Ishaan Tharoor writes: In a year brimming with profoundly symbolic centennials, Thursday marks perhaps the most politically fraught one. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will appear in London alongside his British counterpart, Theresa May, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a 67-word missive from Britain’s then-foreign secretary expressing his government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
The Nov. 2, 1917, public letter was written by Lord Arthur Balfour to Baron Walter Rothschild, the head of the British wing of the influential European Jewish banking family. Balfour articulated the British desire for the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people” and promised that his government would “facilitate the achievement of this object.” It would take three further decades — and a great deal more politicking and bloodshed — before Israel declared independence in 1948.
But the Balfour Declaration is held up as a seminal event, the first formal utterance of the modern Israeli state’s right to exist (though some historians quibble that a “national home” is not the same thing as a state). For that reason, it is also bitterly regarded by many Palestinians as the first instrument of their dispossession. In 1917, Jews made up less than 10 percent of Palestine’s population — a century later, they are now the majority, while millions of Palestinians live in exile or in refugee camps. Protests are planned in the Palestinian territories to mark the centennial. [Continue reading…]
Jesse Rosenfeld reports: The rocks started flying at Israeli checkpoints across the occupied West Bank soon after President Donald Trump touched down at Israel’s David Ben Gurion Airport on Monday. Shops, restaurants and cafés were shuttered, schools were closed, and government offices were empty as Palestinians responded to a call from over 1,200 hunger-striking prisoners in Israeli jails to greet the President with a general strike.
Although the leaders of both Saudi Arabia and Israel lavished Trump with pomp and circumstance, Palestinians turned their back on the president as he toured Israel and crosssed the Great Wall into Bethlehem, defying even their own leadership.
Business ground to a halt in Ramallah, the administrative center of the Palestinian Authority and seat of governance for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Although Abbas had traveled alongside Trump all the way from the Islamic summit in Riyadh to Ben Gurion airport, Palestinians were unimpressed. They responded by turning their communities into ghost towns. On the eerily calm streets of Ramallah, only the pharmacies stayed open while young men, teenagers, and boys made their way out of town to the Qalandia checkpoint to clash with the soldiers that symbolize 50 years occupation to them. One of them died there, shot by an Israeli soldier after allegedly trying to stab him. [Continue reading…]
Politico reports: The Qalandia checkpoint, the main border crossing separating this Palestinian city from East Jerusalem, is not a great place for anyone in a hurry.
On a recent hot afternoon, all passage was halted without explanation as hundreds of Palestinians with permits to work, study or seek medical treatment in Israel—or who actually live there—were packed into a maze of thick iron cages surrounded by barbed wire and monitored by guard towers waiting to be searched, interrogated and, for many, once again humiliated.
After a lengthy delay, small groups were permitted through the turnstiles into the screening areas—some only after being among the unlucky temporarily locked between the heavy revolving bars by an unseen Israeli soldier in an armored guard station with tiny blast-resistant windows.
Though as an accredited American journalist I could have used a speedier route for my return to Jerusalem, I opted to pass through the checkpoint to experience it for myself. Countless Palestinians use the border crossing each day—a procedure Israeli officials say is necessary, like the physical barrier that cuts off much of the West Bank, to prevent terrorism. (The next day, a Palestinian woman stabbed an Israeli soldier at the same checkpoint, one in a recent spate of lone-wolf attacks.)
The daily routine at Qalandia is also a metaphor for the fits and starts of the long struggle to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—which, measured by Israel’s control of the West Bank and Gaza, will reach the milestone next month of half a century on the anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War.
But there is new glimmer of hope here that things can get moving: Donald Trump.
Trump will welcome Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to the White House on Wednesday ahead of his own planned official visit to the region later this month. In my conversations here with Palestinian officials, I found them surprisingly upbeat about an American president who came to office vowing to crack down on Muslim immigration and who has backed away from longtime U.S. support for a two-state solution.
“The hints are very positive,” General Jibril Rajoub, a member of the central committee of Fatah, the moderate wing of the Palestinian leadership, told me over lunch in late April in a trendy restaurant, Caspar and Gambini’s, on Ramallah’s Al Jihad Street.
