Monthly Archives: February 2012

Don’t discount a third intifada

Is a third Palestinian intifada coming in the foreseeable future? An Israeli Foreign Ministry intelligence report circulated in the government last week and leaked over the weekend to Ha’aretz suggests it could well be. The report is right, and its assessment should make sobering reading for Israeli officials and citizens alike.

The report holds that there is little appetite on behalf of the mainstream Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, or among the majority of Palestinians, for “a violent escalation with Israel.” All the evidence points in that direction. However, the report allegedly continues, “The continuing freeze of the diplomatic process, combined with any drastic Israeli moves in the military and/or economic realm and the continuing stormy situation in the Middle East, could bring about a change in this approach.”

What the report implicitly recognizes is that the situation on the ground is simply untenable. Despite the intentions of the Ramallah leadership or the Palestinian majority, the situation is building to such a state of tension that even a small spark could unleash waves of protest. Such protests could well begin nonviolently, but sooner rather than later would, as they always do, elicit a violent response from occupation forces.

The occupation, after all, is in essence a system of discipline and control over millions of subjugated noncitizens by a foreign army. Israeli forces ultimately have little recourse other than violence to suppress Palestinian protests—whether these are non-violent, symbolically violent (as in stone throwing against heavily armored troops) or genuinely resemble riots. The bottom line is that no people in the world will continue to sit idly by as their country is colonized before their very eyes and they continue to endure decades of foreign occupation with no end in sight.

Israel’s government has proven remarkably shortsighted in recent months, assuming it wants to avoid another escalation on the ground. Settlement activity has increased, including plans for building in sensitive areas, such as the E-1 corridor and other strategic locations that threaten the viability of any future Palestinian state. Leaving aside for a moment international law, under which all settlement activity is illegal, the Israeli government has proven incapable or unwilling to enforce its own laws about settlement-building and court orders to dismantle “unauthorized outposts.” It has even been retroactively recognizing hundreds of settlement housing units built without permission.

The latest illustration of the core of the problem is an Israeli plan to build a 475-kilometer rail system throughout the occupied territories. It even says it intends to demolish Palestinian solar energy installations because they were built “without the permission” of occupation authorities.

What this yet again demonstrates is that the Israeli government, for all intents and purposes and no matter what it says in public, continues to treat the occupied territories as Israeli property. Through its actions, it is sending a clear message that it has no interest in the eventual creation of a real Palestinian state. Its conduct makes it very difficult to argue that Israel does not eventually intend to either annex large chunks of the West Bank, making Palestinian statehood impossible, or to maintain the status quo that is radically separate and unequal in every respect along ethnic lines and which denies Palestinians their basic human and national rights.

A number of recent incidents have illustrated the kind of tension points that could provide the spark for another uprising, even if the Ramallah-based leadership and the Palestinian majority don’t want one. The hunger strike of Islamic Jihad activist Khader Adnan, whose death was averted by a last-minute deal with the Israeli authorities stipulating that he will be either released or charged by mid-April, conceivably had that potential. So have planned provocations by Jewish extremists at holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem and the killing of an unarmed Palestinian protester at an Israeli checkpoint.

The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has three simultaneous initiatives at the moment: talks with Israel that no one believes will bear fruit in the foreseeable future, potential further action at the United Nations, and national reconciliation with Hamas. None of these seem to offer the prospect of much progress, and reconciliation with Hamas, so long as the organization does not change its policies, comes at a huge price internationally and diplomatically.

Israel, on the other hand, seems to have no initiative at all, and no realistic vision of the future except continuing to expand and entrench the occupation. But underlying the new intelligence report is the understanding that the status quo is simply untenable. If it continues, sooner or later something will trigger another confrontation on the ground that is almost certain to spiral quickly into violence.

If that happens, there will be plenty of blame to go around. But if the Israelis find themselves caught up in another spasm of bloodshed, they need only look in the mirror to discover who bears the greatest responsibility.

