December 2008


In case you have missed Tom Segev’s piece in Ha’aretz:

But the assault on Gaza does not first and foremost demand moral condemnation – it demands a few historical reminders. Both the justification given for it and the chosen targets are a replay of the same basic assumptions that have proven wrong time after time. Yet Israel still pulls them out of its hat again and again, in one war after another.

Israel is striking at the Palestinians to “teach them a lesson.” That is a basic assumption that has accompanied the Zionist enterprise since its inception: We are the representatives of progress and enlightenment, sophisticated rationality and morality, while the Arabs are a primitive, violent rabble, ignorant children who must be educated and taught wisdom – via, of course, the carrot-and-stick method, just as the drover does with his donkey. [Continue reading]

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Hassan Nasrallah has always been careful with his criticisms of the “moderate” Arab regimes despite the obvious animosity. He recently broke with this diplomatic hypocrisy, indirectly accusing Egypt of complicity with the Israeli attack on Gaza. This elicited criticism from Samir Geagea and other Lebanese politicians who find this an inappropriate time to drive a wedge between Arabs.

But the wedge has been driven a long time ago and Nasrallah did nothing more than place his finger on a popular pulse. The attacks on Egyptian embassies across the Arab world did not need the instigation of Nasrallah. Neither did the demonstration led by an Egyptian parliamentarian. The Egyptian state, not knowing how to deal with the situation, is conducting a campaign against the Secretary General of Hizballah through various media outlets. The spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry even held Nasrallah repsonsible for the attacks on the Egyptian embassy in Yemen. As Abu al-Ghait’s vicious attack on Nasrallah makes clear, however, the effusive praise of the patriotism of the Egyptian army and people are meant more for domestic consumption than for Nasrallah himself.

Saudi Arabia too is scrambling. Faced with demands for demonstration permits from all quarters, it is responding the way it responds best: repression. The Saudi authorities also announced that they will forbid any demonstrations against Israel’s war on Gaza.

The Israeli atrocities in Gaza are plain for all to see, but the complicity of the moderates, primarily Egypt, is a sinister thread that runs through it all. The coup de grâce of this complicity came today when Egypt declared it would open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza on the condition that it be placed under the forces of Mahmoud Abbas. As Ibrahim al-Amin points out, this, along with extending Abbas’s term and dissolving the Hamas government, were the conditions Egypt was trying to impose on Hamas before Israel launched its attack. At best, Egypt’s condition for opening Rafah is an attempt at procrastination. At worst, it is in line with Israel’s declared aim of changing the rules of the game in Gaza.

Indignation, in the mean time, is coming from totally different quarters. Erdoğan is very upset with Olmert and the Turkish press is not mincing its words on Israel.

gaza-under-siege-ben-heine

This war is not waged by Israel alone. Egypt is as much part of this aggression on Gaza as Israel is. First as a partner in the siege and now as the almost good-cop in a strategy aimed at changing the rules of the game with Hamas. Neither is this war being waged on Hamas. Gaza is a plot of land between 6 and 12 km wide and around 40 km long, inhabited by 1.5 million people, i.e. the density of 4000 people per square kilometer. When it gets bombed, its entire population is targeted.

But collective punishment, targeting family members,  destroying homes, uprooting people and their livelihoods, etc… is standard policy to this conventional army, frustrated by its ineffectiveness and unwilling to subject its soldiers to combat (!?). Goliath used the same methods of collective punishment in Lebanon in 2006. Goliath uses a more domesticated form of the same methods on a regular basis in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

What is most mind boggling in this war is neither Israel nor Egypt (or other Arab regimes), but the reaction of Israeli citizens. More voices have come out in condemnation of the war on Gaza than in the early days of the Lebanon war, but most just repeat the official line “we have no other choice”. Most reactions I have seen are a curious blend of the “civilized” feeling of sympathy for the people of Gaza and a joy at the killing. Illogical? Why, it makes perfect sense. See, the civilians being killed… that is the fault of Hamas. As for “the Khamas” being killed… that is the accomplishment of the IDF. Brilliant.

