This week's editor

Jeremy Noble, editor

Jeremy Noble and the oDR team edit the front page this week.

Barack Obama: Israel's true friend

It's already clear: the United States president is a great friend of Israel. If Barack Obama continues what he started in his meeting with Binyamin Netanyahu on 18 May 2009, he might prove to be the friendliest president to Israel ever. Richard M Nixon saved Israel from the Arab states in 1973, and Obama is about to save Israel from itself. Nixon sent Israel arms and ammunition at a critical time, and Obama is sending - at a time no less critical - the substance of a complete peace plan, a plan that would save Israel.

Gideon Levy is a journalist with the Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretzAll that remains is whether Obama stays determined and decisive as he was in the White House summit. In one moment he changed Washington's madness and the attitude toward the Israeli occupation. Now it will be seen if he succeeds in altering the same madness in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It's a long road, and Obama began well.

In a single move he shrank the fear-mongering of Netanyahu and his mouthpieces on Iran to its proper size. In a single move he put the centrifuges of occupation - the real existential threat to Israel - at the top of the agenda. He fended off Netanyahu's attempts to divert attention from substantial issues, and blocked all efforts to waste more precious time on Iran and impose ridiculous preconditions on the Palestinians. He also blocked all efforts to distract Israel with committees, promises for negotiations, formulas, declarations and empty words. These are Israel's best tricks and games; anything to evade responsibility for the main issue - the end of the occupation.

Obama understands that now is the time for an end to petty words, impotent negotiations and a hollow peace process; now is the time for big deeds and a courageous leap over the abyss.

The one opportunity

Israel's "friends" in Washington have all suddenly shed their skin. They, too, sense a rare opportunity in the middle east. They, too, are tired of what Binyamin Netanyahu has tried to peddle. They, too, understand that the Yitzhar settlement in the West Bank must precede Iran's nuclear reactor in Bushehr. How pathetic and heartrending was the sight of the Israeli prime minister sitting tense and sweaty, next to the new American president, confident, stylish, and impressive; without all the jokes and back-patting of Ehud Olmert and George W Bush. The latter was in fact the least friendly president to Israel - one who allowed it to carry out all its violent madness.

How pathetic was the sight, yet how encouraging. Perhaps Netanyahu learned something during his short and dramatic visit, notable for the way that Obama tore off the mask of so-called peace-loving Israel. If Netanyahu really feared for the fate of the country he would have immediately agreed, in the Oval Office, to all the ideas put forth by this fantastic president. If Israel does not respond, then the Israelis, the US president and the entire world will know that Israel does not want peace.

An Israeli refusal of Obama's efforts will reveal that there is no peace partner in the middle east (see Akiva Eldar, "The United States and Israel: moment of truth", 18 May 2009). The absent partner is an Israel which announces: no to peace with fifty-seven countries, no to a move that will neutralise the threat of the Iranian bomb, and no to two states now. This is not only a "no" to peace but also a "no" to a chance to end the war over Israel's establishment with a major victory. This would mean that Israel's greatest strategic asset ever, its alliance with the United States, would be destroyed. Binyamin Netanyahu may now endanger Israel even more than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (see Aluf Benn, "Netanyahu bringing Israel closer to war with Iran", Ha'aretz, 26 May 2009).

Israel must be thankful to Barack Obama. A mere four months after taking office, he is trying to rescue Israel, the middle east, and basically the entire world, whose most dangerous conflict is this one. The threats are many; first and foremost refusals by Israel; a loss of interest by Obama himself; and Palestinian divisions. The ball is in Netanyahu's court. If he ends the occupation, he'll get peace and security; if he doesn't, he won't. It's not about another minor deal, but about the future of the Zionist enterprise. Such an opportunity will not return. Yes, we can. Obama has proved it; now it's Israel's turn.

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Among openDemocracy's many articles on Israel and the Palestinians:

Karabakh: is war inevitable?

In a time of shooting wars, it is easy to lose sight of wars waiting to happen. This is dangerous, especially for a new US administration with an ample international agenda. Serious attention is required on Nagorno Karabakh, the simmering dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The danger of another open war in the Caucasus - one much worse than the August conflict between Russia and Georgia - is all too real. Frustration in Azerbaijan with a seemingly endless multilateral mediation effort has led opposition factions and, more recently, even the government to speak openly of a military option to restore Karabakh to Azeri sovereignty. The country's oil and gas earnings have reequipped its military, although with untested results. Russia recently sent a massive arms shipment to Armenia, while the Karabakh Armenians reportedly interpret the failure of Georgia's military last August as proof that Azerbaijan's army would fare no better in an assault on Karabakh or in a preventive war launched by the Armenian side. These views are dangerous and are riddled with error. The prevention needed is diplomatic, from Washington and Moscow working in tandem.

The apparent reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey announced on April 23, while very positive in itself, has largely ground to a halt. Ankara is unwilling, and politically unable, to move substantively in its ties with Yerevan without at least the appearance of movement on Karabakh. Unfortunately, the positive atmospherics of the meeting of the Armenian and Azeri presidents in Prague May 7 quickly dissipated in mutual accusations of bad faith. Experienced observers have seen this on-again, off-again process many times. Without progress on Karabakh, progress between Turkey and Armenia will be limited to symbolism at best.

Unsuccessful mediation

This is not the place to review the origins or grim chronicle of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict (Thomas de Waal's "Black Garden" of 2003 is the best and most objective study in English). The problem is that the fifteen-year no-war-no-peace standoff is increasingly fragile, and its failure would entail huge costs for the two countries, for the broader region and for the interests of the United States.

The Karabakh dispute has territorial, ethnic, and confessional content, but is also a product of Stalinist divide-and-rule nationality policy which produced open war when the Soviet system collapsed. The three-year war was by no means one sided, but its outcome was. The 1994 ceasefire left Armenians in control not only of Nagorno (mountain) Karabakh but of large surrounding territories and a secure corridor to Armenia. Beyond the claims to Karabakh itself, the fate of the lowlands and their former Azeri residents - refugees for almost a generation - are key to any settlement.

Mediation and working-level diplomats have not been lacking. The so-called Minsk Group co-chairs (the United States, France, and Russia) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have several times produced a draft peace framework. In each case, the political environment in the warring countries was unfavorable. Occasional political-level interventions by one or more Minsk Group capital also could not achieve the transition from negotiation to realization.

An inherent deficiency of the Minsk Group is that the three are not neutral mediators; they are themselves interested parties and at times partisan. In different ways, Washington, Paris and Moscow all tilt in their domestic politics toward Armenia. Their economic interests tilt toward Azerbaijan. To oversimplify, Armenia has an effective diaspora, while Azerbaijan has oil and gas. In Washington, the Congress loves Armenia but the Pentagon loves Azerbaijan. At the outset of the Minsk Group, Washington and Moscow had roughly common agendas, but in recent years have increasingly operated at cross purposes.

The alternative to multilateral mediation is direct negotiation, which in truth has proceeded episodically all along. Leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia (though not of Armenian Karabakh) have met repeatedly under a variety of auspices, and more than once were near an agreement. The obstacle was the same as for the Minsk Group: any workable deal is anathema to much of the population and political establishment of each.

Doomed hopes of settlement

The outlines of a settlement have been clear for fifteen years and reflect both the realities of war and the needs of peace. These realities transcend the standard rhetoric of "sovereignty and territorial integrity" as well as that of "national self-determination". In a settlement, Armenia will get Karabakh and a land corridor to Armenia, while Azerbaijan gets back the lowland surrounding territories. This is not about justice, nor right and wrong, but is the inescapable and necessary formula for peace. To be sure, there are a multitude of details (where the devil always lurks) and implementation problems (where the costs for outside powers will be substantial). The alternative is war, which is far worse and more costly.

Clearly, the greater burden of compromise is on Azerbaijan, whose people must confront truths about diplomacy and war at odds with their hopes and expectations. Diplomacy - even that of great powers - is not itself a force in international affairs but a mechanism. Diplomacy formalises and even rationalises reality, but does not alter basic reality. Diplomacy can promulgate peace and avoid war, which are its prime goals. However, diplomacy ratifies the battlefield, it does not reverse the battlefield. In any competition between war and diplomacy, war wins.

In history there have been a few instances when concerted great power diplomacy compelled a victorious smaller power to give up its battlefield gains for the broader interests of the great powers. In the case of Karabakh, such an outcome would require the United States, Russia, Europe (basically France), Turkey and perhaps even Iran to combine against Armenia in favor of Azerbaijan. The chances of this happening are nil. America and France have powerful domestic Armenian lobbies, Russia has a centuries' long strategic partnership with Armenia, and Iran has much better ties with its Armenian neighbour than with Shi'ia, but Turkic, Azerbaijan. Of the relevant outside parties, only Turkey is clearly on the side of Azerbaijan, and Turkey is wholly unable to reverse the policies of Washington, Paris, Moscow and Tehran to conform to its own. Thus, Azeri hopes that outside diplomacy will compel Armenia to give up its wartime victory are a chimera. The Azeri people need to taste this bitter cup.

Warning to Azerbaijan

Unfortunately, in Azerbaijan the tendency has been toward resumption of the sword rather than acceptance of an unpalatable peace. In the increasingly bellicose rhetoric across much of the political spectrum, a significant detail is missing. In a renewed war, Azerbaijan would almost certainly again lose, and with even worse consequences than its defeat in 1994. How can this be true, they ask in Baku, when we have shiny new weapons purchased with our gas exports? To begin with, if money equated to military capability, neither Saudi Arabia nor the Gulf Arab states would require the military protection of the United States.

To retake Karabakh by military means, Azerbaijani forces would need to overcome five objective factors which give the Karabakh Armenians immense defensive strength in depth. First is ground or terrain, in that Karabakh is a natural highland fortress currently surrounded by the wide depth of field of the occupied territories. Second is firepower, in a man-made fortress of multiple overlapping fields of fire, employing the heavily-mined occupied territories as killing zones before any attacker could reach the edge of Karabakh itself. Third is reserves of ample weaponry and munitions so the attackers would run out of young men before the defenders would run out of ammunition, while Karabakh can call on extensive manpower reinforcement from Armenia. Fourth is operational art in which the Karabakh Armenians have a clear record of superiority they would exercise in the inherently advantageous role of defenders of a skilfully prepared position. Fifth is strategic depth in Russia, which in a showdown would support its permanent security partner, while the American military would no more come to the aid of a failing Azeri offensive than it did in Georgia.

This panoply of obstacles should persuade any rational Azeri not to resort to war. Even the most favourable battlefield outcome would leave Azerbaijan immeasurably worse off than before. Beyond the toll in blood, the country's export pipelines and foreign revenues would be cut.

Indeed, it is not out of the question that the existence of an Azeri state could hang in the balance, as in a major renewed war it might be in the combined interests of Armenia, Russia and Iran to redraw the map of the eastern Caucasus. Unlikely, but history is replete with precedents.

Warning to Armenia

Caution should also be the watchword for Armenia and its cousins in Karabakh. Even a successful war would be pyrrhic and leave Armenia immeasurably worse off than before, while victory is often a bitterly relative term. Karabakh and its people would doubtless suffer greatly from modern Azeri long-range bombardment weaponry, and there is some evidence that Karabakh's edge in operational skills has eroded. In both instances, the price would be paid in blood.

In addition, Armenia's prospects for economic development would be retarded by years if not decades, its border with Turkey even more effectively closed than now, and its Metsamor nuclear power station a potential target of enraged Azeri bombing. Thus, Armenia proper might pay a greater long-term price for a Karabakh victory than would Karabakh itself.

After another war, both Armenians and Azerbaijanis could abandon any prospects their children will live better or their countries enjoy greater rule of law or participatory government. War would empower the worst sort of people in the politics of both countries. The opportunity costs for both nations would endure for generations, with real peace a lasting casualty.

Alternatives to war

What are the alternatives? Most obvious is continuation of the status quo, along the lines of Cyprus or Kashmir (neither much of a recommendation). Karabakh remains a small garrison state. Armenia remains critically limited by its landlocked geography and closed frontiers to west and east. Azerbaijan remains a kleptocracy with its finite oil and gas wealth dissipated in corruption and malfeasance. Talented young people migrate if they can or retreat into alienation from the tasks of building attractive modern societies. These prospects are pretty much what is currently on offer on both sides. Surely, there is something better?

There is, it is acceptance of peace. Peace requires compromise, in an environment where both terms are spoken on both sides with revulsion. Azerbaijan must accept the consequences of defeat in war, while Armenia must abandon expansive territorial ambitions. Partisans will argue that a return to arms somehow "cannot be worse" than giving up national aspirations and "rights". They are wrong. A renewed war will be worse than the most distasteful compromise.

Historians have judged that halfway through the First World War all the contending parties would have been better off accepting the peace demands of the opposing side than by continuing the struggle. That is certainly true for Armenia and Azerbaijan. A renewed war would be Verdun in the Caucasus.

Great power collusion needed

As noted above, the basics of a peace settlement have been on the table for years. Peace will reflect the outcome of the war, as peace almost always does. The solution will involve de facto and ultimately de jure redrawing of international borders, the resettlement of many but not all refugees, compensation where resettlement is not an option, assistance in the returned territories for extensive de-mining and rebuilding, and an international peacekeeping force of indefinite duration.

The peacekeeping effort will be a major challenge. The manpower and money will need to come principally from North American, European and Eurasian governments. The job will not be easy. In addition to difficult logistics, there will certainly be vengeful violence when the returnees see the condition of their former homes. Lasting peace will be long in coming, but the international effort is far preferable to the current illusory stability of no-war-no-peace.

What is needed is old-fashioned great power collusion by Washington and Moscow. Mediation is not enough. Armenian and Azeri political leaders will need outsiders to blame for giving up the "national dream" and accepting reality. Even if the two great powers cannot entirely impose a peace, they can certainly move the parties away from the status quo decisively in favour of compromise and settlement.

Washington and Moscow today have far too few mutual interests; their relationship is often zero sum, in that Russian diplomacy succeeds where American fails, and vice versa. There are people in both capitals who view Karabakh as zero sum. With a thoughtful and disciplined approach by the new US Administration, this need not be the case. Washington can accomplish nothing - nothing - on this issue without Moscow, so true partnership is both a necessity and a benefit in its own right. Karabakh could be a success story not just for peace in the Caucasus but for renewed great power co-operation between America and Russia.

Danger signs in the Caucasus include an escalating arms race, mutual misperceptions of intentions, a belief on each side that time is on its side, and dreams that renewed war would "solve" the dispute. Great power diplomacy is never easy, but the benefits in this case justify the effort. It is time for the outside powers and the combatants in the Karabakh dispute to give peace a chance.

Sri Lanka: after war, justice

The long war in Sri Lanka is, it seems, finally at an end. But for many Sri Lankans, even those who have longed for this day - and for whom the last few weeks have been especially intense - it has not ended in the way that we would have wanted. The prolonged siege in the northeast pocket, the shelling, the further loss of life, the vanquishing of the enemy - all this means that the conclusion of this twenty-six-year war is likely to be defined in terms of military victory alone, with no reference to a political solution and the return of democracy. This too is a tragedy.

Luther Uthayakumaran is a Sri Lankan Australian writer. An earlier version of this article was published in Lines magazine

There is a great responsibility now to make sure that Sri Lanka's future is not defined by the way the war has ended - and that the questions of democracy, justice and accountability are addressed fully in its aftermath. This article is a modest first contribution to that agenda.

The post-war search

There are many ways to view the terrible conflict that has sundered the island since 1983. When the war turned in the 1990s-2000s into a binary battle between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE / Tamil Tigers), it was ever clearer that for both sides thought and acted solely in terms of the aspirations of states, nationalisms and counter-nationalisms; and that in consequence they regarded the lives of civilians were becoming less and less important. Some of us responded by seeking to establish a position that placed the rights of the individual citizen at the centre of concern.

This outlook had but one result: to see the war as a series of horrendous injustices committed against the citizens of Sri Lanka. This perspective is highly relevant to the war's end: for it suggests that the country and its people cannot - and must not attempt to - recover from the collective trauma without addressing and (where possible) redressing these injustices.

However, there is a good chance that this is precisely what will happen. Soon, the focus will shift to matters of administration, reconstruction, and political "normalisation". The thrust - aided, no doubt, by the decline in international media attention - is the need to "move on", with the implication that progress beyond conflict requires forgetting the past.

