28 August, 2009

Hebron's dark history

Hebron is an extremely depressing town. Apart from East Jerusalem, it is the only Palestinian town on the West Bank under direct Israeli occupation. The town's centre is partitioned into an Israeli zone and a zone under Palestinian Authority administration. Both of these have substantial Palestinian majorities, but the Israeli sector is blessed by the presence of a couple of hundred Israeli settlers. These settlers are heavily armed, and are in turn protected by a large contingent of Israeli troops. In their sector, they typically occupy the upper stories of buildings, and are famed for their tendency to throw rubbish down on Palestinians making their way through the streets below.

The Israeli settlers in Hebron belong to the most hard-line section of Israeli society. Their most famous scion is perhaps Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 made his way into a mosque during prayers and massacred 29 Palestinians before being overpowered and killed. Some argued at that stage that the Israeli government should have responded by evacuating his fellow settlers and then handing the entire town over to Palestinian administration. The Israeli government however demurred, leaving the settlers in place. This was perhaps the moment when people should have realised that the Oslo process would lead nowhere.

Israel's West Bank settlers are often religious nutters who claim a divine right to live anywhere in Biblical Israel. This is true of the Hebron settlers, but they also cite another justification for their presence in the town. Before the foundation of the state of Israel, Hebron also had a Jewish presence. In the British mandate period, increasing Jewish immigration to Palestine from those committed to political Zionism led to increasing tension. In 1929 in Hebron, many of the local Palestinians turned on their Jewish fellows. Many were killed (others survived, thanks to being sheltered by Palestinian neighbours and friends). The town remained unsafe for Jews until it was conquered by Israeli troops in 1967. The Hebron settlers claim that they are recreating the Jewish community that lived there before the riots.

One ironic feature of all this is that the actual Jewish survivors of the Hebron riots are far less solidly behind the settlers than one might imagine. It seems as though many of them back then were religiously Jewish but culturally Palestinian, often actively anti-Zionist in political outlook. Many of them and their descendants have retained something of this outlook, identifying more with the Palestinians in Hebron than with the Israeli settlers. While one would think that many would relish the opportunity to return to their ancestral home, a view expressed by many is that they could not return to Hebron until a just settlement with the Palestinians has been reached.

Long shadow of 1929 Hebron massacre (BBC)

Hebron Jews' offspring divided over city's fate
(Jerusalem Post)

27 August, 2009

Imminent solution of Middle Eastern conflict

The Guardian reported yesterday that the Middle East peace process is on the brink of a breakthrough. This seems to be taking the form of Barack Obama caving in to the demands of Binyamin Netanyahu, the unsavoury prime minister of Israel. Obama had been looking for Israel to announce a freeze of settlement activity on the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem. From what the Guardian is saying, however, it looks like Obama will agree to Netanyahu continuing to evict Palestinians from East Jerusalem; in the rest of the West Bank, Israeli settlement expansion will freeze, except that settlement expansion currently underway will be able to proceed to completion. To sugar the pill of these non-concessions, Obama will cheer Netanyahu up by adopting a new tougher line against Iran and its alleged nuclear ambitions.

It is astonishing that anyone could consider this a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process, or that anyone could take Israel's commitments seriously as confidence building measures. Obama seems to be adopting the usual Clinton-Bush mode of reaching agreements with the Israelis and then presenting these on a take-it-or-leave-it basis to the Palestinians. Obama is currently facing domestic problems, and may have decided to park the Middle East process until the health care issue has reached some kind of resolution. If so then maybe he could spare us the pretence that this is something that is going to effect a just and lasting resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Even if Obama's "breakthrough" leads to the resumption of negotiations, they are unlikely to lead anywhere. One problem has always been the tendency of US presidents to blow hard about their credentials as an honest broker, but then to simply take an Israeli line during the negotiations. Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian also suggests a more fundamental problem. Recent negotiations have invariably focussed on the post-1967 situation, with talk being about Israel generously giving to a Palestinian state some of the territory it seized that year. Freedland feels that the conflict is more fundamental, and needs to go back to the issues of 1948, when the Israeli was formed. He may be right, though this does sound a bit like one-stater talk.

