Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Promoting conflict through unilateral withdrawals

Where to begin? War always accelerates change. Too much happening in the region and at work.

One thing you can generally count on is for the Washington Post editorials to take a decidely more conservative bent then the paper's actual coverage. I find a lot of the Post's coverage to be pretty decent, but the editorials leave a lot to be desired.

Like today's. While the general premise might be right, that now is not the time for grandiose actions in the name of peace, the following assessment couldn't be more wrong. The Post editorial board writes:

The war has probably killed the only promising prospect of a step toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, which was Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan to unilaterally withdraw Israeli settlements and troops from most of the West Bank.

Not only is this statement patently false (the Israeli plan does not call for a withdrawal from "most" of the West Bank), it is horribly unwise. Unilateral withdrawals are a disasterous idea, and are a major factor in the continuation of violence, not a prelude to the outbreak of peace. Israel thinks it can just divorce itself of those aspects of lands it occupies without a political settlement. That is the worst way to try to solve a problem. Have they and the Post's editors learned nothing from Lebanon and Gaza?

Israel's planned unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank was going to take the vast majority of the land of the West Bank, either for preexisting settlements or as security zones, would retain the security barriers, check points and bypass roads that criss-cross the remaining areas left for Palestinians, and would do NOTHING to solve any of the political issues at the heart of the conflict. In short, it is gauranteed to ensure that the conflict continues, if not escalates.

The Israeli withdrawal plan basically calls for the creation of three more Gaza Strip-like enclaves in the West Bank. It is nothing even close to a state much less even autonomous zones.

Israel will not have peace or security so long as it thinks it can rely on military force alone as a means to solve its differences with either its Palestinian or other neighbors. It can not force what it thinks is an acceptable settlement on it's neighbors, declare peace and then hunker down behind it's walls and military forces. Lebanon has proven that. There must be a mutally agreed upon political settlement for their to be peace.

Such a settlement is very possible, but Israel refuses to agree to it. It is present in the Arab Peace Plan of 2002, in which all states of the Arab League agree to full recognition of Israel, establishment of full diplomatic relations and other normal relations between states on the basis of a Palestinian state being founded in all the lands of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, minus minor modifications to accomodate Israel's vast settlements in these lands.

Both the PLO and Hamas have agreed to this, albeit for Hamas it has said it will abide by such an arrangement, and recognize Israel as part of a complete settlement of the issues. Even Iran has now said they will agree to this plan. So why doesn't Israel take them up on it, if it wants true and lasting peace? Because the Israeli public and Israeli politicians do not agree to giving up most of the West Bank for a Palestinian state. Yet that is the only way they will have peace, short of the creation of a binational state, which Israelis will definately never accept.

The Post also repeats the mantra about Hamas not recognizing Israel. Again, when has Israel really recognized the right of the Palestinians to establish a state. What Israel is recognizing is the right of Palestinians to live in their isolated ghettos within "Judea and Samaria", surrounded by Israeli walls, soliders, security zones and settlements. That is not recognition of the right to a state. That is admission that Israel will not accept a Palestinian state.

There's more to criticize the the Post editorial but I've said enough already.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Israel's insecurity wall

I haven't posted much recently because of a lot of travel and now plannning for 4 events we are holding in the beginning of September. In the meantime here is an excellent article on the seperation wall Israel is building in Palestine.

Look at the picture below and any arguements in favor of the wall are exposed as fronts for the real purpose-- taking as much land as possible and isolating Palestinian population centers from that land.

Notice how close the wall comes to the Palestinian homes, and actually cuts off the homes from the small patch of trees? See how open the land is just a few dozen meters away? If the wall is strictly for security, as Israeli policy makers publically claim, why couldn't it be built on the vast empty space, instead of as close as possible to the Palestinian homes? Why did it have to take this meager agricultural land from the town or village?

What is not yet apparent from the picture is the "security zone" that buffers the wall. Take a few more meters from the right side of the wall (as shown in the picture), and you'll see that the land taken will actually extend almost to the walls of some of the houses.

This is supposed to bring Israel security? I don't think so.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Hizbollah: Losing the peace?

Will Hizbollah win the war in Lebanon only to then loose the peace?

It is a question that more Lebanese are asking themselves these days, as Hizbollah strikes out to capitalize on its successful stand against the Israeli army, and plough it's efforts into reconstruction of the south.

That on it's own is not what is troubling some Lebanese. It is instead the independant and sectarian nature of this effort that troubles them.

