the event were UN and international law experts, Richard Falk, Norman Finkelstein and Alfred de Zayas, as well as Palestinian Member of the Knesset, Haneen Zoabi, and Swiss political personalities, Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold and Guy Mettan. In the absence of Shireen, arrested by the Israeli authorities on 6 March 2014 as part of a crackdown on lawyers defending Palestinian prisoners, the Award was presented to her parents, Layla and Tarek Issawi.

 

Opening the ceremony, Rachid Mesli, Alkarama‘s Legal Director said: “Thousands of Palestinians are arbitrarily detained by simple administrative decision, including numerous children. […] It is for denouncing these violations and having dedicated her life to justice and freedom for the Palestinian people that Shireen Issawi also finds herself in jail today, accused – like too many Arab activists in their respective countries – of supporting terrorism or terrorist organisations.”

“Shireen Issawi’s nonviolent resistance forms a link in the chain of a long, honourable tradition. It includes not only names familiar to all of us, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but also, and more significantly, the nameless Palestinians who waged a heroic mass nonviolent struggle against the Israeli occupation during the first intifada, that began 27 years ago, on 9 December 1987,” said expert of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Norman Finkelstein. “Shireen Issawi’s unbendable will in a righteous cause serves as a luminous example, not just for Palestinians, but also for everyone struggling to make the world a better place.”

 

“Shireen Issawi is a brave, resolute and inspiring human rights defender who has dedicated her professional career as a lawyer to the long Palestinian national struggle for freedom and self-determination,” added former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, Richard Falk. “By honouring Shireen Issawi we are expressing our commitment to nonviolence as the path to peace based on rights and justice, and on the equality of the two peoples. […] As we honour her, we are also seeking to remind the world that it is past time to end the ordeal of injustice inflicted on the Palestinian people as a whole.”

“Israel annexed the territory of East Jerusalem but not the Palestinians who were born and live there,” explained Haneen Zoabi, recently banned from all parliamentary activity for six months for having suggested that the Palestinian resistance was a legitimate struggle. “One third of the city’s residents are people without citizenship. They live in a country that views their territory as its own but does not view them as part of it.”

 

“In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin wall, we said ‘never again’ walls that separate peoples. Now there are walls everywhere, walls that not only separate two peoples and two cultures, but also make the building of a lasting peace impossible,” continued former member of the Swiss Parliament and the Council of Europe, Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold. In a moving speech, she recalled the many instances where the international community had said “never more” such as after the Shoah, which had led to the adoption of an international human rights system – a system which no one should ever take for granted. [In Switzerland] we are free; but it is from you [Shireen] that we learn how important it is to fight for the protection of human rights.”

 

In a letter written from her solitary cell on 6 November and read by her mother, Layla Issawi at the Alkarama Award ceremony, Shireen stated: “Some believe that the Palestinian people are defeated because they live under the occupation. Their hypothesis is far from the truth. Those who defend their inalienable right to freedom and dignity are not defeated. On the contrary, however inhumane the occupation and its ability to arrest, kill and destroy are, these men must have the strength and courage to continue until they get their freedom.” Thanking “all the free men around the world gathered around the just cause of the Palestinians,” Shireen pleaded for “a world in which people can live free, with dignity and hope.”

Speaking on behalf of his daughter, Tarek Issawi echoed his daughter’s words: “We, in Palestine, defend the dignity of our people, despite the injustice imposed on us by the colonisation. We are certain that our struggle is just, and thank all the free people of this world for their continuous support.”

 

Closing the ceremony, the UN Independent Expert on the Promotion of a democratic and international order, Alfred-Maurice de Zayas praised Shireen and her family’s “courage and perseverance” and emphasized the essential right of the Palestinian people to self-determination: “All international law experts have recognised the right to self-determination, a binding right, enshrined in the UN Charter, in Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and in Article 1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The UN General Assembly has recognised the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and this repeatedly. Alas, for the past 67 years, you have suffered expulsion, occupation, humiliation and injustice. But you have kept your honour, your identity and your will to live. Men and women of good will wish you a free and independent State where you will finally be able to exercise your rights and join all the other nations of the world in international solidarity. I hope you get justice and peace in a near future. You deserve it.”