One other problem making any kind of credible outcome from negotiations unlikely is the question of who speaks for the Palestinians. At the moment, there are two entities purporting to be the government of the Palestinian Authority. One of these was appointed by the PA's president under emergency powers he was not constitutionally entitled to wield; that president's term of office has in any case expired, yet he clings on to office. The other government came into being through the PA's own constitutional features, and is based on the party that won a majority of seats in the last parliamentary election. As is the way of things, it is the more mickey mouse of these two governments that is going to be taking part in any negotiations, making it unlikely that it will be able to make any agreement stick. In any case, neither of these governments can credibly claim to speak for the wider Palestinian refugee community.

I would not, therefore, advise anyone to expect a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict any time soon.


Barack Obama on brink of deal for Middle East peace talks
Peace plans come and go. Obama may have to try a wholly new approach
US peace plan gives Israel too much

25 August, 2009

Lockerbie relatives and their faith in legal systems

As you know, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was released from prison in Scotland and allowed to return home to Libya. Al-Megrahi had been convicted of causing the Lockerbie bombing, but was released by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds as he is terminally ill and due to die in the near future.

There are any number of interesting things that could be said about this case – the separate roles of the Scottish and UK governments, differing conceptions of what constitutes justice, and so on. One thing I was particularly struck by, though, was the differing attitudes of British and American relatives of those killed at Lockerbie. It was reported that while the US relatives were very angry about al-Megrahi's release, many of those in the UK were more sympathetic. This seemed to be related to doubts that have been raised about the safety of al-Megrahi's conviction (he had been appealing his conviction prior to his release, and still maintains his innocence), with many of the UK victims sharing doubts as to his guilt, doubts not shared by the Americans.

What interests me is why the UK relatives are more open to the idea of al-Megrahi's innocence. There might be deep-rooted cultural factors at play here, but something that must be significant here is the UK's experience over the last few decades with miscarriage of justice cases, where those convicted of high profile crimes (often of a terrorist nature) saw their convictions quashed years after their initial trials. These people were freed because it was shown that they had been convicted on the basis of such things as ludicrous forensic evidence or confessions extracted under torture. These cases must have planted the seeds of doubt in people's minds, establishing the idea that the authorities can get it wrong and can pin the blame for terrible crimes on the wrong people.

My understanding is the US justice system is not so rock solid that people are not sometimes convicted of crimes they did not commit. I have read of some analysis where innocent people were executed for crimes committed by others. However, I do not think that any of these miscarriage cases have become massive causes célèbres in the way that the cases of the Guildford 4, Maguire 7, Birmingham 6, Bridgewater 4, etc. did. This makes it easier for Americans to maintain a naïve confidence in the correctness of the judicial process. Britons, on the other hand, must find it far easier to believe that high-profile cases can produce miscarriages of justice.

This is not, by the way, to say that I believe in al-Megrahi's innocence or guilt, as I have not followed the case that closely. It is more the general idea of how much confidence people have in justice systems that I am interested in.

22 August, 2009

US Health Care Reform

The British media have noted that, in the current debate on Barack Obama's proposed health care reforms, the political right in the US have taken to characterising Britain's National Health Service as being some kind horrific amalgam of Stalin's gulag and the worst excesses of the Third Reich. Setting up anything even remotely similar to the NHS in the United States is being portrayed as an assault on fundamental freedoms, something that will lead to jack-booted Nazi doctors cackling as they deny treatment to your loved ones.

What is amusing about all this is that by any measure, the UK's health care system is better than that of the United States. The NHS costs less per capita than the USA's privatised health care "system", and it provides health care to the entire British population, whereas very large proportions of the US population are without health insurance and so without adequate health care.