Hizbollah's leadership are not stupid in one regard at least. They have cultivated good relations with many of their Christian neighbors in the south. Many Lebanese in the south give at least nominal support to Hizbollah because of its role in forcing an Israeli withdrawal in 2000. Sunnis, Christians, Shia, secular and religious all suffered from the long Israeli occupation and credit Hizbollah for ending it. All Lebanese can and many non-Shia do sometimes benefit from the social and other services Hizbollah provides.

But now Hizbollah is talking about rebuilding southern Lebanon on it's own, and that it doesn't want help from the Lebanese government. Hizbollah is talking about it's victory, it's fighters and it's sacrifices, leaving many Lebanese to wonder what it is they were doing during the 33 months of bombing the Hizbollah cross-border attack instigated.

Hizbollah will probably be more efficient in reconstruction efforts than the national government. The national government has largely shown that it is anything if not inept, failing miserably to respond to the humanitarian disaster brought on the war with any semblence of order or effectiveness. But what troubles Lebanese is the increasingly sectarian nature of how Hizbollah and it's supporters view this war and it's aftermath.

There is a real fear that Hizbollah will use the post-war reconstruction, with funds Iran is already supplying for this purpose, to solidify both its hold on the Shia population and independence from Lebanon. Instead of speaking and acting as if the victory over Israel was a Lebense victory, they are talking about it as only a Hizbollah victory.

All Lebanese have suffered and will suffer as a result of this war, one for which there was no national consensus. If Hizbollah does not soon reconcile its own over abundance of hubris and seek to speak and act in terms inclusive to all Lebanese, it will signal yet one more step towards the renewal of serious and deep sectarian conflict. God forbid, but it may even contribute at some point to an outbreak of yet another civil war.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The non-cease fire

The cease fire in Lebanon is clearly dead on arrival.

The US-French brokered UN Security Council Resolution 1701 has been accepted by everyone, and will be honored by no one.

Among the unacceptable aspects of the ceasefire are:

It calls for Hizbollah to be disarmed. No one can disarm Hizbollah but Hizbollah, and they will not give up their weapons, especially after this war.

It allows Israel to keep it's troops in Lebanon for an undetermined amount of time. What kind of cease fire is it if Israel is continuing to pour troops into Lebanon and is dropping commandos into the country?

It does nothing to settle the issue of Sheba farms, which is the pretext Hizbollah has used to keep its weapons in the first place.

It says nothing about an exchange of prisoners, which is one of the main reasons the war started in the first place.

These are certain signs that the fighting will continue well beyond the Monday deadline for a ceasefire.

Forget all the talk about the ceasefire. You can expect this war to continue, probably without much pause at all, for some time yet.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Deliberalizing Egypt

This is something I wrote back in June but forgot to post. It's about America's role in retarding the growth of secular democracy in the Middle East, primarily in Egypt.

Deliberalizing Egypt

During the 2005 presidential election, 20 year incumbent Hosny Mubarak won by a landslide. This could be interpreted as, given the chance to freely elect their president, a general consensus of Egyptians favor stability and continuity during these uncertain times.

The problem is this was neither a free election nor was there consensus. Only about 20% of those eligible to vote actually turned out on Election Day, and the opposition consisted of little more than a couple of hog-tied competitors. The degree of apathy in regard to the first presidential election in Egypt shows how far the country still has to come to have a serious and active political life.

There is, however, a lot more discussion about politics these days. The run-up to the election saw unprecedented public political activity in Egypt. There was a vocal opposition, demonstrators regularly filled the streets, and many felt a new freedom to openly air their views on both the ruling National Democratic Party and President Mubarak. Neither of the two faired particularly well. So why didn't these parties do better in either the presidential or parliamentary elections that followed them closely

People frequently cite the fact that the only viable opposition to Mubarak is the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The secular opposition, consisting mostly of socialists and communists, hardly won a seat at all in the parliamentary elections, while the Muslim Brotherhood won almost a quarter of the seats. This is not enough to change any laws, but it will change the nature of parliamentary discussions. What happened to the secular parties in Egypt, the state that was once the vanguard of secular pan-Arab socialist movement?

Secularism has been perhaps one of the biggest victims of the past 30 years of rule first by Anwar Sadat and Hosny Mubarak. Sadat was the first to lift restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood, which was persecuted mercilessly by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Sadat used the Muslim Brotherhood to help weaken the secular parties, especially the Nasserites, and consolidate his hold on power. He called himself the Believer President, and had himself frequently photographed praying. This strategy came back to haunt him, as more extreme Islamic groups ended up assassinating him for signing a peace treaty with Israel.