A senior Palestinian official, in one of a series of interviews with Politico Magazine, put it this way: “He might be the one to bring the political settlement.”
It is a sense of optimism that virtually no one here anticipated—and one that feels genuine, if also calculated to get into the good graces of the new American leader. Trump’s personal chemistry with hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the pro-settler views of his new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, were both seen as early omens that the new American president would have little, if any, interest in the Palestinian issue and might even encourage more Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.
But Rajoub, an urbane diplomat who runs the Palestinian Football Federation and was a longtime adviser to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said the quiet but seemingly earnest visits to Ramallah in recent months of CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Jason Greenblatt, the New York lawyer serving as a Trump envoy, were surprisingly positive. [Continue reading…]
Middle East Eye reports: The main Palestinian parties on Tuesday announced a deal to form a national unity government prior to the holding of elections, after three days of reconciliation talks in Moscow involving rival groups Fatah and Hamas.
“We have reached agreement under which, within 48 hours, we will call on (Palestinian leader) Mahmoud Abbas to launch consultations on the creation of a government” of national unity, senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad told a press conference, speaking in Arabic.
Ater the government is formed, the Palestinians would set up a national council, which would include Palestinians in exile, and hold elections.
“Today the conditions for (such an initiative) are better than ever,” said Ahmad.
The non-official talks in Moscow began on Sunday under Russian auspices with the goal of restoring “the unity of the Palestinian people.” Representatives came from Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions. [Continue reading…]
Al Jazeera reports: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for a pardon of Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier found guilty of manslaughter after he shot and killed a wounded Palestinian last year.
“This is a difficult and painful day – first and foremost for Elor, his family, Israel’s soldiers, many citizens and parents of soldiers, among them me … I support granting a pardon to Elor Azaria,” Netanyahu said Wednesday on his Facebook page.
The country’s president, Reuven Rivlin, who has the authority to issue pardons, said he will wait for the legal process to run its course before making a decision.
“In the event that a pardon should be requested, it will be considered by the president in accordance with standard practices and after recommendations from the relevant authorities,” he said in presidential statement.
The remarks were made just hours after Azaria was convicted on Wednesday in the high-profile case that raised questions over rules of engagement towards perceived threats by Palestinians.
A judge read out the court’s decision for more than two hours before announcing the verdict. The 20-year-old soldier could now face a maximum 20 years in prison. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: David Enoch, a professor in the faculty of law and philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said that the trial and public debate surrounding it marked a “horrible deterioration in Israeli society.”
“It’s not as if racism or violence against Palestinians is new, but at least in the past there were attempts to be civilized. There was at least some sanity,” Enoch said. “Now, many of those asking for Azaria to be pardoned have not mistaken the facts of the case. They just see an Israeli Jewish soldier shooting a Palestinian terrorist, and they don’t care about anything else.”
Even before the verdict was read, some Israeli leaders, including senior government ministers, called for the soldier to be pardoned.
“He should not sit one day in jail. We expect the defense minister to stick to his promises and initiate an immediate amnesty for Azaria,” read a statement from the far-right Jewish Home party, headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: An Israeli advocacy group on Tuesday criticized what it called an “exceptionally low” prosecution rate by the Israeli military in cases of violence committed by soldiers against Palestinians.
The report by Yesh Din, a human rights group that is often critical of the Israeli military, came a day before a military court’s verdict is to be delivered in a high-profile manslaughter case against a soldier.
In its annual report, Yesh Din said the army opened 186 criminal investigations into suspected offenses against Palestinians in 2015, but just four of those investigations yielded indictments. The group said the 2015 figures, based on official army data, were the most recent available.
In the fall of 2015, a wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence erupted, characterized by Palestinian stabbing and car-ramming attacks on Israelis. The report said that of 76 Palestinians killed in clashes with soldiers in the West Bank in 2015, only 21 deaths resulted in investigations.