Muslims must speak up against the Kashgari scandal

It’s hard to know where to begin in cataloging the outrages associated with the arrest of Hamza Kashgari. The 23-year-old Saudi columnist was recently detained on trumped-up “blasphemy” charges, for which he potentially faces execution.

First, Saudi extremists took umbrage at some tweets in which he expressed admiration, disapproval and bewilderment at various aspects of the Prophet Mohammed’s legendary life. This outrage was orchestrated by clerics as part of a campaign to increase their power.

Second, the Saudi state reacted by appeasing the fanatics and ordering Kashgari’s arrest for “blasphemy.” In effect, they confirmed the ability of extremists to dictate the agenda of, if not bully, the government on religious matters.

Third, Kashgari had already left the country to evade persecution, but was apprehended by Malaysian authorities in Kuala Lumpur, possibly with the assistance of Interpol, and returned to Saudi Arabia. So at least one foreign government and possibly a multilateral policing agency have connived in this travesty.

Fourth, the Saudi government says it may seek the death penalty for Kashgari. There can be no freedom of conscience or religion where blasphemy is a crime, but the Saudi state has never respected or acknowledged either of those principles. Yet Kashgari hasn’t committed blasphemy. All he did was express complex religious feelings. And it is shocking that a government would consider executing, or even prosecuting, anyone for either of these “crimes.”

Fifth, while there have been some limited efforts to protest this scandalous injustice and intercede on behalf of Kashgari’s life and liberty, they have thus far been insufficient. Muslim states, governments and individuals have an especial, and urgent, responsibility to categorically oppose this outrage.

Muslims, including Saudi officials and citizens, are properly vociferous in denouncing Islamophobic misrepresentations of Islam as an inherently violent and intolerant religion. Doctrinally and historically, it is clearly not. However, the reputation of Muslims and Islam is also, and far too often, called into severe disrepute by the conduct of some important Muslim-majority states claiming to act in the name or defense of Islam.

The persecution of Kashgari, not by cynical Saudi clerics weeping hysterically on YouTube, but by the state itself, is another disturbing reflection of this phenomenon. One cannot claim to be tolerant or opposed to violence while considering beheading someone for expressing mild religious doubts about a figure who, in his own lifetime, reportedly insisted on his own status as a fallible human being.

The government of Saudi Arabia doesn’t represent the norm or authority for the Muslims of the world. But it is a large and influential Muslim state and is claiming to act on behalf of Islam in this ugly affair.

Silence implies consent. If Muslims don’t want their religion to be misrepresented by such actions, they must openly and loudly repudiate them. And, if there is any virtue or truth in religion, it hardly needs enforcement on pain of death.

The good news is that because he is a relatively prominent Saudi citizen, and the case has become a minor international cause célèbre, Kashgari is unlikely to be executed. The pattern in such cases suggests that if he shows “repentance” or there is an international outcry, or both, Kashgari’s sentence may initially be harsh but will almost certainly be commuted.

The most likely outcome is that Kashgari will end up sometime in the next few years permanently relocated to another country. Kashgari is lucky that he’s not from a remote village or irrelevant family or, worse, a migrant worker. In that case he might really need to start contemplating bearing his neck to the sword.

This scandal is indicative of a broader growth of intolerance in Saudi social and religious rhetoric of late, which also comes in the context of Shia unrest in the Eastern Governorate of Qatif. Extremist clerics have been upping the ante at every stage over the past few months, and clearly believe that they have just won an important victory. They are now demanding the cancellation of cultural and book festivals. At public events, their thuggish, unauthorized and un-uniformed street forces, known as the “Mohtasbeen,” have been reportedly trying to upstage the official religious orthodoxy beadles, the “Muttaween.”

While non-Muslims cannot honestly claim that Saudi Arabia represents Islam, Muslims cannot dismiss the kingdom as irrelevant either. Saudi Arabia’s religious and cultural influence, byproducts of its wealth and custodianship of the two most holy Muslim sites, is undeniable. The extremist shift in Saudi social and religious attitudes therefore has troubling implications.