So, who are the people in the USA who want to prevent any kind of move towards universal health care provision? I think they can be split into three groups:

1. Libertarians and market fundamentalists – this lot are people who oppose any state involvement in anything as a point of principle, not because they think it will lead to otherwise bad outcomes. I have every respect for the sincerity with which these people hold their beliefs, but their preconceptions are so strange that it is impossible to have any kind of rational discussion with them.

2. The US health insurance companies, and people in their pocket – the health insurers make a lot of money out of the current system, and they have a lot of money to throw around to buy lobbyists, journalists, and politicians. These people have a strong interest in keeping things as they are now, and most likely have no shame in spewing out lies to advance their interests.

3. Nutters who somehow hate universal health care because it would take away their freedom to die young because they can't afford health insurance.

At this stage it is not clear whether Obama's health care reforms will go through. It does seem like the opponents of functioning health care are succeeding in raising doubts in the minds of enough Americans to make the programme's passage far from certain. On the other hand, the people who oppose the health reform plans are adopting the increasingly strident tones that characterised Sarah Palin's supporters in the later stages of the recent presidential election campaign; this could mean that people increasingly see them for the crazies they are.

19 August, 2009

Borders open, regimes fall

It is now twenty years since Communism trundled off to the dustbin of history. This makes for an exciting series of 20th anniversaries. The first partially free elections in an Eastern Bloc state were held in June 1989 in Poland, with Solidarity doing so well that the communists were thrown out of office (though a government was not formed until the 24th August).

Today makes for another interesting anniversary - it marks the day when Hungary began to stop policing its border with Austria. This made the country a conduit for East Germans who fancied heading to the West, setting in motion events that led to the opening of the wall and disappearance of the DDR.

More (all BBC):

How Hungary let East Germans go

Hungary marks 1989 freedom event

1989 - Europe's revolution

18 August, 2009

The Mayor of Mostar

I have been reading a recent International Crisis Group report about the municipal politics of Mostar, the well-known town in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is very interesting, but I think I need to read more about recent developments in that former Yugoslavian country (fortunately the Crisis Group have another report on just that subject).

Mostar's politics seem to be ethnically based. At the moment, the city has a Croat majority, with a large minority of Bosnian Muslims (or Bosniaks, as people now seem to call them) and a teeny tiny minority of Serbs. The city has been without a mayor or budget since the last local elections in October 2008. The mayor is meant to be elected by the town council, but they have been unable to elect a candidate.

To become Mostar's mayor, a candidate needs the support of two-thirds of the council, something no candidate has been able to obtain. However, the voting rules also state that if two mayoral candidates are tied, then the younger candidate wins. As mayoral elections are done by role-call vote of the councillors, there have been all kinds of disputes over what order the councillors should vote in, as the supporters of the younger candidate could tip the election to him by engineering a tie.

These eccentric mayoral election procedures seem to have been bestowed on Mostar by the Office of the High Representative, the international body that ultimately rules Bosnia-Herzegovina. They strike me, though, as having more in common with a Reiner Knizia boardgame than with anything intended to balance democracy, protection for minorities, and the need to provide a functioning civic government.

above: Mostar's ironic bridge

* * *

More generally, I have been finding anger rising in my heart when I read about Bosnia-Herzegovina, both from details contained in the Crisis Group's report on Mostar and other recent news report's on events in eastern Bosnia during the country's civil war. Before the war, Mostar had a three-way split in its population, albeit with a strong plurality of Bosniaks. Now Croats form a substantial majority, largely by running Bosniaks out of town during the war and forcibly preventing their return thereafter.

