Sunday, April 30, 2006

A word about Arabs

It's never a good idea to generalize, but sometimes you can't help it. I'm going to generalize now and say that Arabs absolutely adore little kids.

We live in Jordan with three small kids, a 7 year old girl, a 2-and-a-half year old girl and a 7 month old boy. Anytime we go out, we end up running into people who tease, joke with, talk and generally fall over themselves entertaining our kids. A couple of weeks ago in Jerash, a site of old Roman ruins about 45 minutes outside of Amman, a group of five or six young women, all conservatively dressed, went crazy over the little baby, eventually asking us to take their cameras and take pictures of them, each one holding the baby.

Yesterday, at Umm Qays, another site of Roman ruins in the north of Jordan, on the border of Syria and Israel, one of the tourist police was so taken by the 2-and-half year old's insistance that a horse a boy uses to give tourists rides was HER horse, that he in turn insisted on taking her to the horse, which was about 150 yards away, down a steep set of stairs and dirt path, to ride the horse again. My daughter, Mai, was reluctant at first. We've given her and theothers a healthy dose of skepticism about the intentions of strangers, but i said, "It's okay Mai, uncle's a a good guy, he's a friend, it's ok," and so she happily relented. He also insisted that I stay and enjoy my lunch, so i watched from the steps as he carefully led her down the steps and over to the horse. Within 15 minutes she was surrounded by a group of about 10 kids, like 10-12 years old, who were talking with her, joking with her, asking her questions and generally just having a great time.

This is something I've never seen happen in the US or most other countries I visited, yet it happens here almost daily. Anytime we go to a restaurant or store, the waiters, custumers or store owners end up having conversations with the kids, sometimes taking them to their friends who then also engage the kids in the most beautiful way. In the US I don't think I would let some waiter take my kid out of my sight for one second, but here it is totally normal.

If you haven't experienced this it must seem absolutely crazy. I mean who lets a stranger walk off with their kid, even for a minute? The first time I really saw this happen was back in 1993. I was travelling overland from Turkey to Egypt, and was waiting in Amman for a bus to Aqaba. Most of the others waiting were Egyptians, and it didn't take long to strike up a converstain with a young guy who was there waiting too. He was also talking and joking with an Egyptian couple with a little baby, and after a while he said something to them I didn't understand, took the baby on his shoulders and walked away. I mean pretty far away too. While he was gone I asked the father of the small child if the young man was a relative. He shook his head no. I was floored. This guy let a complete stranger walk off with his kid. How could he do that?!? But sure enough the guy came back in a few moments with the happiest little girl riding on his shoulders.

I've seen and experienced this kind of thing a hundred times in the Arab world. Maybe we're made paranoid in the US by news stories of murderers and pedofiles. Or maybe extended families are still a lot closer here than in the US or other Western countries so people are more comfortable dealing with others across generations. In the US I think sometimes people are afraid to talk to kids for fear of giving the wrong impression. But here it seems generations just interact in a much more healthy and natural way.

Either way, someone plays with the kids I always keep one eye on them, at least. I'm still a parent and I'm not naive about what could happen. But it's nice to have a feeling that the kids don't have to grow up completely fearful of every stranger they see.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Iraq: a pillar of stability in the Middle East

US Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice yesterday said that differences in Iraq were, "being overcome by politics and compromise, not by violence and not by repression," making Iraq "a tremendous pillar of stability through the Middle East."

That's ironic, seeing as every report I've come across and plain common sense shows that Iraq has become a major destabilizing force in the region. Among the major destabilizing factors are the proliferation of sectarian, criminal and private militias in Iraq, that al-Qaida is using the conflict in Iraq to gain new members and spread their activities into countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, that the sectarian violence in Iraq is worsening relations between Sunnis and Shittes throughout the Middle East and South East Asia, that the chaos in Iraq has helped in the spread of small arms to all of Iraq's neighbors and that the US has lost what remaining shreds of credibility it had in the region.

It's nice to know that differences in Iraq are being overcome by politics and not violence. I mean, watching US raids and bombing campaigns, the sectarian killings, the Badr-led death squads of the Interior Ministry, the kidnappings, murders, assassinations and extortion, I thought that a lot of differences were being dealt with through violence. I guess I just wasn't looking at the positive like Condi does.

Now it looks like the US is going to help bring even greater stability to the region by bombing Iran. I mean, organizing riots of Iran's southern ethnic Arab minorities has not stablized the country enough, so it looks like we'll have to bomb Iran to make sure and stabilize it like we've done in Iraq.