Also in openDemocracy on Sri Lanka's war and politics:

Alan Keenan, "Sri Lanka's election choice" (17 November 2005)

Alan Keenan, "Sri Lanka: between peace and war" (14 May 2006)

Nira Wickramasinghe, "Sri Lanka: the politics of purity" (17 November 2006)

Nira Wickramasinghe, "Multiculturalism: a view from Sri Lanka" (30 May 2007)

Sumantra Bose, "Sri Lanka's stalemated conflict" (12 June 2007)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Sri Lanka under siege" (30 January 2009)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Sri Lanka's displaced: the political vice" (8 April 2009)

Nirmala Rajasingam, "The Tamil diaspora: solidarities and realities" (17 April 2009)

This pragmatic view has the merit of warning against imprisonment in the past, which itself is a prime source of conflict. But it is also the case that confronting the past - as seen from the examples of Germany and South Africa, among others - is also an essential part of "moving on", and ensuring that the worst experiences will never again recur. In any event, there is a moral imperative in facing what has been perpetrated and experienced; is it right that (for example) a father who saw his 2-year old daughter blown apart by an army shell, or a mother who saw her infant hacked by the LTTE, be told that what happened to them should now be forgotten as the nation needs to "move on"? And could such an attitude, if institutionalised, create the foundation for a peaceful future?

There are thus compelling moral and practical reasons why Sri Lanka should frame what has happened in terms of the wholesale injustices done to its people, and to face them openly in a shared, collective process.

Here, however, a problem arises. Where to look for redress: international war-crime tribunals, local post-war mechanisms, truth commissions...? The fact that the war has ended via the military defeat of the LTTE, it is likely that the primary focus now will be on the crimes of this group. There must proper legal process in this respect: everyone, including the leaders of the LTTE, is entitled to a fair trial (indeed, fair trials are a crucial mechanism of recognition and redress). But the military conclusion to the war means that it is the government side that will pose the greater problem. The members of victorious armies are hardly ever prosecuted for war crimes. This makes it likely that the crimes committed by the Sri Lankan state will now be forgotten, and necessary that a process is established to ensure that they are not.

Two paths to justice

In order to create a sound starting-point for such a process, it may be worth learning from two developments elsewhere in the world.

The first is the attempt by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Sudanese government forces in Darfur (see Martin Shaw, "Sudan, the ICC and genocide: a fateful decision", 11 March 2009).

The fact that Omar al-Bashir is the first sitting president to be charged by the ICC makes the case interesting and relevant. Yet he remains free, and able with impunity to travel to selected countries (such as other member-states of the African Union). In his own way he is presenting a defence - but in the international media rather than in court (see Zeinab Badawi, Hardtalk/BBC interview, 14 May 2009).

The arguments of Sudan's president are not dissimilar to those put forth by the Sri Lankan government when it too is accused by western governments of human-rights violations and war crimes. Colombo's response focuses on the issue of sovereignty (the state has a right to territorial control and to defend itself from internal rebellion) and seeks to shift the blame (it is the rebels who have used terrorist tactics, used civilians as human shields, and employed child-soldiers). Yet the very fact that an effort to prosecute al-Bashir exists and that he feels the need to justify himself are positive trends in the evolution of international justice.

The second international development is the decision of Barack Obama's administration to release the memos written by officials within the United States department of justice during George W Bush's period in office, providing brutal interrogation techniques (that is, torture) with legal sanction. The publication of the "torture memos" was immediately followed by calls for prosecutions of their authors - which President Obama initially resisted, only to relent under pressure. There are legal and other hurdles still to be overcome, but an acknowledgement has been made that prosecutions are at least a possibility.

The US's overall relationship with international law (particularly the ICC) has in recent years been ambiguous at best and abrasive at worst. It is plausible to see the pressure being exerted on the Obama administration as coming lessfrom any reverence for international law and more from a particular democratic tradition within the US. The principle argument seems to be (in Philip Gourevitch's words) "...what all this [the use of torture] has done to who we are?" Amy Davidson echoes the point in outlining the "one defense...against the charge that we are a nation of torturers", namely "our common, native outrage at these crimes."

The next journey

If it is difficult to see how these two processes will unfold in the weeks and months ahead, it is easier to recognise the different traditions that seem to be driving them. The momentum of the first - from the Nuremberg trials to the Rome statute which set up the ICC - is the desire to extend the scope of international justice, to refine international responses to war crimes, and to establish international jurisdictions. The momentum of the second is more an appeal to a particular internal tradition of right conduct appropriate to American ideals.

These parallel processes offer an interesting sidelight on how Sri Lanka might deal with the painful injustices of its long war. On one side, appeals are already being made for international investigations into war crimes in the country; on the other,  the question arises as to whether the society as a whole can summon a collective sense of "native outrage" over the crimes of the last three decades.

Can Sri Lankans now find something within ourselves - a shared set of internal resources and traditions - as a basis for examining the crimes committed by Sri Lankans against Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka? Or has the effect of this devastating and divisive war been to destroy even the possibility of a single, collective moral voice? The answer to these questions will help to shape Sri Lanka's post-war journey.


Also in openDemocracy on conflict and international justice:

Eóin Murray, "'Tear down that wall!' The world court and Israel" (29 July 2004)

Anthony Dworkin, "The Hague tribunal after Milosevic" (14 March 2006)

William Schabas, "The enigma of the International Criminal Court's success" (17 February 2006)

Nick Grono & David Mozersky, "Sudan and the ICC: a question of accountability" (31 January 2007)

Anthony Dworkin, "The law and genocide: Bosnia, Serbia, and justice" (2 March 2007)

Ben Kiernan, "Blood and soil: the global history of genocide" (11 October 2007)

Nick Grono, "The International Criminal Court: success or failure?" (9 June 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "Sudan in a fix" (26 June 2008)

Alex de Waal, "Sudan and the International Criminal Court: a guide to the controversy" (14 July 2008)

Victor Peskin, "The Omar al-Bashir indictment: the ICC and the Darfur crisis" (15 July 2008)

Marlies Glasius, "What is global justice and who is it for? The ICC's first five years" (21 July 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "Sudan's Omar al-Bashir: a useful war criminal" (15 October 2008)

Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza, and international law", 21 January 2009)

Eyal Weizman, "Lawfare in Gaza: legislative attack" (1 March 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Sudan, the ICC and genocide: a fateful decision" (11 March 2009)

Marlies Glasius, "The ICC and the Gaza war: legal limits, symbolic politics" (25 March 2009)  

Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide

On 8 May 2008, hours after the beginning of Lebanon's latest civil war, a storm swept into the capital from the seas. At first it threatened Beirut's coastline with streaking bolts of lightning; then, as the fighting intensified in the city, went on to rampage through its streets with such merciless ferocity that fighters were forced to seek shelter and atheists feared the wrath of God.  

Earlier that evening, shooting and bombings could be heard in the majority of Beirut's districts, including in prosperous Verdun. But who was being targeted: Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament and one of the Islamist movement Hizbollah's strongest allies - or one of Saad Hariri's men? Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School. He is currently writing a book on the Iraqi constitution with Jõrg Fedtke, to be published in 2009.

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles in openDemocracy:

"What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

"Lebanon on the brink - but of what?" (18 December 2006)

"Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

"Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (7 May 2007)

"Iraq: the lost generation" (7 November 2004)

"Iraq's dangerous elections" (23 December 2004)

"The end of secularism in Iraq" (18 May 2005)                           "Lebanon's pre-election hangover" (27 May 2005)                        

"Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?" (16 August 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution to nowhere" (14 October 2005)

"Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

"Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith" (26 October 2006)

"The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007)

"Lebanon's Palestinian shame" (19 June 2007)

Some fighting occurred within the hallways of the famed and imposing Yacoubian building in the Caracas district. A shot was fired at a group of opposition supporters near Hamra Street, killing its intended target. The victim's comrades wasted no time grieving; within minutes they forced their enemies to abandon their positions. The sound of shots and bombs echoed against multi-storey buildings throughout the city, amid widespread confusion as to who was shooting and who was being targeted. Makeshift roadblocks sprung up everywhere.  

Beirut's citizens were once again caught in the middle of a battle that they had very little to gain from. As the storm brought a moment's respite, many reflected that the hatred again tearing their city apart was as much the result of a contrived and outdated constitutional framework and of regional and international powers that was pushing the country to war. The consequences of what was about to happen also weighed heavily on their minds. The Lebanese have seen many conflicts over the past few decades - most destructively the civil war of 1975-90 - but what type would this one be? Would there be snipers on every rooftop? Would gangs control the streets, burst into buildings, murder and steal at random?  

The divide

Lebanon's political spectrum has since 2005 been split sharply into two rival camps. The "March 14" camp - named after what is perhaps the largest demonstration in Lebanese history, held a month after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005 - is led by the Future Movement, an archetypal oligarchical party headed by Rafiq's son, Saad.

Fouad Siniora, Lebanon's prime minister since July 2005, is one of the Hariri family's closest confidants. He was minister of finance during a large part of the 1990s, a period when Lebanon's sovereign debt increased at a crippling pace (indeed, almost unprecedented in international finance, and matched perhaps only by the spectacular increase in Hariri's personal fortune).

The March 14 movement also includes former militias that are remembered mostly for their brutal behaviour during the country's fifteen-year civil war. Most of its components were at one point or another allies of Syria; but in late 2004, a converging of interests permitted them to cement an anti-Syrian coalition. March 14 obtained a majority of seats in the elections of May-June 2005, and dominated the new government.  

The "March 8" alliance, named after a rival massive demonstration, is led by Hizbollah - a movement defined by its desire to see all Lebanese lands liberated from Israeli occupation and by its deep and apparently sincere Shi'a Muslim religiosity. Until 2005, Hizbollah had enjoyed a reputation in the wider Arab world as arguably the most efficient guerrilla army in the world. Its allies include the country's largest Christian party as well as former militias that are mostly associated with cheap thuggery.  

Lebanese politics in the 2005-09 period been defined by the division between these two camps. There has been some discussion of policy issues, especially in relation to rampant corruption (blamed mostly on March 14); but the division is fuelled mostly by their respective choice of allies. 

Syria's military withdrawal from the country in 2005, was followed by a monumental if near-inevitable mistake on the part of March 14, when the movement forged an alliance with the George W Bush administration. Most Arabs blame the United States for the destruction of Palestine and Iraq, so they could barely stomach the sight of Fouad Siniora kissing Condoleezza Rice on both cheeks when she arrived in Beirut after Israel's devastating onslaught against Lebanon in July-August 2006. 

Saad Hariri has regularly touted his relationship with Washington and even expressed admiration for the democratic process in Iraq. Moreover, after one of his many meetings with senior level officials in Washington, Walid Jumblatt, a leading figure in March 14, told journalists that he was seeking "military and political assistance against Syria's indirect occupation of Lebanon". 

In the event, very little such assistance would be forthcoming; but the message to Hizbollah could not have been clearer. By so allying itself with Washington, March 14 succeeded in alienating a large segment of Lebanon without obtaining anything substantial in return. At the same time, the Bush administration and March 14 leaders were seemingly determined to snub some of the more obvious lessons of recent history: in particular, that comfortable and corrupt elites without any real motive other than greed can never defeat a young and armed movement that is motivated by revolutionary fervour.

For its part, March 14 pointed to Hizbollah's persistently cozy relationship with Syria, the hated former occupier which had stifled freedom of expression and assembly in Lebanon for years. Damascus had also played a central role in reinforcing Lebanon's corrupt form of government and appropriating the state's wealth. In addition, after the Syrians finally retreated from the country in 2005, and as the steady stream of assassinations of major figures within March 14 continued, Hizbollah was intermittently accused of participating directly or indirectly in the execution of these crimes.  

It is also no secret that Hizbollah submits to the Iranian ideology of wilaya al-faqih, which provides religious jurisprudents with authority over many key affairs of the state. In a 1997 interview, Hizbollah's secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah explained that although the group's day-to-day matters were managed by the local leadership in Lebanon, "the decision of peace and war is in the hands of the jurisconsult - not the intellectuals, researchers, scientists, and regular politicians, depending on the circumstances". The idea that a religious scholar in Iran has the power to decide whether Lebanon should engage in a war with Israel is reason enough to make many Lebanese, including many Shi'a, turn blue in the face.  

The breakdown

This divide between the two political blocs eventually led to a breakdown of state and of economy alike. This was assisted by Lebanon's outdated constitution. The text helped to crystallise the hierarchy between the country's various religious groups and to establish a modus vivendi between them. A further agreement in 1943 - the "national pact" - allocated the respective leading positions in government, and constitutional prerogatives, in rough proportion to each group's then demographic weight.

The entire arrangement was a source of great tension from the start. As the country's Shi'a population near-quadrupled in the thirty years following 1943, and no provision was made to redress the economic and political bias against them, the injustice inherent in the system became unmistakable.  Large segments of society sought to redress the framework but were confronted by their rivals' determination to defend their entrenched rights.  

A similar, equally violent struggle devastated South Africa; the eventual result after the overthrow of the apartheid system was the constitution of 1996, which established a more just and free society. The end of Lebanon's civil war saw no such transformation. Some adjustments were made to the constitutional arrangement in 1989; but the fundamentals, which reinforce divisions between society more than anything else, remain firmly in place to this day.

The divide between March 14 and March 8 did not originally stem from religious differences, but the country's underlying framework ensures that every political dispute is coloured with a sectarian brush.

openDemocracy writers analyse Lebanon's politics and conflicts:                         
Hazem Saghieh, "Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?" (21 February 2005)                                                 Roger Scruton, "Lebanon before and after Syria" (9 March 2005)                                       Hazem Saghieh, "Lebanon's election, no solution" (20 June 2005)                              Paul Rogers, "Lebanon in the wider war" (25 July 2006)                                                Paul Rogers, "A pheonix from Lebanon's ruins" (17 August 2006)                                    
Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon" (22 August 2006)                              Paul Rogers, "Lebanon on the edge" (31 August 2006)                          
Paul Rogers, "Lebanon: the war after the war" (12 October 2006)
Alex Klaushofer, "Lebanon's two futures" (11 December 2006)                              Roger Scruton, "Lebanon: the missing perspective" (20 July 2006)

Hazem Saghieh, "Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat" (19 December 2006)

Mai Ghoussoub, "Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award" (13 February 2007)
Fred Halliday, "Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)                                          Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "Washington in Lebanon and Palestine: fatal manipulation" (6 August 2007)

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon divided" (7 August 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Lebanon: short memory, system failure" (25 September 2007)                                       Hazem Saghieh, "Lebanon's '14 March': from protest to leadership" (1 April 2008)                                     Robert G Rabil, "Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state" (21 May 2008)                                      Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "The Israel-Hizbollah prisoner-deal" (14 July 2008)

It was the war with Israel in July 2006 that initiated the breakdown in the relationship between the two camps, which itself led to the breakdown of the state itself. Soon after the war ended, March 14 accused Hizbollah of having unnecessarily provided Israel with a pretext to launch its onslaught, and argued in favour of the group's disarmament. Hizbollah countered that Israel's disproportionate attack was pre-planned, and even accused some Lebanese politicians of treachery. In December 2006, it withdrew from government to bring an end to a regime that it said prioritised western interests over anything else.   

Hizbollah argued that the constitution requires that the state must represent all sects, and noting that all Shi'a ministers had withdrawn from government, Hizbollah insisted on the government's constitutional illegitimacy and refused to recognise any of its decisions. The then president, Emile Lahoud - a staunch Hizbollah ally - agreed and refused to sign off on any orders or decrees. The parliament's speaker also declined to call the chamber into session for over two years. Hizbollah demanded that a new government of "national unity" be formed and that March 8 should be granted a third of the ministries in that government. In December 2006, it launched an open-ended sit-in which practically surrounded the governmental district. Neither side backed down, even when violent demonstrations pushed the country dangerously close to the precipice.  

By summer 2007, the crisis in Nahr El-Bared brought another round of mutual accusations. March 14 claimed that Fatah el-Islam, the terrorist organisation behind the fighting, was a creature of Syria and that it had recently been unleashed on Lebanon to destabilise the government even further. March 8 touched upon a more sensitive concern. Since 2005, there had been talk (supported by an investigative report from Seymour Hersh),that the Future Movement was forming a Sunni militia, supposedly with the support of the Saudi Arabian and United States governments. It was said that office-space and hotels were being converted into arms-caches and observation-posts. In that context, many accused March 14 of having financed and armed Fatah el-Islam itself, with the intent of creating a Sunni bulwark against Hizbollah's Shi'a forces.  That group was eventually decimated by the Lebanese army but rumours that young men were being armed in Beirut itself persisted.  