 

The ceremony attracted over a hundred people at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva and watched by a further 150 people on Alkarama’s live webcast.

 

For more information on the award, please click here: http://bit.ly/1r46pdh

Or watch this 12min documentary here: http://bit.ly/16oeBgk

You can also watch the whole ceremony on the following link: http://youtu.be/wLKqde508L8

For photos, quotes or an interview with any of the speakers, please contact:

– Colombe Vergès, Media Coordinator on c.verges@alkarama.org / +41 79 129 79 15

– Hassan Nouhaili, Arabic Media Editor on h.nouhaili@alkarama.org / +41 22 734 10 06

 

 

 

 

 

The Dead End of Post-Oslo Diplomacy: What Next?

15 Dec

(Prefatory Note: A much modified version of this post was published in AlJazeera America, Dec. 13, 2014)

The Latest Diplomatic Gambit

 

There are reports that the Palestinian Authority will seek a vote in the Security Council on a resolution mandating Israel’s military withdrawal from Occupied Palestine no later than November 2016. Such a resolution has been condemned by the Israeli Prime Minister as bringing ‘terrorism’ to the outskirts of Tel Aviv, and this will never be allowed to happen. The United States is, as usual, maneuvering in such a way as to avoid seeming an outlier by vetoing such a resolution, even if it has less stringent language, and asks the PA to postpone the vote until after the Israeli elections scheduled for March 17, 2015. Supposedly, the delay is justified so that Netanyahu, seen as an obstacle by the American White House, would not be strengthened by any display of adverse pressure on Israel coming from outside, especially from the UN.

 

Embedded in this initiative are various diversionary moves to put the dying Oslo Approach (direct negotiations between Israel and the PA, with the U.S. as the intermediary). The French are promoting a resolution that includes a revival of these currently defunct negotiations, with a mandated goal of achieving a permanent peace within a period of two years based on the establishment of a Palestinian state, immediate full membership of Palestine in the UN, and language objecting to settlement activity as an obstruction to peace. Overall, European governments are exerting pressure to resume direct negotiations, exhibiting their concern about a deteriorating situation on the ground along with a growing hostility to Israeli behavior that has reached new heights since the merciless 51-day onslaught mounted by Israel against Gaza last summer. This seems to me to be ‘a politics of gesture’ as there is no indication of why resumed negotiations would enjoy any better prospect of success than the several past failed efforts, and would only give Israel additional time to move toward its increasingly obvious end game of imposed unilateralism.

 

A Post-Oslo Meditation

 

 

The horrendous events of the last several months in Jerusalem and Gaza have exhibited both the depths of enmity and tension between Jews and Palestinians and the utter irrelevance of American-led diplomacy as the path to a sustainable peace. This is not a time for people of good will, the UN, and governments to turn their backs on what seems on its surface either irreconcilable or on the verge of an Israeli victory. The challenge for all is to consider anew how these two peoples can manage to live together within the space of historic Palestine. We need fresh thinking that gets away from the sterile binary of one state/two states, and dares to ponder the future with fresh eyes that accept the guidance of a rights based approach shaped by international law. Israel will resist such an approach as long as it can, understanding that it has gained the upper hand by relying on its military prowess and realizing that if international law was allowed to play a role in demarcating the contours of a fair solution it would lose out on such crucial issues as borders, refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, and water.

 

A necessary step toward a sustainable peace is to overcome Washington’s blinkered conception of the conflict. There is no better sign that the Israel-Palestine peace process over which the United States has long presided is unraveling than the absurd brouhaha that followed the magazine article written by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic [“The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations is Officially Here,” Oct. 28, 2014] that referenced an unnamed senior White House official who called the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, ‘chickenshit’ because of his obstinate refusal to take risks for ‘peace.’ Supposedly, this refusal put Washington’s dogged adherence to the Oslo Approach of direct negotiations under American diplomatic supervision beneath a darkening sky, but since there is no alternative way to maintain the U.S. central role in the interaction between the governing elites of the two parties, there is an eyes closed resolve to keep the worse than futile process on ‘life support.’ It is worse than futile because Israeli land grabbing on the West Bank in relation to the settlements, the settler only roads, and the separation wall continuously deteriorate Palestinian territorial prospects.

