Monday, May 29, 2006

What makes a nation?

What makes a nation? Ghassan Sharbel brings up this question when he asks:

"Is Iraq a final nation for all its sons, in which they can live equally with all their rights and obligations? Or is Iraq a tent spread about the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds, each one able to pull up stakes when they want, whenever one side feels it has a chance to gain a bigger share? Is it possible to protect a nation with the logic of a tent, ambushes and truces, or with the logic of a state and insitutions, and the principle of recoginizing the other and his right to be different and equal, without a secret program to take his rights, erase his identity and dissolve his heritage?"

Sharbel goes on to ask similar questions about Lebanon, and surely such questions can be asked of a lot of states in the region. The main reason, he points out, is the extensive resources poured into armies and secret police, with the most sophisticated devices for spying on their own citizens, instead of forming truely national institutions that would survive the vagaries of time. "That is why when the ruler falls, everything falls and we see... institutions plundered and mililtias spout like mushrooms," says Sharbel.

What makes a nation is a question that has not been sufficiently answered in a lot of countries in the Middle East. Is it just the simple prevelance of the Arabic language? Is it Islam? Is it shared culture and history? What makes a Jordanian from Salt Jordanian and not Palestinian? An Arab in Alexandretta a Turk and not a Syrian? A beduin in Kuwait a Kuwaiti and not an Iraqi? Isnt' it just the random lines drawn on a map by colonial overlords? What makes a nation in the Middle East?

Sunday, May 28, 2006

A post-Intifada period?

Has Palestine entered a post-Intifada period, as Muhammad Abdel Shafee' Issa claims in Saturday's al-Hayat?

I'm not sure about that, but Hamas' participation and victory in last January's elections certainly have brought about significant changes.

Among these changes is a reported internal dialogue that is taking place within the movement. This ongoing dialogue explains in parts some of the drastic turns the Islamist movement has been making in recent weeks, both in regards to Israel and the domestic situation.

According to al-Hayat, the dialogue started about the time Hamas won the election and includes a thorough discussion of the militant movement's political positions, the possibility of negotiations and it's stand in regards to international and past Arab summit agreements.

Hamas' political office has established a "red-line" of not recognizing Israel "at this stage," reports al-Hayat, even if it means that it will have to give up power and return to being a movement strictly dedicated to "resistance and political opposition." What "this stage" means is explained by another official who states that recognition of Israel now would be "giving up our position for a piece of bread" and that it would be changing the nature of the Palestinian cause from one of national liberation and self-determination to one of "food assistance and salaries."

Al-Hayat quotes a third Hamas official (all of them unfortunately unnamed) saying "In the end we'll recognize Israel, but not for free. Israel has to first recognize our right to establish an independent state on all the lands occupied in 1967, and to really withdraw from these lands. At that point (Israel) will have its recognition, and on top of it, security."

The most likely scenario is that Hamas will, in principle, soon accept the so-called Abdullah plan, named after the Saudi King who proposed it at a 2002 summit in Beirut. The Abdullah plan agrees to a complete recognition of Israel by all members of the Arab League on condition that Israel withdrawal from all of the territories it occupied in the 1967 war. Acceptance of the plan will signal Hamas' de facto acceptance of Israel, and put it firmly in the official Arab consensus camp. Israel will undoubtedly reject this position, as it did the Abdullah plan when it was announced, because it knows it can get more through force and the backing of the United States.

This would be a shame because the Abdullah plan appears to offer the best hope for real regional peace, but also because Hamas' being part of a genuine political process is moderating the movement and bringing about change. The paper quotes a high ranking member of Hamas saying, "In the past we were a political movement that enjoyed the greatest degree of freedom in setting our positions, but now we are a government, responsible for an economy, employees and domestic security." With power comes responsibility, and this responsibility forces a moderation in both ideology and behavior. Democracy does work in mitigating militancy and extremism, but you have to give it time to run it's course.

Fateh members claimed they were going to do carry out a similar introspection when they lost the election, with some Fateh members seeing it as a good opportunity to try to rebuild the party and make it both more efficient and effective. I have to wonder if such a process has really started, or if they are too busy simply planning on how to get back into power.

The best dressed vice-president

In my post about royalty and the dilema of titles, I didn't bother to mention that Queen Rania was accompanied by a Sudanese government delegation. I didn't pay them too much mind, but one guy really stuck out. He came into the auditorium with the queen, sporting a casual jacket and like a small cowboy hat. I thought, "whoa, this guys looks like some kind of blues player straight from the Missisippi delta."

Turns out he's the Salva Kiir, former right hand man to John Garang and military leader of the SPLA. He replaced Garang as Sudan's Vice President after Garang died in a helicopter crash.

So he gets my vote for the most hip Vice President. Here he is.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Praying or Plotting?

I'll try not to post stories from the web, but this was just too good to pass up.

Praying or Plotting?

By Mohammad Ali Salih
Sunday, May 21, 2006; B02

"May Allah guide you in whatever you do. May Allah protect you from evil. May Allah destroy your enemies."

These were the words I heard from my eightysomething father one recent morning as his frail voice came over the phone from a Sudanese village about 6,000 miles away. To each sentence I replied "Amen," and as I hung up, I felt the soothing effect of his prayer come over me at the start of another day.

But at the same time, as I readied myself for work here in the tension-filled capital of the United States, I couldn't help but wonder: What if the National Security Agency were listening to my phone calls to Sudan?

My father, who is barely able to read a newspaper and never went to a modern school, learned about Islam and basic Arabic in his village khalwa (an Islamic school or madrassa). He grew up to be the village's Sharia expert and its shaman, healing patients with religious rituals and native medicine.

His everyday conversation has always been peppered with Islamic words and phrases such as " Allahu akbar " (God is great), "jihad" and "infidels." Thirty years ago, when I married an American Christian, my father objected, saying she was an infidel.

But he mellowed a few years later and now, whenever we talk on the phone, he sends his best wishes to her and our three children (he also prays for them). But he still expects that one day I will leave "Dar al-Harb" ("the land of war," i.e., the West) and return to "Dar al-Salam" ("the land of peace," i.e., Muslim countries).

My father is not an extremist, just a product of his environment, education and age. And although some say that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States "changed everything," they did not change my father. They did not change the way he talks.

But they did lead the NSA to begin spying on overseas phone calls and e-mail messages. The agency is reportedly using computers to search for key words to pick up and track certain phone calls. Words such as bomb, explosives, jihad and infidels.

My father uses some of those words.

I need my father's prayers (all prayers, really) to calm me down while the United States, the greatest nation in history, is caught up in a state of fear. My feelings about this fear have evolved from amazement to sadness and recently to anger. Not anger at the American people so much as at President Bush, whose strategy of endless war against an unidentified enemy has frightened everyone.

But sadly, my father's words can now raise red flags in the United States. The last time I spoke to him, he said he was going to send me a long written prayer in a letter. I said that regular mail would take too long and suggested instead that he give the prayer to one of his computer-literate grandchildren to e-mail to me.

But now I worry: Can NSA computers tell the difference between a prayer and a terrorist plot?

Mohammad Ali Salih is Washington correspondent for the London-based Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat and other Arabic publications.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

An afternoon with royalty and the dilemas of titles

Well, not really. But yesterday I attended results of a "festival of creativity" by Jordanian youth at the Royal Cultural Center, a kind of celebration of a program by the Jordanian branch of World Links. Among the distiguished guests was Queen Rania.