Yet another constitutional crisis emerged when the tenure of Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud, neared its end. In Lebanon, presidents are indirectly elected by parliament, usually by consensus. By 2007, all trust between the two major camps had evaporated, and there was no agreement as to who should replace Lahoud, or even what process should be followed to elect his successor. On 23 November 2007, when the deadline for deciding on a replacement came and passed, the president's powers were transferred to the government by virtue of the constitution and until the vacuum was filled. Various initiatives were launched in the ensuing months to find some common ground.

Michel Suleiman, commander of the Lebanese armed forces, was the only candidate that both sides could agree upon. The general enjoyed a strong reputation for heading what was probably the country's only institution that remained detached from both sides. The crisis remained unresolved however as March 8 insisted that a government of national unity be formed immediately after the new president's election, whereas March 14 preferred to leave that matter until a later date.  

Month after month, with each failure to resolve the crisis, the country inched closer to anarchy. Gangs from rival camps could be seen fighting increasingly often, at first with their bare fists, then with stones, then sticks, and eventually with guns. A video broadcast on al-Jazeera showed the shocking levels of brutality that each side was leveling at the other during the street-battles. The army intervened to separate the fighters, but it could not counter the deep sense of gloom and hatred that had settled in Beirut.  

By March 2008, the country had no president; the parliament had not been in session for more than a year; the government was not recognised by around half the country; a sit-in blocked access to the governmental district; and daily street-fights were growing increasingly violent. Sunni homeowners were even refusing to sell their property to Shi'a buyers, and vice-versa. A major conflagration between March 14 and March 8 seemed inevitable.  

The declaration of war

In May 2008, March 14 perpetrated yet another major - and this time fatal - blunder. Before 2005, Hizbollah had remained detached from Lebanon's political system and concentrated almost all of its efforts on defending and liberating the country's sovereign territory from Israeli occupation and aggression. However, as the Syrians ended their unpopular occupation at the start of 2005, the balance of power in the middle east shifted sharply.

The United States had just won the battles for Fallujah and Najaf in Iraq, and a growing number of voices were clamouring for regime change in Damascus itself. Hizbollah adapted its modus operandi accordingly. The party accepted having representatives in government for the first time as a means to counter the growing tide against it and its Syrian allies.  

After its electoral success in 2005, March 14 could smell blood; it went on to seek to change in Syria with the help of Washington and some European allies. After the war in 2006, the rhetoric against Hizbollah's weapons became insistent, but March 14 failed to appreciate that by then the tide of forces had shifted away from them. After Iraq's collapse and Israel's failure against Hizbollah in 2006, American and Israeli power in the region appeared toothless. Washington's enemies were now in the ascendant and would not be shy in flexing their muscles.  

On the morning of 6 May 2008, the tension between the two camps reached breaking-point. The Lebanese government issued two decisions, which together represented the first occasion since the end of the country's civil war that a Lebanese institution, party, or group had taken positive action to curb Hizbollah's military activities. By virtue of its first decree, the government announced that it would be shutting down Hizbollah's closed-circuit communication lines (which the group has consistently claimed is a vital part of its military infrastructure).The second decree provided that the government was relieving the chief of security at the airport; this came after it had been discovered that Hizbollah had installed surveillance cameras in the area, and was designed to cut one source of Hizbollah's weapons, some of which allegedly arrived through the airport.  

The decrees - even though the government had no way of implementing them - represented a real departure from the previously accepted canon that the resistance was untouchable. Hizbollah's senior leadership decided right away that escalation was the only possible response. On the morning of 7 May, it launched a civil-disobedience campaign. The capital's major arteries were cut off with burning tires or mounds of dirt; offices and shops were closed; the airport was made inaccessible, forcing the cancellation of a number of flights.  Most people stayed at home, expecting to get back to work the next day.  

But at 20.00 that evening, the opposition's sit-in in the downtown area suddenly militarised and expanded. What in the morning had been apparently peaceful protesters were now armed militants. They moved, unopposed, into Laazarieh, a complex of buildings that included some government offices adjacent to the sit-in. They brought with them a large cache of rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, ammunition, mattresses, televisions, and food, and blocked the entrances with their cars. They were now less than 200 metres away from the government district. The country was heading towards war. 

On 8 May 2008, Lebanon awoke to learn that all major roads as well as the airport were still closed. How long would this continue; and for what purpose? The answer would come later that afternoon, when it was announced that Nasrallah would speak at 15.00 and that Hariri would respond at 19.00.  Everyone tuned in, and the full gravity of the situation immediately weighed down on them. The Hizbollah leader was frank: the government's two decisions were "a declaration of war", and any party that sought to interfere with the armed resistance against Israel would "have its hand cut off".  Nasrallah meant his words to be interpreted literally.  

It was obvious that the only way in which a conflict could be avoided would be for Saad Hariri to announce that the government had reversed its two decrees. The country remained transfixed. Every television at hand was tuned in, the streets were empty and all listened intently. Hariri appeared; his tone too was defiant. An unequivocal reversal of the decisions would not be forthcoming. The army would be allowed to decide on the matter, he said. It would not be enough to stave off disaster.

As Hariri ended his broadcast, the transition from peace to war took place within minutes. Militants descended onto the streets and blocked roads with cars, rubbish-cans, whatever they could. Before anyone could come to terms with what was happening, the bombing started. Residents rushed down to the lower floors of their buildings for fear of being crushed by collapsing rooftops.  Ordinary civilians expected the worst. Some barricaded themselves inside their homes, often relying on the protective measures that had been installed during the civil war that ended in 1990.   

That evening, a violent thunderstorm unexpectedly engulfed Beirut. For the next few hours, tanks roared along the Corniche in a frantic attempt to keep fighters from engaging each other. The situation was surreal, and many perhaps hoped that the strong winds would remind the warring factions of their fallibility and send them back home. It was not to be.  

The takeover 

The fighting that took place in the Hamra district in west Beirut was characteristic of most of what happened during those fateful days. As saad Hariri ended his television address, armed members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party -  usually referred to in Lebanon as the Qawmiyeen ("nationalists"), and staunch Hizbollah allies, descended onto the streets of Hamra. This was the moment that they had been waiting for. The Qawmiyeen have a unique history in Lebanese history. Since the 1930s, they have advocated for a union between Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Cyprus and Iraq. Their stated modus operandi was armed revolt, exemplified in a large number of assassinations and security threats.

Although a relatively small party, they have strong local support in a number of areas, including in Hamra, where many of their militants continue to live.  It was there that they carried out Beirut's first act of resistance against Israel's occupation in 1982. During the 1990s, they had taken sides in favor of the Syrian occupation; when the Syrians were finally forced to leave in 2005, many of Qawmiyeen's old strongholds in Hamra were taken over by the Hariri family.  

From 2005-08, the Qawmiyeen watched as Hamra's main street was lined with posters and flags of the Future Movement. One day, they even woke up to discover that the plaque commemorating their act of resistance against the Israeli occupation had been splashed with blue paint, leaving no doubt as to who the culprits were (blue is the Future Movement's official colour). They watched as Saad Hariri acquired more and more property and installed sophisticated security networks in the neighbourhood. They studied how Hamra's many security guards were being replaced with young men from impoverished Sunni areas. In the event of a future conflict, the Qawmiyeen were in no doubt as to the exact individuals that would be their enemies.  

On 8 May 2008, they re-emerged in Hamra with a vengeance. Hariri's men were woefully inexperienced and were never going to be able to resist longer than a few moments. On the morning of 9 May, there was a preliminary skirmish: after both sides took a few casualties, Hariri's men dropped their weapons and either surrendered or ran. The Qawmiyeen then broke into several groups and coordinated their movements in the manner of a seasoned platoon of fighters. They went from street to street, building to building, and apartment to apartment, picking up the people that they were looking for, one by one. Some resisted, only to be met with a torrent of gunfire; others surrendered immediately on the condition that they be unharmed, a promise that was (for the most part) kept.  

As the Qawmiyeen moved through the streets, residents quickly mobilised and communicated by mobile-phone to alert each other as to what direction they were headed. They could see groups of armed men strolling calmly along what are normally congested streets. Some bystanders crossed paths with the Qawmiyeen and were quick to remark that they did not interfere in anyone's affairs. Many residents were also shocked to see some of their neighbours mobilising to provide the fighters with whatever support they could. Young men, including local shopkeepers, were seen speeding through Hamra on scooters. What were they doing? Delivering sandwiches and refreshments to the gunmen. The result of a genuine political affinity or an effort to gain favour with what was likely to be the districts' new masters?  

During the afternoon of 10 May, the Qawmiyeen made their way to Jeanne d'Arc Street, in the centre of Hamra. Before Saad Hariri's takeover in 2005, the Qawmiyeen had for years occupied an abandoned office-building there, which was sometimes even referred to as the "Qawmiyeen's base". When the Syrian occupation ended in 2005, Hariri acquired the building and had the Qawmiyeen evicted by force. Although it was perfectly legal, the evictees were less than pleased. In May 2008, the building had just been renovated and was a slick piece of work. The Qawmiyeen were aware of all the details, even the name of the security guard that lived in the building.

On 10 May, a group of six fighters positioned themselves across the street. "Ya Helou!" they shouted. "Come down now if you know what's good for you!"  They were in a bind, because the building now boasted a new steel gate that they wouldn't be able to break through. "We're telling you to come down now!" they shouted again. Someone yelled a few words from one of the top floors. No one on the ground could make out what he said, but it was clear that he wasn't ready to give himself up. The Qawmiyeen didn't hesitate: they pointed their rifles in the building's general direction and assailed it continuously. The few bystanders that were on the street ran for cover. The building's new glass façade was totally destroyed. "We'll be back, ya Helou!" they shouted, and moved on to their next target.  

Soon after, a group of residents and shopkeepers gazed upon the scarred glass in disbelief, and wondered if the hapless security guard had survived the assault. A young man suddenly ran towards them, yelling frantically: "The Qawmiyeen have their jeeps on front of the Crown Plaza! They're loading all of them onto their trucks!" Some had been wondering what was to become of the prisoners that the fighters had assembled over the past few days. They rushed to Hamra Street and saw that it was now lined with jeeps with Qawmiyeen fighters at the helm and Hariri's men sitting sheepishly at the back before being driven away. Ominous scenes, but most assumed that at least the fighting was over.  

They were mistaken. One enemy remained, and several groups of fighters could be seen converging to the east simultaneously. Civilians began calling each other frantically. "Stay away from Clemenceau! They're coming!" Walid Jumblatt, one of March 14's most important leaders, owns one of the most imposing properties in all of Beirut in Clemenceau, an area adjacent to Hamra. By virtue of his position, the Lebanese army afforded him its full protection, which meant that he was off-limits. The Qawmiyeen seemed to think otherwise. They surrounded his home, as well as the soldiers, and began firing into the air, almost certainly with the intention of intimidating their intended target. It seemed to work, as Jumblatt appeared on television a few minutes after the shooting started, frantically demanding to negotiate a settlement.  

The transformation

By late afternoon on 10 May, there was no one left to fight. Residents ventured out into the streets and were shocked by the extent to which Hamra had been transformed. Even the Future Movement's ribbons had been removed from street signs. In their place were the Qawmiyeen's flags and graffiti. At the epicentre was an abandoned petrol-station. During the country's civil war, it had been one of the Qawmiyeen's many bases and they were now back to reclaim their old territory. They stood there together, their weapons in plain view, just as they did in the 1980s. They were also present on Hamra's main crossing- points. They sat, their rifles spread across their laps, with full confidence that they were sovereign. They searched no one, and didn't ask any questions. On 11 May, when the Lebanese army declared that it would no longer tolerate the presence of armed civilians in the streets, the Qawmiyeen merely covered their weapons with a large blanket.  

The fighting in other neighbourhoods was equally swift and decisive, but was led by different groups depending on the area. By the afternoon of 11 May, groups of Amal militia fighters (Nabih Berri's outfit) drove their scooters through the abandoned streets of the Verdun district, honking their horns in unison (something akin to the Lebanese equivalent of Germans marching under the Eiffel tower). In the elite Tallat el-Khayat, muscular militants tied the Future Movement's flag to their feet and walked together in the middle of wide avenues. During the evening, they sat in plain view on the main crossing-points, the roads littered with spent shells. Residents peered numbly upon the new reality from their windows.    

During those fateful days, the Lebanese security forces had clearly defined rules of engagement, which were not to interfere in the fighting for fear that sectarian affiliation would get the better of their men and split the army apart.  They had also committed to protecting all senior politicians from both sides and all major state institutions. The result was palpable. As the Qawmiyeen strolled through Hamra, they sometimes crossed paths with groups of soldiers. Often, they bought snacks from the same vendors. The rule that they should not interfere with each other was religiously observed.     

The fighting in the capital was completely over by 11 May, though it moved on to other areas including the Chouf mountains in the next few days. The Chouf is a predominantly Druze area which overlooks many Shi'a towns in the south and east of the country - a fact that Hizbollah has long been wary of. Hizbollah and its allies took the fight to them on 11 May; the locals quickly lost control over a number of major arms caches, but their ability to mobilise and to defend themselves against the advancing forces has become a source of pride amongst pro-government forces. Walid Jumblatt however, still helplessly locked into his Beirut home, was reduced to requesting that his Druze rival and Hizbollah ally Talal Arslan negotiate a settlement with the Lebanese army.  A brave decision that served to avoid a bloodbath, some said.  A humiliation without precedent, others retorted.  

The resolution

As the fighting progressed, the Arab League quickly mobilised, calling on all sides to negotiate a settlement in Doha under the auspices of the Qatari government. The ensuing negotiations from 16-21 May resulted in a deal that saw March 14 concede in relation to almost all of the demands that the opposition had been making since 2006. The Lebanese government resigned, to be replaced by a government of national unity in which the opposition would be granted a blocking minority. The Free Patriotic Movement, the only major political party that has consistently been in opposition since the end of the civil war, would now be represented in government for the first time; and Michel Sleiman was to be elected president. 

As soon as the deal was announced, it was obvious to all that the crisis was over. The tents in the central area of Beirut were lifted within hours and the Lamborghinis that had been in their place prior to 2006 were now back. Restaurants wasted no time in reopening their doors and the people rushed to breathe life back into the heart of the city. Elsewhere, teenagers who two weeks before had been begging their parents to save them from their fear were now driving oversized SUVs at high speeds and laughing at pedestrians with utter contempt and in complete disregard for traffic police, who have long accepted that they are powerless to impose order. It was time to return to the kingdom, and in Lebanon every man is sovereign.  

For many, it seemed that everything had returned to the way it had been just a few weeks earlier; but to those who wanted to remember what the purpose of the fighting was, the writing was on the wall. During the weeks following May 2008, the streets of Hamra were lined with posters and banners, belonging either to the Qawmiyeen or to the Amal movement (also a Hizbollah ally but totally foreign to Hamra). The purpose was to remind residents who really exercised control.   

The future

Lebanon is now enjoying a moment of peace, which is exhibited both by a rebounding private sector and a much higher level of activity in the parliament and government. There is no question however that the next crisis is just around the corner. The Doha agreement served to defuse some of the tension but it did nothing to reconcile the two sides' respective political visions. The parliamentary elections on 7 June 2009 are being hotly contested, but are unlikely to produce any major changes as all of the parties that are currently in power will no doubt continue to dominate the political scene in the next parliament.  

It can be assumed that no party will deliberately pursue the path of mutual destruction. But there is still urgent need for a reconciliation process which must involve an effort to clarify what truly separates political parties from one other, and what their political disputes are truly about. A certain number of constants will not vary in Lebanon, particularly in relation to foreign policy; but these issues tend to be the ones that poison the air throughout the country.They can be summarised as follows.

Whichever camp controls Beirut, Lebanon has no choice but to maintain good official relations with Syria, its only neighbour apart from Israel, and one of its only major economic arteries. There will be no de facto or de jure union with Syria regardless of anything. The prospects of Palestinian groups reopening a front against Israel from Lebanon are extremely remote. There is no possibility of a long-term peace agreement with Israel. Hizbollah will remain armed no matter who controls the government. 

Although no serious observer or policy-maker in Lebanon will challenge these certainties in private, they are constantly debated in public to the exclusion of anything else. This too has long contributed to the tension between the country's principal rivals.  

The air in Lebanon needs to be cleared to make way for a serious debate about real issues. After more than thirty years of war and occupation, that is what its impoverished population needs. Instead, the debate is and remains about who controls the state, the parliament, the presidency, the airwaves, even individual streets. Lebanon is stuck; it needs to find a way to move.