Nobody can force the Saudi state to behave in a reasonable manner if it doesn’t want to. But all other Muslims can and should make it clear that they strongly disapprove of the persecution of Hamza Kashgari and the mentality that lies behind such actions.

Hamas of contradictions

The growing split that has been emerging within the leadership of Hamas has exploded into a bitter public feud. It was prompted an agreement reached last week in Qatar between the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, and the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas. According to the deal, Abbas would take on the additional role of prime minister until elections are held later this year.

Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, the divergence of interests between Hamas’ leadership in Gaza and its leadership abroad has been steadily intensifying. External leaders, Meshaal in particular, have come under increasing pressure to adapt to regional transformations, particularly the growing sectarian split in the Middle East.

It has become impossible for Hamas to remain friendly with Sunni Arab governments and Islamist movements while being simultaneously allied to Syria and Iran. The days in which the mythology of an “axis of resistance” could rationalize a Sunni Islamist movement being part of an Iranian-led—essentially Shia—alliance are long gone. Hamas leaders proved unable to side with Bashar al-Assad while their colleagues in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood are a key component in the uprising against his regime. No Hamas official remains in the movement’s Damascus headquarters.

The external Hamas leadership has a branding and identity crisis, and needs desperately to find new patrons and headquarters, and a new international political and strategic profile. Hence Meshaal has been intensively courting Qatar, Jordan and Egypt, among others, seeking alternative sources of support and a new regional orientation.

The Gaza leadership does not share much of this crisis. Their rule is effectively unchallenged, and they continue to draw on various sources of income. From their perspective, there is no immediate need for a major reorientation. They argue that sooner rather than later their fellow Islamists will gain unchallenged power in Egypt and other key Arab states, and that it makes no sense to compromise with Abbas or anyone else at this stage. This is a gamble the external leadership cannot afford.

Many Gaza leaders clearly think the external leadership is making momentous decisions for its own purposes, but at their political expense. Resentment has boiled over. Already, last year a Hamas hardliner in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahhar, was disciplined for insisting that the primary leadership of Hamas was the one in Gaza. That proved to be a foretaste of the current crisis.

The “Change and Reform” bloc in Gaza, which includes Zahhar and the de facto prime minister, Ismail Haniyyeh, immediately reacted to the agreement with Abbas by issuing a blistering “legal memorandum.” The document laid out detailed and categorical objections to the accord, declaring it illegal. Zahhar, speaking on behalf of many and openly attacking Meshaal, said that “no one in the organization had been consulted,” and described the deal as “a mistake” which “could not be implemented” and “a real crisis.”

Meanwhile, Haniyyeh visited several Gulf states, and more importantly Iran, to shore up Iranian support, despite the dispute over the Assad regime. If the Gaza leadership is to mount an effective pushback against this new initiative, which enjoys Arab Gulf backing, it is going to require significant support from Iran. The Iranians might have incentives to continue to fund Hamas in Gaza to try to sabotage the Arab-led Palestinian reconciliation agreement, and to retain Hamas as a potential chit in the face of a possible Israeli or American attack on its nuclear facilities.

How the crisis in Hamas develops depends on several factors. A close ally of Meshaal, Ahmed Youssef, has implied that Qatar promised strong financial backing in return for the agreement. If that is delivered, especially if it is augmented by aid from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, it will require a great deal of Iranian and other leverage for the Gaza-based leaders to prevail.

The position of the Hamas paramilitary Ezzeddine al-Qassam Brigades will also be crucial. Its leaders, Ahmed Jabari and Marwan Issa, have traditionally deferred to the leadership of the political bureau, and reportedly urged Meshaal not to step down as its chief. But they have also expressed dismay at some of Meshaal’s recent comments regarding the tactical value of nonviolent resistance.

The power struggle in Hamas reflects regional rivalries and strikingly divergent interests that have developed in the context of the Arab uprisings. But a complete split in the movement is highly improbable, and one side is going to prevail.