If you haven't ever attended one of these events it's kind of interesting. You don't actually usually meet the Queen, she is kind of whisked in and out pretty quickly as everyone is seated. Once in a while you get a handshake, and hopefully use the right term to address her.

I never remember if its supposed to be your highness or your majesty or something else. I suck at these titles, and I'm even worse at them in Arabic. Samu al-Amir, Jalalatu, 3Atoofa, Seyadtul Basha, Elma3ali, etc. I was with a mutasarref from the Ministry of Interior the other day. I still can't figure out what a mutasarref is, but its some kind of adminstrative title. These things apparently matter. It turns out I'm basically seyyid (Mr.) Jason, or, on a good day I get upgraded to ustaz.

As the Queen left the hall, we all had to stand again for the national anthem, to give her time to leave. Fair enough. So after the anthem we all shuffled to the door to go out to the reception, but were stopped by guards. Apparently the Queen was still in the vacinity. After a couple minutes two guys weasled themselves to the door, and talked their way out. I was a little annoyed. Then four Saudis went to the door, and got themselves out. I got more annoyed. Then a group of like 15 people streamed out and it was too much. I went to the door and asked the guy, "what's up, why are these guys allowed out". "Ministry of Education," came the answer.

A couple minutes later a guy comes down the steps, through the door and starts saying to some of those there, please, this way our distinguished guests (itfaddalu, itfaddalu duyoofna elkaram). When we came in we were all addressed as distinguished guests, so I wondered why the differentiation now. I started laughing and joking with the guards, saying things like, "what, weren't we distinguished guests too? We became just normal guests now?" (Sho ya3ny, mesh e7na kunna duyoof karam? ba2ayna duyoof 3am, wa khalas?) A female guard caught my eye and subtly motioned me to go. I guess she saw the comic irony of the situation too.

The Queen is actually a decent person, and does a lot for children's rights and development. A friend of mine went to school with her in Kuwait, and had a hard time not just saying, "Hey, Rania, what's up," when she saw her after she became queen. It's hard to remember sometimes that underneath the mystique of power and position all these people are just people after all. But protocol is protocol, and familiarity with royalty, even with old acquaintences, doesn't fly.

I don't envy the King and Queen. Sure being royalty has it's perks, hey, just being a dayf kareem does, but sometimes they must just want to go out and be normal people again, like they once were.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

DaVinci Code reaches the Middle East (well, almost)

The movie DaVinci Code has catapulted to the top of the charts, as religious controversy and big names draw people to see the movie for themselves.

The Catholic Church has condemned it, Christian groups are boycotting it, and it has been banned in a number of Arab countries.

I think I would like Divinci Code and Temptation of Christ if I read them, and one of my favorite all time films is the Life of Brian, a parody on the life of Jesus and a biting satire on religion, particularly Christianity.

I've seen a number of people here criticizing the banning of the movie DaVinci Code, and I agree with them. I don't think controversial books and movies should be banned, but should be discussed. I think governments here banned the movie to show the West that they are sensitive to their Christian minorities, and perhaps minorities that feel embattled deserve special sensitivity sometimes.

But it's funny how often religious authorities only care about their own heresies. I haven't seen the Catholic Church ever condemn Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. I don't see al-Azhar condeming the DaVinci Code. Most religions are only senstive about their own doctrines, but could care less about the sensitivties of their rivals. Hypocrisy bothers me.

But I have a lot of questions as I follow the debates on the issue. What would happen if there was a DaVinci code-type book written that questioned the authenticity of the Quran? Or a satire on the life ofthe Prophet or the Companions? Or a movie that made fun of the Hajj or hijab, for example?

What if such works were produced by a westerner? What if such works were produced by an Arab? Does it matter?

Is there a difference between The DaVinci Code andSalman Rushdie's Satanic Verses? Do religious minorities deserve special sensitivity on these kinds of issues? Do religious majorities deserve special sensitivity?

I'm someone who doesn't trust any centers of power, and sees all religions, especially religious orthodoxy, as one of the most powerful and dangerous centers of power in any society, one that should always be criticized and analyzed constantly to be kept in check. I'm not anti-religion, but i don't trust religious authority or authorities.

I hope to see more such books and movies questioning the basic assumptions that religions are founded on. I hope they are controversial each time, and provoke wide-ranging discussion and debate (no riots, please). It's the only way to keep religious authority and the power of religion on it's heels, and off our necks.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Daily struggles under the seige

Speaking with our staff in Gaza and Ramallah just now was another reminder of how bad things are in Palestine. As I was talking with the Gaza office, I could hear the gunfire of yet another clash between Hamas and the security forces. As we talked news came that the Jordanian ambassador was inadvertently hit by some of the gunfire, and his driver killed.

People's nerves are absolutely shot, one staff member said that any sound makes them jump now. They say as bad as the blockade of the Gaza Strip is, people could handle it. But what is killing them (literally and figuratively) is the internal fighting. People can't go out into the streets without fear of getting caught in between something.

Most people blame both sides for being corrupt and selfish, putting party interests above national interests, and falling into a destructive and base power struggle. People see no end to the current madness.

In the West Bank things are better, but not by much. There haven't been the same kind of clashes as are now occuring daily in Gaza, but the economic situation is dismal and crime is increasing. Our office was robbed and two computers recently taken. A couple of days ago the Jawwal telephone company offices were attacked and shot up, resulting in a 24 hour cut in the network. The al-Jazeera news office was also attacked and all the office's cars taken.

One of our staff members, who is from Ramallah, recently married a Palestinian from Jerusalem. She has been trying to get a permit so she can stay with him (which is customary, that the man provide a house for the new wife), but the Israeli High Court recently announced that the government will issue no new permissions for Palestinians from outside what Israel considers its borders, including a grossly expanded greater municipality of Jerusalem, to go to Israel. So one of her daily struggles is trying to find a way to get back to her husband and baby after work.

They are now looking for a house near the Qalandia checkpoint, which is main entry point to Ramallah, but have found it almost impossible. As there are no more permits for people married to Jerusalemites to go to their homes, many people are moving to Ramallah or the surrounding area. The result has been a severe housing shortage and housing prices that have doubled and tripled.

These are minor troubles compared to what some people there are enduring, but gives you a sense of how the situation is impacting everyone.

So it's a good thing that it is "the Israeli government policy not to punish the Palestinian people for their vote." I mean, just imagine if it was!!

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Palestine unraveling

All bets are off in the hopes that Hamas' participation in politics might offer a chance the effort to moderate the militant fundamentalist movement.

Recent moves show that Hamas is as bent on further Islamicizing and controling Palestinian society as its critics say it is. I still think the international community lost a chance to moderate the movement when it came to power, through a combination of political deals and compromise that would have given mulitple chances to influence the movement and begin the slow return of Palestinian society to its secular roots.

But the intense isolation of the movement since it came to power has strengthened the hand of the hard-liners and make them believe they have no choice but to fight to take full control of the Palestinian society. Friends in Gaza are saying things are not the same since Hamas came to power, that the movement is increasing its religious propaganda and that its hardline supporters are becoming increasingly bold in their attitudes and actions towards those they view as non sufficiently Muslim. The last small vestiges of Palestinian secular society are under siege.