As for Palestine, those nasty Hamas and PLO guys have really caused so much destabilization through their open, fair and free democratic elections that the US and Israel have decided they must starve and mutilate the whole Palestinian population through almost total restriction of movement, occaisional airstrikes and assassinations of political leaders and broad punitive sanctions that are already leading to higher levels of disease, malnutrition and underdevelopment in the Occupied Territories.

I mean, having Hamas moderate through its participation in mainstream politics was really undermining the peace and stability of the whole Muslim world, so the US will just have to let Israel kill them all. Clearly that will bring some much needed balance and stability to the region.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Egyptian police attack protesters

Egypt appears to have one of the most active pro-democracy movements. It is small and does not have good grass roots support, but it shows great promise.

Here is a report from Egypt on a police attack on a peaceful demonstration in Cairo. This is my first attempt to post a picture and format block quotes, so bear with me if the formating isn't so nice.

The source is Aida Seif El Dawla, chairperson of the Egyptian Association Against Torture. Human Rights Watch honored Ms. El Dawla in 2003 for her long struggle against torture and human rights abuses in Egypt.

On the 24th of April Egyptian police authorities attacked a peaceful sit in opposite the Egyptian judges club in down town Cairo, which started a week ago in solidarity with the protest sit in of Egyptian judges who demand their independence, and an impartial investigation in the violations committed by the Egyptian executive and police authorities during the last parliamentary elections.

15 of our colleagues were arrested and a judge was beaten so brutally he had to be taken to hospital.

Yesterday, the Egyptian prosecution, almost totally controlled by the Egyptian Ministry of Interior, has ordered a 15 days extension of the imprisonment of our colleagues charging them of disturbing public peace and order.

Still the sit in continues and is expected to increase as we approach Thursday the 27th of April when two judges will be summoned for interrogation because they exposed the rigging in the last parliamentary elections and are among the leaders of a strong movement for the independence of Egyptian judiciary."

In another post, Ms. El Dawla sent this update the judge who was beaten.

Judge Mahmoud Mohamed Abdel Latif Hamza, Chief judge of the North Cairo Court lying in Cleopatra Hospital in Cairo after being subject of police violence in the early hours of the 24th of April 2006 by Mubarak’s security forces.

Judge Hamza was beaten up, dragged across the asphalt of Abdel Khalek Tharwat street from the gate of the judges club to the police trucks. When he started bleeding they threw him into a taxi which drove him to the hospital.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Impact of cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Israel, the US and Europe all claim that they are bending over backwards to ensure that Palestinains are protected from the impact of their decision to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority. Here's a taste of how they are faring.

I don't think people fully understand the enormity of the financial crisis and how it's impacting ordinary Palestinians. I thought the international community at least learned the lesson of total economic blockades on countries through the experience of Iraq sanctions.

If democracy is forcfully aborted in Palestine, what other choice will Palestinains have left? The US and Israel talked about democracy in the territories for years, and then when they finally have fair and free elections, ordinary Palestinians are ground into the dirt for it.

If you want democracy in the Middle East, this is what you're going to get, at least in the short term. It will take years for a credible secular political opposition to develop, and in the meantime people will have to learn what political Islam really means for them. But this has to happen through the policy failures of their elected leaders, not destructive outside intervention.

If the US and Israel cause Hamas' failure, Hamas can continue to sit back and say "Islam is the solution", only the West won't let us solve our problems.

So here are the reports on the humanitarian situation. Read 'em and weap. Really.

Gaza Hospital Fights for Life After International Aid Cuts
Mail & Guardian

In the al-Shifa hospital, the walls are decrepit and dirty. The elevators are broken. It is a sign of the times in Gaza City, brought to its knees by the international community's refusal to do business with a Hamas-led government. "If this continues, the majority of our services will cease to operate in two weeks' time," said Dr Jumaa al-Saqqa, the spokesperson at the impoverished Gaza Strip's main hospital.

Al-Shifa has effectively served as a combat hospital, saving thousands of lives over the course of the five-year Palestinian uprising. But now the medical facility faces its toughest challenge yet. Its staff are struggling to provide health care to the Gaza Strip's 1,3-million people in the wake of the Palestinians' sudden international isolation. "Our reserve supply of 200 medicines is almost depleted. We lack the most basic things like bandages and oxygen," al-Saqqa said. Dwindling supplies include antibiotics, anti-cancer treatments and replacements parts for scanners and dialysis equipment.

The World Health Organisation warned on April 6 of serious consequences for Palestinian public health services because of Israeli economic sanctions and cuts in international aid. It begins politically correctly by saying the crisis is because of the election of Hamas

Here's a report from the United Nations OCHA.

