31 December, 2008

Why is Gaza so overcrowded?

These days I find a lot of Robert Fisk's writing a bit overwrought, but he makes a good point in an article yesterday in the Independent ('Why bombing Ashkelon is the most tragic irony'): that when rockets are fired from Gaza to the Israeli town in Ashkelon, they are landing on the town many Gazans (or their parents, or grandparents) are from. Gaza is not naturally one of the world's most heavily populated places, but became so after Palestinian refugees found themselves stuck there when the state of Israel was established.

I understand that when Israel was admitted to the United Nations in the 1950s, one condition was that it was to allow the return of those who became refugees in the 1948-49 war. I also understand that this condition was not met.

30 December, 2008

Samuel Huntington

I will return to Israel and Palestine shortly, but first a few words on the late Samuel Huntington, who died on Christmas Eve. Huntington enjoyed a long career as a political scientist and intellectual Cold Warrior, writing The Third Wave, an interesting-sounding book on democratisation. In later years, he was best known for writing The Clash of Civilisations, first as an article in Foreign Affairs and then as a book. The timing of this work was interesting – it appeared in 1993, when the western world was still somewhat basking in the warm fuzzy glow that followed victory in the Cold War, with Francis Fukuyama's vision of history ending in a glorious and peaceful liberal future capturing something of the zeitgeist. Huntington rejected Fukuyama's optimism, foreseeing the future as one of conflict. His idea, crudely summarised (I have not actually read the article or book) is that the world is divided up into civilisations. Some of these civilisations are capable of relatively friendly interaction with the others, but some of them (notably the Muslim World and China*) are naturally going to want to engage with our civilisation in bloody conflict. Huntington's policy prescriptions are simple enough – those civilisations must be contained, and people from them should not be allowed into our countries unless they have been purged of their foreign ways.

I gather that for much of the 1990s, Huntington's ideas served to provide some intellectual backing for those who fancied a new Cold War with China. After 9-11, however, Huntington's ideas suddenly found a new audience. It suddenly became a lot more credible to say that there are people out there who are not like us and who hate us for what we are. Huntington's ideas may be a bit facile, but they were arguably the intellectual framework behind the War on Terror.

Huntington's death seems not to have attracted as much notice as might be expected. This could, perhaps, be a sign that his influenced has waned and the world is now embracing more sophisticated and nuanced analysis of world affairs. Or maybe I look at the wrong news sources.

Some links:

Wikipedia entry on Samuel Huntington

Telegraph obituary

Conservapedia entry on Samuel Huntington

28 December, 2008

What exactly is war good for?

If you've seen the news, you will be aware that Israel has launched an air offensive agains the Gaza Strip of unprecedented ferocity. There are reports of about 280 people killed and over 700 wounded. While many of these are members of the Hamas-controlled security services in Gaza, the BBC quotes reports that a third of the casualties are civilians. The Israeli leadership is talking about continuing and widening their air strikes, and seem to be suggesting that a ground offensive is on the cards. Meanwhile, one Israeli has been killed by rockets fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip.

So, what is this all about? There had been a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The ceasefire had always been a bit shaky, and it came to an end before Christmas. Hamas cited Israel's failure to lift the siege of Gaza and its unwillingness to extend the truce to the West Bank, while Israel cited Hamas' failure to prevent the rockets being fired from Gaza at Israeli border towns and lack of progress on freeing Gilad Shalit (an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006).

Israeli forces have a tendency to lash out blindly, and this time is no exception. It is very difficult to see what exactly they are trying to achieve with this latest offensive. They would, obviously, like to stop Hamas and other Palestinian groups from using Gaza as a base to fire rockets into Israel, but on previous form no amount of air raids will accomplish that. They might get more results from launching a ground offensive into Gaza, but that could easily lead to an Armageddon-like battle in which enormous numbers of Palestinian civilians (and sizeable numbers of Israeli soldiers and Hamas cadres) are killed. Even with that, the rocket fire into Israel would be likely to resume once the Israelis withdraw, while a permanent occupation of Gaza would be regarded as a Fail by Israel. It does look a bit like the Israelis might be repeating the mistakes of 2006, by launching a war that they cannot win and that will make them look to the world like total cockfarmers.