Georgia on the brink - again

A bizarre standoff between the Georgian government and the country's increasingly desperate extra-parliamentary opposition continues. It began on 9 April 2009 - a national holiday, commemorating the killing of twenty pro-independence demonstrators by Soviet special troops on this date in 1989. So far, there is precious little evidence of either side backing down. There are, it is true, signs of division within the opposition ranks; but most of the key leaders are still insisting that the only possible subject of negotiation with Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, is his resignation. Since he appears increasingly confident that he can outlast them, there is little chance that he will comply.

But where does that leave Georgia?    Robert Parsons is international editor of France 24. He earned a doctorate at Glasgow University for a thesis on the origins of Georgian nationalism. He was the BBC's Moscow correspondent (1993-2002), and worked at RFE/RL as director of its Georgian service, senior correspondent and chief producer for multimedia projects

Also by Robert Parsons in openDemocracy:

"Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006)

"Georgia: progress, interrupted" (16 November 2007)

"Georgia's race to the summit" (4 January 2008)

"Mikheil Saakashvii's bitter victory" (11 January 2008)

"Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008)

"Georgia's dangerous gulf" (30 May 2008)

"Georgia after war: the political landscape" (26 August 2008)

"Georgia: the politics of recovery" (24 October 2008)

It is clear that the opposition has failed dismally in its stated aim. On 9 April, thousands of people (estimates range from 20,000-60,000) rallied to their cause in the centre of the capital, Tbilisi. It was a respectable crowd, though nowhere near big enough to sweep the government away. Since then its momentum has ebbed not grown, in part because the police have chosen to keep a discreet distance. Some lessons, it seems, have been learned: in November 2007, Saakashvili turned a protest that was on the point of exhaustion into a steamroller by letting loose his riot police on a dwindling crowd (see "Georgia: progress, interrupted", 16 November 2007).

Today, the opposition brings out a couple of thousand supporters every day - not much, but enough to embarrass the government and disrupt economic activity in the centre of Tbilisi. More dangerously, their daily presence ensures that the city remains a cauldron of tension. People are being forced to find alternative routes to work, some parents have stopped sending their children to school, rubbish collection is  being impeded. As nerves inevitably fray, the fear is that one small spark could be enough to start a conflagration.

The Tbilisi tinderbox

If anyone doubted the danger of the current moment, the violence that briefly erupted outside Tbilisi's main police station on 6 May is a warning.    

At public television, where the opposition has organised a "picket of shame" for staff members accused of pro-government bias, the anger has been palpable. Journalists turning up for work have run a gauntlet of spittle and insults.  When one responded aggressively to the taunts, a crowd of opposition supporters beat him and set off in pursuit when he tried to flee. The incident was shown in all its detail on the privately-owned Rustavi 2 TV station.

In the tinderbox that Tbilisi has now become, the incident brought Tbilisi to the edge of communal violence. When three men were detained at the city's main police-station in connection with the assault, an opposition crowd was encouraged by its leaders to march on the station to secure their release. The enraged crowd tried to batter down the fence surrounding the station, only to be beaten back with truncheons.

Within minutes, rumours were flying around the city. The police were torturing the three men; Saakashvili had ordered a state of emergency; the police were firing into the crowd. None of these seems to have been true - although there is a suspicion that some rubber-bullets may have been fired.

Peter Semneby, the European Union's special representative for the southern Caucasus, accused the opposition leaders of "irresponsibility" and urged both sides to open a dialogue without preconditions.  

The spectre of civil war - no stranger to Georgia in the years since the country regained its independence in 1991 - has begun to concentrate minds, and on both sides of the political divide.

For his part, Mikheil Saakashvili - opposition claims to the contrary notwithstanding - is offering a dialogue, and on issues of genuine concern and importance to the majority of Georgians. These include constitutional reform (and with it the prospect of shifting from a presidential to a more parliamentary form of democracy); electoral reform (with the accent on a new electoral code); judicial reform; and continuing media reform.   

The fact that the president  is making these proposals at all is in part a reflection of the pressure from the opposition. The number of demonstrators on the street may not be large, but they represent an influential part of Tbilisi society and - through inventive use of the media - have ensured that their views are widely and constantly aired throughout the country. (This fact itself rather belies their endlessly repeated claim that there is no democracy and no freedom of speech in Georgia.)  

Saakashvili's strategy this time round appears to be to exhaust rather than confront his opponents and try to detach the moderates from the radicals.    There is some evidence that this is working. As it becomes clear that the rolling demonstrations in Tbilisi - now well into their second month - are not likely to precipitate nationwide disobedience, the weariness is almost palpable. It may be that Georgians are at last beginning to develop a healthy distaste for street-politics.

The opposition's flaws

The opposition faces five problems. First, there is little indication that society as a whole wants Saakashvili to go. It is not that the Georgian president has a high approval rating; it is merely higher than that of his main rivals. Most most people undoubtedly hold him responsible for allowing Georgia to be dragged into the disastrous August 2008 war with Russia, and many are disenchanted at the country's drift in 2007-09 towards a more authoritarian style of government. His use of the riot police in November 2007 to attack a largely peaceful demonstration was disastrous in public-relations terms as well as counterproductive.

Second, the opposition's claim that it now represents the voice of the people is absurd. There is simply no evidence for this. Several opposition leaders who have claimed to speak on the people's behalf have themselves failed to win more than a few percentage points of the vote in national or local elections. In fact, the lukewarm reaction of the public to the opposition's appeal for mass demonstrations suggests that most Georgians would rather the opposition focused on dialogue with Saakashvili than confrontation. Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Georgian politics, including the war with Russia in August 2008:

Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008)

Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008)

Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution" (18 August 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest" (21 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

Martin Shaw, "After the Georgia war: the challenge to citizen action" (22 September 2008)

Katinka Barysch, "Europe and the Georgia-Russia conflict" (30 September 2008)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: the aftermath" (16 November 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Caucasus: a region in pieces" (8 January 2009)

Thomas de Waal, "Georgia and Russia, again" (30 January 2009)

Tedo Japaridze, "A Georgian chalk circle: open letter to the west" (12 May 2009)

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section reports

Third, the ferocity - and indeed vulgarity - of some of their attacks on Saakashvili almost certainly do not help their cause. The demagogic calls by some opposition leaders for their supporters to (for example) march on the police station alarm Georgians as much as the do nervous foreign diplomats stationed in Tbilisi.

Fourth, it may be too that the opposition's fixation with the demand that Saakashvili resign reflects most of all its leaders' inability to agree on anything else. As a whole, the opposition has still to put forward anything resembling a coherent programme for political and economic reform.

Fifth, there is the question of leadership. None of its leaders have yet succeeded in establishing a profile as a genuine presidential contender. The expectation that Nino Burdzhanadze, who defected from Saakashvili's ranks just before the parliamentary elections in May 2008, would give the opposition new drive hasn't happened. Somewhat surprisingly, given her past reputation for moderation and calm, she has metamorphosed into one of the country's most radical politicians and categorically rules out negotiations with Saakashvili.

Burdzhanadze's own self-perception speaks volumes about how far she has moved across the political spectrum. For example, she told the pro-opposition Kavkasia TV station on 13 May: "My statements aren't radical, they're moderate. If I were a radical, I'd be calling for Saakashvili to be hanged".

The longer this struggle goes on, the wider the fissures within the opposition are growing. It is clear that some are not happy at the direction in which the more radical groups are moving. Irakli Alasania, the young former diplomat who leads the Alliance for Georgia, was disturbed enough by the attack on the police station to welcome Saakashvili's offer of negotiations; several others, too, are worried by plans to cut the country's main east-west transit arteries. The consequences of such action could be devastating to an already fragile economy.

The case for sanity

The meeting between the opposition and Saakashvili held on 11 May 2009 broke up without agreement, though the fact that it was held at all may be the first sign of a move towards compromise. Perhaps more importantly for the long term, the talks opened a breach in opposition ranks. Irakli Alasania has emerged as the most outspoken proponent of compromise. He is backed by two other figures: Davit Berdzenishvili of the Republican Party and (more surprisingly, given his past record) Levan Gachechiladze, who ran second to Saakashvili in the presidential election of January 2008.   

Those who are now categorically against even talking to Saakashvili - on the issue of his resignation excepted - are Nino Burdzhanadze, Davit Gamqrelidze of the Akhali Memarjveneebi (New Rights Party), Salome Zurabishvili (the former French diplomat and Georgian foreign minister, now leader of the marginal Georgian Way party), and Kakha Kukava, co-leader of the Sakartvelos Konservatiuli Partia (Georgian Conservative Party).

If Burdzhanadze appears now to believe that anything goes bar hanging the president, and Zurabishvili has come to consider him "insane", Berdzenishvili is saying that an "all-or-nothing approach" is bad politics and unlikely to help solve the crisis. Alasania reinforced this view in an interview on the BBC's Hardtalk programme (13 May 2009), saying that there is still room for negotiation with Saakashvili.  But the reality is more murk than clean lines, and it would be premature to suggest that sanity is returning to Georgian politics.

The trajectory of Alasania is a case in point. When he returned from his post as Georgia's ambassador to the United Nations, many saw him as the great hope of the opposition. Thus far, however, he has mostly demonstrated his political inexperience. With no organisational base of his own, he is struggling to break free of an opposition that no longer reflects his own views on what the crisis demands. Hence Alasania's repeated insistence that the rumours of a rift in opposition ranks are not true; and Salome Zurabishvili's references to his naivety. (The problem, she told a rally in Tbilisi on 14 May, is that Alasania "does not yet believe what nadziralebi [scum] ‘they' are".)     

Alasania's calculation must almost certainly be that if he wants to sustain and build on his reputation as an emerging star in the Georgian political firmament, he must avoid becoming a prisoner of the opposition radicals.

The politics of stalemate

In these difficult and polarised circumstances, what chance does Georgia have of extricating itself from its impasse? The former president Eduard Shevardnadze - replaced by Mikheil Saakashvili in the "rose revolution" of 2003-04 - has voiced his support for a key demand of the opposition: the only way out, he has said, is for Saakashvili to go (see Thomas de Waal, "Georgia and Russia, again", 30 January 2009).  

The case for this hinges mostly on the president's failure to prevent the war with Russia in August 2008; but also on the rupture within Georgian society, for which, as president and leader of the largest party (the United National Movement), Saakashvili must take his share of responsibility. At the heart of the problem lies the arrogance of the new ruling elite ‐ and a contempt for alternative opinion (strengthened by the weakness of the opposition and crushing victories at the polls). These attitudes have alienated a large part of the Tbilisi intelligentsia, and more widely generations of Georgians raised and educated long before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

That said, the opposition's case against Saakashvili has very little to do with the August war as such. Its demands ‐ including the insistence on the president's resignation ‐ predate the conflict by at least a year; they led directly to the street-battles of November 2007 that in turn precipitated the snap presidential and parliamentary elections of January and May 2008.    

In the former, Saakashvili was re-elected president after a ballot that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) commended at the time as the most well-conducted in Georgia's history. His United National Movement then went on to win a crushing victory in the parliamentary elections that most felt were another step forward compared to past experiences.

True, neither election was completely fair: the presidential campaign, in particular, was heavily weighted in Saakashvili's favour by his use of administrative resources (see "Mikhail Saakashvili's bitter victory", 11 January 2008). But both elections did show that Georgia's institutions and democratic procedures were improving. A great deal more needs to be done but progress has been and is being made: certainly in comparative terms, as a glance at Georgia's experience with electoral practice in relation to neighbouring Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia will show.  

The opposition's argument that the conduct of the parliamentary election has given them no choice but to boycott parliament and take their case to the street is self-serving nonsense and a betrayal of their own electorate. Its logical conclusion is the theatre of the absurd now playing on Tbilisi's streets and the political chaos that threatens to destroy Georgia's undoubted achievements of the last decade.

In any event, if Saakashvili were to go there is no guarantee of improvement in Georgia's political circumstances. Nino Burdzhanadze declares that she would stop short of hanging Saakashvili but there is little chance that Georgia's democratic development would benefit. Yet another victory of the street over political institutions in Georgia would suggest an unbreakable habit and further weaken the state at a time when it is already shaky.

The opposition is such a disparate alliance that, after another regime-change launched from the street, it is hard to imagine it maintaining cohesion in power for very long. The already evident rivalries could very soon tear a new government apart, and there is no guarantee that it would accelerate the course of reform. Indeed, the aggression of some opposition leaders towards the media suggests things could get worse.

That said, it is part of Georgia's crisis that the present standoff clearly cannot continue for very much longer. The opposition is not strong enough to force Saakashvili to go and he is (this time) wary of using the state's coercive power for fear of provoking just the sort of popular response that the opposition craves. In this condition, frustration is growing on all sides - including among those who themselves are not politically engaged.   

The path from crisis

What now? There are five possible scenarios:

* The street-protests gain in momentum, the provinces lend their weight to the opposition, the demonstrations bring the country to a standstill. The government orders the police to clear the streets, but both the police and army refuse to get involved. Mikheil Saakashvili is left with no choice but to resign.   For the reasons given above, this seems an extremely unlikely scenario at present, not least because the police and army have been among the prime beneficiaries of Saakashvili's reforms

* The street-protests gain in momentum, the police crack down hard, arrests are made. A state of emergency is declared, the media are taken under "temporary" state control; political reform comes to an end. Georgia's western friends express dismay, Georgia will lose all hope of joining Nato, the massive international aid promised in 2008 will be put on hold - and Russian observers will collapse in a fit of giggles

* Exhaustion sets in and the street-protests gradually die out. The government regains control of central Tbilisi, the extra-parliamentary opposition is marginalised, and the government is left with few friends or potential partners.  Saakashvili refuses to concede on the demand for early parliamentary or presidential elections. The less radical members of the opposition begin the long process of building up a nationwide political base. The real winners of this scenario could be those opposition parties that did not take part in the street-protests - in particular the K’ristianul-demokratiuli modzraoba (Christian Democratic Movement), led by Giorgi Targamadze, whose ratings have soared in the last few months, and Shalva Natelashvili's Sakartvelos Leoboristuli Partia (Georgian Labour Party)

* Negotiations between Saakashvili and the opposition gain traction. The opposition splits, with the Alasania, Berdzenishvili, and (perhaps) Gachechiladze group prepared to talk in return for evidence of commitment from the government to serious reform of the constitution, judiciary, electoral code and media. A number of key opposition figures are put in charge of the commissions set up to oversee the reform process. This will earn both sides international support and praise, and the gratitude of most Georgians. The street- protests will gradually fizzle out

* Negotiations get underway but Saakashvili acts in bad faith. The reform process drags on endlessly with little sign of progress. The European Union and the Council of Europe express their exasperation (not for the first time); and the opposition leaders abandon the commissions; the street-protests begun in April 2009 resume, but with far more vigour. Everyone's patience with the government is exhausted.

The good news is that the fourth and most positive scenario - of negotiations leading to cross-party operation on meaningful reform - appears to have some chance of success. But several high barriers would need to be surmounted for it to be realised. Saakashvili says - and indeed has been saying for several weeks already - that he is ready for a dialogue without conditions on all issues. But what the opposition is prepared to negotiate about is still not clear, even if there are signs that a significant part of its leadership is moving away from its previous dogmatic and zero-sum approach. A key sticking-point may yet turn out to be early elections: at the very least, the opposition want parliamentary elections by the end of 2009.

The alternatives to negotiations look bleak, although the growing popularity of the Christian Democratic Movement suggests a deeper popular urge for constructive and peaceful change. Georgians want - and badly need - a strong opposition; but they seem to prefer the parliamentary to the street variety. The electorate may be growing up faster than its politicians.

Three questions press on Georgia's wounded polity:

* Is Saakashvili prepared to concede on the issue of early parliamentary elections - elections that his party might well win and that could help heal the wounds opened in the Georgian body politic since 2007?

* Is at least a part of the extra-parliamentary opposition prepared to abandon the street and accept the result of fresh elections, whatever their outcome?

* Even if there is no agreement on early elections, could a consensus nevertheless take shape around a new tranche of political and judicial reforms?

Georgia's survival may depend on the answers. There is little time left to find them.

The state of Israel: key to peace

Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, met Barack Obama at the White House on 18 May 2009 without making any visible concession over the political future of the Palestinians. For Netanyahu, any recognition of Palestinian statehood (if he is prepared to conceive this at all) is conditional on the Palestinians' willingness to recognise Israel as a "Jewish state".