“The fact that in 55 incidents no criminal investigation was considered necessary raises doubts about the implementation of Israel’s declared policy on investigating civilian fatalities,” the report said. It said the data signaled an “inability and unwillingness” to address unlawful conduct. [Continue reading…]
Tony Karon writes: Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long based his settlement strategy on the assumption that the international community will ignore the plight of the Palestinians. But the United Nations proved him wrong on Dec. 23, passing Security Council resolution 2334, which reaffirms the longstanding UN ruling that all Israeli settlements built outside Israel’s pre-1967 borders violate international law.
Israel has reacted with predictable fury to the UN resolution, with Netanyahu engaging in theatrical attempts to humiliate the resolution’s supporters. Netanyahu has also jousted verbally with US secretary of state John Kerry over the Obama administration’s reasons for withholding its veto, presumably hoping to impress his domestic political audience with an almost comical display of assumed international authority.
But even though Israel has made it clear that the non-binding resolution won’t restrain its continued settlement construction on the ground, the tone of its response reflects a well-grounded anxiety over the potential consequences of renewed international engagement on the conflict.
Despite Netanyahu’s confidence that the incoming Trump administration will back Israel on its settlement enterprise, the fact that not a single Israeli ally voted against the resolution deals a staggering blow to the prime minister’s core belief that Israel can normalize its international standing while denying the rights of millions of Palestinians. Netanyahu frequently boasts of Israel’s diplomatic gains, claiming it has made common cause with Sunni Arab states against Iran. But these statements are based on the unspoken assumption that amid more dramatic developments elsewhere, the world will simply forget about the Palestinians’ plight. [Continue reading…]
Brent E. Sasley writes: President-elect Donald Trump has set the foreign policymaking world on edge with his and his team’s repeated insistence that as president he will move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The goal: support Israel’s claim to the city as its “undivided, eternal capital.” By nominating David Friedman — who agrees with that position — to be ambassador to Israel, Trump apparently emphasizes this commitment.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has resisted resolution for decades. But Trump has insisted that “a deal is a deal” and that because he is “a negotiator,” he will be successful where others were not. In this case, presumably Trump plans to offer the Palestinians compensation to accept Israel’s claims to Jerusalem.
But it is not that simple.
The “let’s make a deal” approach assumes that each negotiating party has a series of material things that can be traded off. In this approach, both sides understand they will be better off with more than they currently have.
But that doesn’t apply to a place like Jerusalem, or to conflicts like it. Over time, territorial conflicts between ethno-national communities have become more about ideological and emotional attachments than about material interests. Recent research shows that groups can’t trade off material gain against territory that they consider to be part of its national homeland — territory that’s important to everyone who identifies with that ancestral homeland, wherever they actually live. Jerusalem is a prime example: Its existence is loaded with cultural, spiritual, religious and national meaning.
Jerusalem’s layered history is so important to both Jewish and Muslim religious practice as immovable “sacred spaces” that even when Israeli and Palestinian leaders hold similar attachments, they can’t decide its disposition alone. They must account for the emotional commitments of publics outside the Middle East. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: The Israeli government’s furious reaction to the U.N. Security Council’s adoption of a resolution opposing Jewish settlements in occupied territory underscores its fundamental and bitter dispute with the international community about the future of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists that there is nothing wrong with his controversial policy of building Jewish towns in occupied areas that the Palestinians, with overwhelming world support, claim for their state. But Friday’s U.N. rebuke was a stark reminder that the rest of the world considers it a crime. The embattled leader is now placing his hopes in the incoming administration of Donald Trump, which is shaping up as the first major player to embrace Israel’s nationalist right and its West Bank settlements.
In a series of statements, Netanyahu has criticized the Obama Administration for letting Resolution 2334 pass Friday by abstaining, using unprecedented language that has turned a policy disagreement into a personal vendetta.
“From the information that we have, we have no doubt that the Obama Administration initiated it, stood behind it, coordinated on the wording and demanded that it be passed,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday.
In turning his anger toward Israel’s closest and most important ally, Netanyahu has underplayed the embarrassment that all 14 other nations on the Security Council voted in favor of the measure. Those votes came from countries that Netanyahu loves to boast of cultivating relations with, including Russia and China and nations across the developing world. [Continue reading…]
Jimmy Carter writes: We do not yet know the policy of the next administration toward Israel and Palestine, but we do know the policy of this administration. It has been President Obama’s aim to support a negotiated end to the conflict based on two states, living side by side in peace.
