29 March, 2010

Third Time Lucky?

When the Al-Aqsa Intifada began in 2000, it was noticeable that the Israeli military responded quickly to Palestinian rioters with lethal force. The intention may have been to quickly quell the uprising, so as to prevent the long-running series of rolling riots and demonstrations that characterised the Intifada that began in the late 1980s. The Israeli military’s swift use of live bullets did indeed drive demonstrators and stone throwers off the streets, but their place was increasingly taken by gunmen and suicide bombers; in effect, the Israelis succeeded in militarising the Intifada. This is not to say that gunmen and suicide bombers did not exist already, but the driving of stone-throwers and demonstrators off the streets meant that the Intifada became one of guns and bombs (and later rockets); the Palestinian masses largely became spectators.

At the moment, tension in the West Bank and Palestinian areas of Jerusalem is riding high. There have been a series of demonstrations and riots that have seen stones thrown at Israeli troops. And we have also seen Palestinian youths killed by Israeli soldiers. Two youths were shot dead in a village near Nablus on the 20th March. On the following day, in the same village, two other youths were killed in the outskirts of Jerusalem, ostensibly while attempting to stab an Israeli soldier.

The first of these two incidents is attracting some attention. Israeli military sources reported that the two teenagers were not hit by live rounds but instead were accidentally killed by rubber bullets. Doctors who treated the two are disputing this; an X-ray showing a bullet in the middle of one youth’s head does rather challenge the veracity of the Israeli army’s statement. This would not of course be the first time that the Israeli military have lied about the circumstances in which they killed Palestinians; it is not surprising that the circumstances in which the other two fellows were killed are also being challenged.

It will be interesting to see how things on the West Bank develop, and whether this is the beginning of a Third Intifada. If it is, its relationship to the main Palestinian political movements will be interesting. Fatah has largely given up on confronting Israel, and is instead pursuing an ineffectual strategy of negotiations with the occupying power. Hamas is ostensibly in favour of street politics, but its own fondness for military action makes its relationship with demonstrators and stone throwers problematic; the organisation required for launching rockets and despatching suicide bombers is intrinsically vanguardist and sits uneasily with mass action. So perhaps a Third Intifada will see mass action operating outside the control of the two dominant parties. Or maybe a resolute response by the Israeli military will drive the demonstrators off the streets and ensure a re-run of the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

Some links:

B'tselem says live bullets may have killed Palestinians (BBC)

Palestinians shot dead by Israeli troops near Nablus (Guardian)

Two Palestinians killed by Israeli troops after attack on soldier (Guardian)

07 March, 2010

Hamas continues to hold journalist

Paul Martin is a British journalist and film-maker who has previously worked for the BBC and the Times. He is currently under arrest in Gaza, being held in administrative detention by the Hamas authorities there. Mr Martin’s detention is disturbing in a number of ways. First of all, his arrest marks the first imprisonment of a foreign journalist since Hamas took control of the Strip in 2007. But the circumstances of his arrest also have sinister implications. Mr Martin had been working on a documentary on Mohammad Abu Muailik, an activist linked to Fatah, the historically dominant Palestinian group with which Hamas is in conflict. Abu Muailik had fallen foul of Hamas and was himself on trial, accused of collaboration with Israel. Mr Martin had travelled to Gaza to give evidence on Abu Muailik’s behalf, but when he began to speak in court the prosecutor accused him of being an accessory and had him arrested. One must wonder why the Hamas government goes through the charade of running courts and pretending towards some kind of due process when its legal system is being run in this kind of farcical manner.

more (Guardian)

Institutional Entrepreneurs

I have been posting about electoral reform in Ireland. It seems like this is suddenly on the agenda in a way it has not been before. There also seems to be a generally higher interest in the topic of institutional change, with various people arguing that if we make their favoured changes to the constitutional setup then we can greatly improve politics in this country.

Now, is all this institutional reform chit-chat in Ireland a good or a bad thing? Looking at institutions and trying to improve them is always wise. It seems in Ireland, though, that a great many people are slipping into thinking that the country's problems could be solved by tinkering with various aspects of the institutional set up – as though changing the electoral system, or adopting a presidential constitution, or having ministers who weren't TDs, and so on would somehow magically lead to radically different political decisions being made. This is almost like a software developer's approach to politics, treating it as an engineering problem.

I think institutional change is dangerous, if reforms are implemented without being fully thought through. Given the hare-brained and almost crankish nature of many reforms I've seen proposed lately this is a real danger. Furthermore, many people overstate the ability of institutional change to transform the workings of politics. Ultimately it does not matter so much how we vote in governments if the electorate keeps voting in the same people.

02 March, 2010

Electoral Reform in Ireland – Slight Return

This really is the last episode of my exciting series on electoral reform in Ireland. I was talking about how there is something to be said for introducing a mixed-member electoral system in Ireland, with my own eccentric suggestion being electing half the TDs by STV in large multi-member constituencies, the other half by closed national lists. One thing I did not really talk about is how mixed-member system operate in practice. I do not mean so much in terms of whether they are associated with "good" or "bad" political outcomes, more how the system itself tends to operate. This is not something I have read too much on*, but I understand that one common feature of mixed-member systems is that list MPs tend to cultivate particular localities with a view to becoming constituency MPs for that area. In this context, it is maybe interesting to note that Germany's chancellor is not head of the national CDU list, but is rather a constituency MP for somewhere in Mecklenburg-Vorprommen.

I am not entirely sure why the list MPs are so keen to become constituency MPs. Maybe the ones who are individually elected are seen as having greater legitimacy. Or it could be that being a constituency MP is seen as being more secure – a list candidate needs to keep in with the party hierarchy to ensure that they are being placed high enough up the list to get elected, while a local MP just needs to keep in with the local party grandees to ensure they get reselected, if they are in a safe seat. Or maybe some other factor is at play.

If a mixed-member system were rolled out in Ireland, it would not therefore be too surprising if it failed to vanish the genie of localism from Irish politics. We might end up with list TDs who neglect national issues and instead focus on local issues and look to become constituency TDs.

I will for the moment leave the topic of electoral reform, but not without throwing out a question. Talk on this issue is driven by the idea that a localist orientation in politics is bad. But is it really so dreadful? In many countries, people complain about politicians who are remote from the people who elect them. Maybe we should be glad that ours are always available to address our petty concerns.

*in this respect I am like a great many people who advocate profound institutional change.