Impact of Cutting Aid on Essential Services and Poverty

Essential services such as medical treatment, water, sewage and security will be cut by stoppages in donor aid and tax payments to the Palestinian Authority ordered in the wake of Hamas's election victory, a UN report warns. Israel has halted its monthly remittance of $60m (£34.3m) in duties it collects on behalf of the PA but the report calls into question its contention that humanitarian aid to the Palestinians can be sustained if the ministries in a Hamas-dominated Authority are bypassed.

The report from the UN's Office of Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) came as the Israeli Foreign Minister told Le Figaro newspaper that Israel was cutting contact with the PA and that "the survival of the Palestinian Authority as an entity is less important than the future of the peace process". The report warns that non-payment of salaries to 153,000 PA employees will increase levels of poverty, risk basic services like health and education and, in the case of 73,000 officers in security services, cause a "rise in criminality, kidnapping and protection rackets". According to the report, half of the Palestinian Ministry of Health's budget is financed by international aid and cuts in this funding "will hamper service delivery and prevention activities including immunisation and mother and child care." - Independent, 02/03/06

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Looking at occupations

I've been thinking about the occupations in Iraq and the Palestinian territories lately. It's a funny thing how occupiers always think they are helping the people they go to occupy, while those under occupation think quite differently.

This is part of the discourse of domination and occupation. Occupiers always say they are not enemies of the people they plan to occupy, only the governments, as if the two could be somehow kept completely seperate from each other. For every dictator or "undesirable" government that exists, there are thousands of teachers, health workers, and other kinds of civil servents who have little to do with the foriegn policies of these countries, but who are really just trying to put food on the table.

A friend recently told me about the situation at Augusta Victoria hospital in East Jerusalem. The Augusta Victoria hospital is supported by funds from the Palestinian Authority. The hospital has had to lay off workers, close its emergency room and cut other services to people because of Israeli, American and European efforts to "isolate Hamas". Why is it that when the west doesn't like a certain government, it ends up hurting and killing the people "who are not its enemies?"

US policy makers know that the funds they are withholding will have no impact on the policies of the governments they don't like. They know full well how much harm will come to ordinary people. As Madeline Albright said about sanctions in Iraq, it is a calculation that such policy makers, sitting in their comfortably dull offices in Washington and other western capitals, think are "worth it".

Whether you like Hamas or not, you have to admit they were elected. So again we are in the business of collapsing democratically elected governments we don't like. And yet the cornerstone of American foriegn policy in the Middle East is "democratization." And when the stupid talking heads of American TV ask why support for the US is at an all time low, they blame the Arab media, instead of the immorality and hypocrisy of our own policies. The US government now spends millions of dollars on bad radio stations, slick magazines and irrelevant Arabic language news shows to fool Americans into thinking that it is actually trying to improve our image abroad. Americans ask why countries in the Middle East don't democratize, when western governments have been aborting democracy in the region for the past 150 years. No wonder people are skeptical of our motives here.

In Iraq and Palestine the west has willfully created disasters and then pointed to the destroyed communities with a pointed finger and a disparaging tsk tsk look on their face, as if people here wanted to live in collapsed states and societies, or as if it is just the natural state of Arabs. Yes governments in the region are corrupt, venal and often brutal to their own people. But maybe, just maybe, these disasters also have something to do with war, conflict and occupation.

I hate to rant, but when you step back for a second and look at what's happening here, and even worse at what's coming, it's hard to not get really depressed.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Mashal's discourse of failure

Is Hamas already showing signs of failure?

Manar al-Rashwani, writing in al-Ghad thinks so. He points to Hamas' political leader Khalid Mashal's recent actions and statements as a sign that Hamas has already begun to signal defeat.

Among these signs is Mashal's reliance on rhetoric that reverts to is based upon the movment's opposition to Israel, such as visiting and praising Iran's president not just for its nuclear program but also for threatening to wipe Israel off the map. Rather than strengthening Hamas' efforts to show it is and can moderate itself, these actions play directly into the hands of those who are trying to isolate and break Hamas.

More importantly though, are Mashal's statements about the Palestinian Authority. In a recent speech he asserted that it is he himself who is the leader of the Palestinian people, and went on to criticize every non-Hamas aspect of the Palestinian Authority, according to Rashwani.

This, Rashwani says, signals Hamas frustration and failure to deliver on its promises to do a better job in power than the secular PLO.

It also most likely a signal that Mashal is feeling marginalized and threatened by the rise of other leaders within Hamas, who are getting both the attention and credit for leading the organization. This is what happened to the PLO, when local leaders in the West Bank and Gaza emerged and threatened to asurp the authority of the exiled leadership of Arafat and company.

Hamas figures inside the territories tried to distance themselves from Mashal's statements. Haaretz reports that, "Nasser a-Din Shaar, PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's deputy, tried Saturday to calm things down by releasing a statement that Meshal's declarations "do not necessarily reflect the position of the Hamas government but rather only of the Hamas organization."

