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Warding Off the Palestinian Revolution

6 May 2011

Warding Off the Palestinian Revolution

By Gwynne Dyer

Palestine is ripe for a revolution. How do we know that? Because the two rival governments that have so spectacularly failed that hypothetical country are finally ending their four-year-old breach and getting back together. Or at least that’s what they say they’re doing.

The reconciliation took place in Cairo on Wednesday, when Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (which controls the West Bank), and Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas (which controls the Gaza Strip), signed an agreement to form an interim government to rule both parts of the would-be country. “We forever turn the black page of division,” said Abbas in his opening remarks.

The two men went further than that. They agreed that no member either of Hamas or of Fatah (the movement that is Mahmoud Abbas’s political base) could be part of the interim government. That government would pave the way for free elections next year in both parts of the disjointed proto-state that would really restore Palestinian national unity. Or so the deal says.

But Fatah and Hamas still hate each other, and they haven’t actually made a single compromise on the key areas where they disagree, like the question of whether to make peace with Israel. Most observers still doubt that the gulf between the two sides can ever be bridged. So why would they even bother to sign such a “unity” accord?

Because they are both running scared. They have seen what happened to other oppressive and/or corrupt regimes in the Arab world as the “Arab spring” has unfolded, and they are afraid that a comparable revolution could drive them from power too. Fatah, after all, is very corrupt and quite authoritarian, while Hamas is less corrupt but extremely repressive and economically incompetent to boot.

There have already been large popular demonstrations in the Palestinian territories, although they have not been widely reported. The protesters’ main demand is “national unity”, but there is good reason to suspect that many of them actually have a broader agenda.

Like the Syrian demonstrators demanding the repeal of the 48-year-old “state of emergency” in that country, when what they really want is the end of the regime, many of the Palestinian protesters are using “national unity” as a popular mobilising call when what they really want is the end of both Fatah and Hamas.

So Fatah and Hamas are giving them what they say they want, in order to avoid having to give them what they really want. But it is a shotgun marriage at best, and most unlikely to last.

One further incentive for the deal, from Abbas’s point of view, is that he hopes to get formal recognition of the Palestinian state from the United Nations General Assembly in September, even though its borders with Israel have still not been agreed and much of it is under Israeli military occupation.

This is mere gesture politics, since it will not force Israel to remove its troops or make any other concessions, but Abbas hopes that it will strengthen his standing with his own people. Besides, he can hardly ask the UN members to recognise Palestinian sovereignty so long as different parts of its territory are ruled by rival and indeed hostile regimes. A cosmetic reconciliation with Hamas is necessary, at least for a while.

The probable price of this Fatah-Hamas deal is a complete shutdown of peace negotiations with Israel, because Israel, the European Union and the United States define Hamas as a “terrorist movement”. Therefore, they will have nothing to do with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas (or so they say).

Israel’s hard-line prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said the accord was a “tremendous blow to peace and a great victory for terrorism”. But Netanyahu is widely and probably correctly seen as a man who isn’t interested in a peace agreement anyway, so Abbas doesn’t think anything important will be lost if he cozies up to Hamas for a while.

The real question is whether the Palestinians will ignore all this window-dressing, and rise up like their Egyptian neighbours to rid themselves of the arbitrary and corrupt governments that now rule them. The answer is probably no, because the felt need for “unity” in the face of the Israelis usually cripples Palestinian attempts to address the failings of their own institutions.

Indeed, the biggest short-term consequence of the “Arab spring” for the Palestinians may be another Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip, or even a full-scale re-occupation of that territory, because the new Egyptian government plans to reopen its border with Gaza very soon.

Under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s recently deposed dictator, Cairo fully cooperated with Israel in enforcing a tight blockade of the Gaza Strip. Once the border with Egypt is re-opened, Israel fears, the extremists who regularly fire rockets into Israel from the territory will have access to an endless flow of weapons.