Now Hamas has established a full-fledged government back religious militia that it has deployed like an army throughout the Gaza Strip. It's mission is ostensibly to fight crime and chaos, but it is a force designed to challenge the primacy of the secular Fatah movement, and specifically President Abbas throughout the Occupied Territories. The new force has already clashed with the established Palestinian security forces, and drive by shootings, assassination attempts and clashes between the groups increase everyday.

Again, the Washington Post has a good article on the new security force. If Hamas really had in mind doing something that was going to help Palestinians, it would instead take steps to professionalize and maybe streamline the Palestinian security forces. It would struggle, as Abbas does, to avoid a armed confrontations with its rival political movement. Instead it has taken a number of steps that indicate it wishes for an armed showdown with it's Palestinian opponents.

Palestine in starting to unravel. I really fear for the place.

Religious extremists in the political mainstream

Imagine the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan or Egypt was able to establish a special university that was exceptionally well-funded, and supported politically by powerful politicians, businessmen and organizations from across the region.

Imagine that this university was established specifically for those students whose parents had raised them in a way that saw the entire society around them as corrupt, and in nead of drastic, God-inspired reform, and that there was a kind of test of belief for all those who studied, taught or worked there. The young people studying in this university would have been raised completely outside of state or other state-regulated public schools, and would have been taught a very narrow religious curriculum.

Imagine that the students in this school had been raised to believe that the only source of truth was a sacred religious text written centuries ago, and that all other sources, especially any with a hint of European enlightenment thinking or liberalism were suspect at best, probably tainted by Satan himself, if not an actual Satanic inspiration. Imagine the political and social forces supporting this school not only had occupied important local, state and national political offices, but even had the ear of the leader of the country.

In this university, these young men and women, who had been raised to see the society around them as a dangerous enemy, and to see the world outside their country as full of all kinds of other terrible people who wanted to attack their country and forcibly wreck their religion, would be given the best chances to meet powerful members of society who shared their views, or at least wanted their support, and be given choice jobs throughout government and industry.

This is not an imaginary tale. This is a reality coming from the United States and a growing slice of the American Christian right. In an article about a growing scandal at this "university" outside Washington, the Washington Post reports that:

The college has ambitions to place conservative Christian graduates in positions of influence, where they will help reshape American culture. Since the school opened six years ago, its student body has grown from 88 students to 300, and it has sent students to prized internships at the White House and on Capitol Hill.
The school has part of its mission as balancing a quality liberal arts education with the kind of narrow minded religious fundementalism I described above. The tensions inherent in its mission are what have caused the scandal, as a kind of religious puritan head has clashed with a number of teachers and employees who have suggested such scandalous ideas as salvation being possible through baptism as opposed to just belief in Jesus, or that there sources other than the bible that might be sources of useful information. The focus on liberal arts is not an admiration for liberal thought, but instead a training that allows fundamentalists to navigate the secular world around them in a way that covers their extremism and makes them seem well educated and tolerant, when basically they are not. These are not all "peace and love and turn the other cheek" kind of Christians, but those who see the need to use force to battle the forces of Satan at work in the world.

So while policy makers in the US are further impovershing Palestinians and in some cases killing them through its economic and political blockade, due to the narrow victory of Hamas at the polls, they are also cozying up to even more reactionary, illiberal and dangerous home-grown religious fundamentalists in America.

Still scared of fundamentalism in the Muslim world? That may be fair, but I find fundamentalism in America at least as threatening and dangerous a force at work in the world.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The failure of Hamas or of the West?

US analysts expect the Hamas-led PA government to collapse within the next three months, reported al-Hayat newspaper last week.

I'd love to see Hamas fail, but they have to fail at the ballot box, not through an alliance of the US, Israel, Fatah and Arab states. Hamas as both a theological and national liberation movement is a disaster for the Palestinians and the larger Muslim world.

Theologically, it respresents a moderate branch of political Islam, but one that is still highly conservative and that works to implement an interpretation of religious law as the law of the state. That is bad enough on its own, because whenever a government claims its authority and laws are based on faith in a sacred text, there comes about a sacralization of the political, and a politicization of belief. You have government and laws based on a particular color of a faith, rather than on the principles of reason and public good.

But what is worse is that most modern Islamists try to implement Islamic law, Sharia, as a code of law, when it is really a judiciary process. So instead of reinventing the process, which has potential for highly liberal as well as highly conservative rulings, and a lot of ambiguity, they try to impose a legal code, rules, ahkam in Arabic, often with the most conservative and illiberal interpretation of these rules cherry-picked from a highly diverse Islamic heritage.

As a nationalist movement it has been a disaster for its role in sanctifiying the militarization of the second Intifada and of Palestinian society as a whole. So instead of arms being a means to achieve the end of liberation, they have been turned into fundemental part of a sacred duty, a new kind of fetish, or demi-god, of political empowerment. They have also legitimized the practice of suicide bombing, which is one of the most un-Islamic methods of warfare I am aware of. Suicide is prohibited in Islam, as is the random killing of civilians, yet Hamas has contributed to the growth in Muslim supporters of this practice, as disasterous to the Palestinian movement for national liberation as it has been to the Islamic faith.

But all of those working for the failure of Hamas on the backs of ordinary Palestinians ought to be ashamed of themselves, for their failure to protect and support simple humanitarian principles, as well as basic morality, and the must basic and fundemental tenats of democracy. They have essentially taken the lives of Palestinians living under occupation hostage and made a bargain with the devil to somehow justify the killing of more innocent civilians in the name of power politics. The short term result may be success, aborting the Hamas success at the polls, but a long term failure, effortst to suppor the development of democracy in the region.

Anybody who really cares about Palestinians should want to see Hamas fail, but it has to be a failure born of the failure of the ideology to deliver the goods, which it would have before long. But as it stands, those who are imposing and supporting the blockade on the Palestinians are giving Hamas and the worldwide "Islamic movement" a free pass for failure, and a trump card for the future.

Hamas will claim that it failed because the US, Israel and secular Arab regimes fear the success of the Islamic movement, not because once given a chance to rule, the Islamic Movement will show that it is a bankrupt, oppressive and close-minded ideology that does not suit people in the region. Instead the US, Israel and the neighboring Arab regimes have strengthen religious fundamentalism in the region, and did more to damage efforts at democratization than either Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden ever did.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Conflict, development and security

Two recent articles do a good job of highlighting the link between confict an underdevelopment. Poverty alone is not enough to push large numbers of people towards extremism or militancy, but poverty combined with political marginalization are potent recruiters for conflict and violenct.

Both articles have a similar message: When governments treat political issues as security and military issues they exacerbate the problems.

The first is an article in the Christian Science Monitor about the Lebanese government's stated desire to start addressing the horrendous situation in the country's Palestinian refugee camps. The camps have long suffered from neglect and outright ostracization by the government and many Lebanese.

AIN AL-HILWEH, LEBANON – After decades of uneasy relations, Lebanon and its
Palestinian population are set to embark on a ground-breaking dialogue to improve conditions in the Palestinian refugee camps and curb uncontrolled armed groups.

For Ibrahim Khalil, that could mean an end to the knee-deep sewage that pours into his home during winter rains.