Haaretz also reported that
the Palestinian Interior Ministry is trying to downplay the recent announcement of a new security branch by stating that "the security force was not a new one but was based on the Palestinian Police and would operate under its authority."

What Mashal's little tirade did, however, is to spark factional fighting withing the Palestinian territories between Fatah and Hamas supporters, raising both tensions and the stakes within Palestinian society. Rather than trying to maintain and build on the slim consensus that brought it to power, some Hamas leaders are instead asserting themselves to the detriment of Palestinian interests.

Palestinians who live under occupation tend to be much more reasonable than those who live outside. Those under occupation have to deal with the reality of Israel in a much more concrete way, both literally and figuratively. They are much more accepting of the idea of some degree of coexistence if Israel would just end the occupation. Those on the outside have the luxury of not having to really face the impact of the linkages of the Israeli and Palestinian economies, or of dealing with Israelis in dozens of little ways just to negotiate their daily lives.

If Hamas has any hope of surviving past the next six months, they better get their act together, both internally and externally. For Rashwani, this means that exiled leaders like Mashal out to basically keep quiet, no matter their political weight or significance in Hamas.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Hamas' biggest mistake yet

Hamas has made an enormous mistake in appointing a wanted militant as head of a new security force in the Palestinian territories.

The new force will add yet another layer of security forces to the already bloated forces supposedly under charge of the Palestinian Authority.

The move is part of an intense power struggle within the PA. Fatah, the former ruling party, still controls the security forces, most of whom are from within Fatah and other parties in the Palestine Liberation Organization. Not only they, but also President Abbas have resisted efforts by Hamas to exert its control over the security forces.

So instead of working for developing an approach that would strengthen the idea of the government as an institution that controls security forces, Hamas has taken a shortcut and will set up a new rival force, made up of its own loyalists.

Instead of institutional reform, Hamas has opted to create yet another little militia. This will greatly increase tensions within the territories and increases the liklihood that there will be armed clashes between members of the different forces.

Instead of trying to find ways to pay the thousands of unpaid police and other security forces members, some of whom are leading the armed chaos in the territories, Hamas has opted to set up a rival force, which will only increase the financial burden on the already bankrupt and indebted PA.

With this move Hamas shows it is not going to be any different from Fatah on the issue of security. Instead of building institutions and working to develop a democratic process, they are taking the road of setting up rival militias. This is in large part why Palestinian security forces are currently such a disaster. Hamas is going for a quick and easy fix, and the results are likely to be disasterous.

The appointment of a known militant is also one of the politically more stupid moves Hamas has made recently. I wrote earlier of the need for Israel to find a way to accomodate Hamas pragmatists. But Hamas also needs to find a better way combat charges that it is a terrorist government and to reach out to the secular center. This new appointment has the opposite effect.

American whistleblower fired over CIA leak

The Associated Press reports that the CIA has fired one of its employees for leaking classified information about secret CIA prisons in Eastern European countries.

The employee who was fired, Mary McCarthy, was looking into allegations the CIA was involved in torture at Iraqi prisons.

The AP reports CIA director Peter Goss saying, "The damage has been very severe to our capabilities to carry out our mission."

Translation: The lead made it harder for the CIA and the US government to hide and deny that it is kidnapping and torturing people across the globe under the pretext of the war on terrorism.

Good for you Mary McCarthy. Sorry you got fired, but maybe at least you can live out your retirement with a clearer conscience. You've done a great service to us all by not allowing American torture to go unreported.

Maybe someone can set up a small fund for people to make donations to in order to offset the loss of Mary's salary. Whistleblowers should be rewarded, not fired.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Jordan accuses Hamas of smuggling arms

The Jordanian government announced that it has seized weapons and explosive that Hamas elements have allegedly tried to smuggle into the country, reports the Jordanian daily al-Ghad.

The materials were seized after Jordanian security services observed a number of Hamas elements trying to smuggle and store such weapons into Jordan on several occasions. Al-Ghad also reports that Hamas members were observed casing several locations in Jordan, actions that a government statement said conflicted with repeated statements by the new government not to use Jordan for any goals that would threaten the security of the kingdom. The Jordanian government accused Hamas of using “two languages” in it’s dealings with Jordan.

It is not surprising that Hamas is active in and hopes to build wider support in Jordan, but attempts to smuggle and store weapons in the country would be a blunder of the highest degree. Hamas, to my knowledge, has never attacked any site outside of Israel or the Occupied Palestinian territories and they have repeatedly stated they do not intend to do so.