That prospect is now in grave doubt. I am convinced that the United States can still shape the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before a change in presidents, but time is very short. The simple but vital step this administration must take before its term expires on Jan. 20 is to grant American diplomatic recognition to the state of Palestine, as 137 countries have already done, and help it achieve full United Nations membership.
Back in 1978, during my administration, Israel’s prime minister, Menachem Begin, and Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, signed the Camp David Accords. That agreement was based on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which was passed in the aftermath of the 1967 war. The key words of that resolution were “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East in which every state in the area can live in security,” and the “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”
The agreement was ratified overwhelmingly by the Parliaments of Egypt and Israel. And those two foundational concepts have been the basis for the policy of the United States government and the international community ever since.
This was why, in 2009, at the beginning of his first administration, Mr. Obama reaffirmed the crucial elements of the Camp David agreement and Resolution 242 by calling for a complete freeze on the building of settlements, constructed illegally by Israel on Palestinian territory. Later, in 2011, the president made clear that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines,” and added, “negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine.”
Today, however, 38 years after Camp David, the commitment to peace is in danger of abrogation. Israel is building more and more settlements, displacing Palestinians and entrenching its occupation of Palestinian lands. Over 4.5 million Palestinians live in these occupied territories, but are not citizens of Israel. Most live largely under Israeli military rule, and do not vote in Israel’s national elections.
Meanwhile, about 600,000 Israeli settlers in Palestine enjoy the benefits of Israeli citizenship and laws. This process is hastening a one-state reality that could destroy Israeli democracy and will result in intensifying international condemnation of Israel.
The Carter Center has continued to support a two-state solution by hosting discussions this month with Israeli and Palestinian representatives, searching for an avenue toward peace. Based on the positive feedback from those talks, I am certain that United States recognition of a Palestinian state would make it easier for other countries that have not recognized Palestine to do so, and would clear the way for a Security Council resolution on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Emboldened by the Republican sweep of last week’s American elections, right-wing members of the Israeli government have called anew for the abandonment of a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.
“The combination of changes in the United States, in Europe and in the region provide Israel with a unique opportunity to reset and rethink everything,” Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister and the leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, told a gathering of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem on Monday.
Mr. Bennett, who advocates annexing 60 percent of the occupied West Bank to Israel, exulted on the morning after Donald J. Trump’s victory: “The era of a Palestinian state is over.”
That sentiment was only amplified when Jason Greenblatt, a lawyer and co-chairman of the Trump campaign’s Israel Advisory Committee, told Israel’s Army Radio that Mr. Trump did not consider West Bank settlements to be an obstacle to peace, in a stark reversal of longstanding American policy. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Donald Trump attempted to draw parallels between Israel’s separation barrier and his much-touted border wall pledge on Sunday after both presidential nominees met the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
In Trump’s hour-long meeting with Netanyahu at his Trump Tower penthouse, the two reportedly discussed “at length Israel’s successful experience with a security fence that helped secure its borders”, according to the Trump campaign.
Israel’s separation barrier, which runs for 440 miles (700km) near or along the 1949 armistice lines set after Israel’s war for independence, is a fence of most of its length. In contrast, Trump has pledged to build a wall of concrete and rebar as high as 55 feet (17 metres) along the nearly 2,000 mile border between the US and Mexico.
The meeting was the first of two that Netanyahu held with presidential candidates on Sunday, the day before the first presidential debate. Contrary to custom both meetings were closed to the media, the Trump campaign has prevented reporters from any access to his meeting with Netanyahu and aides to the Israeli prime minister reportedly went on to insist Clinton’s campaign abide by the same rules Trump insisted upon.