 

The collapse of the Kerry talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in April were unquestionably a negative watershed for the Obama presidency so far as its insistence that the Oslo Approach was the only viable roadmap that could resolve the conflict. Ever since the Oslo Declaration of Principles was sanctified by the infamous Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn in 1993, the U.S. Government has contended that only this diplomatic framework can end the conflict, and to this day it objects to any moves by governments to take steps on their own. [During the presidency of George W. Bush there was an interval during which ‘the roadmap’ was adopted as an elaboration of the Oslo approach in which a commitment to the idea of an independent Palestinian state was explicitly confirmed by Bush in a speech on June 24, 2002, and then formalized in a proposal made public on April 30, 2003; in this same period ‘the quartet’ was created at a Madrid Conference in 2002 that seemed to broaden diplomatic participation by adding the Russia, the EU, and the UN to the U.S., but in fact the quartet has been completely marginalized for the past decade] The Oslo Approach consists of direct negotiations between the parties and designated the United States, despite its undisguised partisan role, as the exclusive and permanent intermediary and go between. Without the slightest deference to Palestinian sensitivities, U.S. presidents have appointed as special envoys to these negotiations only officials with AIPAC credentials such as Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk, and have proceeded as if their blatant partisanship was not a problem. Evidently Israel would have it no other way, and the Palestinian Authority has meekly gone along either out of weakness or naiveté.

 

Not only was the Oslo framework itself flawed because it leaned so far to one side, but it was an unseemly tacit assumption of the process that the Palestinians would be willing to carry on negotiations without reserving a right to complain about the relevance of ongoing Israeli violations of international law, most conspicuously the continued unlawful settlement activity. When on several occasions the Palestinians complained that this settlement activity was incompatible with good faith negotiations, they were immediately slapped down, informed that such objections interfered with the peace process, and that issues pertaining to the settlements would be deferred until the ‘final status’ stage of the negotiations. The Palestinians were assured that these issues would be addressed at the very end of the peace process after the main elements of a solution had been agreed upon. This was very detrimental to Palestine’s bargaining position as their only advantage in relation to Israel was to have international law in their favor in relation to most of the outstanding issues. Besides to allow Israel to continue with settlement expansion, rather than freezing the status quo, was obviously disadvantageous to Palestine. If legal objections were excluded it is not surprising that diplomatic bargaining would tend to reflect ‘facts on the ground,’ which were completely in Israel’s favor, and would continue to accumulate month by month. Despite this, Israel at no point seemed responsive to proposals for accommodation in accordance with the stated objective of establishing an independent sovereign Palestinian state.

 

After more than 20 years of futility Washington’s continuing public stand that only by way of the Oslo Approach will a solution be found is beginning to fall on deaf ears, and new directions of approach are beginning to be articulated. Israel itself is moving ineluctably toward a unilaterally imposed one-state solution that incorporates the West Bank in whole or in large part. It has recently seized 1000 acres of strategically placed land to facilitate the largest spatial enlargement of a settlement since the early 1990s and it has given approval for 2,600 additional housing units to be built in various West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements that already have more 650,000 settlers. In addition, the current Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, elected by the Knesset a few months ago is an avowed advocate of the maximalist version of the Zionist project involving the extension of Israel’s borders to encompass the whole of Palestine as delimited in the British mandate. Rivlin couples this rejection of any Palestinian right of self-determination with proposals for equality of treatment for both peoples within this enlarged Israel, offering the Palestinians human rights, the rule of law, and unrestricted economic and political opportunity within Israel in exchange for renouncing their political ambitions for either a state of their own or a power-sharing arrangement on the basis of equality with Israel. There is no prospect that the Palestinian people, or even their compromised leaders, would accept such a Faustian Bargain.