This development raises many questions. There is no doubt that Hamas does not intend to attack the Jordanian government. They know this would have disastrous consequences for themselves and for the Palestinian cause. Look at what happened to the popularity of al-Qaida in Jordan after the November attacks here. Even in militant Islamist circles the attacks were widely criticized and I doubt even al-Qa'ida will attempt such an attack here again. Any future attacks are much more likely to be aimed at individuals, to ensure that ordinary Jordanians are not killed.

Turning back to Hamas, it has always been a strictly national movement. Certainly, they have different relations with other militant Islamic movements, but they have never shown any inclination to use violence beyond the field of their struggle for national liberation and islamization in Palestine. A spokesperson for the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood has questioned the lack of evidence in the Jordanian government charge and said that the accusations "do not add up". A western friend here also questioned the timing of the charge.

Does this mean there is already a radicalization of militants within the Hamas movement, and that the leadership is losing control of its traditionally well-disciplined members? Are some elements of Hamas preparing for a confrontation with other Palestinian factions in Jordan?

There have been growing reports of increased efforts by al-Qa’ida to expand its field of operations into the Palestinian territories, and al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri sharply criticized Hamas for participating in Palestinian elections. Are there rouge elements within Hamas, who maybe have been influenced by the broader pan-Islamic ideology of al-Qa’ida? Or is the Hamas leadership actually foolish enough to expand the conflict as the West continues to pressure and isolate the movement and the Palestinian Authority it now heads? Any one of these scenarios is possible, but not likely.

No matter the reason for the weapons smuggling charge, this development bodes ill for both Hamas and Palestinians in general, and will likely increase tensions between Jordanians and Jordanian-Palestinians. Jordan has a vested interest in making sure that Hamas, a shoot off of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine does not succeed in Palestine, for fear it would bolster support for the Muslim Brotherhood here in Jordan.

I agree that having the Muslim Brotherhood come to power would be a social, political and economic disaster for any country in the region, but I think this is something that is better determined by people, not those currently holding power. This is unfortunately how democracy works. People have to learn the mistakes of their choices. It is the fact that they've not had choices that has helped feed extremism and militancy in the region.

Monday, April 17, 2006

elections and national character

Opps, this one got lost as a draft. I forgot to post it.

In Jordan, Abd al-Khalil Mu'aytah says that any new election law that counters the "Jordanian national character" will be refused, alluding to Jordan's moderating and pivotal role in regional and international conflicts .

What exactly is the Jordanian national character and what kind of election law might threaten it? The current election law gives unfair representation to tribal and west Jordanian interests, so what is he talking about?

The election law is currently the most contentious issue in an effort at widespread and comprehensive reform in Jordan. The country recently published an ambitious national agenda that seeks reform in a number of key sectors of Jordanian social, economic and political life. A number of activists, even skeptics, say the national agenda has a lot of good points in it. The main concern is the election law, which remains the most significant outstanding issue.

Words like national character are usually used to describe a sitution where one group doesn't want to some degree of power to another group. The most recent use of the term was in Iraq, where Kurdish hopes for independence were called a threat to the Arab character of Iraq. Maybe if past governments acknowledged that there is also a significant Kurdish character to Iraq they would be so eager to split off and form their own country.

I'll take a guess here that what Mu'aytah's talking about is a law that allows a more accurate representation of the population, roughly 70% of which are from Palestinian refugees that have come to Jordan in successive waves since the creation of the state of Israel. Jordan has done the best of all Arab countries in assimilating Palestinian refugees, giving them citizenship and other full national rights. But many western Jordanians still don't accept Palestinians as anything more than inconvenient guests.

Jordan is stable and you can't knock it for security, but this identity crisis remains unresolved. Someday it's going to rear its ugly head. I hope people are ready to deal with it responsibly. But citing national character is a pretty way of saying you don't want to acknowledge the fact that your vision of national identity might not be the only one.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Political participation

Another reminder that a big part of what drives extremism in general and al-Qaida in particular is political marginalization comes from an article in yesterday's Washington Post. It provides a stark reminder as to why Israel and the international community should cautiously work with groups like Hamas in Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, rather than try to hound them out existence.

Let's be clear: Hamas and the MB have social and political programs that are often very conservative. I would hate to see either gain control of their respective governments. They would likely use the power of the state to slowly and gradually enforce a religious conservatism on their societies that majorities would reject. Many people in the Arab world are religiously conservative. But that doesn't mean they want religion shoved down their throats or would chose to shove it down other people's throats.