According to a readout provided by the Republican’s campaign, the nominee signaled support for the controversial moving of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as the real estate developer “acknowledged that Jerusalem has been the eternal capital of the Jewish people for over 3,000 years, and that the United States, under a Trump administration, will finally accept the long-standing Congressional mandate to recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the State of Israel”. [Continue reading…]
Shibley Telhami writes: In the lead-up to the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton, now officially the Democratic nominee, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont clashed over U.S. policy on Israel and Palestine. In one debate, Sanders criticized Clinton for not playing an even-handed role in the conflict, and more recently, the candidates’ appointees to the party’s platform committee disagreed over language calling for an end to the Israeli occupation. But is this disparity between the candidates and their surrogates reflected in the views of their constituents? Polls suggest not.
Political scientists are already debating whether Sanders supporters tend to be more “liberal” than those of Clinton on domestic policy, with two political scientists indicating they are not. Based on two national polls I conducted in May and June, these results seem to hold true for U.S.-Middle East policy as well. There is generally little difference between the supporters of Clinton and Sanders on these issues, despite significant demographic differences.
In contrast, the divide between Clinton and Sanders supporters and Donald Trump supporters is huge on some Middle East policy issues — even larger than on some of the most deeply divisive domestic issues. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: Until a week ago, it seemed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was a flat-liner.
President Obama thought so. In March, he said he wouldn’t seek to jump-start talks — the two sides were too far apart; it was not in the cards.
Now Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives are popping up all over.
On Friday, the French will host a meeting of about 25 foreign ministers, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, to seek international consensus on a way to move talks forward.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Kerry was going to Paris to learn and listen — not to lead.
“It’s about being there, being part of the discussion, exploring ideas and options that might get us closer to a two-state solution,” Kirby said.
But Kerry’s presence in Paris worries Israelis who fear that the international community is going to press them to end the 49-year military occupation of the West Bank and the partial trade and travel blockage of Gaza, and to stop ongoing construction of Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians want for a future state.
The Israelis also have their eyes on the calendar. They are concerned that the Obama administration will, before leaving office, enshrine a two-state solution in a speech or a U.N. resolution, in effect laying out the final status ahead of negotiations.
Kerry spent nine months trying to bring the two sides together in 2014. The talks ended in recriminations about who was to blame for their failure.
Across the political spectrum in Ramallah and Jerusalem, nobody holds out much hope for the French effort.
French diplomats shrug and say in briefings with journalists, “We have to do something.”
In Israel, there is a feeling that something is happening.
Just this week, the once-moribund Arab Peace Initiative is back in the game after years on the sidelines.
Proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002, the deal offers the idea that the Arab states will normalize relations with Israel after Israel withdraws from the occupied territories — including East Jerusalem — and begins the process of allowing for a Palestinian state.
Former Israeli governments have been hostile or lukewarm to the Arab proposal.
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon called the Arab Peace Initiative a “nonstarter” when it was proposed.
This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the Arab peace offer intriguing. But Netanyahu also suggested that the Arab states recognize Israel first as Israel makes moves toward giving the Palestinians a state.
That will be a tough sell in the Arab League.
Into this mix comes former British prime minister Tony Blair, who has been shuttling between Egypt, the Arab Gulf states and the Israelis, trying to broker a way to get the sides talking.
Also intriguing, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi said in a recent speech that he thinks the time is ripe to revisit a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
The French seem ready to press ahead with what they see as a solution to the conflict — including what borders should look like for a Palestinian state and whether Palestinians should have a capital in Jerusalem.
The French also may try to set deadlines for future talks. If their efforts fail, French diplomats have warned that they may unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state. [Continue reading…]
The world revolves around Palestine, or so I thought until 2011.
The Palestinian cause, I argued, was the litmus test for anyone’s commitment to freedom and justice. Palestine was the one and only compass that must guide any Arab revolution. Whether a regime is good or bad should be judged, first and foremost, based on its stance from the Palestinian cause. Every event should somehow be viewed through a Palestinian lens. The Arab people have failed us, and we inspired the entire world with our resistance.
Yes, I called myself internationalist. I claimed to stand for universal and humanist ideals. I blathered on and on about breaking borders and waging a socialist revolution.
But then came Syria, and my hypocrisy and the fragility of those ideals became exposed.