Trying to shut that border down again would immediately embroil Israel in a conflict not only with Hamas but with newly democratic Egypt. That would certainly not be to Israel’s long-term advantage, but that doesn’t mean they won’t do it.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“One…while”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

The Next Arab-Israeli War

24 January 2011

The Next Arab-Israeli War

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s time to think about the nature of the next Arab-Israeli war. The release by the Arab satellite network al-Jazeera of 16,000 leaked Palestinian documents covering the past ten years of peace negotiations has driven a stake through the heart of the already moribund “peace process,” and we hear constant warnings that when the hope of a peace settlement is finally extinguished, the next step is a return to war. So what would that war be like?

Okay, back up a bit. What the leaked documents show is that the Palestinian negotiators were willing to make huge concessions on territory and other issues in return for Israeli recognition of an independent Palestinian state. They were well-meaning people playing a very bad hand as best they could, but the publication of these documents will destroy them politically.

The spirit in which they approached the talks is exemplified in the first document in the trove, a memo on Palestinian negotiating strategy dated September 1999. It urges the negotiators to heed the advice of the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find that you get what you need.”

According to the documents, in the past three years the Palestinians have offered to accept all of Israel’s illegal settlements around Jerusalem except one (Har Homa) as permanent parts of the Jewish state. Israel annexed all of East Jerusalem after it conquered it in the 1967 war, but international law forbids that and no other country sees the annexation as legal.

The negotiators also offered to restrict the “right of return” of the millions of Palestinians descended from those who were driven from their homes in what is now Israel in 1948 to a mere 100,000 returnees over ten years. They even offered to put the most sacred site in Jerusalem, the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, under the control of a joint committee. (It is currently administered by an Islamic foundation.)

Even these concessions were not enough to persuade the Israelis to accept a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders of the West Bank (including those parts of East Jerusalem still inhabited by Palestinians) and the Gaza Strip. They were enough, however, to make the negotiators reviled in almost every Palestinian home if they were ever revealed – and now they have been.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and his predecessor Ahmed Qureia were just pragmatic men trying to cut the best deal possible in very difficult circumstances. They might even have been able to sell these concessions to the Palestinian people, if they had come as part of a comprehensive settlement leading to the end of the Israeli occupation and an independent Palestinian state.

But in fact they got nothing for their concessions. The Israelis simply pocketed them and demanded more. Now that the details are known – leaked, almost certainly, by frustrated members of the Negotiation Support Unit that provided technical and legal backup for the Palestinian negotiators – Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues are finished.

Even the Palestinian Authority itself, and the whole concept of an independent state for Palestinians in a fraction of pre-partition Palestine, may not survive this blow. Fatah, the faction that effectively rules the parts of the West Bank not yet taken for Israeli settlements, is well past its sell-by date as a national liberation movement, and may lose control of the area to the Islamist Hamas movement before we are very much older.

Hamas, which already controls the Gaza Strip, rejects negotiations with Israel and the whole notion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as part of a two-state future. We are continually told by various pundits that these developments can only lead to war, and they are probably right – but what kind of war?

It would certainly not be like the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, in which regular armies fought stand-up battles with lots of heavy weapons. Egypt, Syria and Jordan, the countries that fought those wars on behalf of the Arabs, have long since abandoned the goal of matching Israeli military power. They don’t even buy the right kind of weapons, in the right amounts, to stand a chance against Israel on the battlefield.

We will doubtless see more Israeli punishment attacks in which a hundred Palestinians or Lebanese die for every Israeli, like the “wars” against Lebanon in 2006 and in the Gaza Strip in 2008-09. We may well see a “third intifada,” another popular uprising against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, probably accompanied by terrorist attacks in Israel itself. But we have seen all this before. It’s nothing to get excited about.

In the long run, we may see some Arab states start working on nuclear weapons, to create some balance of forces between the two sides, but probably not for a while yet. In the meantime, the future for the Middle East is not mass destruction, but an unending series of Israeli military strikes that kill in the hundreds or thousands, not in the millions. Plus despair, of course.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Mahmoud…finished”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

The Mavi Marmara Inquiry: Denying the Obvious

14 August 2010

The Mavi Marmara Inquiry: Denying the Obvious

By Gwynne Dyer

They are all lying, of course. The pro-Palestinian activists who said that the flotilla of ships that tried to breach the Israeli blockade and bring aid to the Gaza Strip had purely humanitarian goals were lying, and so are the Israeli officials who blandly insist that the blockade is solely to stop offensive weapons from reaching the Hamas-ruled enclave. But only the Israeli commandos who seized the ships and killed nine people had guns.