 

The Palestinians have their own version of a unilateral solution, although it is far more modest, and seems more fantasy than political project. It is essentially establishing a state of their own within 1967 borders, taking an ambiguous posture toward the settlement blocs and even East Jerusalem, and relying on political pressures to coerce an Israeli withdrawal. Such a state claims 22% or less of historic Palestine, and includes the somewhat confusing contention that Palestine is already a state in the eyes of the international community, having been recognized as such by 134 states and in a resolution of the General Assembly on 29 November 2012. It is currently reinforcing this position with this draft resolution that Jordan will submit on its behalf at some point to the Security Council proposing a resumed period of direct negotiations for a further nine months (accompanied by a freeze on settlement construction), followed by Israel’s mandatory withdrawal from the West Bank. On balance, this Palestinian approach seems ill-considered for a number of reasons. It appears to reduce the parameters of the conflict to the occupation of the West Bank, and leaves to one side the fate of Gaza and East Jerusalem, as well as what is to happen to the several million Palestinians living in refugee camps in neighboring countries or in exile. It also overlooks the structure of discrimination embedded in Israeli nationality laws that reduces the 20% Palestinian minority in Israel to a second class status in the self-proclaimed Jewish state.

 

Among the problems with these reactions to the breakdown of Oslo are the contradictory expectations. What the Netanyahu unilateralism is seeking is utterly inconsistent with any kind of viable Palestinian state constructed within the 1967 borders, and those opposition forces to his right are seeking an even more defiant unilateralism. Equally, what the Palestinian Authority is proposing would seem to require the elimination of most Israeli settlements, the dismantling of the security wall, and the abandonment of the Israeli-only network of roads, while ignoring those Palestinian grievances not directly associated with territorial issues. Each of these versions of a post-Oslo solution is doomed to failure as it proceeds as if the behavior of others need not be taken into account. The Israeli failure to do this is far more unacceptable as its claims are far more excessive than those of the Palestinians, which is really just a matter of wishing away the pattern of Israel’s unlawful encroachment on what is a minimalist Palestinian vision of a solution that it and the UN had long ago accepted in Security Council Resolution 242.

 

There is an evident unfortunate reluctance on the part of all sides to let go of the two-state conception of a solution. It is what Washington and even Tel Aviv and Ramallah continue to say they seek, although Netanyahu has been telling Israeli audiences that after its experience with Hamas rockets last July and August, it will never agree to allow the emergence of a neighboring Palestinian state in the West Bank that would bring Palestinian threats much closer to the Israeli heartland. Ever since the 1988 decision of the Palestinian National Council, the PLO has agreed to a solution framed in relation to a state within of its own within the 1967 borders, and even Hamas has signed on since 2006 to the extent of accepting a 50 year plan for peaceful coexistence with Israel providing it ends the occupation of Palestinian territories, and lifts the Gaza blockade. These are big concessions from the Palestinian side considering that the UN Partition Plan of 1947 awarded 45% of historic Palestine to the Palestinians and proposed the internationalization of the entire city of Jerusalem. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative is built along the same lines as the PLO proposal, and includes a commitment to establish full diplomatic and economic relations with Israel on the part of the entire Islamic world. This proposal of the Arab League by a 56-0 vote of the Islamic Conference, with only Iran abstaining, and a year ago as a result of American pressure was modified to make it even more appealing to Israel by its acknowledgement of Israeli security concerns.

 

Most recently, a letter to Netanyahu by 106 high ranking retired Israeli military and security officials strongly urged this same two-state solution, implicitly condemning Israeli unilateralism and Zionist maximalism as leading to a future for Israel of periodic warfare of the sort that occurred this past summer in Gaza. These members of the Israeli security establishment argue that these expansionist policies are weakening security for the entire Israeli population. The letter emphasized Israel’s moral decline associated with keeping millions of Palestinians under prolonged occupation, which they argue is unnecessary from the perspective of security. Again there is a lack of clarity about whether such encouragement assumes that the settlements can be retained, the rights of Palestinian refugees can be ignored, and Jerusalem can be kept under unified Israel control. But what the initiative does express is this emergent consensus that Oslo style negotiations have consistently failed and something else must be tried. The letter appears to propose a unilateral partial withdrawal described as “an alternative option for resolving the conflict not based solely on bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians, which have failed time and again.”