Two countries best show what happens when religous movements who want to impose religion through the state become powerful or major partners in political life. The first is Iran and the second is Hizbollah in Lebanon. In Iran, you have a government that imposes a particular interpretation of religion on the country, and the people hate it. For example, it's one thing to believe that a Muslim woman should cover her hair and that male/female relationships outside of marriage should be restricted, and it's another thing to have the government enforcing such social mores. It's one thing to think that people shouldn't drink alcohol, and another thing to have the state prohibit and punish those who choose to do so. It's one thing to rant about the evils of capitalism, another thing to punish small businesses that have to operate by the basic laws of supply and demand. You get the idea.

The other example is in Lebanon, where Hizbollah started off as a movement talking about establishing an Islamic state, but now recognizes that such a goal in a multi-confessional state is not possible. Hizbollah participates in the political system, it airs the greivences and concerns of its supporters, but it has to accomodate the many different views that exist in Lebanon. They've stopped trying to create an Islamic state because they've had to deal with real world politics, not some utopian fantasy world that they think they can impose through religion. Would I want to live in Hizbollah controlled territory? No way..and when enough Lebanese decide they don't either the movement will lose political power. Threatening to take its weapons away, on the other hand, only makes them stronger.

Even Jordan offers a good example. The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan participates in the political system, so people there know its good and bad points. In an open and free election, the Jordanian MB is not likely to take a majority, but maybe only 15-20% of the vote.

But where these movements are isolated, oppressed, hounded and harrassed, especially in autocratic countries like Egypt, they are strengthened and have greater credibility with people. They are also free from the kind of scrutiny that comes from open political participation. The MB and other Islamic political movements use the slogan "Islam is the solution." If they are prevented from showing what they actually mean by that they can continue to sit on the sidelines and complain without ever having to show what it is they would do or how disaterous their policies, like interest-free banking, would be on thier respective countries.

So if you want to diminish Hamas' or the MB's popularity, let it participate as a true competitor in the political system. Let there be a full public discussion of what their politicies would be, what the possible impacts are, and make it have to be accountable for the policies it wants to apply, rather than letting them stand on the side and claim without proof that all things would be better if they were just free to apply Sharia.

Much of the craziness of the religious right in America comes from exactly the same marginalization and isolation that Islamic parties experience in the Arab world, although for American religious conservatives it was self-imposed. They withdrew from politics near the beginning of the century, built up parallel insitutions and value systems that saw everything in the political and cultural estabishment as immoral and destructive. Now that they've returned to power they have ideas of imposing their own religious values on society, and using government to enforce their morals on the rest of the country. By coming to power, and having to share their ideas and suffer the consequencces for their policies, they are being discredited, even among their supporters. For example, conservatives recently complained about the liberals' "war on Christmas", and the majorty of people saw how absolutely nuts they are. Shine some light on these freaks and let people recognize them for what they are.

So you want to weaken the religious parties? Let them participate, let their own societies reward their good ideas and punish their bad ones. This is what is happening now to the Christian right in the US. Yeah, we suffer some bad policies for a while, but it at least shows the reality of the crazy ideas they've been cooking up for the past decades. People are slowly wising up and will likely punish them in the polls this Fall. Stop letting religious conservatives have a free ride and harbor their stupid ideologies behind rhetoric. Make them accountable, then they will be responsible.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

How sanctions are impacting Palestinians

For more information on the impact of American and European decisions to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority, read the following statement from Oxfam.

While western governments claim they are taking steps to isolate the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, the impact is falling largely on average Palestinians. Those most vulnerable are the ones who are worst hit by such actions.

The reasons given for the sanctions are refusal to support Hamas until it recognizes Israel, but the reality is a policy of collective punishment of all Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories.

Oxfam criticizes EU decision to suspend aid to Palestinian Authority Report, Oxfam, 10 April 2006
EU foreign ministers have agreed on a freeze of EU aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, according to newswire reports. Ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Monday (10 April) decided to continue the European Commission’s temporary suspension of payments to the Hamas-led government in the Palestinian territories. The commission announced the suspension on Friday (7 April). In a letter to the Middle East Quartet, Oxfam warned that Palestinians are on the edge of survival. It said that "one in four people depend on aid. Three in four live on 2 dollars a day. Their plight will worsen, if donors stop giving aid to the Palestinian Authority."

Open letter to the Members of the Quartet and international donors Oxfam International, the international confederation of development organizations, is deeply concerned that the already serious humanitarian situation facing the Palestinians may become far more acute with some donors considering cutting funding to a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, and with the impact of continuing Israeli restrictions on social services and economic activity.

Oxfam International believes that international aid should be provided through the Palestinian institutions and local authorities charged with delivering essential services, including health and education, regardless of which party is in power. The Palestinian Authority was created by the international community to meet the needs of Palestinian civilians and is a legitimate channel for humanitarian funds.