When I first heard the Syrian people in Daraa demand a regime reform on 18 March 2011, all I could think about, subconsciously, was: “If the Egyptian scenario happens in Syria, it would be a disaster for Palestine.”
I did not think about those who were killed by the regime on that day. I did not think of those arrested or tortured.
I did not think about the inevitable crackdown by the regime.
I did not greet the incredibly courageous protests in Daraa with the same elation and zeal I felt during the Tunisian, Egyptian, Bahraini, Yemeni, and Libyan uprisings.
All I could muster was a sigh of suspicion and fear.
“Assad is a tyrant and his regime is rotten,” I thought to myself, “but the subsequent results of its fall might be catastrophic for Palestine and the resistance.” That sacred axis of resistance meant to me back then much more than the Syrian lives being cut short by its defenders.
I was one of those whose hearts would pound when Hassan Nasrallah appeared on TV. I bookmarked loads of YouTube videos of his speeches and teared up while listening to songs glorifying the resistance and its victories.
And while I supported the demands of the Syrian protesters in principle, I did so with reluctance and it was a conditional support. It was not even solidarity because it was so selfish and always centered around Palestine.
I retweeted a blog post by an Egyptian activist calling on Syrians to carry Palestinian flags, in order to “debunk” regime propaganda. The Syrian people took to the streets defending the same universal ideals that I claimed to stand for, yet I was incapable of viewing their struggle outside my narrow Palestinian prism. I claimed to be internationalist while prioritizing Palestinian concerns over Syrian victims. I shamelessly took part in the Suffering Olympics and was annoyed that Syrian pain occupied more newspaper pages than Palestinian pain. I was too gullible to notice that the ordeals of both Syrians and Palestinians are just footnotes and that the breaking news would become too routine, too dull and unworthy of consumption in the space of few months.
I claimed to reject all forms of oppression while simultaneously waiting for the head of a sectarian militia to say something about Syria and to talk passionately about Palestine.
The Syrian revolution put me on trial for betraying my principles. But instead of condemning me, it taught me the lesson of my life: it was a lesson given with grace and dignity.
It was delivered with love, by the women and men dancing and singing in the streets, challenging the iron fist with creativity, refusing to give up while being chased by security forces, turning funeral processions into exuberant marches for freedom, rethinking ways to subvert regime censorship; introducing mass politics amidst unspeakable terror; and chanting for unity despite sectarian incitement; and chanting the name of Palestine in numerous protests and carrying the Palestinian flag without needing a superstar Egyptian blogger to ask them to do so.
It was a gradual learning process in which I had to grapple with my own prejudices of how a revolution should “look like,” and how we should react to a movement against a purportedly pro-Palestinian regime. I desperately tried to overlook the ugly face beneath the mask of resistance worn by Hezbollah, but the revolution tore that mask apart. And that was not the only mask torn apart, many more followed. And now the real faces of self-styled freedom fighters and salon leftists were exposed; the long-crushed Syrian voices emerged. [Continue reading…]
In 2014, Malise Ruthven wrote: When the jihadists of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) tweeted pictures of a bulldozer crashing through the earthen barrier that forms part of the frontier between Syria and Iraq, they announced — triumphantly — that they were destroying the “Sykes-Picot” border. The reference to a 1916 Franco-British agreement about the Middle East may seem puzzling, coming from a radical group fighting a brutal ethnic and religious insurgency against Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraq. But jihadist groups have long drawn on a fertile historical imagination, and old grievances about the West in particular.
This symbolic action by ISIS fighters against a century-old imperial carve-up shows the extent to which one of the most radical groups fighting in the Middle East today is nurtured by the myth of precolonial innocence, when the Ottoman Empire and Sunni Islam ruled over an unbroken realm from North Africa to the Persian Gulf and the Shias knew their place. (Indeed, the Arabic name of ISIS — al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham — refers to a historic idea of the greater Levant (al-Sham) that transcends the region’s modern, Western-imposed state borders.)