That Clausewitz guy began his famous book by saying that war is a continuation of politics by other means. He meant interstate politics (or political struggles between princes, given the times in which he lived). But it is often striking how wars can result from the internal politics of countries. Israel is holding an election in barely a month's time. Binyamin Netanyahu, the loathsome former prime minister who essentially killed the Oslo process, was riding high in the polls with his promise to stop Hamas. It seems like the leaders of the current government have decided to act tough to try and undercut Netanyahu, and it is the Palestinians who are picking up the tab for the government's attempt to regain electoral support.

At the same time, one could ask what exactly Hamas are hoping to achieve by firing rockets at Israeli civilians. At one level, there is something a bit symbolic about Hamas' rockets – they hardly ever hit anything and serve mainly to say "We're still here!". But they are being fired at Israeli civilians, and they do occasionally kill them. From Hamas' point of view, one could see the rocket campaign as an attempt to force Israel to the negotiating table, by imposing a rough balance of terror. However, this has failed; the rocket campaign has instead united Israelis behind ever more draconian (and irrational) policies. I suspect that the main targets of the Hamas rocket campaign are actually the Palestinians. The rockets are meant to show Palestinians that it is Hamas, and not the waster quislings in Fatah, who are taking the fight to the Israelis.

That said, one has to be wary of making any kind of moral equivalence between Hamas and Israel. Israel is the power besieging Gaza (with the kind assistance of Egypt). The balance of forces between Israel and Hamas is tilted so in the former's favour that it is more or less inevitable that any Hamas retaliation to Israel's siege will be made against Israeli civilians. The leaders of Hamas should nevertheless ask themselves whether ineffectually trying to kill Israeli civilians is actually that likely to raise the siege of Gaza.

Some links:

Israel renews air strikes on Gaza (BBC)

Israel's mixed motives for strikes (BBC)

To be in Gaza is to be trapped (Guardian)

27 December, 2008

Contextualising "Waltz with Bashir"

Have you seen the film Waltz with Bashir? It is an animated film, directed by Ari Folman, in which he investigates his own inability to remember anything of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. As a conscript in the Israel's army, he was a participant in those events, but somehow the things he had seen and done were blanked from his memory.

One striking feature of the film is how little context it gives to the events it describes. Its focus is on the experiences of the director and the other Israeli veterans of the war he talks to, not on the big picture of the conflict. I found this quite refreshing. If, like me. you are a bit over-engaged with the politics of the Middle East then the film is a useful corrective, a reminder that there are human stories and human tragedies behind the region's military and political conflicts. People who are not so familiar with the events the film describes may however have found themselves wondering about how they came to pass. As a service to such people, I will now briefly give some background to the film; this is all stuff you could find out yourself, but maybe you would rather I did it for you.

In the 1970s, Lebanon erupted into civil war. This saw armed parties representing the country's Maronite Christians ranged against militias of Lebanon's various Muslim religious communities, with the latter allied with the Palestine Liberation Organisation's fighters who were at that point based in Lebanon. The Lebanese civil war saw many episodes of extreme savagery, with each side's fighters often happier to lay into civilians than engage the enemy in actual combat.

The Bashir of the film's title is one Bashir Gemayel, a Maronite Christian and leader of the Phalange militia. Gemayel's goals were to establish himself as the pre-eminent political leader of the Maronites, to maintain the political hegemony of the Maronites generally, and to crush the Palestinian fighters who had established a virtual state-within-a-state in Lebanon. He was successful in his first goal (largely by applying extreme violence to any other Maronite barons who dared stand against him), but in his wider goals he was less successful. Staring defeat in the face, Bashir appealed first to neighbouring Syria, which obliged by sending a peace-keeping force to contain the Palestinians and the Muslim militias. Before too long, however, Bashir found the Syrian embrace suffocating, and he began to court Israel, Lebanon's neighbour to the south.

The Israeli state had an obvious interest in Lebanon, as Palestinian groups were using it as a base for attacks against it. Israel had briefly invaded southern Lebanon in 1978, but Bashir Gemayel offered them the prospect of purging Lebanon of the Palestinian menace and turning the country into a friendly client state. By 1982, however, the Israel-Lebanon border was relatively quiet. The Syrians were anxious to prevent the Palestinians from stirring up trouble with Israel, and Yassir Arafats' PLO was observing a truce along the border.

Bizarrely, events in London triggered the events depicted in Waltz with Bashir. Palestinian gunmen attempted to assassinate Israel's ambassador outside the Dorchester hotel. Although the fringe group who carried out the attack was based in Iraq, the Israelis retaliated by bombing Palestinian targets in Lebanon. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the PLO responded by firing rockets over the border, and the Israelis launched a full-scale invasion of Lebanon.