 

Europe has also, at last, exhibited a limited unwillingness to accept any longer the Oslo Approach that keeps the United States alone in the driver’s seat. I interpret the recent Swedish recognition of Palestinian statehood, the House of Commons vote urging that the British government take a similar move, as well as similar moves by several other European countries as expressing both a loss of confidence in the Oslo Approach and a criticism of the manner in which Israel and the United States have dealt with the conflict. This is a desirable development in these respects, but it is coupled with some regressive features. Such initiatives are coupled with renewed faith in the two-state approach as the only solution, and call with a sense of urgency for a renewal of negotiations without giving the slightest indication as to why a further round of talks would yield any different results than past attempts. Such a prognosis seems more true at present than in the past given Israel’s moves toward a unilateral solution, which Netanyahu somewhat disguises so as not to affront the United States and Europe. It should be obvious to all who wish to look that Israel has created irreversible conditions that have all but ruled out the establishment of a viable Palestinian sovereign state.

 

The Way Forward

 

The expected controversy surrounding the PA initiative in the Security Council is a sideshow without any serious consequences however it is resolved. There needs to be a clear recognition by the PA that direct negotiations are pointless under present conditions, and a general understanding that unless Israel changes behavior and outlook there is no hope to resolve the conflict by a reliance on diplomacy. This will make recourse to nonviolent militancy via BDS, and such other tactics as blocking the unloading of Israeli cargo vessels, the best option for those seeking a just peace. [“Protesters Block Israel-Owned Ship from Unloading Cargo at Port of Oakland,” CBS St Bay Area, Aug. 18, 2014]

 

I believe the Oslo Approach is discredited, and of no present interest to the political leadership in Israel, which plays along with Washington by not openly repudiating direct negotiations. The European governments that have shown some initiative by advocating recognition of Palestine should be encouraged to take the further step of rejecting calls for resumed negotiations unless Israel demonstrates its sincerity by freezing settlement activity and affirming its readiness to withdraw to 1967 borders.

 

The best, and in my view, only realistic hope is to forget traditional interstate diplomacy for the present, and understand that the Palestinian future depends on a robust mobilization of global civil society in solidarity with the Palestinian national movement. The current BDS campaign is gaining momentum by the day, and is coupled with a sense that its political program is more in keeping with the wishes of the Palestinian people than are the proposals put forth by the formal representations of either the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. When neither governmental diplomacy nor the UN can produce a satisfactory solution to a conflict that has caused decades of suffering and dispossession, it is past time to endorse a people-oriented approach. This is the kind of populist politics that helped end apartheid in South Africa and win many anti-colonial struggles. We have reached a stage in global history in which it is people, not weapons nor international institutions, that have the resilience and patience to win the legitimacy struggle involving law and morality, and on such a basis eventually prevail in the political struggle despite being inferior militarily.

 

The challenge of living together on the basis of equality seems to be the only template that offers the parties a vision of sustainable peace. Concretely, this would seem to require Israel to all ethnocratic claims that Israel is a Jewish state as distinct from being a Jewish homeland. Israel’s leaders would also have to renounce the present unrestricted right of return for Jews throughout the world or create some equivalent right of return for the Palestinians, and possibly for the Druse minority. How such a conception of a sustainable peace is given concrete form is necessarily a subject for diplomacy by suitable representative of both sides and carried on under neutral auspices and by authentic representatives of the two peoples. We cannot foretell how much further suffering and bloodshed will occur before this kind of vision, seemingly a remote prospect at present, can be converted into a practical project, but do know that nothing that falls short of this deserves to be considered ‘a solution’ given the realities of the situation.