Gershon Baskin is the co-chair of the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information (IPCRI)

This view is widely shared across the Israeli political spectrum: then foreign minister Tzipi Livni made the same demand prior to the Annapolis summit in November 2007. The parties at that gathering could not reach an acceptable formula regarding the definition of the state of Israel. The impasse was in its way acknowledged in President George W Bush's words: "This settlement will establish Palestine as the Palestinian homeland, just as Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people." Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, gave similar voice to the problem when he said:  "It is not my job to give a description of the state. Name yourself the Hebrew Socialist Republic - it is none of my business."

This issue has a much longer history. Yasser Arafat's letter to Israel's then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at the time of the signing of the Oslo accords of 1993 declared: "The PLO recognises the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security." But once again, the exact character of the state was left undefined.

Most Israeli critics of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process state that the Palestinians have never really accepted Israel's right to exist because they refuse to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. There was, interestingly, no such demand made to Egypt or to Jordan when they signed peace agreements with Israel. The Israel-Jordan peace treaty (26 October 1994) and the Israel-Egypt peace treaty (26 March 1979) use identical words in committing each side to "recognise and respect each other's sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence". In neither case is there explicit mention of a "Jewish state".

An old confusion

There are two substantive reasons why the Palestinians refuse to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. The first is that Palestinians have not received from Israel any clear answer regarding the status of more than one million Palestinians in Israel, in the event of their recognising Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinians fear they would be paving a road that would be used by Israel to transfer the Palestinian citizens of Israel to the Palestinian state. That fear is substantiated by the stated policies of Israel's new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and the plans that he has outlined for moving the border between the two "states" in areas (such as Umm el-Fahem) where there are large clusters of Palestinian-Israeli citizens (see Laurence Louër, "Arabs in Israel: on the move", 19 April 2007).

The second substantive reason for Palestinians' refusal is that in their view, recognition will a priori remove the discussion of the rights of Palestinian refugees from the negotiation-table even before they have the chance to raise their claims and demands.

The United Nations resolution which provided international legitimacy for the creation of both the state of Israel and the Palestinian state. UN Resolution 181 of 27 November 1947, does refer to a Jewish state: "Independent Arab and Jewish States ... shall come into existence in Palestine..." The Palestinian declaration of independence made in Algiers on 15 November 1988 calls on this very same international legitimacy for the founding of the Palestinian state: "...UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (1947), which partitioned Palestine into two states, one Arab, one Jewish, ...provides those conditions of international legitimacy that ensure the right of the Palestinian Arab people to sovereignty."

The definition of Israel as a Jewish state is found in Israel's own declaration of independence on 14 May 1948: "...hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel." The declaration has no official status in Israeli law. The reference to the Jewish state in Israeli law is in "the Basic Law: The Knesset" (1958) which declares that political parties or individuals who do not recognise Israel as "a Jewish and democratic state" cannot run in elections.

A new foundation

In practice and reality, Israel defines itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The character of the state is a secular-nationalistic definition and not a religious one. Israel is the state of the Jewish people in the same way that France is the state of the French people and not as Iran is an Islamic republic, but as Iran is the nation-state of the Iranian people. It is true that the definition of Judaism encompasses both religion and nationhood, but in international political relations between states, it is the secular definition and character which is in the forefront.

There should be a basic law in Israel which defines the character of the state of Israel. That law must come to terms with the 20% of the citizens of the country who were born here and who must be recognised as having a stake in the country. I am quite certain that if the law in Israel defined Israel as "the state of the Jewish people and all of its citizens", the Palestinian leadership would be able to recognise Israel as such; and that most Jewish Israelis could live with this as well. The current lack of definition enables Israel's Palestinian citizens to feel estranged from the state and allows the state to view those citizens as less than full citizens.


Among openDemocracy's many articles on Israel and the Palestinians:

Eyal Weizman, "The politics of verticality" - in eleven parts (April-May 2002)

Eyal Weizman, "Ariel Sharon and the geometry of occupation" - in three parts (September 2003)

Eric Silver, "Israel's political map is redrawn" (November 2005)                                          

Jim Lederman, "Ariel Sharon and Israel's unique democracy" (12 January 2006)

Laurence Louër, "Arabs in Israel: on the move" (19 April 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Beyond peace: Israel, the Arab world, and Europe" (22 January 2008)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel at 60: the ‘iron wall' revisited" (8 May 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

                                                                                                                            Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Israel's politics of war" (19 January 2009)

Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza and international law" (21 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the war after the war" (22 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Lucy Nusseibeh, "The four lessons of Gaza" (4 February 2009)

Carsten Wieland, "The Gaza war and the Syria-Israel front" (5 February 2009)

Prince Hassan, "Palestine's right: past as prologue" (11 February 2009)

Thomas O'Dwyer, "Israel: how things fell apart" (13 February 2009)

Colin Shindler, "Israel's rightward shift: a history of the present" (13 February 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "The United States and Israel: moment of truth" (18 May 2009)

The United States and Israel: moment of truth

On the eve of his summit at the White House with Barack Obama on 18 May 2009, Israel's prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu made a distinctive claim: that although three Israeli prime ministers had supported a two-state solution, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had continued and, if anything, worsened.Akiva Eldar is an award-winning Israeli journalist

This article was first published in the newspaper Ha'aretz

Netanyahu better not try this argument with the United States president. Obama's conduct and the pre-summit messages sent by his aides demonstrate that the lesson they draw from the failure of the process launched in 1993 is completely different from the lesson Netanyahu learned. The current US administration, unlike Netanyahu, does not put the entire blame on the Palestinians. At best (from Netanyahu's perspective), the administration blames both sides equally. Obama should conclude that it would be wrong to waste time seeking a new solution to the conflict. It's much better to look for new ways to implement the old one; that is, to find better means of cajoling and enforcing than those used by previous US administrations.

But the conversation between the two men on 18 May could produce a much worse outcome: an agreement to set up "task forces" to "prepare the ground to renew negotiations" based on a two-state solution. This would allow the next Israeli prime minister to say that this miserable formula has guided four Israeli prime ministers and three American presidents. If Obama strives to develop mechanisms like the "roadmap", the Annapolis declaration and "task-forces", he might go down in history as the American president who put the final nail in the coffin of the Oslo process. The fifteen years of  the"peace process" have, after all, served as an alibi to build more than 100 new settlements and outposts in the West Bank; and to enlarge the settler population from 110,000 to nearly 300,000, excluding east Jerusalem.

Even if Binyamin Netanyahu and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, spend the rest of their days negotiating the final settlement, the lack of an active mediator presenting a detailed plan might make Obama's two-state solution turn out very much like George W Bush's Palestinian-state vision. Without an American leader equipped with both carrots and sticks, the president's initiative will be forgotten, just like the Bush-instigated United Nations decision to establish a Palestinian state. Without all this, Iran will mock the peace plan sold to Obama by Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

To convince both Palestinians and Israelis that the rules of the game have changed, Obama must demand that Netanyahu carry out his part of an agreement he actually signed with Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat: the Wye River Memorandum of October 1998. A reminder: at Wye river, Netanyahu promised to change the status of 1% of Area C (under Israeli civilian and military control) to Area A (complete Palestinian control), and 12% to Area B (Israeli military and Palestinian civilian control). He also committed to resume negotiations immediately on the territories' permanent status, and to avoid any changes to the territories' current status.

Netanyahu will probably claim that his honouring of the agreement was what brought down his first government (June 1996-July 1999). However, Netanyahu's cabinet secretary and negotiator Dani Naveh revealed in a memoir that at the height of the Wye summit, an unpublished survey showed that 46% of Jewish Israelis supported Netanyahu, while 37% supported Ehud Barak (the overall Israeli population at the time was split 41%-37% in Netanyahu's favour).

Despite this support, Netanyahu avoided implementing the agreement, missed a chance to set up a national-unity government, bowed down to the radical right, lost the American president's trust, and eventually lost the prime minister's chair as well. A Ha'aretz-Dialog poll published on 15 May 2009 finds that most of the Israeli population supports an agreement with the Palestinians on a two-state basis. Now, as then, Netanyahu's fate rests in the United States president's hands.

Also in openDemocracy on Israeli politics and the Palestinians:

Eyal Weizman, "The politics of verticality" - in eleven parts (April-May 2002)

Eyal Weizman, "Ariel Sharon and the geometry of occupation" - in three parts (September 2003)

Eric Silver, "Israel's political map is redrawn" (November 2005)

Jim Lederman, "Ariel Sharon and Israel's unique democracy" (12 January 2006)

Laurence Louër, "Arabs in Israel: on the move" (19 April 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Beyond peace: Israel, the Arab world, and Europe" (22 January 2008)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel at 60: the ‘iron wall' revisited" (8 May 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Israel's politics of war" (19 January 2009)

Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza and international law" (21 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the war after the war" (22 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Lucy Nusseibeh, "The four lessons of Gaza" (4 February 2009)

Carsten Wieland, "The Gaza war and the Syria-Israel front" (5 February 2009)

Prince Hassan, "Palestine's right: past as prologue" (11 February 2009)

Thomas O'Dwyer, "Israel: how things fell apart" (13 February 2009)

Colin Shindler, "Israel's rightward shift: a history of the present" (13 February 2009)

Al-Qaida today: a movement at the crossroads

If you wonder what has happened to al-Qaida, follow the trail of Arab and Muslim public opinion, and you'll get a clear picture of its massive crisis of authority and legitimacy.

Moldova: recession hits a frozen conflict

There will be no revolution in Moldova, but the worldwide wave of economic pain has officially hit what is technically the poorest country in Europe.  And apparently right on schedule.

Following accusations of fraud by the opposition, Twitter-driven mass protests, uncharacteristic violence, the torching of government buildings, a disputed recount and scads of recrimination, the Moldovan Constitutional Court recently certified the victory of Vladimir Voronin's Communist Party of Moldova in parliamentary elections.  On the very same day, the International Monetary Fund released a report warning of severe economic troubles ahead for this quirky, confused little country.

The IMF projected a 5% contraction in the economy this year and stagnation next.  It expects a 10% budget deficit, a plunge in the balance of payments, declining foreign investment, and - most importantly - a reduction of as much as 33% in remittances from Moldovan workers abroad.  In the current climate, none of this should be surprising news.  

However, when the economic crisis first hit, Voronin's government, which had long been in power, did what incumbents often do.  It increased social-welfare payments, pumped up the local currency, and repeatedly assured the population that Moldova, being better run than other places, was immune to the global calamity elsewhere.  But with barely a banking system to speak of, an average monthly wage of about 200 euros and lots of people engaged in subsistence agriculture, the truth was closer to Bob Dylan - "When you got nothing', you got nothin' to lose."

The last decade of apparent growth and fiscal health in Moldova was due to an export very much dependent on the global economy: Moldova's horde of guest-workers. Perhaps a million strong, they were sending home rubles, dollars and euros to the tune of one-third of the country's GDP.  

These guest-workers are roughly split between East and West.  As a general rule, poorer, less educated Moldovans headed for Russia, which represented a highly "male" destination for construction, renovation, rough-necking and seasonal work.  Western Europe and North America attracted the somewhat better educated and those with less direct responsibility for their households (due to visa barriers).  These countries comprise a more lucrative "female" destination with an emphasis on health care and service jobs.

There is, of course, nothing economically problematic per se about a poor country sending large numbers of workers abroad in pursuit of higher wages and better opportunities. Two factors do matter, however, for the country's long-term development. It is important to ensure that the money sent back gets put to productive use and that at least some of the more skilled expats return to help build a successful nation.  What we have been seeing in Moldova is just the opposite.

The pooling and efficient use of remittance money for investment in value-producing projects have been stymied by the very character of the economy. This combines corruption and a closed financial system with a workforce where the many live a hand-to-mouth existence, while the few enjoy a paradoxical culture of conspicuous consumption.  You see so many new houses, sleek BMWs and Prada-wearing molls in Chisinau, while the country's infrastructure crumbles around them.  Today's "reverse brain drain," is seeing the return of labourers in great numbers while those migrants with even semi-skilled jobs are hunkering down to hang on to what they've got somewhere else.

A portion of the thousands protesting against alleged election fraud were undoubtedly freshly back from abroad, and likely without work. It remains to be seen whether these returning expats - who could soon number in the tens of thousands or more - will form a political force in Moldova as the Communists' bread-and-butter platform of stability is upended.

Yet Moldova's clannish economy looks positively progressive when compared to that of the country's breakaway Transnistrian region.  Production in Transnistria's heavily industrialized economy, a legacy of Soviet central planning, has collapsed. Twenty three out of one hundred and fourteen major industrial enterprises have shut down so far in 2009.  

The local currency, the Transnistrian ruble, is even more virtual than the Moldovan leu.  Without ongoing heavy subsidies from the Russian Federation, including an open tab for natural gas purchases which currently stands at $1.5 billion, this region would not be able to pay even the meagre wages and pensions it currently provides.  These costs were less burdensome to Moscow when the price of oil was soaring. In the current environment such endless grants could prove increasingly irksome.

Unfreezing the Transnistrian stalemate

The Transnistrian stalemate, already in its 18th year, plays a large part in keeping everyone's economy down.  Both areas are isolated and marginalized. For example, there are no flights at all from Moldova to Kiev, Transnistria's airport has been shut down for years due to the conflict and a bitter fight over control of the railroads flares up periodically.  European Transport Corridor IX is cut off.  Duplication of government services squashes efficiency and economies of scale.  As the rest of the world moves towards the free flow of goods, services and people, artificial barriers prevent trade and human contact. In both places, corruption, spurred by rent-seeking elites and an undeveloped rule of law, discourages innovation and investment.

The steady flow of money from abroad to both Moldova and its Transnistrian region had reduced the motivation for serious structural reform. For it looked as though a steady improvement in living standards was under way.  But now that elections are over, living standards are about to plummet.  

Perhaps this, combined with excitement elsewhere about rebooting great-power relationships, could leaven interest in a good-faith, compromise solution to the Transnistrian conflict.  If so, underscoring the economic benefits will be key to convincing people on both sides of the Dniester that settlement in one country is in their direct, personal interest.

I frequently advised donor countries to make sure that proportional funding was provided for Transnistria, since it is an internationally recognized part of Moldova.  This can be tricky, as the Transnistrian authorities usually refuse to participate jointly with Chisinau in any donor-sponsored projects, even when the benefit would be great.  

But now, with the economic pain so palpable, a new, high-level push should be made to get the sides working together on joint infrastructure and human-development programs across all of Moldova.  Even if the Transnistrians once again opt out, the new government coming to power in Chisinau needs urgently to undertake the hard work of real economic reform - reduced corruption, banking-sector modernization, a stronger rule of law, a responsive bureaucracy - that will make Moldova more attractive to its citizens on both sides of the Dniester River.

Louis O'Neill was OSCE Ambassador and Head of Mission to Moldova from 2006 to 2008. A lawyer, he worked in the Office of Russian Affairs as the White House Fellow under Colin Powell.

Pakistan’s American problem

The war that has resumed between the Pakistani army and the Taliban in the northern mountains of Pakistan is not between two clearly defined sides, with clearly defined victory and defeat. It is, instead, a very complicated mixture of war and politics, in which episodes of extreme violence alternate with periods of negotiation. Anatol Lieven is a professor in the department of war studies at King's College, London. Among his books are The Baltic Revolution (Yale University Press, 1993), Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (Yale University Press, 1998), and America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism  (Oxford University Press, 2004). His latest book (co-written with John Hulsman) is Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World (Pantheon, 2006). He is currently writing a book about Pakistan

This article was published in the (London) Times         
Also by Anatol Lieven in openDemocracy:

"Missionaries and marines: Bush, Blair and democratisation" (18 September 2002)

"America right or wrong?" (8 September 2004)

"Israel and the American antithesis" (19 October 2004)

"Israel, the United States, and truth" (20 October 2004)

"Bush's choice: messianism or pragmatism?" (22 February 2005)

"Democratic failure: festering lilies smell worse than weeds" (27 October 2005)

"Israel and the Arabs: peace, not diktats" (24 July 2006)

"The Iran we have" (5 December 2006)

"At the Red Mosque in Islamadad" (4 June 2007)

One of those violent periods is resuming now. Barely two months after a peace deal with the Taliban was reached in mid-February 2009 to create a sharia system in the Swat district, the army is back on the offensive. The Taliban overstepped an unwritten mark when it tried to extend its control into the district of Buner, barely eighty kilometres northwest of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. The army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, stated clearly that a challenge to the existence of the Pakistani state would not be tolerated.