"Our homes are all damp and humid and not fit to live in. When it rains, my home is flooded with sewage because the drains can't take it. And this is the good part of the camp," says the Palestinian resident of this squalid refugee camp on the outskirts of the southern Lebanese town of Sidon.

During a recent trip to Lebanon I met a lot of skeptics of the new government's promise to address Palestinian needs in the camp, but one long time Palestinian social activist was impressed when Layla Mouwad, Lebanon's new Minister of Social Affairs, opened a meeting with Palestinian representatives saying, "The treatment of Palestinians in Lebanon is a gross violation of human rights." That was perhaps the first time a Lebanese government official spoke in such blunt terms about the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

Similarly, the article quotes Sultan Aynayn, head of Fatah in Lebanon as saying:

"This is a major turning point," says Sultan Abul Aynayn, the head of the Fatah movement in Lebanon. "The Lebanese have moved from treating the Palestinians as a security concern to a humanitarian concern."

But a high level representative of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine I met in February was much less optimistic. He said that Lebanese Prime Minister Sinora said there is nothing more the government can give the Palestinians right now than, "to open an office in Beirut." Curiously, the CSM article mentions that the new hopes are pinned on the opening of a new PLO office in the Lebanese capital.

The second article, from the New York Times highlights the plight of Egypt's Sinai Beduin, and looks at how government neglect and marginalization as well as the breakdown of traditional social values left many young people frustrated and susceptible to Wahhabism. With seasonal unemployment near 90% and anger high over the situation in Palestine and Iraq, some residents of the Sinai find little reason to support the government.

In the jumble of crumbling public housing clumped along unpaved, sandy lots, there is a burning resentment of the central government, in particular the security services, which have made mass arrests through the region, and there is a conviction that the people here have been ignored for too long. People are furious that they must use salt water to brush their teeth, wash their clothes and cook with because that is what comes out of their taps at home.

Again, the Egyptian government's approach is similar to the Lebanese approach to Palestinians, as a security issue.

The modern Egyptian state has dealt with the Sinai and its people the way it has confronted most domestic problems, as a security issue. Local officials, for the most part, are not from the area, and no one is allowed to own land because the entire area is considered a military zone, officials here said.

As for Jordan, the oasis of security in the Middle East, what implications does that have?

After the terrorist bombings here in Jordan in November 2005, I asked a conflict specialist here his opinion on what the government should do. The first thing he said was that the government shouldn't overreact with a "security" response to the bombings by squeezing either the Muslim Brotherhood or extremist groups harder than it already did, but that it should instead accelerate it's efforts at political development in the country.

Jordanian Prime Minister Bakhit, the head of the "security" government established after the bombings is fond of saying that "Democracy without security is chaos, while security is democracy is oppression," but so far there is little concrete change to show for the National Agenda and country's new Ministry of Political Development.

Jordan is more free and open than it's neighbors, and still has a window to address the poverty and political frustrations of many of its people, but it is only a matter of time until these two frustrations come home to roost here too. What the Prime Minister says is correct. The question is, will the government actually deliver on this little piece of wisdom before it is too late?

The difference between here and there

This picture of Qalqilya, in the West Bank, tells you more about the reality in the Occupied Territories more than any story, commentary or analysis ever could.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Remembering 1948

Last night the Research Centre for Refugee Studies, located here in Amman, launced a week-long rememberance of the dispossession of 700,000 Palestinians of their homes and land, an day celebrated as Independence Day in Israel, but known as "al-Nakba", or the Catastrophe, to Palestinians and in the region.

The launch included screenings of three films. The first followed the life of a female Palestinian refugee in Lebanon who was detained in Israel's notorious al-Khiam prison. Khiam was the site of horrendous war crimes by both Israelis and their Lebanese allies in the SLA. It was a prison established in 1985 by the Israelis, which was subsequently turned over to their Lebanese allies.

One of the more interesting points of this film to me was when some of the former female detainees are talking about their Lebanese gaurds at the prison, gaurds who still live in nearby villages. One of the women says, "they look you right in the eye as if you're the guilty one."

I find it amazing that the Lebanese female guards, who contributed to the torture of these Palestinian refugee women, still live in the area, and that people haven't taken revenge on them. But also the brashness and arrogance of the gaurds feel no shame for abusing fellow human beings, looking at their former prisoners with such contempt, as if anyone deserves to be tortured. Lebanon has by far the worst record for its treatment of Palestinian refugees and still has not come to terms with this issue.

Another very moving moment in the movie is described well from a Human Rights Watch report from the time:

On May 23, local residents stormed the notorious Khiam prison, which since its opening in 1985 had been a joint enterprise of Israel and the SLA. They routed the SLA jailers without violent incident and freed about 130 detainees, some of whom had been held without charge for fifteen years.

It was amazing to see the reunion of brothers, mothers and friends after all these years of seperation. The human spirit seeks freedom, and it is amazing to see it soar at the moment of its release. It should be a lesson to all those who oppress that no matter how long oppression and occupation lasts, people will never give up the struggle to be free.

A second movie was about the Israeli wall, called Three Ghettos, One Land, by the Stop the Wall campaign. The film was really depressing, as the wall and the reality of the Palestinian Territories is, but it really remined me that Israel is intending to create three more Gaza's in the West Bank, one in the north centered around Nablus, a second in the center, around Ramallah, and a third in south around Hebron. This plan has been well known for years, but given how bad things have gotten in Gaza, it just struck more a bit harder last night what this will mean for the West Bank.

I don't know if there is another word to describe it other then ghetto. They may not ghettos in an urban sense, but they most certainly are in a national sense. They will consist mostly of Palestinian population centers, cut off from as much land as possible, and enclosed and intersected by Israeli walls and bypass roads. Movement in and out of these zones will be entirely controled by Israel. Here is a map that maybe best shows how the future Palestine will look. Here is another map that shows the Israeli-only bypass roads that fully crisscross and cut these zones into even smaller isolated pieces. How is that the basis of a viable state?

Al-Hayat reports that Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert is preparing for a trip to Washington to seek President Bush's assurance that the US will support his disengagement plan as setting the final borders for the Jewish state. Israeli sources are trying to downplay any high expectations, but Washington will agree eventually, and will pay for it too.

Cultural note:

The Middle East is not all conflict. There is actually a lot of life outside of conflict. So another aspect of the launch was the sale of Palestinian national and cultural items. Among the most noteworthy displays was from Azkadunya, or The Other Arabia, as they translate it. According to the site, Azkadunya is, "an alternative non-profit distribution network for the promotion, marketing, and sale of non-commercial cultural production by individuals, organizations, or educational and cultural initiatives in the Arab world or in the Arabic language."

Unfortunately, the site is only available in Arabic, because people in the West are in desperate need of better outlets to Arab culture. Hopefully the set up an English-language mirror site. But they had a number of CDs for sale produced by the National Conservatory of Music, at Birzeit University in Palestine, which does have a good English language site. I'll be adding both to my "cultural links" space in the right sidebar.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Manageing change in the Middle East

Anthony Shadid, veteran reporter for the Washington Post, has an interesting article on his return to his ancestral home in Lebanon, Marjayoun. It says a lot about the changes that have happened in the Middle East in the last century, and goes a long way towards explaining why the region has so much trouble overcoming the legacy of colonialism.