But why is Sykes-Picot so important? One reason is that it stands near the beginning of what many Arabs view as a sequence of Western betrayals spanning from the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in World War I to the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Sykes-Picot agreement — named after the British and French diplomats who signed it — was entered in secret, with Russia’s assent, in May 1916 to divide the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire into British and French “spheres of influence.” It designated each power’s areas of future control in the event of victory by the Triple Entente over Germany, Austria, and their Ottoman ally. Under the agreement Britain was allocated the coastal strip between the Mediterranean and the river Jordan, Transjordan and southern Iraq, with enclaves including the ports of Haifa and Acre, while France was allocated south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, all of Syria and Lebanon. Russia was to get Istanbul, the Dardanelles, and the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian districts.
Under the 1920 San Remo agreement, which built on Sykes-Picot, the Western powers were free to decide on state boundaries within these areas. The international frontiers — with Iraq’s framed by the merging of the three Ottoman vilayets of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra — were consolidated by the separate mandates granted by the League of Nations to France in Lebanon and Syria, and to Britain in Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq. The frontier between French-controlled Syria and British-controlled Iraq included the desert of Anbar province that was bulldozed by ISIS this month.
Kept hidden for more than a year, the Anglo-French pact caused a furor when it was first revealed by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Russian Revolution — with the Syrian Congress, convened in July 1919, demanding “the full freedom and independence that had been promised to us.” Not only did the agreement map out — unbeknownst to the Arab leaders of the time — a new system of Western control of local populations. It also directly contradicted the promise that Britain’s man in Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon, had made to the ruler of Mecca, the Sharif Hussein, that he would have an Arab kingdom in the event of Ottoman defeat. In fact, that promise itself, which had been conveyed in McMahon’s correspondence with the Sharif between July 1915 and January 1916, left ambiguous the borders of the future Arab state, and was later used to deny Arab control of Palestine. McMahon had excluded from the proposed Arab kingdom “portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo [that] cannot be said to be purely Arab.” This clause led to lengthy and bitter debates as to whether Palestine — which Britain meanwhile promised as a homeland for Jews under the terms of the November 1917 Balfour Declaration — could be defined as lying “west” of the vilayet, or district, of Damascus. [Continue reading…]
An editorial in The Economist says: Arab states are suffering a crisis of legitimacy. In a way, they have never got over the fall of the Ottoman empire. The prominent ideologies — Arabism, Islamism and now jihadism — have all sought some greater statehood beyond the frontiers left by the colonisers. Now that states are collapsing, Arabs are reverting to ethnic and religious identities. To some the bloodletting resembles the wars of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Others find parallels with the religious strife of Europe’s Thirty Years War in the 17th century. Whatever the comparison, the crisis of the Arab world is deep and complex. Facile solutions are dangerous. Four ideas, in particular, need to be repudiated.
First, many blame the mayhem on Western powers — from Sykes-Picot to the creation of Israel, the Franco-British takeover of the Suez Canal in 1956 and repeated American interventions. Foreigners have often made things worse; America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 released its sectarian demons. But the idea that America should turn away from the region — which Barack Obama seems to embrace — can be as destabilising as intervention, as the catastrophe in Syria shows.
Lots of countries have blossomed despite traumatic histories: South Korea and Poland — not to mention Israel. As our special report (see article) sets out, the Arab world has suffered from many failures of its own making. Many leaders were despots who masked their autocracy with the rhetoric of Arab unity and the liberation of Palestine (and realised neither). Oil money and other rents allowed rulers to buy loyalty, pay for oppressive security agencies and preserve failing state-led economic models long abandoned by the rest of the world.
A second wrong-headed notion is that redrawing the borders of Arab countries will create more stable states that match the ethnic and religious contours of the population. Not so: there are no neat lines in a region where ethnic groups and sects can change from one village or one street to the next. A new Sykes-Picot risks creating as many injustices as it resolves, and may provoke more bloodshed as all try to grab land and expel rivals. Perhaps the Kurds in Iraq and Syria will go their own way: denied statehood by the colonisers and oppressed by later regimes, they have proved doughty fighters against IS. For the most part, though, decentralisation and federalism offer better answers, and might convince the Kurds to remain within the Arab system. Reducing the powers of the central government should not be seen as further dividing a land that has been unjustly divided. It should instead be seen as the means to reunite states that have already been splintered; the alternative to a looser structure is permanent break-up.