Mubarak came to power and hit at the Islamic parties with a vengeance, while continuing to whittle away any support to room for maneuver by the secular parties. When faced with a growing popular Islamic resurgence in the country, Mubarak's government soon embraced much of the language of the political Islamist groups. With official government sanction for the primary role of religion in public life, politics thrived in Egypt's mosques and religious institutions, including government television stations, while the secular parties suffered under Mubarak's emergency laws and political restrictions, without any similar recourse to public activity like the Islamic groups had.

Many people I talked to, including a range of political and human rights activists, academics and a few ex-government officials, now see this as a deliberate strategy on the part of the Mubarak regime. Most observers felt that the Egyptian government has consistently thwarted the development of any secular alternative to the ruling NDP, ranging to restrictive laws concerning the establishment of non-governmental organizations to heavy-handed suppression of any public or even private dissent. While religious organizations thrived through the social services they provide and the official and unofficial mosques and religious training institutes, the secular opposition was completely eviscerated.

The logic of this was to leave the government, itself increasingly religious and illiberal, in the position of guardian of Egypt's liberal secular tradition, along with it's ties to the United States. What this meant in the recent elections was that voters and foreign supporters of Egypt, most notably the United States, were left with two real choices: the current ruling party or the largely undefined political and social platform of the Muslim Brotherhood.

This strategy has worked amazing well, according to most of the people I talked to. It is important first to highlight the role that many people give to the United States in Egypt's recent short lived political liberalization. It's amazing how many discussions of reform and democratization in Egypt center on the United States. Most people credit American pressure for both the changes to the law governing the election of the president and the parliamentary elections. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that most people appear to view this American pressure as the primary factor in the recent political opening in Egypt.

But this acknowledgment of the role of American pressure in cracking open political life in Egypt has turned to deep anger and disappointment at America's failure to follow through it's tough words with support for the opposition. In short, when faced with the possibility of significant gains by the Muslim Brotherhood, America got cold feet. The starkest evidence of this was the change in Condoleeza Rice's tone during her past two trips to Egypt.

In the first trip, prior to the presidential election, Rice gave a speech at the American University in Cairo in which she said,

"The Egyptian Government must fulfill the promise it has made to its people -- and to the entire world -- by giving its citizens the freedom to choose. Egypt’s elections, including the Parliamentary elections, must meet objective standards that define every free election. Opposition groups must be free to assemble, and to participate, and to speak to the media. Voting should occur without violence or intimidation. And international election monitors and observers must have unrestricted access to do their jobs. "

On a return trip Rice called Presdent Mubarak, "a wise man" and "a good friend of the United States." She spoke of "disappointments" and "setbacks" in the Egyptian reform process, but said next to nothing about the violence and intimidation that accompanied the elections, nor the of the brutal crackdown on demonstrations since the elections ended. She said next to nothing about the opposition parties, like al-Ghad, that were not free to assemble and participate in these elections, and were in fact instead targeted with legal actions and ugly smear campaigns in the semi-official press.

What happened to the American project of democracy? A good indicator of what America wants out of the Greater Middle East comes out clearly in the Administration's defense of America's strategic relationship with Egypt.

When Congress threatened to withhold American aid to Egypt in response to it's failure to reform and democratize Assistant Secretary of State David Welch said Cairo was a pivotal American partner, assisting in the American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, pressuring Hamas and playing a leading role in the Israel-Palestine Issue and providing troops for Sudan's Darfur region. "Their role is irreplaceable and critical in many instances," Welch told a sub-committee of the House of Representatives Committee on International Relations," reported Reuters Alertnet. Alertnet reports that, Senior State Department official Michael Coulter said "military aid, which accounts for more than half of total assistance, had paid "high dividends" in many areas, including Egypt's commitment to trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

In other words, forced to chose between democracies that might stop the high level cooperation on a myriad of American policies in the region and dictatorships that will continue to repress their people in pursuit of American, as opposed to Arab, interests, America will chose the dictatorship.

So goes the process of reform in the Middle East.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The US and its isolated incidents

For Israel, innocent civilians are fair game

This article is too important to just link it.

Here's the key point, and a quote I have been trying to find for a week:

Not only has Israel failed to distinguish between military and civilian targets; its own officials suggest that they have decided any civilian still in the south is fair game. Last week, Justice Minister Haim Ramon reportedly said, "All those now in south Lebanon are terrorists who are related in some way to Hezbollah."