Remembering Ali Mazrui (1933-2014)

4 Dec

(Prefatory Note: This second essay of remembrance celebrates another friend and close collaborator in an innovative academic and political project that occupied much of my energies in the period between 1969 and 1990. The undertaking was known by its infelicitous acronym ‘WOMP’ [World Order Models Project], and was conceived and managed by Saul Mendlovitz, yet another friend and co-worker, as a way to explore ‘feasible utopias’ within the rather utopian timeline of what could and should happen by the decade of the 1990s. Scholar/activists from different civilizational backgrounds met though out the world frequently in these years to exchange ideas and visionary conceptions of how to proceed humanely and effectively to realize a series of shared values: peace, justice, ecological stability, development, human rights. It became evident that despite this common ground rooted in ethical agreement, there were strong divergences when it came to expectations about what was attainable and what was desirable. The participants from the West were preoccupied with the avoidance of war, while those from the South focused their hopes and dreams upon development and empowerment, giving emphasis to overcoming the legacies and renewals of colonialism. Such transnational collaboration was attempted in the atmosphere of the Cold War and prior to neoliberal globalization and the more recent realization of the global threat posed by climate change. Present circumstances of challenge would make a new venture along similar methodological lines both illuminating and possibly politically relevant, and certainly of intellectual interest. It is my hope that someone who shares this viewpoint and has that blend of visionary adventurism and entrepreneurial ambition will make a second attempt along similar lines to those pursued too soon by WOMP.] 

 

 

Remembering Ali Mazrui (1933-2014)

 

One of the infrequently mentioned rewards of academic life is the opportunity for friendship with extraordinary persons, and no one I have known, better exemplifies the human potential to please mind, body, heart, and soul of others than Ali Mazrui. His death in October of this year was an occasion for widespread mourning but also of rejoicing through recalling the satisfaction of having had the benefit of Ali’s warmth and friendship over such a long span of years. If memory serves, as it rarely does these days, we met during his period of academic residence at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda toward the end of the 1960s. It was an early gathering of participants in the World Order Models Project (WOMP). Ali presided over the meeting in his triple role as African director of WOMP, Dean of the Makerere’s Faculty of Social Science, and Chair of its Political Science Department. He was already at that early age a prominent intellectual, internationally known as an outspoken champion of human rights and freedom of expression in the authoritarian atmosphere of Uganda. This situation would soon worsen when the murderous Idi Amin took over the government, making life impossible for Ali and forcing his departure from Uganda. As is evident to all who knew Ali, he never left in spirit or engagement the Africa whose people and culture he loved with his whole being.

 

As a speaker and thinker Ali was in a select class of his own. I remember encountering him at an African Studies Association a few later. He calmly told me that he was pressed for time because he was on the program eight separate times! Only Ali could have claimed such an absurdity without provoking a bemused smile, but Ali had so much to say that was valuable about so many topics that it made sense that numerous colleagues would implore him to join in their efforts. His speaking feats became legendary, especially in Africa, where heads of state invited him to speak on special occasions to crowds of thousands. Throughout his career Ali was honored and acknowledged with many awards, honorary degrees, and leadership positions in professional associations.

 

The reverse side of Ali’s virtuoso performance ethos was illustrated by a 1970s event in Montreal at McGill University. It was billed as a public meeting to exhibit the WOMP approach on global issues, and Ali was to be the featured speaker. We had a dinner prior to the event hosted by university dignitaries in a private dining room, and then walked to the nearby auditorium. To our astonishment and the dismay of the local conveners, the huge arena was completely empty. It turned out that the Canadian organizers of the event had completely forgotten to advertise the lecture, and we few at the dinner were the only ones present. It is still vivid in my mind that an undismayed Ali confronted the cavernous emptiness with dauntless composure, delivering his talk with accompanying flourishes as if he were addressing a hall filled with hundreds of attentive and adoring listeners.

 

I felt that Ali drew strength on that occasion, as in other challenging situations, from his noble Mombassa background that endowed him with that rare resource of unflappable poise in situations where most of us wilt shamefully. Having said this, it is also relevant to appreciate that Ali, as with most great persons, did not take himself nearly as seriously as others took him. He always enjoyed laughing at his own over the top exploits, not with a polite drawing room chuckle, but with a robust and contagious laugh that trumped whatever difficulty or tease he might experience.