What will be tolerated is Taliban strength in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. As I discovered during a visit to the region in September 2008, the level of support for them there is such that crushing them completely would require a huge campaign of repression (see "For America, the problem is Pakistan", Financial Times, 7 April 2009).

As long as this conflict remains restricted to the mountains, in many ways the most important prize is not control of territory as such, but the support of the local population (see Ayesha Khanna & Parag Khanna, "How Pakistan Can Fix Itself, Foreign Policy, May 2009).

There are many reasons why this is so, and why even many Pakistanis who deeply oppose Taliban rule are also opposed to a tough military campaign against them. Three are worth noting. The first is (at least to judge by my interviews on the streets and in the bazaars) that the jihad of the Afghan Taliban against the United States "occupation" of Afghanistan enjoys overwhelming public approval in northern Pakistan; and the Pakistani Taliban gain a great measure of prestige from their alliance with this jihad (see Patrick Cockburn, "Where the Taliban roam", Independent, 6 May 2009)

The second is that, with the exception of some of the higher courts, the Pakistani judicial system is such a corrupt, slow, impenetrable shambles that the Taliban's programme of sharia enjoys a great deal of public support, at least in the Pashtun areas that I have visited. The third is that the security establishment is determined to prevent Afghanistan becoming an ally of India, and continues to shelter parts of the Afghan Taliban as a long-term "strategic asset" against this threat.

The real danger

In a way, however, you really have to know only one fact to understand what is happening: and that, to judge by my meetings with hundreds of Pakistanis from all walks of life over the past nine months, is that the vast majority of people believe that the 9/11 attacks were not an act of terrorism by al-Qaida, but a plot by the George W Bush administration or Israel to provide an excuse to invade Afghanistan and dominate the Muslim world.

It goes without saying that this belief is a piece of malignant cretinism, based on a farrago of invented "evidence" and hopelessly warped reasoning. But that is not the point. The point is that most of the Pakistani population genuinely believe it, even in Sindh where I have been travelling for the past week; and the people who believe it include the communities from which the army's soldiers, NCOs and junior officers are drawn (see Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: sources of turmoil", 28 April 2009). Understand this, and much else falls into place.

After all, if British soldiers strongly believed that the war in Afghanistan was the product of a monstrous American lie, involving the deliberate slaughter of thousands of America's own citizens, would they be willing for one moment to risk their lives fighting the Taliban?

All the same, it is important not to exaggerate the extent of Taliban power. Whatever Hillary Clinton, the United States secretary of state, may say about Pakistan being a "mortal threat", there is no possibility at present of the Taliban seizing Islamabad and bringing down the state. In Punjab, the province with a majority of the country's population, there has been a number of serious terrorist attacks and a growth of Taliban influence, but as yet, nothing like the insurgency occurring among the Pashtun tribes. In the interior of Sindh, support for the Taliban is virtually non-existent.

In Karachi, Pakistan's greatest city by far, the situation is more complicated. The vast majority of Karachi's Pashtuns support the Awami National Party (ANP), the moderate secular nationalist party now ruling in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). However, a small degree of Taliban infiltration has helped to reignite simmering tensions between the Pashtuns and the Mohajir majority, made up of people whose families migrated from India at the time of independence, who are represented by the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM).

In clashes between the MQM and Pashtuns in Karachi on 29 April 2009, thirty-two people were killed - the great majority of them Pashtuns. The city fears that a return of inter-ethnic rivalry could cause great economic disruption and tie down yet more Pakistani soldiers who are desperately needed to fight the Taliban in the north.

The danger to Pakistan is not of a Taliban revolution, but rather of creeping destabilisation and terrorism. Even as Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari meets Barack Obama in the White House on 6 May, this reality makes any Pakistani help to Washington against the Afghan Taliban even less likely than it is at present.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Pakistan:

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan on edge" (25 September 2006)

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan"  (24 July 2007)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan: farewell to democracy" (29 October 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy" (9 January 2008)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's judgment day" (22 February 2008)

Irfan Husain. "Pervez Musharraf: the commando who couldn't" (19 August 2008)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan's political turmoil: Musharraf and beyond" (26 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: the new frontline" (18 September 2008)

Shaun Gregory, "The Pakistani army and the Afghanistan war" (25 November 2008)

Paul Rogers, "The AfPak war: three options" (25 February 2009)

Paul Rogers, "A three-front war: Iraq, AfPak...Washington" (20 March 2009)

Nadeem Ul Haque, "How to solve Pakistan's problem" (24 April 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: sources of turmoil" (30 April 2009)

Also - regular reports and comment on the region in openIndia

Butcher and Bolt by David Loyn

They came, they butchered. And then they bolted. The fate of the invaders of Afghanistan over the last two centuries: the British in the 19th and 20th centuries and the Soviet Union in the 20th. Chronicled by David Loyn, with the eye and ear of the journalist for the telling - and amusing - detail and the broader sweep of the historian, in his magisterial new book "Butcher and Bolt - Two Hundred Years of Foreign Engagement in Afghanistan".

Today it is of crucial concern across the globe whether or not this century, the 21st, will be the third in a row to be the graveyard of a foreign invader, this time the combined forces of the American Super Power and its NATO satraps, the Coalition. The problems facing President Obama and the Coalition will shape the future, not only of Afghanistan but also of NATO, and of sub-continental, relations. Even those of the non-Islamic world with Islam.

The introduction to Butcher and Bolt asks the essential questions:

- how could the socially unpopular Taliban re-emerge from their shattering defeat in 2001;

- is there something in the country and the very nature of its people that make it so difficult to conquer; 

- why is holding it so much more difficult than taking it;

- what really goes on under the surface of one of the world's most complex societies;

- why has reform never taken hold; 

- why did invaders never seem to learn from their predecessors' mistakes (the present Russian Ambassador thinks the Coalition is repeating the Soviet errors) or consider anything but their own narrow interests? 

Loyn, writing with ease and clarity, illuminates these questions and in particular the parallels and links to past centuries in Afghanistan and the paradoxes that threaten to be portents for the future.

Change creeps hardly perceptibly through the centuries- except in some of the cities - in the heartlands of Afghanistan, especially in the Pashtu areas on the Durand Line and the frontier with Pakistan. This is the area whose xenophobic nationalism can so easily become the motor of a wider Afghan nationalism.

Afghan tribal structures - social, political, economic- have proved resistant to change, guarded in part by what the aptly named one-time Soviet Resident and now Russian Ambassador in Kabul, Mr Kabulov, calls their "irritative allergy" to foreigners. Mad, foolhardy Afghan bravery and martial skills in asymmetric warfare - they were the first guerrilla warriors to face aerial bombardment in 1919 and were shooting down Soviet helicopters as early as 1981 - and improvisation are as striking as they were two centuries ago. The terrain, which from the time of Alexander the Great has always dictated where the fighting takes place, and Afghan familiarity with it, are permanent.

The most extreme interpretation of Islam, with its promise of instant martyrdom, is as potent a rallying point for the Taliban now as it was for the Mujahideen against the Russians and for the Ghazis or Deobandi fanatics (who originated in what is now North West Pakistan - Malakand) against the British in both the 19th and 20th centuries.

Nor do the invaders change.  They come solely for their own ends, politics and profit, be it material, precious lapis, geopolitical concerns or trade routes that today include potential energy pipelines.  Arrogant, ignorant and over-confident in their superior armaments and technical development, the invaders seek to impose their own cultures, values and habits - always claiming that they are better for the Afghans than their own, whether they be Communism or Free Market Democracy -  by way of puppet leaders and through the barrels of their guns. 

Meanwhile the Afghan people, a large majority of whom would appear to beg to differ with the invaders and who would like to lead peaceful lives, become the victims of endless misery, death, destruction and poverty.

Against such abackground, historical knowledge and understanding is a vital tool for anyone. Invaders ignore it in the vain hope that, by forgetting it, it will not repeat, while the Afghans hope that by remembering and drawing on it, it will.

Long memories are a characteristic of Afghans - essential for the operation of "badal", generation-spanning revenge.

"Do you want to be remembered as a son of Dost Mahommed or a son of Shah Shuja?" was a Taliban recruiting slogan in 2005.  Dost Mahommed was the Great Amir who first recognised the power of Jihad and who in the early 19th century, like Mullah Omar 200 years later, donned the Prophet's cloak to proclaim himself Leader of All the Faithful against the invaders. Shah Shuja was the "unlucky" and treacherous puppet Amir of the British, killed by a mob in 1842.  Of course the modern Shah Shuja was instantly recognisable as Hamid Karzai.

With hindsight, and inevitably too late, the invaders come to recognise their mistakes. Lord Roberts, proponent of a British withdrawal in 1880, opined that "the less the Afghans see of us, the less they will dislike us".  One hundred years later the Russian General Staff concluded that they had not considered the "historic, religious and national particularities of Afghanistan", while the European Representative, Francesc Vendrell, admitted to David Loyn that since democracy had been " brought" to Afghanistan, "it was not thought necessary for us to understand the tribal system". The then British Defence Secretary hoped that British troops could be withdrawn "without a shot being fired".

Invincible and fatal ignorance that some little studyof history could have blunted.

David Loyn's elegant pen steers the reader through much of the paradox and irony that are the stuff of Afghanistan.

The Afghan personality; the habit of calculating from minute to minute where advantage, power and money lie and the consequent ability to change allegiance instantly;  the unspeakable cruelty of the monster Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who, as an anti-Soviet Mujahid, took 600 million dollars from the Americans and has since joined and rejoined the Taliban and the Karzai government - all this is but a reflection of Shah Shuja. 

The attitude towards women is unchanging.   Even President Karzai, complaining about exaggerated western interest in the fate of Afghan women, noted that the last King who tried to meddle with their status was ousted violently.  Most recently, seemingly for electoral reasons, the President has signed off legislation that the UN says legalises rape within marriage and bans wives from stepping outside their homes without their husbands' permission.

The vagaries of the Pashtu code of honour, the Pukhtunwali, saved both the author from death, and Osama from being handed over to the Saudis.  As a consequence the Americans unleashed the onslaught that secured the first, but temporary, defeat of the Taliban, finally forcing its leadership into Pakistan with the terrifying consequences that we are now facing.

The "Blow Back" from American policy that fuelled, at enormous cost, the Mujahideen resistance to the Soviets - resistance that the same people using the same weapons have now turned against the Coalition. The activities of Congressman Charlie Wilson, his ladies, Snowflake and Sweetums, and his aristocratic British shadow, Viscount Cranborne, are a curious interlude in the story.   

America's soi-disant allies constantly undermine the war against Jihadism and the Taliban.   Strategic depth is the permanent objective of the Pakistani intelligence agencies, via Kashmir, against India (as the late President Zia put it, Muslims have a right to lie in a good cause).   The Saudis continue to disseminate Sunni Wahabi fundamentalism through the Madrassahs - the religious schools in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There is the permanent presence of neighbouring players, powers who could be natural allies against Sunni extremist Taliban: Iran, disqualified till now by allied attitudes and India, alienated by the dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir. Russia is still in the Great Game, exercising influence by allowing or disallowing supply lines for NATO to cross its territory to compensate for the insecurity of Peshawar and the Khyber Pass.  The latter is now as dangerous to use for the Coalition as was the Bolan Pass forthe British in 1840.

Even the logistics of today's invaders echo the chaos of earlier wars.  The lack of proper equipment and transport and the elephants that proved as hamstrung as Soviet tanks or Land Rovers sent into battle fitted with only four out of five wheel nuts.

Underestimation of the Afghans and invaders' delusions of victory run like a thread of blood through the history of wars in Afghanistan.   In 1842 Afghanistan was abandoned by Lord Ellenborough, since the last campaign had established "the supremacy of British power".   The Russians assumed that the Mujahideen would throw down their arms when faced by the might of the Soviet army.  President Bush proclaimed in 2004 that "the Taliban no longer exists in Afghanistan".

It seems, as David Loyn notes, that Afghanistan's conservative and tribal society defeats not only foreign forces, but also foreign ideas. President Obama has begun to talk of an "exit strategy".  But he and the Coalition still have to answer the question put as long ago as 1838 by the Khan of Khalat: "You have brought an army into the country, but how do you propose to take it out?"

Kettling: another special relationship

Since London and New York share so much affinity, it will probably come as no surprise to Britons that "kettling"- the practice by police of cordoning off city blocks at both ends and containing protestors for hours before arresting them for all intents and purposes, had its US debut five years ago during the 2004 Republican National Convention. It was there that I and over 1000 other people were mass-arrested and interned in a makeshift prison camp set up on Pier 57, a filthy and hazardous decommissioned bus depot on the West Side Highway that came to be known as "Guantanamo on the Hudson."

Charles Shaw is the editor of openDemocracy's "Ethical Politics Blog" and the Editor of the Dictionary of Ethical Politics, a collaborative project of Resurgence and openDemocracy.

At the time I was an official with the US Green Party, serving as Co-Chair of the Peace Action Committee. I was in New York to organize and lead a week of rallies and protest actions on behalf of the Greens, and to participate in marches and direct actions organized by United for Peace and Justice, Still We Rise, and the War Resisters League.

Even before the onset of the convention, the police presence was overwhelming. New York City boasts a Police Department of 40,000 active officers, and as far as anyone could tell, they were all deployed in the streets that week. It was a literal police state. Everywhere we went we were photographed and videotaped. Squads of police tooled around on scooters, bicycles, horses, and in cars, vans, paddy wagons, and a few APC-type vehicles. Blimps and helicopters with high zoom cameras hovered above us. Midtown was closed down in a five-block radius around Madison Square Garden, inaccessible to traffic, guarded by automatic weapons and makeshift checkpoints.

Israel's attack on Gaza: an unjust war?

Israel's attack on Gaza on December 27, 2008 has evoked strong emotions that frequently obscure rational discussion of the situation. With such a high human cost, objective and factual analysis is vital. In this article, we explore whether Israel's attack was justified under the principles of just war theory, as codified in international law. International law makes a distinction between the justness of a state's decision to go to war (jus ad bellum) and the justness of a state's conduct during war (jus in bello). We have chosen to focus on Israel's case for going to war. There are at least four necessary conditions for a just war: i) just cause; ii) last resort; iii) effectiveness in achieving aims; and iv) proportionality.

Did Israel have just cause?

Legally, there are two just reasons for war: self-defence (Article 51 of the UN Charter) or with a UN Security Council mandate (Article 42). Israel did not have a mandate to go to war.

We will therefore focus on whether Israel's attack was defensive. To understand why Israel's war cannot be deemed defensive some context is required. This means we must look at both the immediate context of the ceasefire, as well as the broader context of the conflict.

There was a 6-month ceasefire declared on June 19, 2008 and broken by Israel on November 4, 2008. Under the terms of the ceasefire, Israel was expected to ease its blockade on Gaza and there were to be negotiations on the release of prisoners, such as the one Israeli, Gilad Shalit, and the roughly 11,000 Palestinians. Negotiations on the latter took place; however, Israel has not lifted its blockade at any point. All evidence shows that this was a successful ceasefire with respect to the primary condition: that both sides stop firing. Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister, confirmed that there were no rockets fired by Hamas during the ceasefire. The Israeli Intelligence and Terrorism Centre stated in a report that "Hamas has been careful to maintain the ceasefire". Hamas also made a number of arrests of violators during this period.

Israel broke the ceasefire 4½ months in when the IDF raided a tunnel and killed 6 people alleged to be members of Hamas. Though widely reported (e.g. The Guardian, Reuters, New York Times) this was largely ignored in light of the US presidential elections, which took place on the same day.

As well as breaking the ceasefire, Israel's lack of interest in sustaining it was evident in their decision to attack in spite of Hamas's calls for a renewal of the ceasefire. A delegation to Egypt on December 14 said that Hamas was prepared to stop all renewed rocket attacks. Furthermore, at an Israeli cabinet meeting on 21st December the head of Israel's Internal Security Agency, Yuval Diskin, told the cabinet that Hamas is interested in continuing the truce conditional on (a) an end to the blockade and (b) a ceasefire in the West Bank. Despite this, Israel invaded Gaza six days later.

