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The Middle East Turns to Page 2009!
We are short of rooms and supplies, we are up to our necks - The buildings are falling on the heads of the patients - Ramez Zyara, a surgeon at Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza

5 January   |   2009   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Almost ten days ago, I decided to write a piece highlighting the major shifts of the Middle East in 2008, with particular emphasis on the three hotspots of Israel-Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq. I wanted to mention the upcoming parliamentary elections of 7th June in Lebanon that are contributing to a further cleavage of the country into two almost equal but diametrically opposite political forces as well as heightening sectarian tensions to a new pitch despite significant efforts by a plucky president trying to keep his country together. I also wanted to comment on the future of Iraq now that the Sofa has somewhat shifted the dynamics on the ground, created new facts or zones already and provided a less diffident glimpse of the possible future orientations of an incoming Obama Administration.

However, Operation Cast Lead that triggered the fierce aerial pounding by Israel against Gaza over the past eleven days, when coupled with the subsequent land incursion into this overpopulated strip and the concomitant casualties that have numbed our senses and turned those deaths from individual figures into mere statistics, convinced me to focus instead on a conflict that remains willy-nilly the central hub of any future political configuration for the whole Middle East - whether toward peace or else toward more war and bloodletting.

I am not going to translate into words the telling pictures of the suffering of the peoples of the region. After all, the different television channels - such as Sky News, Al-Jazeera, TV5 or BBCWS - have offered long minutes and even short hours to the human as much as humanitarian, political and military dramas unfolding every single day before our own squinting and quite helpless eyes.

But let me start off by asserting unequivocally that Israel, just like any other country, has a right to defend its citizens - whether in Sderot, Ashkelon or Beersheba - and to provide them with an unqualified right for peace and security in their hearths and homes. In fact, to paraphrase the words of the US president-elect Barack Obama, I too would be quite concerned if missiles - no matter how unsophisticated or erratic, whether Kassams or the more elaborate Grads - were to target randomly those homes in which lived my own family.

However, let us re-examine with probity the Palestinian position as well. It is true that both sides claim that the hudna or truce floundered because the ‘other’ party did not adhere to its irenic terms. However, why did Hamas not renew the truce on 19 December 2008? Without going into the standard sterile let alone hackneyed arguments discussions about justification or bias, I would suggest that this is largely because the previous six months of relative calm had only resulted in further economic strangulation, closures and misery and had simply not provided any respite, outlet or hope for the Palestinian population in this landmass. So what is the point of extending a truce that only serves to mask the Palestinian suffering and misery behind barrier crossings or closures and beneath a cloak of worldwide indifference or even hostility? Sadly, a fundamental point that some pundits ignore to factor into this crisis is that whilst Israel has an undisputed right to insist upon a quiet frontier, Palestinians also have the right to insist upon dignity and freedom.

Going back to the war, it would be disingenuous to pretend that there is no tacit geo-strategic collusion - whether by commission or omission - of many global actors of the political world with the Israeli military operations. The Bush Administration is totally servile to Israeli interests, having long ago lost the fig leaf of any sort of broker! In fact, it is following the same tactics deployed by its Secretary of State during the Lebanon war of 2006 in providing as much time and cover as possible for Israel to continue with its war before a ceasefire inevitably kicks in.

The EU - whether in terms of the influence of its twenty-seven member-states under the current Czech presidency (January-June 2009) or simply of its Quartet as headed by a weak envoy - had initially called ‘for restraint’ which was political speak for giving Israel the go-ahead so long as it did not end up with the equivalent of a Hizbullah 2006 quagmire. But the EU - pretty much like the UN in an admittedly different sense - has always fulfilled the role of financial banker to this crisis but has emasculated itself of any political clout or facilitating role.

As for the inchoate phenomenon labelled as the Arab World, whether in its so-called “moderate” or “radical” flanks, there is clearly no unity within this lame body just as there is no unity or solidarity between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in terms of their political goals and the way one goes about achieving them. After all, have the Arab states not avoided holding a summit meeting in order to keep their wide differences outside the public arena?

In fact, the real outrage to what is occurring in Gaza is chiefly manifested on the streets of the world, with daily demonstrations in Arab, Asian and European cities against what is viewed as the unjust targeting of a whole people.

Today, a hopeful Egyptian-French initiative, supported by the Palestinian Authority, is under way to secure a possible ceasefire. Earlier in the week, the International Crisis Group (ICG) also published its latest policy briefing dated 5th January entitled Ending the War in Gaza. It too suggested a cessation of hostilities that must be directly followed by steps addressing both sides’ core concerns in order to become sustainable:

  • an indefinite ceasefire pursuant to which:
  • Hamas would halt all rocket launches, keep armed militants at 500 metres from Israel’s border and make other armed organisations comply;
  • Israel would halt all military attacks on, and withdraw all troops from Gaza;
  • real efforts to end arms smuggling into Gaza, led by Egypt in coordination with regional and international actors;
  • dispatch of a multi-national monitoring presence to verify adherence to the ceasefire, serve as liaison between the two sides and defuse potential crises; countries like France, Turkey and Qatar as well as organisations such as the UN could play an important part in this;
  • opening of Gaza’s crossings with Israel and Egypt, together with:
  • return of an EU presence at the Rafah crossing and its extension to Gaza’s crossings with Israel; and
  • coordination between Hamas authorities and the (Ramallah-based) Palestinian Authority (PA) at the crossings

As we approach the second week of this war on Gaza, I am beginning to question the endgame that the Olmert, Livini and Barak troika are choreographing in this latest war. Might they and their allies be trying to break the backbone of Hamas in the forlorn hope that PA President Abbas would regain Gaza (following the ill-advised Hamas coup that ousted his forces some two years ago) and then shepherd an otiose and unresponsive peace process by reviving the Arab League Plan that has been dormant (and also improperly marketed) since its inception in 2002?

Yet, the subtleties, political bazaars and bargaining manoeuvres of the Middle East are never so straightforward, are they? Does any veteran scholar of this conflict truly imagine that Hamas and its hard-line supporters - with their Islamist-nationalist ideology - would simply disappear or keel over? Or that President Abbas can afford to ride back into Gaza on the back of Israeli carnage and still retain much credibility? Or, as Israeli spokespersons constantly claim to the media, that those Arab so-called ‘moderate’ countries such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia would simply challenge the overwhelming populist sentiments of the region by forging an alliance with Israel against the varied axes of radicalism? Or that the Arab and Muslim streets - let alone movements such as the Lebanese Hizbullah or the Sadr Army - would not eventually become more polarised against what they perceive as Western betrayal and Arab treachery? Is it not a clear lesson of history since biblical times that indigenous political and resistance forces fighting against foreign domination enjoy an inherent legitimacy that cannot be impugned by sheer military force? What about the precepts of natural law, as much as international and humanitarian laws, defining responsibility and accountability?

A couple of days ago, a German friend of mine reminded me that the word Weltschmerz sums up her sentiments over this conflict - in other words, an acute psychological pain caused by my sad realisation that our collective weaknesses are caused by the inappropriateness and cruelty of the world and its attendant physical let alone social circumstances. I am quite confident that many of us would identify with her despite our different political persuasions.

In the final analysis, though, and given how easily plans can go awry if not managed prudently, I just wonder how much longer we can afford to ignore this latest bloodstained blip as the Middle East turns the page to 2009 …

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2009   |   5 January


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