A third ill-advised idea is that Arab autocracy is the way to hold back extremism and chaos. In Egypt Mr Sisi’s rule is proving as oppressive as it is arbitrary and economically incompetent. Popular discontent is growing. In Syria Bashar al-Assad and his allies would like to portray his regime as the only force that can control disorder. The contrary is true: Mr Assad’s violence is the primary cause of the turmoil. Arab authoritarianism is no basis for stability. That much, at least, should have become clear from the uprisings of 2011.
The fourth bad argument is that the disarray is the fault of Islam. Naming the problem as Islam, as Donald Trump and some American conservatives seek to do, is akin to naming Christianity as the cause of Europe’s wars and murderous anti-Semitism: partly true, but of little practical help. Which Islam would that be? The head-chopping sort espoused by IS, the revolutionary-state variety that is decaying in Iran or the political version advocated by the besuited leaders of Ennahda in Tunisia, who now call themselves “Muslim democrats”? To demonise Islam is to strengthen the Manichean vision of IS. The world should instead recognise the variety of thought within Islam, support moderate trends and challenge extremists. Without Islam, no solution is likely to endure. [Continue reading…]
The Times of Israel reports: A group of people close to leading Fatah activist Marwan Barghouti, jailed in Israel for murder, have reached an understanding with the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaderships overseas on a comprehensive plan to jointly campaign against the Israeli occupation until it is brought to an end, Palestinian sources told The Times of Israel.
The plan includes unprecedented steps within the framework of what is dubbed “nonviolent resistance” which, the sources predicted, could prove immensely problematic for Israel. The goal is to force Israel out of all areas beyond the pre-1967 lines via a nonviolent intifada coordinated by a unified Palestinian leadership under Barghouti, who has been jailed by Israel since 2002 after being sentenced to five life sentences for involvement in murder.
The contacts were managed secretly in meetings that took place over recent months by four senior Fatah officials: Barghouti, Qadura Fares, Sarhan Davikat, and Mohammed Horani. All of them were considered senior members of the Palestinian Tanzim organization during the 90s and the latter three are known to be personal friends of Barghouti. Bargouti also intends to run for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority in the next elections, and even has Hamas support for the move, the sources said.
The four met with all of the Hamas leadership, including Khaled Mashaal, head of Hamas’s political wing, who is based in Doha, Qatar. Afterwards, they continued with meetings in Istanbul with the participation of Hamas leaders Moussa Abu Marzouk, Salah al-Aruri – considered to be behind many terror attacks against Israeli targets in the West Bank and in Israel – Osama Hamdan, Husam Badran and others. [Continue reading…]
Noam Rotem writes: Menachem Klein’s book, Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron, is a depressing one. Originally released in English, the book — which is being published in Hebrew — paints a picture of a shared life between Palestinians and Jews at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, bringing us face to face with daily life, commerce, education, celebrations, and sadness. It shows that us this kind existence, despite everything we were taught by the Israeli education system, is possible. And then Klein goes on and destroys this delicate balance, burning everything left of it today.
As the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Palestine at the time, began losing its power toward the end of the 19th century, a new, local identity began developing out of the lived experiences of Jews and Arabs. This identity, which took precedence over religion, was shared by Muslims, Jews, and Christians.
Israel’s education minister wants to reduce Jewish history to pogroms By Gil Gertel | March 12, 2016
Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, both the Zionist movement and the Palestinian national movement began trying to take control of that identity and define the people of the land as either Jewish Zionists or Palestinian Arabs. There were those who called for unity, such as Jerusalem Mayor Raghib al-Nashashibi, who wanted not to speak of Arabs and Jews, but of Palestinians. Klein debunks the myth according to which the residents of the country before the advent Zionism or the Arab national movement lacked all identity. Instead, he describes a lively and vivacious community with its own traditions and customs, bringing testimonies from Jews, Muslims and foreigners as proof. [Continue reading…]