For Israel, innocent civilians are fair game
Peter Bouckaert International Herald Tribune
TYRE, Lebanon

The voice of Mohammed Shalhoub, 61, a farmer from Qana, still quivers with shock and exhaustion. He was in a basement shelter with more than 60 relatives when two Israeli bombs hit, killing at least 28, including 16 children. As I interview him in hospital, relatives arrive with more news of the victims. A woman starts screaming as she looks at the pictures of the dead and Mohammed's eyes well up with tears.

But his voice turns cold with impotent fury when I ask if there were Hezbollah fighters near the home when the bombs fell. "If the Israelis really saw the rocket launcher, where did it go?" he asks. "We showed Israel our dead; why don't the Israelis show us the rocket launchers?"

The world doesn't seem to put much credence in the testimonies of Lebanese civilians, preferring to buy generic Israeli statements about Hezbollah using civilians as human shields, "precision strikes" at terrorist targets, and a "proportionate" bombing campaign. But after days of contradictory statements about Qana, the Israeli military was reported as saying it had no indication of rocket fire or Hezbollah presence in Qana on the day of the strike, and had bombed the area in retaliation for rockets launched days earlier.

Israel's claims about pin-point strikes and proportionate responses are pure fantasy. As a researcher for Human Rights Watch, I've documented civilian deaths from bombing campaigns in Kosovo and Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq. But these usually occur when there is some indication of military targeting: high-ranking members of Saddam Hussein's regime present in a house just before it is hit, for example, or an attack against militants that causes the collateral deaths of many civilians.

In Lebanon, it's a different scene. Time after time, Israel has hit civilian homes and cars in the southern border zone, killing dozens of people with no evidence of any military objective.

My notebook overflows with reports of civilian deaths. On July 15, Israeli fire killed 21 people fleeing from Marhawin, including 13 children; no weapons, no Hezbollah nearby. On July 16, an Israeli bomb killed 11 civilians in Aitaroun, including seven members of a Canadian-Lebanese family on vacation; again, no Hezbollah, no weapons. On July 19, at least 26 civilians were killed in Srifa when Israeli bombs flattened an entire neighborhood; no evidence of military targets. On July 23, at least seven civilians were killed when Israeli warplanes bombed dozens of cars trying to flee the south after receiving Israeli instructions to evacuate immediately; no indication of weapons convoys in the vicinity. The list goes on, with about 500 civilians killed so far.

Israel says the fault for the massive civilian death toll lies with Hezbollah, claiming its fighters are hiding weapons inside civilian homes and firing them from civilian areas. But even if the Israeli forces could show evidence of Hezbollah activity in some civilian areas, it could not justify the extensive use of indiscriminate force that has cost so many lives.

Not only has Israel failed to distinguish between military and civilian targets; its own officials suggest that they have decided any civilian still in the south is fair game. Last week, Justice Minister Haim Ramon reportedly said, "All those now in south Lebanon are terrorists who are related in some way to Hezbollah."

So if you are too frightened to flee southern Lebanon, or are sick, injured or too poor to pay the more than $1,000 it now costs to get out, you are a "terrorist" and eligible for attack. As for those who heeded the Israeli warnings to flee, the roads are littered with bombed civilian cars, many with white flags still attached to their windows. After all, the Israelis tell us, they could have been transporting arms. Israel is prefabricating excuses to justify killing civilians.

Tragedies happen in the fog of war, but Israel's strikes on civilians can't all be excused as accidents or mistakes. The unacceptably high death toll is the natural result of Israel's failure to distinguish between civilian and military targets, and Israel is responsible for the deaths.

Israel must target its fight on Hezbollah, not Lebanese civilians. To do otherwise is not only wrong, but may very well be criminal, and Israel's leaders, and its friends elsewhere in the world, must face up to this harsh reality.

Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, is co-author of the report "Fatal Strikes: Israel's Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon," released Thursday.

death, discrimination and morality

Statistics are great but they hide the fact that for each of those numbers was once a human being. I don't mean to throw any of these numbers about blithely.

But but look at some of these numbers.

The Lebanese government is now stating that about 900 people have died in the bombing, counting people who may still be buried under the rubble of their homes.

That number far exceeds the number of Hizbollah fighters killed. I think Hizbollah claims 50 of it's fighters were killed, while Israel claims it was 400. Probably both are false, and we'll probably never know the real number, but still, civilians killed far outweighs the number of fighters killed.

Israel reports that seventy-nine Israelis have died, 46 soldiers and 33 civilians. Hizbollah claims Israeli military deaths as higher, but again, who knows.