Other news reports recently focussed on the reburial of victims of the Srebrenica massacre (in which Serbian forces killed some eight thousand Bosniak men and boys while UN forces stood around ineffectually). I was reminded of how eastern Bosnia was brutally purged of its local majority population, to the extent that it is now a somewhat desolate land of shame and half-remembered horror. Terrible things were done during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I know that some of the monsters who played a leading role in that conflict's horrors have found their way to the Hague, but it does seem like there has not really been a true reckoning or any serious effort to restore the rights of the victims.

image source

16 August, 2009

Phantom Countries: Tamil Eelam

Tamil Eelam is the name Tamil separatists give to the country they want to create on the island of Sri Lanka. The history of Tamil Eelam is an interesting example of just how badly wrong things can go for secessionist regimes. For many years, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (better known as the Tamil Tigers) were able to successfully defend the territory of notional Tamil Eelam from the Sri Lankan army. They established a de facto regime, essentially a garrison state, in the liberated territory, but were unable to get any external recognition of their independence. More recently, the Sri Lankan military was able to exploit internal divisions within the Tigers. In a series of bloody offensives, the separatist zones were over-run. The Tamil Tigers' last enclave was eliminated earlier this year, with massive loss of life, including that of the Tigers' leader.

I do not know if any general lessons can be learned from Tamil Eelam's Gotterdammerung, but it does illustrate the precarious situation in which unrecognised countries find themselves.

image source

13 August, 2009

Phantom Countries: Kosovo

Kosovo (capital city: Pristina) was formerly a part of Serbia. Although considered by Serbs to be the cradle of their civilisation (seemingly because in some mediaeval battle there the Serbs were stuffed out of it by the Turks) the area is predominantly inhabited by ethnic Albanians. In the Yugoslav period, the area became an autonomous region within Serbia, but it was never raised to the status of a full constituent republic.

Kosovo's history and the rise and fall of Slobodan Milosevic are closely intertwined. Milosevic shot to prominence by embracing Serbian nationalism and the cause of the Serbian minority in Kosovo. On achieving power in Serbia, he succeeded in closing down the region's autonomous government, shutting the ethnic Albanians out of public life. In the early 1990s, though, armed Kosovar rebels struck against Serbian rule, and Milosevic's attempt to crush them triggered the NATO bombing campaign that effectively forced a Serbian withdrawal from the region, fatally undermining Milosevic's credibility.

Kosovo thereafter assumed a somewhat anomalous status. The international community basically ran Kosovo as protectorate while preserving the fiction that it was still part of Serbia. Eventually, though, Kosovo was allowed to declare independence in 2008. There was much grumpiness about this in Serbia (and among ethnic Serbs in Kosovo), but the Serbs were unable to prevent this development. Because of the general distaste in international law and politics for secessionist regimes, Kosovar independence was justified on the convoluted grounds that Milosevic's 1994 crackdown constituted an effective Serbian repudiation of sovereignty over the province.

Now, one might wonder why I am bothering to list Kosovo as a phantom country. It does, after all, have a lot of international recognition, including by three permanent members of the UN Security Council. Kosovo's status nevertheless remains somewhat anomalous, for a number of reasons. Firstly, its state apparatus is still a bit ramshackle, and the country remains dependent on civil and security support from the international community. One could argue, therefore, that despite the relatively wide recognition afforded to it, Kosovo's independence is actually notional, with the region remaining a protectorate. Another problem is that although Kosovo has received plenty of recognition, many other countries actively reject it as an independent state. The Serbian state continues to maintain that it has jurisdiction over Kosovo. Although the Serbs do not really count for much, they are pals with the Russians, whose Security Council veto stands in the way of Kosovar membership of the United Nations. Spain, meanwhile, bedevilled by its own would-be secessionists, has also declined to recognise Kosovo, and may well block any move towards Kosovar membership of the EU. Kosovo is therefore likely to remain outside the world of key international organisations for some time.

Kosovo also has internal problems. The Serbian minority are not that taken with separation from the rest of Serbia. Serbs in the border areas adjacent to Serbia-proper have effectively seceded from Kosovo, rejecting Pristina's authority in favour of Belgrade. Relations between Serbs and Albanians in the rest of the country remain tense, partly triggered by memories of intercommunal violence during the Milosevic years.