Colonialism alone is not enough to explain why the region remains torn by conflict and underdevelopment. Poor governance on the part of local rulers and military leaders has a huge part to play in that. But to understand why it has been so hard for so many communities in the region to flourish in the post colonial period, you have to understand the deep changes that occured in the Middle East. I lost the original link from the Washington Post, but found a link to the story here.

As Shadid writes:

When Beirut was a provincial capital at the turn of the century, Marjayoun was said to rival it in size. It once had four newspapers, and its schools -- with instruction in English and French -- remain the region's envy. For much of its history, it looked beyond modern-day Lebanon to Palestine, Jordan and Syria. Beirut was an afterthought; life revolved around trading with less-remote towns such as Haifa, Damascus and Quneitra nestled in the Golan Heights.

Dictated by the French in 1923, Lebanon's modern-day borders changed that. Even more disruptive was the creation of Israel in 1948. New borders were drawn with Syria's loss of the Golan Heights to Israel in 1967. Centuries-old trade routes were severed, and land holdings were arbitrarily partitioned. During Lebanon's civil war, which began in 1975, Marjayoun was run by a local militia, somewhat vaingloriously named the South Lebanon Army; Israel later occupied it, turning it into a battlefield with Hezbollah.
Local political elites who got control of the new states in the region also played a huge part in making the impact of such divisions greater, and in pursuing a narrow ethnic Arab nationalism that destroyed much of the long practiced tolerance and diversity of the region. Ask people where their families came from and you find Yemeni roots in families in Jordan, Iranian roots of some families in Syria, Turkish roots in people who are now Egyptian, and so on. In the creation of modern nation states in the Middle East the region lost a lot of its Greek, Jewish, Turkish and Armenian populations, and lost something of itself.

Modernity has not been kind to the Middle East on lot of levels, and the region is still struggling to cope with and adapt to the changes it brought about. The change has not always been well managed, but it was not helped by so much outside intervention.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Hamas and Jordan

Al-Hayat today published a picture of the weapons and explosives the Jordanian government seized which it says Hamas smuggled into the country for use in attacks on Jordanian and western targets there.

Apparently members of a Hamas cell have admitted to receiving training in Syria and smuggling the weapons on behalf of the militant movement. Jordan has arrested 20 people in relation to the smuggling charges, three of them Jordanians of Palestinian descent, at least one of whom had fought in Iraq. It also arrested 15 members of the Islamic Action Front, the political branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan.

Hamas has denied it is involved in the operation and refused to send representatives to Jordan as part of an official Palestinian Authority delegation investigating the allegations. Representatives of President Mahmoud Abbass did participate. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya has denounced the Jordanian government's "media escalation" of the issue.

The three primary suspects have admitted to working with Hamas representatives in Syria, and in purchasing the weapons in al-Qa'im, in Iraq, as well as in Jordan, then moving them among various locations in Jordan. They have also admitted to casing various targets, including the home of an intelligence service officer in the city of Salt "who had harmed Hamas", General Security targets in the city of Zarqa and tourist locations in the city of Aqaba.

It is no secret that Hamas smuggles arms through Jordan. A lietenant in the army told me in an informal conversation that they frequently caught people bringing arms through the southern part of the country on their way to the Negev, and from there to the Palestinian territories. The arms mostly came from Iraq but some also came from Saudi Arabia, not the governments, but the territories. The Jordanian government, according to the lietenant, has sophisticated sensors all along the border and puts a lot of resources in stopping such smuggling, but that because of the rough terrain some smugglers manage to avoid detection.

He also complained that while the Jordanian government puts enormous efforts into stopping smuggling both in and out of Jordan, his Israeli counterparts "do nothing" to stop smuggling from Israel into Jordan and that, "they only care about what is going into Israel". The lietenant stated that the most common items smuggled into Jordan from Israel included weapons and drugs. He was frustrated by this because he felt that the Israel's causualness about smuggling from Israel "doubled" the work of Jordanian border guards.

I still find these charges a bit hard to swallow. For Hamas to start attacking Jordanian targets just doesn't make sense. but a trusted high-level former Jordanian government official (of Palestinian descent) says that while he can not say for sure what the arms were intended for, he knows some of the Jordanian officials involved in the issue and that they are "honest and good people" whom he trusts.

If the story is true, which I'm starting to believe that somehow it is, it must signal a significant split between some of the political leadership in Syria and that in the Palestinian territories, or even more significantly, a splintering of the group among various factions. It would be disasterous for Hamas to attack sites in Jordan and common sense would seem to dictate that Hamas' self-interest would not at all be served from attacking Jordanian targets.

On a side note, there is increasingly depressing news from the Palestinian Territories. Hamas is not suprisingly using its power of government to further Islamize Palestinian society. Islamize is not accurate, as it has nothing to do with religion, and a lot more to do with the narrow-minded fundamentalist and highly politicized version of Islam that the Muslim Brotherhood and most other Islamic parties in the Middle East espouse. Regarding Hamas, this now includes using government media and changing the curriculum in schools "to further inculcate their message into the minds of people", as one friend put it.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

On fuel and salaries and peace

The impact of the Israeli decision to cut fuel shipments to the Palestinian territories is already unfolding.

Throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, fuel supplies are running out. The AP reports long lines forming at gas stations and rationing of what meager supplies remain.

In the West Bank, the situation was even more dire. Many stations said they were out of fuel, in some cases laying their dry nozzles on the ground.

“The only thing I've been doing for the past day is tell drivers that I don't have any gas,” said Awad Dabous, who works at a gas station in the West Bank town of Jenin.

A sign at the station said simply: “Sorry, no gas.” In Nablus, a line of taxi drivers said they had stopped working because they had no fuel. One driver, Mahmoud Tourabi, said he would try to drive to a nearby Jewish settlement in hopes of filling his tank.

“They may kill me there, so I will be the martyr of the gas,” he quipped.

Taxi drivers and others in the transport business are already being affected, and the AP also reports that the impact will soon be felt throughout the Palestinian territories, affecting almost everyone, not just government employees or members of the Hamas movement. As the AP reports,

"An end to fuel supplies could cripple hospitals, halt food deliveries and keep people home from work — a devastating scenario for an economy already ravaged by Israeli and international sanctions."

An example of what will soon happen to the health sector is,

Moaiya Hassanain, a top health ministry official in Gaza, warned that the area's hospitals, already suffering from a shortage of medicines, would cease to function without fuel.

He said ambulances would stop running, employees wouldn't be able to get to work and gas generators — used to compensate for ongoing electric outages — would be hobbled.

“It's going to be a disaster for us in the medical profession,” he said, speaking at a Gaza City gas station where he helped fill the gas tanks of several ambulances.

The Washington Post reports that a European Commission report noted that, "the key underlying factor" to the economic crisis "is the continued freeze in Israeli transfers of PA fiscal revenue and the strict Israeli policy on closures and other restrictions."

Yet the Israeli government remains adament in its stance that it will not relent on releasing fuel supplies or paying the Palestinians fuel bill out of the Palestinian funds it is seizing. The Post reports, "Israel has no intention whatsoever of punishing the Palestinian people," said Gideon Meir, a senior Foreign Ministry official. "Nor do we have any intention of giving money to the Palestinian Authority, including paying salaries."

The two are incompatable. If you don't pay the salaries, you are punishing the Palestinian people. It's not like once Hamas was elected all of the government employees became Hamas supporters. Most are actually Fatah supporters. How do you think they got government jobs in the first place?!