 

When I first met Ali he was a brilliant product of an Oxford education with an outlook and elocution that might be associated with latter day disciples of John Stuart Mill and other liberal notables of the nineteenth century. He spoke eloquently, yet with a certain detached intellectuality. I never remember Ali being at a loss for words or ideas, but also not in these early years engaged socially and politically beyond his passionate commitment to maintain academic freedom enabling the work of the mind to go forward unimpeded along with an instinctive distaste for the sort of dictatorial ruling style that he was then encountering in Uganda.

 

In subsequent years Ali confronted some difficult family challenges, and experienced what others might describe as an ‘ideological midlife crisis’ culminating in a turn away from the West, an embrace of Islam as his empowering cultural foundation, and a fierce civilizational nationalism that bespoke his African identity, although coupled with his belief that Africa might serve as the stepping stone for the emergence of a genuinely global culture. I have many memories of this period. Listening to Ali speak with fervor in private about the propriety of banning Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in deference to the sensitivities of Muslim communities where his satiric treatment of Mohammed and Islam were being received as blasphemy, giving rise to violent reactions. I mention Ali’s views on this delicate matter because it represented such a sharp turn away from the kind of liberal openness to uncensored thought that had seemed his signature trait when we met in Kampala.

 

Then there was Ali’s unembarrassed cooperation with the academic activities of Reverend Moon’s Unification Church, which had struck many progressive folk, including myself, as well beyond the pale of acceptable collaborative work. Ali did not welcome being given political advice from his Western friends about the boundaries of academic propriety. He insisted on his independence and individuality, and declared that he would not sever the connections he had with the Moon operations, also contending, which was true, that he was left free to say and do what he thought when participating in events under their auspices. As warm as Ali was, he was defiantly willing to swim against the tide of political correctness wherever it might land him. In the case of the Unification Church Ali actually counter-attacked his critics, observing that Western missionaries had long penetrated non-Western societies, often in furtherance of crude colonialist interests without being berated for their cultural insensitivity, yet when religious figures from the non-West dare reverse the process, it’s no-go. He supported, in principle, such efforts as those of the Unification Church under the rubric of what he called ‘counter-penetration,’ what some more recently call counter-hegemony. In this instance as in others, whether one agreed or not, Ali understood well the whys and wherefores of his controversial stands.

 

Along similar ideological lines I would also mention Ali’s Reith Lectures in 1979 on the BBC, a prestigious platform that Ali used to shock the audience by putting forth the heretical notion that the countries in the West would only consider seriously giving up nuclear weapons when such weaponry fell into the hands of African and other Third World governments. [published in 1980 under the title The African Condition]. In effect, he was advocating nuclear proliferation as the only realistic path to nuclear disarmament, which was a total inversion of the Western consensus. It was not a popular position to adopt, and made never made an impact on the policy outlook in the West that had accommodated itself to nuclear weapons in the possession of the permanent members of the Security Council (and a few others), while remaining ready to risk a shooting war to keep nuclear weapons from falling into the ‘wrong’ hands. For Mazrui, and for me, any hands are the wrong hands. The justification for the 2003 Iraq War and the threat diplomacy to which Iran had been exposed for many years were expressions of this anti-proliferation alternative to nuclear disarmament. In effect, Ali saw through this Western approach as an effort to keep the Third World under its thumb in the post-colonial era. What made Ali so valuable was his capacity and willingness to articulate in lucid language such ideas that went against the grain of mainstream conventional wisdom in the West, making all us of think freshly about issues we had previously put aside as settled.