We believe that this is the worst possible time to cut funding. The recent elections in both the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel represent significant changes in the political context and therefore an opportunity to move the peace process forward, one that the international community should seize. To cut funding risks squandering the positive potential that may exist in the new governments and risks making an already fragile situation more dangerous. Whatever the politics of such a decision, it would be ordinary people who would suffer the consequences.

Donor aid to the Palestinian Authority accounted in 2005 for about one quarter of Palestinian gross disposable income and pays the salaries of 152,000 employees, providing vital support to almost one million people, or one in four of the Palestinian population. Stopping this aid would clearly have a major impact on ordinary people.

Palestinians are already on the edge of survival, with over 60 per cent of the population living on less than $2.10 per day. Their plight will now worsen if international donors withhold aid to the Palestinian Authority. Such a step would weaken the Palestinian Authority and deprive Palestinians of critically needed health and education services at a time when the Palestinian economy is suffering a serious reversal of development because of Israel’s occupation and the ongoing conflict.

Suggestions that, in response to the Hamas election victory, international donors channel humanitarian assistance through international non-government organizations are not the answer. This would further undermine Palestinian institutions that are vital to both immediate assistance and any prospects for longer-term development. Moreover, few international NGOs have the capacity to channel such funds and essential services would suffer.

Other vital measures are also needed to ensure the capacity of the Palestinian Authority to provide essential services and also keep the Palestinian economy afloat. Palestinian tax revenues, which last year totaled approximately half of the Palestinian Authority revenue, have been withheld by Israel in violation of the internationally agreed Oslo Accords and the Paris Protocol. They should be transferred by Israel without delay.

Palestinian livelihoods are threatened because farmers are prevented from reaching their fields, water supplies or sources of inputs and from selling their produce in nearby markets, as a result of the Separation Wall and restrictions on movement under occupation. In addition, Israel’s repeated and often lengthy closures of the Karni crossing into the Gaza Strip, amounting to two out of every three days so far this year, have had a devastating impact on Gaza’s 1.3 million people. Essential food supplies including bread, sugar and yogurt have become extremely scarce.
The Karni closures have also been catastrophic for Palestinian agriculture, costing Palestinians up to $500,000 a day, according to UNOCHA estimates, and coinciding with the main growing season for cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers for the European market. It is vital that Israel allows Palestinians free access to markets, in line with obligations under the Paris Protocol.

Civilians suffer the most from conflict and urgently need protection under International Law. The protection of civilians will only come through a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis. Any framework for negotiations must include UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which call for Israeli withdrawal from lands occupied since 1967, and reaffirm the right of Israel and a future Palestinian state to exist within secure borders.

Israel, as the occupying power, has legal responsibility under the 4th Geneva Convention to ensure access to basic services for Palestinian civilians. The international community also has the legal responsibility to hold Israel accountable for any violations against the Palestinians under International Law.

While the Quartet discusses the status of the new elected Palestinian representatives, the current and growing pressure on Palestinian civilians demands urgent action by the international community to bring all actors to the conference table to seek a durable solution to the conflict in accordance with International Law. Oxfam has consistently called on all parties to pursue a negotiated peace settlement.

With the worsening humanitarian crisis facing Palestinians and the potential opportunity offered by new governments in both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, we urge you not to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority and to redouble your diplomatic efforts to address the humanitarian situation so that civilians are protected.

Ministerial delegation postpones visit to Ein Elhelweh

A Lebanese ministerial delegation was forced to postpone its visit to Ein Elhelweh refugee camp in southern Lebnon due to divisions among the Palestinian factions that excercise influence in the camps. These divisions highlight the lack of a single authority to speak in the name of Palestinians or to control the different factions.

The main problem was disagreements over who would represent the Palestinians in discussions with the Lebanese delegatoin, including differences within the PLO, and particularly among different factions within Fatah, the largest party within the PLO.

Other nationalist and Islamist factions include the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the PFLP-General Command, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian Liberation Front, Rangers, Fatah-Central Command, the Islamic Struggle Movement (not Hamas), the Ansar Group, and Ansar Allah.

There have recently been visits to other Palestinian camps in Lebnon, including Sabra and Chatilla in Beirut and Rashidiya and Shimali in Tyre, but the differences within Ein Elhelweh, the largest camp, and home to roughly 50,000 refugees, appear to be more severe. The political problems of Ein Elhelweh are something of a microcosom of differences in the West Bank and Gaza, and show how difficult it is for any Palestinian leader to control the situation.

In short, there is no one single Palestinian authority.

Returning to Lebanon, there was also strong disagreement over the role that Ahmed Jabril, head of the PFLP General Command played in earlier stages of the dialogue. Jabril is important because his group is one of the main Syrian supported factions and is responsible for many of the Palestinian weapons held outside of the refugee camps. This is the main crux of the Lebanese call for Palestinians to disarm, but other factions are upset at his taking such a prominent role in the Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue.