Whether the agreement with Abbas is implemented or not, Hamas will only go as far as it absolutely must to adjust to new realities. But relying on states like Qatar, Egypt and Jordan will necessitate very different behavior than being a client of Syria and Iran. And Hamas leaders counting on the Arab Spring turning into an “Islamic Awakening” that fulfills their ideological fantasies are spending more time reading coffee grounds than the emerging regional order.

Kuwait’s troubling election

Last week’s election in Kuwait was the most interesting, but in many ways also the most depressing, in that country’s history. Technically, the process was better than ever, but the results are deeply troubling.

Much of Kuwaiti society appears to have retreated to its most primal identity groupings, and it seems fractured as never before. Tensions between urban constituencies and more rural tribesmen boiled over into vandalism as the election tent of Mohammed Al-Juwaihel—a candidate who repeatedly suggested that Bedouin tribesmen, especially of the large Mutairi clan, were fundamentally disloyal—was burned to the ground. He nonetheless won a seat in the Third District (out of five in Kuwait, with 10 seats each), which has been considered a diverse constituency, either in spite of, or worse still because of, his aggressively intolerant rhetoric.

Religious sectarianism was also stronger than ever, with Shia candidates hoping, probably in vain, to protect their interests by continuing to ally with the royal family. They now face empowered opponents such as Mohammed Hayef Al-Mutairi, elected in the Fourth District, who specialize in vitriolic anti-Shia demagoguery.

The Muslim Brotherhood won four seats and their close allies another three, beating their all-time best of six. It marks a major comeback from 2009 when the Brotherhood was down to only one parliamentarian. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist politicians deftly claimed credit for protests late last year that finally brought down the deeply unpopular and long-serving prime minister, even though they were late-comers to the movement and their grandstanding showed the crassest opportunism. But clearly their strategy of hijacking the protests worked well at the polls.

Pro-government forces and liberals, such as they are, both took a severe drubbing at the hands of various forms of conservative and identity-candidates. Most depressingly, there are no women at all in the new parliament, with all four incumbent females ousted.

This situation is a prescription for deadlock as the ruling family retains most power and can, and probably will, dissolve parliament before long if it goes too far in harassing the executive. Knowing this, the majority of opposition parliamentarians may keep their powder dry for now, not wanting to be seen as a source of constant deadlock. But sooner or later tensions will almost certainly again boil over.

But the biggest scandal in Kuwait, and one that has received very little local, regional and international attention, is the plight of the stateless in that country. There are an estimated 120,000 people “without citizenship” (bidoun jinsiya), among 1.6 million citizens, who are themselves divided into a hierarchy of classifications that allot varying rights and responsibilities. Most bidoun are by any measure, and under stated provisions of Kuwaiti law, entitled to citizenship, but live in limbo without basic rights and legal status.

Very few Kuwaiti politicians and organizations pay the least attention to this issue, unless it is to attack the bidoun and oppose their rights. Bidoun have been increasingly organizing and protesting during the past year, but the government recently announced that they were not allowed to protest and that any who did would be deported. It is not clear, however, to where they could be deported.

In Kuwait, even peaceful protest is a right reserved solely to those classified as “citizens.” Unlike protesting “citizens,” bidoun have been routinely beaten, tear gassed and rounded up without charge or legal representation.

Bidoun issues are handled by a committee headed by a noted opponent of their rights. This committee announced reforms in November 2010 that remain almost entirely unfulfilled. Last year the government promised to address the stateless issue, but added that only 34,000 bidoun were eligible to be naturalized. It is estimated that 100,000 applications are pending but only 16,000 have been approved in the past two decades. Kuwait has never approved more than 2,000 such requests in any given year.

The victory of Islamist and tribal opposition candidates, lack of sympathy for the bidoun in most of Kuwaiti society and in the royal family, and intensified divisions among Kuwaiti citizens do not bode well for the bidoun, who have precious few allies. The shameful silence on this issue by the United States, one of the only countries with any real influence in Kuwait, only makes matters worse.