Some related reading on openDemocracy:

Article 51: Israel's false claim     Reza Nasri  (17 February 2009)

Lawfare in Gaza: legislative attack Eyal Weizman (1 March 2009)

Israel, Gaza and international law Conor Gearty  (21 January 2009)

The ICC and the Gaza war: legal limits, symbolic politics  Marlies Glasius ( 28 March 2009)

Palestine: the pursuit of justice
 John Strawson and Rosemary Bechler (2 March 2008)


It makes little sense to see Israel as a state on the defensive. Israel is currently occupying large swathes of Palestinian land; it also actively encouraged the 2007 civil war between Hamas and Fatah. First, Israel is currently occupying territory and building settlements on land that does not belong to it under international law. This is any territory outside its pre-1967 borders. 75% of these settlements are even against Israeli law. In 2008, Israeli settlement construction increased by 60%; by the end of 2008 there were a total of 479,500 settlers in the West Bank.

Second, Israel has built a wall that cuts through the West Bank, annexing the most fertile Palestinian land - such as the Jordan Valley - and using it for settlement expansion. In 2004 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) called construction of the wall "contrary to international law".

Third, the economic blockade: since June 2007, Israel has allowed little basic humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip, meaning that food, fuel and medical aid were largely unable to reach the population. For example, a quarter of children in Gaza suffered from malnutrition. This illegal (under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 33) collective punishment of a civilian population has been condemned by human rights organizations from both within and without Israel.

Israel has also been on the offensive by interfering in Palestinian politics. In January 2006, Hamas won a democratic victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections over the ruling party, Fatah. Fatah and Hamas formed a unity government in March 2007 and began pushing for a long-term cease-fire. Israel rejected that offer and, with American backing, supplied Fatah with both money and weapons and encouraged the coup that led to a brutal civil war.

Given Israel's violation of the working ceasefire, its lack of interest in renegotiation, and its continued occupation of Palestinian territory, it cannot be argued that Israel's attack was justified on the grounds of self-defence.

Was this a war of last resort ?

The idea that a war must be a last resort entails that all non-military means of solving an issue must have been exhausted. In this conflict, the issue was the rockets being fired from the Gaza Strip. In response to this, we say that firstly, there was already a working ceasefire in place which reduced Hamas rocket fire to nothing, and secondly there was absolutely no attempt at negotiation by the Israeli state before the attack. Israel has consistently refused to negotiate with Hamas on the grounds that it will not negotiate with those who do not believe in Israel's right to exist - that is, those who challenge the legitimacy of Israel's establishment. This is often conflated with the notion that Hamas want to destroy Israel physically. One can, however, reject the legitimacy of the establishment of Israel (as some academics have done) without wanting to destroy Israel physically. In fact, Hamas do not want to destroy Israel physically: they have tied their cessation of military action and violence to a return to the pre-1967 borders, a policy that shows that their aim is to establish a Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza strip. In January 2007 Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said to Reuters: "The problem is not that there is an entity called Israel. The problem is that the Palestinian state does not exist... I speak of a Palestinian and Arab demand for a state on 1967 borders ... there will remain a state called Israel, this is a matter of fact."

Furthermore, Hamas have frequently shown themselves amenable to negotiation despite not recognizing Israel's formal legitimacy. They do not recognize Israel because formal recognition entails an acceptance of the status quo, an unrealistic expectation given Israel's expanded borders, the increasing settlements, the wall that has been built through the West Bank, and its violation of UN resolutions as far back as Resolution 194 concerning its expulsion of Palestinian refugees. These are all legitimate grievances against the Israeli state that need to be addressed: thus negotiation must precede recognition, not the other way round.

An historical example serves to illustrate this point: the former Palestinian government (The PLO) gave Israel formal recognition in the Oslo Accords. Following the agreement, Israeli territorial expansion accelerated. Between the start of the Oslo process in September 1993 and the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, Israel confiscated more than 40,000 acres of Palestinian land; built 250 miles of bypass and security roads; established 30 new settlements; and increased the settler population in the West Bank and Gaza by almost 100,000. The lesson from this, for Hamas, is that an agreed-upon set of borders should be a precondition to recognition.

The media focus excessively on the military wing of Hamas, which is generally seen as being hostile to negotiation. In reality, the military wing is subordinate to its party; it maintained the ceasefire. It should also be noted that many in Israel, not least the Likud party, are rejectionist in that they deny the Palestinians' right to a state and call for Israel to expand to capture all of ‘Greater Israel', which includes both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Despite this, no one says that the Israeli government should not be negotiated with. The excuse, therefore, that Israel cannot negotiate with Hamas on the basis of their supposed ‘rejectionism' does not hold water.

Furthermore, this unrepresentative focus on the radical rejectionism of the few is harmful; it entrenches the idea that the conflict is irresolvable except through brute military force or through the forcible removal of Hamas. This attack was nowhere near a last resort. Israel had clear alternatives: a renegotiation of the ceasefire, which it broke, and talks with Hamas.

Did Israel's attack achieve its aims?

A war should only be undertaken where there is a reasonable chance of achieving one's aims. Here we outline three of Israel's possible aims: i) To stop rocket fire from the Gaza strip; ii) To deter future violence against Israel; iii) To weaken or even destroy Hamas. Israel is unlikely to succeed on any of these counts.

During the ceasefire months no Hamas rockets were fired and Hamas arrested the odd few militants that did fire rockets. For example, in the entire month of October only 1 rocket was fired by a militant who was subsequently arrested by Hamas. As a result of Israel's breaking of the ceasefire, rocket fire increased again - 125 in November. During and after the war, rockets continue to be fired into Israel at rates higher than during the ceasefire. If Israel was interested in reducing rocket fire, it should have maintained the ceasefire and ended its crippling blockade on Gaza. Instead, it chose to launch an attack that has set peace back even further.

Secondly, Israel's use of brute military force only strengthens the idea that it is not interested in a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians and can therefore only be resisted through violence. Israel's use of force only serves to drown out the voices of moderation among Palestinians. It is clear that a long-term end to violence can only be achieved through dialogue and the addressing of the fundamental grievances that drive the conflict - not with an iron fist. The war will therefore not be effective in achieving its stated aim of securing long-term peace.

When it comes to weakening support for or destroying Hamas, it is surely a fallacy to suppose that the latter's grievances can be separated from those of the Palestinian people. In blockading or invading Gaza, one of Israel's aims appears to have been to convince ordinary Palestinians to turn against Hamas; it is Hamas' policies and actions that have supposedly led to their suffering. However, this ignores the fact that Hamas was elected on a platform broadly representative of Palestinian grievances. If Israel's aim is to destroy or overthrow Hamas, they will simply destroy the mouthpiece without addressing the grievances themselves. As it happens, Israel is unlikely to have weakened support for Hamas, given the widespread knowledge that Israel was the perpetrator of the violence.

Was Israel's attack proportional?

The principle of proportionality has been the cornerstone of just war theory and has been codified in international law since the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907.

In short, the principle states that the "cause must be important enough to justify force; any good that may follow must outweigh the inevitable pain and destruction". The pain and destruction caused in Gaza by Israel's offensive was entirely predictable: given the humanitarian crisis instigated by Israel's blockade, Gaza's high population density, and the evidence of Israel's past military record, the high human cost of the invasion was inevitable. (For example, Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 2006 led to the deaths of 1,191 citizens of which 30% were children under 13). Israel acted in full knowledge of the consequences of its offensive.

But more importantly, it does not even make sense to frame Israel's attack in terms of a response to unprovoked aggression. Rockets, fired from an occupied and blockaded territory, that killed 4 people in the entirety of 2008 prior to the invasion (and which killed no one during the ceasefire) surely cannot render Israel's attack on Gaza proportional in any sense of the word - especially since Israel itself killed 413 Gazans in the same period (this figure does not include the deaths resulting from the Israeli blockade). In short, Israel's attack was not a response to unprovoked aggression; rather Israel itself has acted as a continual aggressor.

In conclusion

We do not accept that this issue has to be polarized, nor do we accept that this issue should remain unexamined because it is ‘emotionally charged', especially when the attack has had such horrific consequences. Assessing Israel's attack on Gaza using the standard of just war theory has led us unequivocally to the conclusion that the attack was unjust, illegal and unnecessary.

Planning for Prosperity

Gaza2, © by Sameh HabeebIn some regards, the current crisis of the Palestinian economy is as old as the Occupation itself. In 1967 Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in addition to the Golan Heights and Sinai Desert. Immediately after that war, Israel formed an economic body made up of the Bank of Israel and the Census Committee. The main goal of such a body was to bind the Palestinian economy to that of Israel, thereby subsuming it. This inherently subordinate relationship, with Palestinians denied the rights of free trade and unrestricted production, has rendered the Palestinian economy almost completely ineffective. AGRISCO, for example, is an Israeli company which has a monopoly on all agricultural exports: the Palestinians were forced to work through this company, otherwise their products would go nowhere. The clothing industry has always been subcontracted by Israeli producers and traders. In this way, Israel has sought to separate the Palestinian economy not only from its Arab surroundings but also from the outside world.

Marriage and Divorce

The result is that on average, Israeli trading with the Palestinians has constituted 85-90% of all Palestinian foreign trade. What can only be called Israeli subjugation of the Palestinian economy was actually deepened by the signing of the Oslo Accords which left the Palestinian economy under the grip of occupation; thus crushing all expectations of development, let alone prosperity. All of this has recently been suspended: but unfortunately without permitting the Palestinians to seek alternatives that help them to establish their own economy.

Dr. Mohammed Ibrahim Megdad is Associate Professor in Economics and Political Sciences in the Faculty of Commerce, the Islamic University of GazaThis urgent need for a viable Palestinian economy serves as a major incentive in the quest for political independence. It is true that the Palestinians receive ample funds from its donors. Yet these amounts fall far short of what will meet its reconstruction needs, especially now in the wake of the unprecedented madness of the war waged against Gaza in 2008-2009.

Throughout the enforcement first of this subordinate relationship and then of an equally brutal divorce, the Palestinian economy has been crippled by diverse formidable constraints. The Palestinian economy has never had a viable infrastructure. Now, high levels of unemployment and unprecedented inflation are the direct consequences of the siege imposed on the Palestinian territories. Add to this almost dead economy the aggravations caused by incredible budget deficits arising from lack of control over government spending, due to the large sums of money given as salaries to government employees. This comprised 70-90 per cent of the total income. This is further complicated by a lack of economic vision; fragile monetary and banking systems; and the absence of geographical contiguity between Gaza and the West Bank, together with Israel's total control over all border crossings. Further serious impediments in the form of the immense amounts of credit and absence of any real investment in a limited and small market of 3.5 million people, have made it next to impossible for the Palestinian private sector to stand on its own two feet. Numerous remedial steps will be needed before we see any recovery in prospect for the Palestinian economy.

Remedial Steps

The first step the Palestinians should take in order to help their ailing economy recover is to seek disengagement from the subordinate relationship with the Israeli economy. This could be effected by establishing, in a very gradual manner, balanced economic ties with the Arab states and other friendly countries. Such a shift should be conjugated with sincere efforts at economic reform concentrating on the organizational levels of all economic sectors. Simultaneously, there should be relentless attempts to cut down the budget deficits by systematically increasing exports, and downsizing public and government expenditure. This should be accompanied by reconsidering the channels whereby the Palestinian economy would benefit most from donations and loans.

A second phase would see the pursuit of sustainable development and growth. This could be achieved by adopting various measures that have to do with resource development, promotion of private investment, reorganizing financial relations, and above all, helping to build a safe political and economic atmosphere that is the precondition for achieving such growth. In this regard, the Palestinians must seek to bridge the gap between Gaza and the West Bank in terms of its labour force, investment and organizational performance. The private sector should be encouraged by a cessation of the ongoing competition in the governmental sector. Government officials should distance themselves from these economic practices and adopt punitive measures against those who intend to conflate politics with economics, so that nepotism and favouritism continue to prevail. Again, such a remedial step requires the Palestinian side to replace its economic ties with the occupier with special ties with neighbouring and other foreign countries, in accordance with all the economic protocols and international treaties.

It would follow from this that the Palestinians should seek to establish a banking system that was integrated with the international free and open economy. For all these remedial steps, we need a system that can support plans for reform and development. The Palestinian Monetary Authority should direct all its efforts towards the fulfilment of development goals. Furthermore, the role of the Capital Market Authority should be activated in order to supervise financial but non-banking institutions. Financial and banking institutions need to provide facilities to all the various economic sectors.

A further remedial process essential to this cure of an ailing economy is to undertake a careful assessment of all the available resources, human and natural. A new public census apparatus would be essential, creating a database that can be used in strategic planning for the Palestinian economy. This policy also requires that all the various Palestinian constituencies - the private sector, NGOS and experts, political parties, together with the Ministry of Planning managing foreign funding - should join their efforts in re-evaluating all current development plans.

Gaza3, © by Sameh HabeebOf course all these measures will never get off the ground unless the Palestinian economy succeeds in disengaging itself from the Israeli economy. All those economic agreements that have been signed with the Israelis which give Israel the upper hand in the movement of goods and commodities specified via certain crossings would have to be revoked, in parallel with Palestinian attempts to reach the new markets of neighbouring and other countries. In addition, shared industrial and commercial free zones can be created between Palestine and other Arab countries. These measures should be further boosted by encouraging Arab and Islamic organizations, along with the Palestinian diaspora, to help fill in the more glaring expertise and investment gaps. None of this can take place unless the siege is lifted and all the border crossings are opened. Without this, there is no security and no laws or regulations in place which are essential in protecting investors.

Nor will any or these procedures and remedial steps come to effective fruition unless the Palestinian Authority adopts certain financial and administrative reforms. The Palestinian government has to control general expenditures in such a way that it can get rid of embedded unemployment, in line with other measures to promote income and deal with foreign credit. The government must devote the use of loans and foreign aid to the highest priority development projects. And Palestinian authorities should stipulate rules and regulations that reinforce professionalism and transparency. This also requires ministries to reorganize themselves in a manner which makes for expenditure control and the best use of available resources.

Parallel with these financial and administrative reforms, efforts should be exerted in order to nurture production sectors and capacity-building, mainly in the field of information technology and communication. To achieve these goals the government must allocate subsidies to all production sectors, with special attention to those fields of agriculture and industry that can give them their niche in Arab and international markets.

To conclude, it is hard to imagine that such obstacles can be surmounted unless the international community intervenes in order to press Israel to lift the siege and cease the systematic destruction of all the elements that could one day contribute to a viable and sustainable Palestinian economy.

Pakistan: women's quest for entitlement

The emancipation of women is often linked to the progress of a society in transformation from a feudal society to a modern state. The story of women in the country that became Pakistan can indeed be told in such terms: as part of a struggle for advancement with education at its centre, and linked at critical moments to wider goals of national emancipation and social reform.

Sri Lanka’s displaced: the political vice

After Sri Lankan army forces overran parts of the last stretch of territory held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on 1 April 2009, a statement from the defence ministry in Colombo announced that they had found the bodies of over seventy LTTE cadre. The statement went on to detail the spoils of war: the numbers of captured rifles, grenade-launchers, and mortars. As for civilian deaths and injuries - despite what was evidently hard fighting in populated areas - not a word! Indeed, except to assert its own blamelessness, the ministry has been silent on the more than 3,000 civilians believed to have been killed in the fighting since January (see "Sri Lanka under siege", 30 January 2009).  

Meenakshi Ganguly is senior researcher on south Asia for Human Rights Watch

Also by Meenakshi Ganguly in openDemocracy:

"Sri Lanka: time to act" (10 September 2006)

"India's Dalits: between atrocity and protest" (9 January 2007)

"China and Bhutan: crushing dissent" (4 July 2007)

"India and Burma: time to choose" (14 January 2008)

"Nepal: the human-rights test" (28 April 2008)

"India's election season: bad for minorities" (3 November 2008)

"After Mumbai: India's democratic test" (2 December 2008)

"Sri Lanka under siege" (30 January 2009)

A military that counts seized landmines but not killed or wounded civilians is a cause for concern. The LTTE, which has refused to let tens of thousands of civilians flee the fighting, shows as little regard for civilians. But that's not a standard Sri Lanka's government should try to emulate. 

Tens of thousands of terrified civilians are trapped in a dangerous conflict-zone. The military says that the remaining LTTE cadre - along with their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran - have effectively hidden themselves among the civilians in a government-declared "no-fire zone". As the military plans the final defeat of the LTTE in this twenty-six-year conflict, the fact that the army has repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled these zones means that fear for the safety of civilians has increased.

A brutalised country

This terrible plight of civilians is hardly surprising. 

The LTTE has itself long been responsible for horrific human-rights abuses. These include forcibly recruiting people to serve its cause; turning schoolchildren into combatants; using Claymore landmines and human-bombs; indiscriminate killings and outright murder. During the 2002-08 ceasefire, the LTTE continued to commit systematic human-rights abuses, not least in the territory it controlled. 