Here's the hard, cold truth. Israel has absolutely no intention of ever allowing anything resembling an independent Palestinian state. It wants the complete destruction of the Palestinian Authority under any government, and wants chaos and anarchy in the Palestinian territories so it can say it has no partner for peace, and can proceed as it wants to, annexing land and increasing the number of Israeli colonists in the West Bank. It wants economic and social conditions to be so bad that Palestinians will be compelled to leave what little land they have left, because for Israel, the biggest threat is the demographic threat.

It would be nice if everybody could all stop playing along with the fiction that there is a peace process, or that there is an Israeli partner for peace.

BBC's Middle East Coverage Faulted

Here's a short blurb from a Washington Post blog, about uneven treatment in the BBC's Middle East coverage. Funny, they are faulted for not portraying the Palestinian experience sufficiently, while a pro-Israeli lobby in the UK has been bashing them for years on fine points of minutiae that did not satisfy them.

I wish we had an independent commission with the guts to come out with that conclusion about US media. US papers still have to maintain the fiction that the US "allegedly" favors Israel!

BBC's Middle East Coverage Faulted

The BBC is failing to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict well, says an independent report. The British television network's coverage is inconsistent, incomplete and misleading, but there is "no deliberate or systematic bias" in its reporting of the Middle East.

The report, written by a panel headed by former government official Sir Quentin Thomas, highlights the challenges faced by even the best news organizations in a region where the news media is part of the battleground.

It cites at least three specific shortcomings, according to The Independent,which obtained a copy:

* "There was little reporting of the difficulties faced by the Palestinians in their daily lives," the report said.

* In the months preceding the Palestinian elections "there was little hard questioning of their leaders."

* The BBC fails to to convey the "asymmetry" of the conflict.

"When the Israelis suffer it is usually from a terrorist attack ... which necessarily constitutes a newsworthy event. ... In recent years, many more Palestinians have been killed but usually in circumstances which are less dramatic and give rise to less striking images," the report said.

Television news, the report said, should not be "dazzled by striking, and available pictures." That will be a difficult injunction to enforce.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Additional humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians

In case anyone was thinking that the undefined mechanism to provide additional humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people was going to bring relief, the sole supplier of fuel to the Palestinians, an Israeli company, in Gaza has announced it will stop fuel shipments.

As the Associated Press reports, "The Israeli company that provides fuel to the Palestinian areas is cutting off supplies due to growing debts, Israeli and Palestinian officials said Wednesday, a move that could deepen a humanitarian crisis in the West and Gaza Strip' "

That's right, no fuel. Think about that for a while. No fuel to run cars, no fuel for taxis, no fuel for generators, no fuel for businesses or factories. Think about how dependent any economy is on fuel and what a fuel stoppage would mean in your life. Basically a return to pre-modern living. And that's on top of the closure of the only commercial crossing Gaza has with the outside world, during the hieght of the agricultural season.

This is not about a business dropping a customer because he can't pay its bills. According to the AP, the Israelis have so far paid the Israeli company that supplies Gaza out of the roughly $55 million in customs duties it has withheld from the Palestinian Authority in since Hamas was elected to power. But, "a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Israel would "absolutely not" bail out the Palestinians this time."

This is not "bailing them out." This is paying the Israeli company with Palestinian money.

Is there any way that this move can be construed as aimed at Hamas, or the Palestinian Authority, and not the Palestinian people, who are now supposed to receive additional humanitarian assistance. Is that going to include firewood and matches?

There are so many simple steps that could advance a peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. One of them is letting Palestinians have a chance to live. Is there really a wonder that so many are ready to die? The wonder is that so many more of them struggle daily to live.

Taking the bait

Iran has chosen the North Korean strategy of in-your-face nuclear development, part bluff, part bluster and part retreat to buy time. Either way it wins, through defiance to the US, development of nuclear weapons, or, under attack, increased influence as another Muslim victim of American aggression. The US took the bait again.

The Iran nuclear issue needs to be understood as part of a larger US-Iranian battle for influence in the Middle East. Both see the issue as a way to increase their power, control and influence over the Arab world, Iran through confrontation with the West and Israel, the US and Israel by knocking down the main ideological opponent to their policies and presence in the region. The Islamic Republic of Iran defined itself as an alternative and in opposition to the West, and specifically America. The US has now defined itself in opposition to political Islam and claims to be pursuing democratic models that provide alternatives to political Islam.

This is not a battle that will be won with military power. It is a battle for hearts and minds, call it political fundamentalist Islam vs. MEPI (Bush's Middle East Partnership Initiative). Being on the side of political fundamentalist Islam does not mean someone is a fundamentalist or even anti-American, as resentment of the US is high enough now that even many secular liberal Arabs and Muslims will sympathize with Iran over the US if it comes down to another military attack on the region.

In this game Iran by far holds the best cards. While its relations with most neighboring states are "not fruitful" as one diplomat told me, Iran has street credibility among a lot of people for its tough rhetoric regarding Israeli and US policies in the region, and for its strong ties with Shiite communities in many neighboring countries. Any attack on Iran may succeed in slowing down Iran's nuclear program, (see here for a view of the fallout on the much celebrated attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear plant in 1981) but it won't humiliate the Iranian government or lead to regime change. It will inflame people's anger at the US and likely lead to both an increase in religious extremism and anti-Americanism. The region is already not short of both.

The wildcard in all of this is Sunni-Shiite relations in the region. A growing number of Sunnis are voicing concerns about the rise of the "Shiite Crescent", ranging from Iran to Lebanon. While most people here are loathe to make much of a distinction between the two groups, a growing number of high level figures have given voice to this issue, among them King Abdullah II of Jordan and Hosny Mubarak of Egypt. A lot of ordinary Saudis detest the Shiites, estimated at about 20% of the population there, and others fear that Shiites form a "fifth column" in their countries, more loyal to Tehran (or Qom) then they are to their own state. I doubt this question of displaced loyalty, but I'm hearing it more and more.

I say the US took the bait again because even though I think this administration is eager to strike Iran, I think America will be the loser in any confrontation with Iran. But an attack on Iran will certainly lead Iran to counter with all means at its disposal. That means some conventional responses in the region, but more worryingly an increase in its reliance on asymmetrical warfare, otherwise known as terrorism. So while Arabs and Muslims will be furious at westerners for another attack on a Muslim country, Americans will be furious at "Muslims" for all the new terrorist attacks.

The Bush administration argues that Iran is destabilizing the region. That maybe so, but the Bush administration is destabilizing it a whole lot more. Either way, it is people who are the big losers no mater what happens, through money wasted on weapons, lives lost in wars, and hatreds fed by the misguided priorities of power politics.

If the Bush administration is concerned about nuclear weapons in the region, it should spearhead a global effort to create a world free of nuclear weapons, not talk about developing new battle-field useable nuclear weapons. It should hold further talks with the major nuclear powers about further cuts in their own stocks, as a step towards full disarmament, and pressure the minor nuclear powers like India, Pakistan and Israel, to give up their weapons too. With its focus on Iran alone, it just plays directly into the hands of those in the region who make a living off of xenophobic pseudo-religious nationalism.

But then again, that's exactly what the conservative movement in the US does.

Aid for Palestinians, or a fig leaf for the US?