At the time, Ariel Sharon was Israel's defence minister. Other members of the Israeli government have said that he promised them that the invasion would be brief, and that conflict with the Syrians would be avoided. However, the Israeli army pushed north towards Beirut and seems to have actively sought conflict with Syrian forces. While the Palestinians and Syrians did fight back, Israel's near total command of the air meant that the fighting was a bit one-sided (though the Israeli air force made sporting attempts to even the odds by occasionally bombing Israeli troops). Once the Israelis reached Beirut, however, they stopped. Moving into Muslim West Beirut, where the PLO was based, was likely to involve unacceptable levels of casualties, given the Palestinians skill at urban warfare. Instead, the Israelis intensively bombed West Beirut, while blockading it from land and sea.

The siege was broken by the USA and other leading western countries. They persuaded the Israelis to allow the evacuation to Tunisia of Palestinian fighters (but not civilians). With this, the war seemed over. The Lebanese parliament met to elect a new president for the country, and chose Bashir Gemayel. His election was assisted by the Israeli army, which prevented MPs who did not support his candidacy from attending.

However, before he could take office, Bashir Gemayel was killed in a car bomb attack. His murder is usually attributed to Syrian military intelligence (like many other car bombs that have killed politicians who have opposed Syrian interests), though Bashir had a lot of enemies, all of whom have been accused of his murder (as indeed have the Israelis, who were reputedly finding him less pliant than had been hoped). At the time, though, his Phalangist militia blamed the Palestinians for his death, and their blood was up for revenge.

The Israeli army moved into West Beirut, surrounding the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila. The Phalange was allowed into the camps to search for and eliminate terrorists. To assist them in their work, the Israelis prevented Palestinians from leaving the camps; at night, they fired flares over the camps so that the Phalange could continue their work around the clock. The Phalangists were only pulled back when the international media started reporting that they were massacring Palestinian civilians. By that stage, hundreds, or a couple of thousand, Palestinians had been exterminated.

As far as I know, no one has ever been punished judicially for their role in the massacres. A public backlash in Israel forced the resignation of the country's prime minister, and the political career of Arial Sharon was temporarily suspended. None of the Phalangists who carried out the murders ever faced legal justice, while the commander who led the massacres subsequently became a semi-respectable politician (before himself dying in a mysterious car bomb explosion).

21 December, 2008

Remembering Conor Cruise O'Brien

You may have heard about Conor Cruise O'Brien dying. He was this Irish polymath who seems to have been involved in everything possible over the course of his long life. For people my age or younger, the crankish positions he adopted in later life largely overshadowed the rest of his life, so his obituary on the BBC website is a welcome corrective, bringing back into view his astonishing achievements in various fields of endeavour. It does however focus more on his international achievements, so it misses what he might end up being most remembered for in Ireland - coining the acronym GUBU (Grotesque, Unprecedented, Bizarre, and Unbelieveable) in 1982 to describe the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey.

One thing that is striking about O'Brien is how he seemed to move from the left to the right over the course of his life. While involved in the Congo as a UN representative he played a major part in combating and exposing the destablisation of that country by western powers hostile to Patrice Lumumba, its post-independence leader. He also played a major part in exposing some international students union organisation as being under the control of the CIA. In later life, though, he turned into something a of a reactionary. He become a leading apologist for the Israeli state and an opponent of Palestinian aspirations. I recall him being rather less opposed to the apartheid regime in South Africa than might have been expected from the former scourge of imperialism. In Irish politics, he moved beyond mere opposition to militant Irish nationalism to a kind of embedded pessimism on Northern Ireland, where any attempt at political engagement was seen by him as a step on the road to intercommunal Armageddon.

I suspect it was O'Brien's period in government in the 1970s that caused the apparent shift in his political outlook. By that stage, he had moved beyond the Irish nationalism and was uncompromising in his opposition to the IRA and militant Irish nationalists. He, perhaps not unreasonably, saw those people as a dangerous and intrinsically undemocratic armed minority intent on subverting and overthrowing the constitutional order in Irish politics. Looking at who the IRA was palling with internationally, and what other causes were being espoused by those sympathetic to it, might well have made him reject all radicalism and move instead to supporting more establishment causes.

That is just supposition on my part. What is beyond dispute is the extent to which O'Brien managed to pack several lifetimes of achievement into his allotted span. He seems so much bigger and more active than the people who have succeeded him.