The Kuwaiti elections were fascinating, and in a grim way even entertaining. However, they offer little hope for the most vulnerable in the country—the bidoun and also the large numbers of migrant, and especially migrant domestic, workers. Government promises to address the plight of these communities have proven hollow in the past. Nothing in the election results gives any real hope that these urgent moral issues will be seriously addressed in the near future. Kuwaiti society appears more divided than ever, and suspicion, hatred and demagoguery are the order of the day.

Safer Side by Side: Why Israel Needs Palestine

The “Altalena,” full of weapons for the Jewish militant group Irgun, burns off the coast of Tel Aviv in June of 1948 after being shelled by what was to become the Israel Defense Forces, then called the Haganah (-)

He added that Netanuyahu’s 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, which seemingly endorsed the two-state goal, was aimed exclusively at foreign audiences but that Palestinian statehood “was not brought up for discussion in the government, nor will it be discussed.” “This is not the government’s position,” he stated bluntly. All the evidence suggests he’s correct.

The “threat” posed by a potential Palestinian state is the most common Israeli objection to a two-state solution. But the occupation itself is the main source of insecurity and lack of peace.

The mainstream Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has staked its future on a two-state agreement and an end to the occupation. Through the Arab Peace Initiative, the rest of the Arab world signaled unanimously that an Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement would also mean normalization between Israel and the Arab states. Plainly, most Palestinians, other Arabs and their governments would welcome an end to this destabilizing conflict.

It is frequently alleged that a core barrier to peace is the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel. But the Palestine Liberation Organization—the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people—did, in fact, formally recognize Israel in 1993. Israel, in return, only recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. Israel has never recognized a Palestinian state, or, in any formal manner, the Palestinian right to statehood.

Israeli security officials acknowledge that the Palestinian security cooperation and performance have been excellent. Attacks against Israelis in Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank have fallen to virtually zero.

But this security cooperation is frequently ignored and emphasis instead placed on the actions of militants in Gaza. The PA has not been able to contain the Gazan violence because Hamas runs Gaza. The PA lost control of Gaza for several reasons: its own miscalculations; Israel’s refusal to allow the PA to develop elite counterterrorism forces; and insufficient support from half-hearted patrons like the United States (Hamas’s patrons lavished enormous support on it). But most importantly, groups like Hamas need the absence of peace to thrive, even in Gaza.

The PA won’t be able to achieve complete security control—a key responsibility of a sovereign government—without possessing the rights and prerogatives of sovereignty. Israelis point to the Altalena incident in which the fledgling Israeli state confronted the extremist Irgun group, forcing it to disarm. This confrontation took place after Israeli independence, not before the establishment of the state, when there was ample cooperation between mainstream Jewish organizations and terrorist groups like Irgun.

In the event of real Palestinian independence, Palestinian public opinion, the Palestinian security forces, and Arab governments would not allow any campaign of violence against Israelis to undermine or threaten the new state. Palestinian militants justify violence as resistance to the occupation, and ending it would remove such rationalizations. Islamist groups, just like far right-wing Israeli political parties, would be disarmed and pursue their aims through peaceful and democratic means.

In the limited areas under its control in the West Bank and without real sovereign authority, the PA has already proven its ability to do what Israel did after independence: reign in militants and enforce the rule of a single, disciplined security force. In the event of independence, this could and would be replicated in Gaza.

It should be added that “security” arguments typically focus on the predictably negative consequences of unilateral actions, but clearly unilateralism is a recipe for disaster.  Building Palestinian independence does not require immediate Israeli withdrawal, and any agreement with the PA would not be unilateral but mutual. The correct security analogy is not Lebanon or Gaza, but the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, which have been maintained by all three countries. The Palestinian state would have an even greater incentive than the Egyptians and Jordanians to uphold such an agreement because not doing so would undermine or even threaten its own continued existence.

A mutual peace agreement will offset Israel’s need to live on the permanent knife-edge of potential war and uprising as well as in the morally, socially and culturally corrupting position of occupier. It will allow the Palestinians to live in freedom and dignity, and remove any excuse for others to claim to be confronting Israel on behalf of the Palestinian cause.  Peace may be a gamble, but endless wars are a sure loser.