The flotilla had a clear propaganda purpose, seeking a confrontation that would draw attention to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and the plight of the Palestinians. The blockade has the clear political purpose of squeezing the million-and-a-half Palestinians in that open-air prison and turning them against the Hamas regime that currently rules them. Nobody wanted it to end in deaths – but there were nine dead civilians and no dead Israelis.

Testifying on 9 August to Israel’s own Commission of Inquiry into the events, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stuck to the script. The Israeli commandos had displayed “exceptional bravery in carrying out their mission and in defending themselves from genuine and lethal danger,” he claimed.

Elsewhere, Netanyahu has referred to the dead activists alternately as “terrorist fanatics” and “mercenaries,” although most people would see these as mutually exclusive categories. Terrorist fanatics don’t usually expect to be paid, whereas mercenaries most definitely do – and both terrorists and mercenaries generally bring something a little more lethal than sticks and iron bars to the party. But let it pass.

Netanyau is just employing the usual tactic of blaming the victims for their own deaths, and that allegation will probably not be challenged by the Israeli inquiry. What the world should be paying attention to is the United Nations inquiry. Or rather, to the one that even Israel cannot ignore.

There are actually two UN inquiries. The first was created by the UN Human Rights Commission, which the Israelis always depict as hopelessly biased. (Its members include Sir Desmond de Silva from Britain, a former undersecretary of the UN and war-crimes prosecutor, and Karl Hudson-Phillips from Trinidad and Tobago, a former judge at the International Court of Justice, but never mind.)

“We are not going to even grace (the UNHRC inquiry) with an official statement,” said an Israeli official. “They are totally irrelevant.” But it is much harder for Israel to ignore the Panel of Inquiry created last week by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, chaired by former New Zealand prime minister Jeffrey Palmer, with Colombia’s outgoing president, Alvaro Uribe, as Vice Chair and official representatives from both Israel and Turkey.
Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to let Israeli officials testify to the UN inquiry – but then insisted that he had a deal with Ban that none of the Israeli commandos involved in the killing would be called before the inquiry. Ban said on 9 August that there was no such deal, and that’s where matters rest today. But the sheer cheek of the Israeli prime minister is astounding: nobody is to be allowed to question the men who actually did the shooting?

Even in Israel’s most devoted allies, the United States and the United Kingdom, soldiers sometimes do extremely brutal and stupid things. The US National Guard killed four anti-Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, for example, and the British army killed 13 Catholic protesters on Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland in 1972.

Sometimes the soldiers just panic and use far too much force. More often they seize on the pretext of some minor violence by the “activists” to do what they really want to do, which is kill some of them. Then, at the inquiry, they lie about it – and the state, always solicitous of military morale, pretends to believe them.

So we should not expect the UN inquiry to work miracles. It took forty years for Britain to admit the truth about Bloody Sunday, and nobody was ever punished for it. The truth about Ohio came out a lot faster, but nobody was punished for that either. The one big difference here is that whereas the US National Guard killed American citizens, and the British army killed British citizens, the Israeli commandos killed Turkish citizens.

That’s why the UN got involved this time. As to why Netanyahu won’t let any of the commandos be questioned, it’s the usual defensive reflex. He would be better advised to let them be exposed as undisciplined killers – the autopsies on the nine killed revealed thirty bullet wounds, a quarter of them in the back – than to let the blame fall on the Israeli state.

He probably imagines that by refusing Israeli participation in the inquiry, he is ruining its credibility. Not in this case, he isn’t; the deaths speak for themselves. And just as Kent State destroyed US popular support for the Vietnam War and Bloody Sunday killed the myth of a benevolent British army protecting Catholics from Protestants in Northern Ireland, the events on the Mavi Marmara will ultimately end the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“Elsewhere…pass”; and “Sometimes…them”)

How to Break the Gaza Blockade

7 June 2010

How to Break the Gaza Blockade

By Gwynne Dyer

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for an end to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Britain, France, Germany and Russia have done the same. After Israeli commandos killed nine peace activists last week aboard a ship that was trying to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza, even US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the blockade “unsustainable and unacceptable.” But how can it be ended?