The main concern is that the talks with Jabril and the link between Paletinian arms and Lebanese-Syrian relations would overshadow the many other serious issues that poison Lebanese-Palestinian relations, such as Lebanese restrictions on construction in the camps, restrictions on employment and property ownership on Palestinians, and other forms of discrimination that all Palestinians in Lebanon face.

An UNRWA report on conditions in the camps states the following:

They do not have social and civil rights, and have very limited access to the government's public health or educational facilities and no access to public social services. The majority rely entirely on UNRWA as the sole provider of education, health and relief and social services. Considered as foreigners, Palestine refugees are prohibited by law from working in more than 70 trades and professions. This has led to a very high rate of unemployment amongst the refugee population.

Click here for a Norweigian People's Aid report on conditions of Palestinians living in refugee camps in Lebanon.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Hamas...Israel's best chance for peace?

Hamas now faces the biggest existential crisis in its history, the coming reckoning with its political base. How Israel and the international community deal with it may well determine chances for peace for the next ten to 15 years.

Despite Hamas' strong showing in last winter's elections, observers estimate actual support for the movement at between 25-30% of Palestinians. Its strong election showing did not reflect the actual weight of the movement, as it also included protest voters who do not support Hamas' total agenda but instead voted for more capable and effective managers of public affairs.

The leadership of Hamas recognized that they needed swing voters to succeed at the polls, and so downplayed its militant rhetoric and conservative social program during the elections. Hamas instead focused on corruption and the movement's intention to appoint qualified technocrats to run government agencies.

For Hamas, deciding to participate in the elections was a gamble that it lost when it won. Instead of simply winning a significant portion of the vote, and getting control over government ministries responsible for social services, Hamas actually won a majority. Instead of just being a powerful critic that delivers efficient social services, Hamas must now formulate all government policies, including the relationship with Israel.

This is where Hamas' dilemma lies. Hamas must continue to prove to its hardcore base that it will be true to its militant and conservative past, while showing Hamas pragmatists and the Palestinian secular center that it is a responsible steward for all Palestinians. Evidence of this rift shows in the growing contradiction between hints that the movement will recognize Israel if certain conditions are met, and hasty retreats the leadership makes when asked to elaborate.

This schizophrenia is not intended to fool Israel or the international community. It is a real split between pragmatists willing to compromise and make concessions, and militants who oppose efforts to compromise. Hamas faces enormous international pressure to recognize Israel and renounce violence, but it also faces pressure not to compromise from the militants within the movement. This dilemma is exposing fault lines that cuts across Palestinian society. It is also an opportunity to moderate Hamas, and build a strong Palestinian consensus for peace.

A similar split within Fatah, the largest party of the Palestine Liberation Orgaization, contributed in part to Fatah's loss at the polls. Many Palestinians in the territories believe that the old-guard of the PLO, with Arafat at it's head, made too many concessions to Israel, and that concessions were met with expanding settlements and Israeli brute force. The younger leadership that grew up in the territories is much less compromising. They see that compromise achieved nothing for Palestinians, and so they have chosen to fight. The PLO is now also split into moderate center and militant minority bloc.

This split in both the right and left of Palestinian society also creates a dilemma for Israel and the Bush Administration. Played right, the US and Israel can contribute to the creation of a large pragmatic Palestinian center that includes center-right conservatives and center-left secularists who will make tough concessions for peace. Played wrong, it will contribute to a further radicalization of Palestinian society, ensuring decades more conflict.

The dilemma for the US and Israel is to give enough concessions to the Hamas and Fatah pragmatists to encourage their continued moderation and democratization, while finding the right tools to distinguish between them and the militants, both religious and secular. The best way to show that democratization and moderation will be rewarded is to stop the economic blockade and shelling barrage of the Gaza Strip and halt construction of the separation wall.

ReliefWeb, a United Nations news agency reports that Israel has lobbed more than 2200 artillery shells at northern Gaza in the past two weeks, killing 11 Palestinian bystanders, including several children, and wounding dozens more. The Associated Press reports military analysts believe the Israeli barrage is largely driven by the army's frustration and has no direct military purpose. AP says reserve officers in the artillery said the idea behind the massive shelling is to pressure Palestinian civilians.

With John Jing, the head of UNRWA warning about the impact of the shelling on children, and WHO warning of a massive health crisis due to shortages in medicine and basic foodstuffs caused by persistent Israeli closures of the Karni border crossing, Palestinians are unlikely to blame Hamas for their predicament. The blame will fall squarely on the shoulders of Israel and the international community.