The Associated Press reports that, "...the United States agreed to support a new program to temporarily funnel additional humanitarian aid directly to the Palestinian people. A statement by Mideast peacemakers did not say how much or what kind of aid they would provide."

"The thrust of this is the international community is still trying to respond to the needs of the Palestinian people," Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice said."

Don't bet on it. US and Isaeli policy makers have made it clear that both the artillery attacks on norther Gaza Strip and the withholding of assistance to the PA, including money for salaries, is part of a policy designed to pressure the Palestinian people to oust Hamas. Not only is the international community not going to seriously address the needs of the Palestinian people, the program to "funnel additional humanitarian aid directly to the Palestinian people" is going to be a fig leaf.

All the international community is trying to do here is take public pressure off of themselves for creating a massive humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The crisis will continue and it will get worse. Maybe some extra bags of rice and some extra boxes of aspirin will get through to Gaza, but it's not going to address the issue of unpaid salaries, agricultural produce that is blocked from markets or stop the shelling of northern Gaza.

The story will drop from the news for the next couple of weeks, maybe even a month or two, until another "study" shows that the aid hasn't had much of an impact at all. Then it will be a few more months while the international community "studies" ways to solve the problem, and a few more months to find more ways to "funnel additional humanitarian aid directly to the Palestinian people", or another fig leaf to cover the international community's lack of consciences on humanitarian issues.

And on and on this deadly shadow dance goes. Yes I'm very cynical. I've seen this dance too many times.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Targeting the innocent in Palestine

The fact that the US and European countries can just watch so much suffering in Palestine and not feel some tinge of sympathy the consciences is extremely depressing. People are suffering tremendously in Gaza right now because of the Western-led international boycott.

Western governments know full well that the boycott is going to hurt average people, and not the Hamas movement. They are betting that people will get so fed up that they will toss Hamas out of power. As a commentator said last night on CNN, it is not only a question of whether or not Hamas recognizes Israel, the US is drawing a line in the sand on fundamentalist parties, out of fear that Hamas' victory is a harbinger of what is to come in other countries. The US can not let Hamas have any degree of success, and it is holding the Palestinian people as hostages to enforce this policy.

All this talk about suspending aid to the government and increasing aid to the people is rubbish. Not only does it plain not work, no banks will touch money going to Gaza right now for fear of breaking some unknown or future US law. As for the 165,000 government employees, like secretaries, janitors, teachers, doctors, health inspectors and everything else, it is now three months since they've been paid. Workers can't go to Israel. Farmers can't get their produce out because Israel has closed the Karni commerical crossing. These are not terrorists or extremists the West is punishing. These are just average people, from all political and social stripes.

This is exactly the point, to hurt average people in order to put pressure on Hamas. As Arabonline reports:

To ease the crisis while bypassing the Hamas-led government, European powers
Britain and France have backed the creation of a special trust fund to help pay
salaries to at least health and education workers. But Western diplomats say the
United States has been trying to block the proposal on the grounds that paying
salaries would take pressure off Hamas.

This is what we did in Iraq for ten years. Policy makers know that sanctioning governments so severely only hurts people. It was not just the immediate suffering of hunger and lack of medicines that have contributed to Iraq being a shambles. It was the increase in malnutrition which stunted children's growth, physical and intellectual. It was the severity of the suffering that increase extremism. It was the lost wages and weakened middle class that broke the society's ability to deal with differences.

There are literally hundreds of reports from all across the political spectrum about the impact of sanctions on Iraq. Here is just an excerpt from one UN report:

The effects of the economic embargo have reached into all spheres of life,
obstructing the course of progress and development in all domains. It could be said that the Iraqi people are today facing destruction and genocide by the agency of a weapon no less deadly than weapons of mass destruction, except that it is an economic embargo. What follows is a summary of the principal effects of the economic embargo imposed upon Iraq.

Yet the West is happy to do it again, at least when Arabs are involved. Has the dehumanization of Arabs and particularly Palestinians reached the point that people will watch babies die for lack of medicine, and whole families go destitute under the claim that such policies are punishment ot a government or a political party?

Sanctions on Iraq did not moderate or even hurt Saddam Hussein, in fact they strengthened him. It did not convince Iraqis to rise up and drive out the Ba'th Party, sanctions killed and radicalized them.

The US and other western countries have dealt with worse people than Hamas. We sold Saddam the chemicals he used to gas Kurds and Iranians. We funded death squads in Guatamala. We have long lists of dictators who prosecuted wars on their neighbors and slaughtered their own people. We befriended them, and we never targeted the populations they terrorized. I don't like Hamas, but why impose sanctions that target first and foremost innocent people?

If you want to go after Hamas, go after them. But don't do it on the souls of innocent bystanders and the future viability of Palestinian society. All the sanctions are doing now is killing innocent people and strengthening Hamas. Strengthen Palestinian society by letting the democratic process develop, weaken Hamas by forcing it to deal with the already overwhelming problems facing Palestine tody. Stop the sanctions!

Monday, May 08, 2006

The coming end of the CIA

In case you've been following American political news lately, you know that the former director of the CIA, Peter Goss, was fired last week. He stayed at the CIA only one year, a year that was characterized by a massive drain of many of the CIA's top managers as well as fights with Rumsfield's Department of Defense and National Intelligence Director Negroponte.

But Goss' firing has a lot less to do with his performance, and almost everything to do with Washington ideological and turf wars.

The first candidate to replace Goss is a military man. Now this is a very bad thing for a couple of reasons. First is that, in all honesty, it is important that government institutions, even those that deal with intelligence, be run by civilians. Maybe it's a bit of a fig leaf, but there are just some walls between civilians and the military that should be strong. I think this is one of them. This was a pretty basic founding principle of our government, and the more it is erroded the more the door opens on greater militarization of our public life.

The other is that Hayden is going to be a patsy at the CIA, and continue to wipe the place clean of people who disagree with the neo-cons. He will not have the strength to resist the dismantling of the agency that told Rumsfield, Bush and Rove that there was no proof of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that in 2004 the Iraqi insurgency was a serious homegrown movement, not just the work of "jihadists and deadenders", and that now says Iran is probably 5-10 years from developing a nuclear weapon and therefore not an imminent threat.

I wouldn't be surpised in a few years to see the CIA completely shut down. The right-wing considers the CIA to be filled with a bunch of left-wing aparatchiks afraid of the conservative's Brave New World. Now the CIA has problems, no doubt about it. But the constant shuffling is not meant to reform the agency, it is meant to destroy it.

So Hayden will likely be confirmed, and he will fail, as the others before him have, because he is meant to fail. In a few more years conservatives will say the agency is beyond reform and redundant because of all the other new intelligence departments and agencies that popping up in Washington.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Where in the world?

For those of you who wonder why American foriegn policy in the Middle East is so incomprehensible, a 2002 National Geographic survey of 18-24 year-olds has part of the answer.

According to the survey:

roughly 85 percent of young Americans could not find Afghanistan, Iraq, or Israel on a map

87 percent could not find Iran on a map

76 percent could not find Saudi Arabia

nearly 30 percent of those surveyed could not find the Pacific Ocean, the world’s largest body of water

more than half—56 percent—were unable to locate India, home to 17 percent of people on Earth

only 19 percent could name four countries that officially acknowledge having nuclear weapons

11 percent could not find the United States

Lebanon and Iranian nukes

Here are some interesting statistics on Lebanese public opinion regarding the Iranian nuclear program and US efforts to confront it. It is likely that if similar polls were conducted in other Arab countries the numbers would be even more lopsided.