Violence has obviously NOT taken Israel a long way in resolving its problems and securing its borders. On the contrary, its policies have helped shaped its most serious adversary yet: Hizballah. But why learn from history, be it recent or ancient, when perpetual conflict has become your defining characteristic as a nation? As for the Egyptian government, that proverbial lid on a boiling pot, they have an interest in ending the war on Gaza as soon as Israel deems possible.

In the mean time, I add my voice to the voices of other bloggers calling attention to these atrocities.

On the 85th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey, Can Dündar, columnist at the Turkish newspaper Milliyet and a documentary filmmaker, made a documentary on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Atatürk = father of the Turks). Released in Turkey on October 29th, the documentary is called, simply, Mustafa — a clear indication of the director’s intentions of portraying the Turkish leader as… human.

This is enough to raise a racket in some Turkish circles. For bringing out Atatürk’s weaknesses — such as heavy smoking, heavy drinking, womanizing, and dying a lonely death — Dündar made dedicated enemies and was even accused of being a pawn of imperialist powers in a psychological operation aimed at undermining the Turkish army (article in Turkish). The director is also facing a criminal complaint for insulting the father of the republic (most probably under law 5816 against publicly “insulting the legacy/memory of Atatürk”).

The noise has been coming mainly from circles normally described with the blanket terms “secularist” and “kemalist”. But if the debate awakened by the release of the movie shows anything, it is the complexity lying behind these simplistic shorthands. The director himself does not fit neatly into the Turkish military’s jargon of “enemies within” — i.e. Kurds, Islamists, and “Europeanized” liberals such as Orhan Pamuk. A fan of Mustafa Kemal, he also claims to have wanted to present him “in a more intimate, affectionate light.”

The figure of Atatürk has been elevated sometimes to the degree of absurdity — school children every week swear to walk down Atatürk’s path. A Turkish friend of mine had to face school detention as a child for refusing to partake in a similar ritual. But that idealization only reflects the degree of insecurity about Turkey’s borders and identity — an insecurity that reflects more violently in the popular and institutional refusal to deal with the Armenian history, the Kurdish issue, and, in some circles, the Muslim character of the country.

It is a positive sign that the documentary was conceived, made, and delivered, even met with public appreciation and praise. When conspiracy theories are shifting political quarters with the Ergenekon trial and when Turkey is facing several crossroads of identity — from Islam and the EU to a more active regional role — such a debate is not only healthy and necessary, it is also long overdue.

One of  Slavoj Žižek‘s recent pieces in Le Monde Diplomatique has nothing to do with Lebanon… and everything to do with it. It is about the war in Congo, but — like this previous post — it is also about how seemingly archaic forms of civil strife are actually embedded in their “modern” conditions and about the banality of trying to separate the one from the other. It is also about why Africa receives less attention in the media than places like Lebanon or Palestine: the more “tribal” the conflict seemingly is, the more “natural” its violence is perceived to be.

I have not been able to find the original article, so some of the subtleties might be lost in this translation of a translation, but Žižek’s main point is this:

We can discern the contours of global capitalism under the facade of ethnic conflict. After the fall of Mobutu, Congo no longer existed as a unified, operational state, especially not the eastern part which is a patchwork of territories ruled by local warlords each controlling their own patch of land with an army which normally includes doped children. All the warlords have business contacts with foreign companies or industries who (mainly) profit from mining the riches of the region. This arrangement works well for the partners: the businesses receive exploitation rights without being burdened with taxes or other inconveniences, the warlords get money… The irony is that many of these [extracted] metals are used in high-technology products like laptops and mobile phones. In short, this is not about the local population’s primitive customs: if we remove the high-technology companies from the line, the entire structure of ethnic civil strife driven by old hate will collapse.