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, predictably, is brazening it out. He blames the victims for their own deaths. They were “violent Turkish terror extremists” on a “ship of hate”: people so violent and Turkish and terroristic and extremist that the poor Israeli commandos had no choice but to fire thirty bullets into the nine who were killed, and wound 30-odd others for good measure.

It’s a striking example of how Netanyahu bludgeons reality with words until it conforms to his purposes. Why does he need all those extra words? Could there conceivably be “non-violent Turkish terror extremists”? Or “violent Turkish terror moderates”? Presumably he believes that if you pile on enough synonyms, some people will conclude that there must have been something bad about the victims.

Anybody with the slightest experience of the real world knows what must have happened on the deck of Mavi Marmara, the aid ship in question. A bunch of over-confident, under-trained Israeli commandos ran into unexpected resistance from activists, a few of whom had improvised but serious weapons like iron bars. Maybe one or two had knives. And one or two of the commandos panicked and opened fire.

Then the rest of the commandos joined in, presumably thinking that the shooters were responding to a real threat. They all blasted away for twenty or thirty seconds, and when their magazines were empty there were forty bodies on the deck, some writhing in pain and others lying very still. After that, there was nothing the commandos could do but come up with a story that excused their actions.

This atrocious event has put the Israeli policy of blocking supplies to the Gaza Strip in the spotlight and raises two questions. Does it really give Israel added security at a reasonable cost to Palestinians? And if it is doesn’t, then how can it be ended?

The blockade of Gaza began in 2007, after Hamas, which does not recognise the legitimacy of the Israeli state, won a brief civil war and took control of the densely populated territory. It launched thousands of crude, home-made rockets against towns in southern Israel, killing 10 Israelis, so in early 2009 Israel attacked the Gaza Strip.

At least 1,300 Palestinians died, and only 13 Israelis. Since then Hamas has observed a cease-fire. Other Palestinian militants still launch sporadic rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, but only one person in Israel has been killed in the past 18 months. Yet the blockade continues unabated.

Only one-quarter of the normal volume of supplies makes it through the sole Israeli checkpoint. The 1.5 million people in the Strip have been reduced to abject poverty, and Israel seems determined to keep up the pressure until they reject Hamas (which they backed in free elections in 2007) and overthrow it. Just how they are to do that, however, is not clear.

Israel has the right to prevent weapons from entering the Gaza Strip, but it is hard to see how cement, macaroni, footballs, tomato paste and fruit juices (all banned) fit that description. In any case, the material to make the rockets has always come in through tunnels under the frontier with Egypt, and is unaffected by Israel’s blockade.

The blockade is simply collective punishment, which is illegal under international law. It has not overthrown Hamas, but instead has strengthened its control over the population. It should be ended, but how?

The Israeli government is now on the defensive on this issue, and a cheap and effective tactic would be to send another aid ship or flotilla to run the blockade every week or so. The cargo should be inspected and certified as weapons-free by the port authorities in Greece, Italy, France or wherever they sail from.

The blockade-runners should not agree to go to an Israeli port, because then their cargo would fall victim to Israel’s blockade rules. (Almost all of Mavi Marmara’s 10,000 tonnes of cargo was construction materials, and would have been blocked by the Israelis.) The ships should not surrender at the first challenge, but sail on towards Gaza and compel the Israelis to conduct hostile boarding operations against them.

The crews should not physically resist the Israeli troops, but some of them would probably be hurt. Would some be killed? Possibly, though Israel will try to avoid another public relations disaster like last week’s. Might they end up serving jail sentences in Israel? Maybe, if Netanyahu’s government is in a particularly self-destructive mood.

Volunteers can easily be found for these aid missions, and so can the money to pay for them. Carry out one operation a week for the next couple of months, and the blockade would almost certainly crumble. Netanyahu’s government would either change its policy or fall. Either outcome would be greeted with pleasure in almost every capital in the world, including Washington.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“Israeli…victims”)