In a recent poll, 90.7% of Lebanese support Iran's right to own nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

79.3% believe the driving force behind the Iranian nuclear program is achieving a nuclear balance with Israel, while only 20.7% think it isn't.

In case of US military action against Iran, 76.4% of Lebanese would support Iran, while 22% would wish to remain neutral. Only 1.6% would support the US.

79.1% of Lebanese think Iranian nuclear arms pose a threat to the US and Israel. Only 11.8% see it as a threat to Arab countries, and 9.1% as a threat to all.

76.9% of Lebanese (and 80% of Shiites) think that Hizbollah will participate in any war between the US and Iran.

78.1% of Lebanese believe that Iran's entry into the nuclear club will help the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel.

(source: al-Hayat, Tuesday, May 2, p 16)

I'm not sure why the US is pushing this issue so hard right now. The nuclear issue is not critical. It is only part of the broader struggle between the US and Iran for influence in the region. Most people see Israeli nukes as a much greater threat than Iranian nukes, but Israeli nukes are not on the table.

Apparently US policy makers still haven't figured out that it is a battle for hearts and minds. The Bush administration has again chosen a losing battle. No matter the outcome, Iran wins, either through increased influence from confronting the US and Israel, through actual development of nuclear weapons, or by drawing the US even further into a bloody quagmire that Americans will tire of and lose.

The only way to address the nuclear issue in the region is to work towards a region free of nuclear weapons, as part of a broader global program of nuclear disarmament that eliminates this terrible weapon from the possession of all.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Migration and mobility

One of the most common stories you encounter in the Middle East is that of migration.

Yesterday I met a guy named Boulous, who is originally from Akkar, a city in the north of Lebanon. Like Jean and Mahmoud from yesterday’s post, he lives in Beirut because there is no work in the north. On the road to Jouneih today we also encountered a number of Syrians wading through traffic selling pirated CDs, cologne, perfume and assorted knick-knacks. You see this kind of thing everywhere in the Arab world.

It’s hard to believe that a Syrian can make more selling pirated CDs on the street in Beirut than he can doing something in his own country. But clearly he, like Mahmoud, leaves his home and family in search of a better life somewhere else, or, more likely, in search of a means of survival.

I heard a figure that every day nearly one million Syrians travel to Lebanon to work. This figure was from before the Syrian withdrawal, and may or may not be accurate, but clearly the number is large. This figure was for day workers, people who commute to Lebanon and then return to their homes in Syria at the end of the day. Some Lebanese complain that these Syrians don’t give anything back to Lebanon, that they even pack their lunches to avoid spending money in Lebanon.

Like everywhere else, immigrants are blamed for the problems by their host communities. This happens a lot in Jordan too, where a lot of people complain about the large number of Iraqis who have taken refuge in the desert kingdom. In the US the immigration issue is coming to a head, where there are currently major demonstrations for and against stricter controls on immigration and tougher penalties on illegal immigrants.

Back to the Middle East, labor migration and mobility are huge issues in the region, and show both the impact of colonialism as well as misrule by local governments in the development in the region.

For colonialism, the region is still suffering from the random borders that Britain and France drew in the 1920’s. For example, many Lebanese in the south had relatives and close relations with Palestinians in what is now northern Israel. With the creation of Israel this normal traffic was cut. Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria and historically a rival city to the current capital Damascus, lost a large part of it’s economic hinterland by the creation of the modern states of Turkey and Syria. Aleppo has had a hard time recovering from the lost markets in what is now Turkey.

In terms of mismanagement and poor governance of local leaders, it is shameful the restrictions and difficulties Arab states sometimes place on the travel of citizens of neighboring Arab countries and the poor job most have done in managing their economies. More than 50 years after the creation of the Arab League, many Arabs still have trouble traveling between Arab states. It is often easier for me with my American passport to travel between Arab countries than it is for Arabs to do so. Once in their “brotherly” Arab countries, many of these migrant workers face the same random and occasionally poor treatment that Arab governments often met out on their own citizens. Among the worst affected are Palestinians for political reasons. In close second are probably now Egyptians for economic reasons, with Iraqis possibly soon to follow suit for “security” reasons as they flee the violence and chaos of post-Saddam Iraq.

At some point Arab states will have to address the issue of migration and mobility in order to better address the challenge of economic development in the region. They have made improvements over the past 15 years, but they can do more. And like everywhere else, and here you can point to America first, a good first step is to stop blaming and punishing immigrant workers who come and do the tough jobs that locals find either uneconomical or unworthy.

Introducing the Middle East

I’m in Lebanon for a few days with my parents. I wanted them to see a little bit more of the Middle East than Jordan while they’re visiting. Last night we were walking around the downtown and came across the grave of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. As we walked through the memorial area my mom and dad both asked me at separate times, “How was Hariri killed?”

I was pretty surprised by the question. My parents follow the news regularly. They are not like a lot of Americans who neither read newspapers nor watch TV. I didn’t expect them to know a lot of the details about it, but I figured they knew the basic story. It did lead to a political earthquake in Lebanon and the eventual withdrawal of Syrian troops, which had occupied the country and controlled its political life for the past 15 years.

For those who may not know, Hariri was assassinated in a massive car bomb February 14, 2005.

I don’t blame them for not knowing how Hariri was killed, but it really opened my eyes to the fact that earth shattering events in the Middle East can hardly make a ripple in the US. The fact that even people who do follow the news don’t know big, important details of major events shows exactly how hard it is to get people in the US to understand what happens in the Middle East.

It is hard enough to get people to understand what happens in the Middle East, even harder still to convey what people are like. So I’m going to start introducing readers to some of the people I meet here.

Jean is a Lebanese Christian from the Shouf Mountains. He lives in Beirut because during the civil war the Druze and Christians viciously fought each other. There were a lot of massacres at the hands of both sides, and thousands fled their ancestral villages.

Most of those who fled to Beirut have not returned to their villages. Many of the villages, which relied primarily on agricultural production, were totally destroyed. Those who grew up during and after the civil war have no knowledge of farming, and social services like schools and health care are weak to non-existent. They got used to city life and wouldn’t know what to do in a small village in the mountains, so they remain in the cities where most have trouble finding decent work. Rural development remains one of Lebanon's biggest economic challenges.

Mahmoud is an Egyptian who works as a waiter in Beirut’s newly renovated downtown pedestrian mall. He comes from a small village located in the Egyptian Delta, between Cairo and Tanta. The economic situation in Egypt is generally bleak, forcing thousands to Egyptians to find work abroad.

Mahmoud does better working as a waiter in Lebanon than he would working in Egypt. He has been here for about 6 years. He says the work is best between June and October when a lot of tourists come, especially from the Arab Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. Every year he goes home for about two months.

He says he’s happy here, but wants to return to Egypt. He says the Lebanese are a lot like Egyptians because they are friendly, talk a lot and like politics. He figures he’ll work here for a few more years until he’s saved enough money to go back to Egypt and start his own business, probably some kind of small shop and try to settle down and get married. But in the meantime, he is young, and doesn't mind spending his summers in Lebanon!