It is hard to know what the future holds for Kosovo. One possibility is that some kind of comprehensive Balkan settlement will see Pristina and Belgrade make friends as they jointly move to EU candidacy and Kosovo becomes fully accepted into the family of nations. For this to happen, though, it will be necessary for Kosovo to build an effective administration and to achieve some kind of rapprochement with its internal Serbian minority. It would not surprise me if the areas abutting Serbia succeed in seceding from Kosovo, or are at least allowed to permanently remain under Serbian administration even if showing up on maps as part of Kosovo.

An aside – there is apparently very little likelihood of Kosovo ever becoming part of Albania. Although Kosovo has a large majority of ethnic Albanians, ethnic Albanians do not seem to have the kind of pan-nationalist sentiment seen in some members of other ethnicities. There seems little or no interest in forming a Greater Albanian state out of Albania, Kosovo, and the bits of surrounding countries that have large Albanian populations.

Another aside – I think that ethnic Albanian Kosovars refer to their country as Kosova, but I am opting for the generally accepted international version of the country's name.

image source

08 August, 2009

"The Priest and the King"

The full title of this book by Desmond Harney is The Priest and the King: An Eyewitness Account of the Iranian Revolution. Mr Harney seems to be some businessman fellow who was a large international bank in Iran at the time of the Shah's fall. The book is a diary of political events he kept during the last months of the Shah's regime. One thing that strikes about it is that by the time he starts writing the Shah's position already seems terminal, even though it was still four months before the fall of the monarchy and the Ayatollah Khomeini's return. The sense of impending doom seems to have driven Harney to start writing. He had been out of Iran on holiday, but while he was away news came in of a massacre of demonstrators by the Shah's soldiers. Sensing that this was going to both trigger further unrest and expose the regime as morally bankrupt, Harney raced back to Iran, and rapidly becomes convinced that the regime, and the Iran he knew, was doomed.

Oddly, the Ayatollah Khomeini takes some time to appear in this book. Although the Shia Muslim clergy played an important part in the agitation against the Shah, Khomeini was not initially that prominent. At the commencement of the unrest, Khomeini was in exile in Iraq, confined to the city of Najaf. Messages smuggled from him there were reaching the disaffected in Iran, and his teachings did have some resonance. In an attempt to reduce his influence, the Shah prevailed upon Saddam Hussein to deport Khomeini, to remove him from the vicinity of Iran. From Iraq the Ayatollah made his way to France, where he was able to speak to the world media, with his message making its way into Iran through the BBC World Service's broadcasts. This seems to have turned Khomeini from being just one of many disaffected clerics to being the face of opposition to the Shah.

Once the unrest got seriously going, it took a while to bring down the Shah's regime, but the outcome (to Harney anyway) was never in doubt – he consistently dismisses as too little too late any attempts to form new governments acceptable to the opposition. He also has no time for the talk, common in the elite circles in which he moves, of a hard-line crackdown by the regime, or even a rightwing coup that would remove the Shah and crush the opposition. To Harney, a crackdown was impossible, as after the initial massacres of demonstrators morale in the army had collapsed, and there was the real likelihood that the army would mutiny or disintegrate if ordered to shoot demonstrators again.

As well as the demonstrations, Harney also mentions the labour unrest that paralysed Iran in 1978. Half the country seems to be either on strike or else showing up to work but not doing any. From his perspective, it is not too clear how much of this is political and how much purely economic – Iran had been going through an inflationary boom, and many workers would have found prices rising faster than their wages.

One thing you hear in retrospect about the Iranian revolution is leftist played a major part in it, only to be crushed after the fact by Khomeini and his allies. You do not really get much of a sense of this from Harney. Leftists are fairly invisible, with the demonstrations appearing to be lead by the clergy. As Khomeini assumes greater prominence, pictures of him are increasingly everywhere. He does mention one demonstration by the Tudeh ("masses"), Iran's communist party. It comes pretty late in the day, and comes across distinctly as a "we're here too!" affair. It sounds almost quaint and, in the light of what came after, rather sad – the demonstration features mass ranks of men and (unveiled) women marching hand in hand, openly repudiating the Khomeini-ist social codes they would soon have to live under.