So Hizbollah, firing blindly into heavily populated areas of Israel, has killed statistically fewer Israeli civilians, than Israel, using the latest technology: satellites, infrared, drones, special forces, guided missles, etc., has killed Lebanese civilians. By far.

And they claim that this strategy is designed to defeat Hizbollah and isolate it from the rest of Lebanon?

On another note, watching Tucker Carlson, an unapologetic right-wing anchor on MSNBC, almost made me sick. He was shocked and finally giving the Israeli ambassodor (or someone from the Israeli government) a hard time. Why? Because Israel had attacked bridges in a Christian area of Lebanon.

So for Tucker it's ok if Israel is killing off all those Muslims. I guess he thinks Muslims are all a bunch of murderous thugs anyway, so what does it matter. But the Christians?? The innocent sweet Christians of Lebanon?

The ignorance is astounding! In many trips to Lebanon I have heard Christians speak of their admiration for Hizbollah. Hizbollah extends much of its social work in the south to Christians in need. I've heard Christians praise Nasrallah, and say, "Why don't we have anyone like him?" This is a direct quote. And Hizbollah recently formed an alliance with the former Christian General Aoun. I've heard others say Hizbollah was driving the country to civil war. I heard Muslims say that too.

Does Tucker think that the Israeli bombs falling all over Lebanon are sparing the Christians, only killing the Muslims and Druze? I would like to ask Tucker if he thinks it's ok if the bombs are killing those innocent Muslim civilians and blowing up their neighborhoods, because that is what he clearly implied.

And why doesn't Tucker seem to care about the Christian Palestinians that Israel also beats, bombs, starve and detain. Does he know there are Christians in Gaza? Does he understand that the Christian population is rapidly dwindling because of the desperation and hopelessness of many Palestinians in general.

Such thinking as Tucker Carlson displays is disgusting. And the ignorance is just sickening, because it's smug idiots like him who help form public opinion in America.

Tucker! The world is not black and white! Christians are not always the heros and victims, Muslims aren't always the villians and perpetrators! An innocent civilian is an innocent civilian no matter what he or she believes. And bombs falling from the sky, like bombs strapped to people's waists, don't discriminate based on your criteria of good and bad.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Stop shooting, start talking

I try to engage in as much cyber activism as I can, especially during major, wrenching crises. I got one letter-to-the-editor published, and interest in another.

Here's one that the San Fransisco Chronicle published:

Stop shooting, start talking in Middle East

Editor -- In response to David Biale's July 23 commentary (Insight, "Why Israeli bombing might not be enough to wipe out Hezbollah"): What Israel and its supporters seem not to understand is that cutting off the electricity and water of civilian populations, starving them and attacking government ministries is no deterrence to future attacks. Such actions will not bring security or peace, but are a sure provocation to continued conflict.

When Israel uses missiles to assassinate Hamas activists or bombs Hezbollah political headquarters in densely populated neighborhoods, it knows very well that it is also going to kill many innocent civilians. Israel's concern for civilian deaths is hardly greater than that of Hamas and Hezbollah, and it deserves no quarter in this regard.

Hamas and Hezbollah's targeting of civilians are frequently rightly condemned. So, too, should Israel's.

Enough empty justifications for careless killing of civilians in war. There is no military solution to this fundamentally political conflict. It is time to stop the shooting and start talking tough concessions.


The Washington Post contacted me about this one, but I don't think they published it.

What Jim Hoagland [Lebanon's Dividers, op-ed, July 21] fails to acknowledge is that the Lebanese government has never been in a position to disarm, remove or replace Hezbollah. I'd like for him to explain exactly how they were supposed to do this.

Has Israel, which has a much stronger army, ever been able to disarm or remove Hamas, a much weaker movement? Could Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas, weakened by years of Israeli raids on Palestinian Authority police and security forces have done so?

The idea of physically attacking, defeating and disarming militant movements is a red herring. It sounds nice but is not realistic.

The failure here is to come to a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict. Unilateral military action, whether attacks or withdrawals, only feeds conflict.


So there they are. I don't know how many of these letters I've written in the past few weeks. At a minimum I think they can sometimes help inform editorial boards on newspapers, and if they are published it reaches a significant number of people.

I've worked on small arms control issues in the Middle East for about three years. The most basic, fundamental lesson is that you cannot force a population to give up its arms. You have to start by looking at the reasons people feel they need to own weapons in the first place. If you don't address those reasons you have no chance in hell of ever removing those guns and the mulitiple dangers they pose to a community (such as accidental shootings, sectarian conflict, tribal feuds, etc).

The same goes for large well-armed popular militant movements.