 

In a similar provocative vein, Ali even had some good words to say on behalf of the militaristic leadership (despite his own personal problems in Uganda) that had become so prevalent in post-colonial Africa, interpreting this phenomenon as a healthy reassertion of black male personhood in the aftermath of centuries of colonial demasculinization and racism imposed on African communities. Our grasp of the recent developments in Ferguson are illustrative of the parallel persistence of racism in America long after it had been legally abolished and would have surely benefitted from Ali’s commentary. I am confident that Ali’s take on these sordid events would have exhibited his originality, and rejection of the liberal platitudes of the day, but dug deeper into the cultural soil of fear and hatred that helps explain recurrent police violence, black victimization and anger, and public bewilderment.

 

This evolving political consciousness shaped Ali’s contribution to the WOMP process where he maintained a steady and lively presence, always the most articulate person in every conversation, and certainly the one among us with the greatest gift of conceptualization. In the WOMP context Ali’s enduring contribution was his wonderful and quite prophetic book A World Federation of Cultures (1976). The main contention of the book is the ‘postulate’ that “the transmission of ideas and their internalization are more relevant for world reform than the establishment of formal institutions for external control.” [p.2] This is a crucial starting point that goes directly against the grain of most thought about global reform that is devoted to the advocacy of feasible or desirable structures of governance. What Ali believes will improve the human culture is the establishment of a world or global culture. Again his words are illuminating: “At first sight the evolution of a world culture seems to be even more distant than the evolution of a world government. But a closer look at human history so far would dispel this misconception. In reality, we are no nearer a world government than we were a century ago, but we are much nearer a world culture.” [p.2]

 

In apprehending Ali’s approach, we should realize that it is rather complex and sophisticated, and difficult to apprehend all at once. While acknowledging Westernization as providing some of the foundations for global culture, Ali is clear about the need for a prior regional assertiveness in the form of regional autonomy. He posits a special role for Africa, achieving post-colonial independence by way of affirming regional and civilizational identity, ridding Africa of structural and cultural dependency, while at the same time reaching out beyond itself. In his view, regional self-esteem must precede empathy for the human species, the most essential ingredient of the transition from a collective sense of self at the regional level to a universalization of outlook. Ali is fully conscious of the difficulties of at once making use of his education and socialization in the West and the imperative of ridding political consciousness in Africa of crippling ‘cultural dependence.’

As he puts it, “[t]ranscending both the cultural Euro-centricism and political Afro-centricism of this book is the larger ambition of a more viable world order for mankind as a whole.” [p.14] The fuller presentation of the Mazrui worldview would show how nuanced and relevant his construction of the future remains almost 40 years after the book was published.

 

Ali’s ideas set forth in the WOMP context sprung to life in the 1990s, especially thanks to Samuel Huntington’s inflammatory version of cultural differences as historically revealed for him to be ‘a clash of civilizations.’ This view was given great credence in the thinking and behavior of neoconservatives in America, encouraged by the more interventionist applications of Huntington’s favored by Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami. These custodians of the American global state represented everything that Ali opposed—renewal of Western intervention based on a presumed cultural superiority and a callous disregard of non-Western cultural values. We still have much to learn from the Mazrui way forward, which incidentally is also currently professed by the Prime Minister of Turkey, Ahmed Davutoğlu [e.g. see Davutoğlu’s foreword to Civilizations and World Order, ed. By Fred Dallmayr, M. Kayapınar, and İsmael Yaylacı (2014)].

 

The last time I saw Ali was in the Spring of 2011 at the Intellectual Forum of the UN Conference on Least Developed Countries held in Istanbul. He was clearly diminished physically, having notable difficulty to move around, but his mental energy and conceptual agility were as dazzling as ever. There was about him then the aura of greatness that his death has not diminished.

 

Beyond the marvel of his oral gift and the instructive provocations and explorations of his thought, Ali remains vivid for me as a friend who relished long talks lasting deep into the night, which were invariably enlivened by the joys of unblended scotch whiskey. In a search for comparisons of talent and imaginative power, I can only think of James Baldwin, whom I admired from a distance for these same qualities of mind and heart that I found so captivating in Ali Mazrui. Perhaps, my most precious memory of all was the realization that when listening to Ali I was not only hearing an authoritative voice of Africa but also the universal voice of humanity. RIP.