You might not agree with the final conclusion about the collapse — and Žižek is prone to theatricals — but the heart of the argument holds in the concluding sentence, a play on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

There is definitely a lot of darkness in the dense Congolese jungle, but its heart is to be found elsewhere, in the illuminated head offices of our high-technology companies.

Today, around a 100 countries, including Lebanon, became signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. What came to be known as “the Oslo Process” was pushed to this conclusion by the Red-Green Norwegian government despite US lobbying to undermine the treaty. US officials have even accused Norway of buying nations off to join the process, according to Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch (Source: Klasvåpen – det umuliges kunst, documentary in Norwegian). In the same documentary, Norwegian foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, explains that the watershed in the process came after the summer war of 2006 — when Israel dropped more than a million cluster bombs over south Lebanon in the final days of the war. Israel, however, is not a signatory to the treaty. Neither are the three major arms producers China, Russia, and the United States.

That is not the only flaw in the treaty. By pursuing independent organizational channels, the Norwegian brokers evaded the situation where a veto in the UN or the dominant member in NATO could bring down the treaty. However, the compromise reached in Dublin earlier this year included an article allowing treaty signatories “to engage in military cooperation and operations with States not parties to this Convention that might engage in activities prohibited to a State party.” (Source: HRW)

Still, it is a step in what can only be a long and difficult process. Optimists are hoping that by ostracizing certain countries, the treaty will put pressure on them to eventually join. The United States obviously takes it seriously, least of all because it would need to remove its cluster munitions at several bases around the world. On another level — and I think of this particularly when I remember some of the chilling discussions on the “legality” of Israel’s cluster bomb dumping during the Lebanon war — at least now there is a minimum ethical line in writing.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a seminar where Geir O. Pedersen was main speaker. Pedersen is shifting from UN special envoy to Norwegian foreign ministry employee, which is why I suppose he felt more comfortable talking freely about the situation in the Middle East (although he did categorically refuse to comment on the suspected nuclear activity in Syria). I was pleasantly surprised to hear the man speak, elegantly and intelligently, on Lebanon and its various players.

He said what many understand by now: that the tension in Lebanon can only be resolved through diplomatic efforts on the Israeli-Syrian front and the Iranian-American front. His opinion was that Obama should strike the weakest link — Syria-Israel — and things will have a better chance to unfold. As far as Hizballah is concerned, he said two things. One, that they really did not expect Israel’s reaction in 2006 and, two, that Hizballah are the only ones who mean something in Lebanon (from the international politics point of view, as I understand).

Notwithstanding, I thought his analysis had a severe limitation that primarily had to do with where he comes from: a UN and a “statist” perspective. At one point, he characterized Lebanon as a place of contradictions between, for example, a modern democracy and a clanish/feudal system. My historical understanding of the clanish/feudal system is that it is part and parcel of our form of modern democracy and that is precisely why it is so difficult to get rid off.

Then, discussing Hizballah’s weapons, he explained that he had said to Hizballah (waving a disciplinary finger): you cannot decide in matters of peace and war, it is the government who should (not verbatim). The main question here is: is it possible to talk about “government” as if it was a neutral arbitrator of the affairs of the people? When sectarianism is so ingrained in the system, is the government not a sectarian player or conglomeration of players? Is this not at the heart of the problem of why the only “appellation” (to crudely use the already crude Althusser) that people collectively respond to is sect? Is it even possible to speak of politics in Lebanon without speaking of sects?

I see the two problems — of seeing sectarianism as a historic residue and of thinking of the government as neutral arbitrator — as related. Pedersen indirectly acknowledged that when he went through the different players in Lebanon: the Christians, the Sunni, the Shia. No government there. That he then moved to speak of “the government” in the case of Hizballah’s weapons is an indication that he does not grasp the depths to which sectarianism is rooted in our so-called democracy and that the two forms — of sectarianism and democracy — comfortably inhabit the same space.