One factor significant in the Shah's fall that Harney does not mention, because it only came into the public domain afterwards, was how unwell the Shah was at the time. Harney does comment on the unfortunate paralysis of the regime, its inability to act or take any kind of serious decision. We know now, of course, that the Shah was severely unwell in the last years of his rule, and was basically terminally ill at a time when his regime most needed direction. Whether his dynasty could have survived if he had been in a position to provide clearer direction is something we cannot say, but it is often noticeable in history how often monarchical regimes fall when a major crisis coincides with some kind of weakness at the top.

A couple of things in the book seem relevant to current events in Iran. One thing he is struck by is how the Shah has no riot police – so once a demonstration becomes too big for the ordinary cops to deal with, the authorities have to either surrender the streets or call in the army to start shooting people and creating martyrs. In contrast, during the recent unrest in Iran it was noticeable that the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad clique was able to deploy riot police and various paramilitary thugs to crack heads and clear the streets, keeping demonstrator fatalities to a minimum. On the other hand, the role of external broadcasts (indeed, of the BBC) is strikingly similar in both cases. In 1978, the BBC world service was broadcasting to Iran in Farsi*, carrying reports of the unrest that the censored local media was ignoring. In 2009, meanwhile, the BBC was publicising the unrest on the web and in Farsi-language satellite news broadcasts. Memories of the role played by the BBC in the fall of the regime they replaced may well have driven the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad faction's recent vilification of the BBC.

There is one big difference, though, with the fall of the Shah and the current situation in Iran. In 1978, the Shah's regime increasingly had no support whatsoever outside the various placeholders who surrounded him – in society at large it was increasingly isolated. This is not really the case with the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad faction. They may have stolen the recent election, but they do have a significant bloc of public support. Their supporters may well be a minority, but they might well be a minority sufficiently large to keep the regime in place so long as it is willing to crack the heads of anyone who tries to stand against it.

*Farsi is the main language of Iran. I am guessing the word comes from the same root as Persian.

06 August, 2009

Phantom Countries: Nagorno-Karabakh

hey look, it's another in my series of posts about a semi-imaginary countries!

Nagorno-Karabakh just about makes it onto the list of phantom countries, despite being basically a territory other countries fight over rather than a would-be country in its own right. It lies in the southern Caucasus, and in the late Soviet period it was part of Azerbaijan but had a mainly Armenian population. If my memory is correct, the Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan started fighting each other over Nagorno-Karabakh even before the Soviet Union broke up. The Armenians triumphed in this struggle, overrunning Nagorno-Karabakh and also the Azerbaijani territory lying between it and Armenia proper.

Looking at Wikipedia, it seems like Nagorno-Karabakh's notional independence is a ploy to allow Armenia to escape the censure that comes from invading a neighbouring country and taking some of their territory. Although Nagorno-Karabakh has its own formal government apparatus, in practice it is completely interlinked with Armenia, and it was Armenian troops fought the war that separated it from Azerbaijan. I suspect that its continued existence is dependent on Armenian arms.

A few years ago, there was the suggestion that the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute was about to reignite. Azerbaijan was reputedly engaged in a military build-up. This was funded by oil revenues that allowed Azerbaijan to spend more on arms than Armenia was spending on everything. For now the threat of this war has been averted, perhaps because the more recent collapse in oil prices leaves Azerbaijan less able to support a bloated military.

Nagorno-Karabakh has a semi-presidential political system. It is a member of the Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations, an organisation of various former Soviet would-be states.

image source

05 August, 2009

Yeah I Know

I've been neglecting you. I fear I will need home internet once more before Hunting Monsters rides again.