Sri Lankan governments, in an effort to appease the majority Sinhalese population, have consistently failed to address Tamil grievances; this has helped the Tigers to build support among the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. But the present government of Mahinda Rajapakse is hoping that its current military campaign will finally mark an end of the LTTE. Since 2006, when both sides resumed major military operations, the conflict has killed and wounded thousands of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands, leaving many suffering from disease and hunger. 

To ensure its success, the Sri Lankan government has chosen to silence dissident voices. Many of those demanding another approach or criticising government actions or policies are accused of being closet LTTE supporters or otherwise sympathetic to terrorists. Journalists and human-rights defenders wonder when they might fall prey to a bullet or be subjected to arbitrary detention. Many have fled the country. Meanwhile, all over Sri Lanka, Tamils are treated as suspects, often asked to report for profiling and identification.

As the military made significant gains in reclaiming virtually all of northern Sri Lanka previously held by the LTTE, the Tigers have withdrawn. But with utter disregard for the international laws of war, they have scooped up civilians to be used as combatants, provide labour to build trenches and bunkers, and now to serve as human shields. These are Tamils, the people that the LTTE claims to represent and protect - yet, it is deliberately putting them in danger. 

The army, as it marched victorious through towns and villages, found abandoned homes, schools, churches and temples. For over two years, the Sri Lankan government was aware that civilians were being forced to accompany the retreating LTTE - for the Tigers have also used this strategy in the past. Yet the government has made no attempt to secure the safety of its citizens held hostage by the enemy. It could have helped them to escape much earlier, ensuring that displaced escape the fighting and are treated in accordance with international standards - creating fears in the minds of many Tamils that they will be persecuted, both now and when the fighting is over. Instead, it has only recently set up detention-camps for the 60,000 or so displaced persons who have managed to

An urgent need

As the military fired into the few square kilometers still held by the Tigers, there were widespread reports of civilian casualties. The government says it is doing its best to avoid these, and has routinely denied that its shells were landing on civilians. When questioned by the United Nations, diplomats or journalists, the military has claimed that the casualties are not necessarily civilians.

An official statement said: "It has been found that the terrorists fight in civil clothes and when they get wounded they can be mistakenly considered as civilians", but it added that there could be accidental injuries to non-combatants if they were in the line of fire. These dangerous statements convey the opposite of what is needed: for as LTTE militants merge with displaced civilians, the Sri Lankan army needs to demonstrate greater - not less - restraint. 

It is impossible to know exactly what is going on in many combat-zones. The government has expelled virtually all humanitarian agencies and has kept independent journalists far from the combat-zone. The United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has called for the protection of trapped civilians, asking the LTTE "to allow civilians to leave the conflict-area of their own free will", and reminded the Sri Lankan government of "its responsibility to protect civilians, and to avoid the use of heavy weapons in areas where there are civilians, as promised."

The international community needs to take decisive steps to ensure that the  war's victims are protected. It should work with concerned governments that have supported the Sri Lankan government's efforts against the LTTE; and with those in the Tamil diaspora who have for so long backed the LTTE, and encourage them to speak up for Tamil civilians caught up in the fighting. 

The LTTE must stop placing civilians at risk and instead allow them to evacuate the combat-zone. The Sri Lankan government for its part should make every effort, including seeking the assistance of international experts, to rescue civilians - and request humanitarian agencies to provide them with appropriate care and protection. Both sides should agree to an emergency evacuation of civilians before more die or are maimed. Every day that passes is a stain on the consciences of those who could have saved new victims. 

 

Alan Keenan, "Sri Lanka's election choice" (17 November 2005)

Alan Keenan, "Sri Lanka: between peace and war" (14 May 2006)

Nira Wickramasinghe, "Sri Lanka: the politics of purity" (17 November 2006)

Nira Wickramasinghe, "Multiculturalism: a view from Sri Lanka" (30 May 2007)

Sumantra Bose, "Sri Lanka's stalemated conflict" (12 June 2007)

Barack Obama and Afghanistan: a closer look

Barack Obama announced a comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan on 27 March 2009. This recognises that a military victory is unattainable. It adopts a regional approach, focusing more intensively on Pakistan, and opens the way to negotiate with some sectors of the insurgency. More emphasis is laid on development and creating jobs in agriculture. The United States president also acknowledges the need for a strategy towards the eventual withdrawal of military forces.

Nepal’s misty season

A year after an electoral earthquake which created the promise of a democratic future for Nepal after years of violent insurgency and repression, Nepal is looking at the grim possibility of a wasted future.

Manjushree Thapa is a novelist, translator and writer. Her books include The Tutor of History (Penguin, 2001) and Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy (Penguin, 2005)

"Democracy in Nepal and the ‘international community'" (4 May 2005)

"Nepal's political rainy season" (12 July 2005)

"Forget Kathmandu: an elegy for democracy" (14 September 2006)

"Nepal: peace is more than an election" (29 November 2007)

"India in its Nepali backyard" ( 2 May 2008)

Everyday life has become grindingly difficult for the majority of the population. A dry winter and spring have meant a severe shortage of water in the country's reservoirs and in the rivers that feed the hydroelectric plants. There are power-outages lasting as many as sixteen hours a day, paralysing industry. There are numerous strikes and factory closures as a result of political and social mobilisation. The global recession reinforces Nepal's domestic troubles: it means there are fewer jobs abroad for migrant labourers, fewer tourists, less investment in the private sector, and the possibility of a decrease in foreign aid.

Amid these severe exigencies, the country - under a coalition government led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which won a decisive victory on 10 April 2008 (and has since added the word "United" to its name) - proceeds with the complicated task of drafting a new constitution (see Prashant Jha, "Nepal's Maoist landslide", 16 April 2008). This process is only one unfinished aspect of the peace process that began in April 2006. The country still has two rival armies - the Nepal Army and the (Maoists') People's Liberation Army. Moreover, not a single case of human-rights violations committed by either the Maoists or the military over the decade-long civil war has been prosecuted.

The achievements of the peace process - which include the elections of 2008 and the peaceful abolition of the monarchy that followed - are substantial. The danger is that Nepal's mounting economic problems and uncompleted challenges (disarmament, military unification, and accounting for past crimes among them) will overwhelm its capacity to continue the essential project of nation-building after war.  

The Maoists' charge

When the peace process started in April 2006, most Nepalis were hopeful but realistic: no one was naïve enough to expect that it would go smoothly, no one either wanted to place undue pressure on what had been a hard-won outcome.

There was an understandable tendency at the time to emphasise the positive signs and overlook early failures. The fact that three hitherto warring parties - the Maoists, the Nepali Congress Party and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist / UML) - had united around a non-violent, democratic platform was one such sign. The election, and the Maoists' continued transition to non-violent politics that followed their victory, were others. So what if the peace process was marked by one small failure after another? The political parties were not in open conflict, and that - by earlier standards, and especially by the account of international analysts - was good enough (see "Nepal: peace is more than an election", 29 November 2007).

But the small failures have now accrued to a point where it is difficult any more to say whether the peace process is "on" - and even if it does, whether it matters. What is on - without a doubt - is a struggle to capture state power. And in this, the Maoists are winning. 

They are using both fair and foul means to do so. The Maoists won nearly 40% of the vote in an election that the other parties agreed to and that the international community deemed free and legitimate. This gave them a major say in the constitution-making process, which they have used proactively to set the agenda for it: raising a (now-inescapable) demand for federalism, and disseminating a draft constitution to their liking, which would have Nepal follow the Chinese model.

The Maoists were of all forces best prepared for the peace process. They readily agreed to have the United Nations monitor the government-supported cantonments to which their People's Liberation Army were deployed; and they alone were unsurprised when the UN's mandate proved too narrow to prevent misdeeds (such as mass absenteeism or the high-profile murder of a businessman) in these cantonments. They have been able to use the limitations of the UN's mandate to their advantage, by institutionalising their own military while (by exercising governmental power) wearing down the rival Nepal Army.

Also in openDemocracy on Nepal's politics and conflicts:

Dharma Adhikari, "Nepal's folly: talking absolutes at high altitude" (9 January 2006)

Anuj Mishra, "Democracy from below: a grassroots revolution in Nepal" (23 April 2006)

Maya G Kumar, "Nepal on the brink" (24 April 2006)

Kanak Mani Dixit, "Nepal: the Maoist transformation's fuzzy logic" (22 June 2006)

Dharma Adhikari, "Nepal: Maocracy vs democracy" (16 November 2006)

Anuj Mishra, "Nepal's peace accord: time for caution" (16 November 2006)

Dharma Adhikari "Nepal's unsettling peace" (6 February 2007)

Prashant Jha, "Nepal's Maoist landslide" (16 April 2008)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Nepal: the human-rights test" (28 April 2008)

The Maoists' policy on the prosecution of wartime violations is equally revealing of their political ambitions. They are too intelligent to follow the previous government's bad example and offer mass impunity to violators (the dismaying "truth and reconciliation" bill of their predecessor was withdrawn amid an outcry from human-rights defenders). Instead, the Maoist-led government has declared more than 8,000 war victims to be "martyrs" and offered compensation worth 1 million rupees to their families (the total killed in the war is approximately 13,300). This is a significant sum to families facing the prospect of extended trials with uncertain outcomes. A further tactic in attempting to foil any chance of bringing wartime violators to justice is the Maoists' passage by ordinance of a bill on "disappearances", which through this process (since it evades the legitimacy of a parliamentary act) and the bill's content are designed to make litigation very hard.

These are not admirable policies, but they are fair enough in their own terms - and to be to be expected. For they are the strategies of a political party single-mindedly focused on protecting its cadre and ensuring its own ascendancy. The calculations they embody are an example to other political parties of what they should be doing: defending their own (liberal or democratic-socialist) visions, advancing their own interests.

The politics of drift

This is where the political dilemma facing Nepal becomes clear. The Maoists' steady accumulation of state power since the peace process started has left the other parties in disarray. Those who would like to see Nepal become a liberal or democratic-socialist state are at the mercy of an aimless collection of forces who lack the Maoists' clarity of purpose (see Manjushree Thapa, "The Maoists come to power", London Review of Books, 8 May 2008 [subscription only].

The veteran politician Girija Prasad Koirala of the Nepali Congress Party (NC), who lost his bid to become the country's first president in 2008, has decided to keep his party out of government. The NC's role in opposition has not, however, been constructive. Instead of reclaiming its presence at the grassroots and rebuilding itself through genuinely democratic practice, the Congress has allied with the Nepal Army in its defiance of the Maoists. This is emboldening the Nepal Army and creating a dangerous polarisation between the rival militaries. It is also turning the Congress into a force for conservatism and counter-revolution rather than for liberalism.

The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninists), for its part, is the Maoists' main ally in government - but also the Maoists' main rival for "progressive" votes. This creates a competitive dynamic whereby the UML tries to match the Maoists' radicalism while undermining them by echoing the Congress's conservatism. It is the UML that determines the balance of power in the Maoist-led government; much will depend on whether this party continues to swing both ways, or stabilises in the centre.

The third major force are the Madheshi parties of the southern Terai area: most prominently the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), which has outbid the Maoist call for federalism with its own slogan: "One Madhesh, One Province" (envisioning the country's entire southern flatlands as one long federal state). Whether and how the Maoist-led government negotiates the Madheshis down to a more reasonable demand remains to be seen.

The Maoists' response to the albeit weak challenges of their rivals indicates some of the foul means (mixed with a degree of skill) that the Maoists are employing. The red-guard-like vigilantism of the Young Communist League is an example. The Maoists had under international pressure claimed they would abolish this hated body, but have shown no inclination to do so. In the same spirit, they show no willingness (an occasional feeble gesture apart) to return any land they grabbed during the war. The trade unions they control  force the owners of businesses to negotiate under the threat of violence - which in some cases has secured better conditions for workers, but more important for the Maoists displaced the unions under the wing of competing political parties.

The people's dilemma

If the Maoist-led government's treatment of its political adversaries is tough, its way of handling the country and its people has created discontent and conflict. It has been particularly cynical in matters pertaining to caste/ethnic rights: offering to negotiate with any group that becomes militant, but ignoring moderate groups. The Madheshi-rights movement is a stark example. The inevitable result is to encourage militancy in the caste/ethnic movements.

This dynamic has the effect of pitting caste/ethnic groups against one another, as they seek to make deals with the government that win competitive favours. A government decision to include indigenous Tharus into the category of "Madheshi" is a case in point: this incensed Tharu activists, who brought the country to a halt for over ten days. For the Nepali people, this was debilitating; for the Maoist-led government, it was a good and easy way to cut the Madheshi rights movement down to size. A round-table conference could have settled everyone's demands through negotiation; but this would involve taking power away from the centre - and the centralisation of power is dear to the Maoists' heart.

The Nepali people cannot afford much more of this. They have enough problems just surviving, and have been immensely resilient in the near-total absence of government over the past few years. Politics goes on; there is strong campaigning for six by-elections taking place on 10 April 2009. But amid water and power shortages, there is a limit to what people can tolerate. There is a growing hunger for order, which two forces are ready to supply: the People's Liberation Army and the Nepal Army.

Some analysts argue that the Maoists are intentionally engineering popular desperation as part of their ongoing strategy to consolidate state power. The Maoist finance minister, Baburam Bhattarai, is one who has publicly stated that anarchy aids revolutionary transformation.

If this is so, the Maoists may be too clever for their own good. The bad faith of the Congress and UML meant that Nepal frittered away the 1990s. The bad faith of the Maoists may yet lead to a repeat of history rather than, as their ideology proclaims, its overcoming. In that event, the only losers will be the people of Nepal.

Afghanistan: a new realism?

A series of events has at long last allowed western governments to begin to face the inconvenient truths about the Nato coalition's war against the Taliban: that Nato is not "winning" and that any lasting settlement (other than virtually permanent foreign occupation) will have to involve direct dealing with all but the hard-core Taliban.

Richard Fyjis-Walker is a former diplomat who entered Britain's foreign office after army service in India and the Netherlands, and two years' work for the Anglo-American Corporation of South Africa. He served as British ambassador to Sudan and Pakistan, and in other posts in Ankara, Washington and New York. On his retirement he chaired the Commonwealth Institute

The new strategy towards Afghanistan outlined by President Barack Obama on 26 March 2009 - involving an increased commitment of troops and the pledge of millions of dollars in aid - is one measure of this shift. The conference in The Hague on 31 March, attended by representatives of eighty countries under the auspices of the United Nations, is another. But the main element in enforcing what may be described as the coalition's "new realism" is the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan itself.

It is evident that none of the strategic objectives originally set for Nato in Afghanistan when the war began in October 2001 - the capture of Osama bin Laden; the elimination of the Taliban; a reduction in international jihadi terrorism; improved Afghan governance and central control; elimination of the narcotics trade - has been or is being achieved. It is also being realised that there is no purely military solution to Afghanistan's problems; politics too must play its part.

It is late in the day for such "new realism" to be dawning. Much damage has been done, as amid the wider strategic failure coalition tactics have been reduced to nothing much more than killing as many Taliban as can be found - irrespective of the "collateral" impact in the form of civilian casualties that in turn refuel support for the Taliban.  More broadly, coalition forces have been largely tied down in "lawn-mowing"; the taking, loss and retaking of territory and towns such as Gereshk and Sangin, involving numerous casualties on both sides.

An enemy outlasted

Also in openDemocracy on the Afghan war and western responses:

Antonio Giustozzi, "The resurgence of the neo-Taliban" (14 December 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan's Vietnam portent" (17 April 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan in an amorphous war", 19 June 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan: state of siege" (10 July 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan: on the cliff-edge" (28 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan: the dynamic and the risk" (9 October 2008)

Anita Inder Singh, "Obama's Afghan challenge" (12 November 2008)

Shaun Gregory, "The Pakistan army and the Afghanistan war" (25 November 2008)

Antonio Giustozzi, "The neo-Taliban, a year on" (11 December 2008)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)
There are many historical precedents here. In the 19th and 20th centuries, external intervention in Afghanistan led on repeated occasions to the ignominious withdrawal of foreign forces.  The Soviet occupation of 1980-89 is a sobering recent example: not least the moment in 1986 when the politburo realised that it could neither win nor outlast Afghan resistance. Many people in a fiercely nationalistic nation - the Pushtu in particular, but also a large proportion of other Afghans - have come to see Nato's forces as they did the Red Army: as agents attempting to impose by force a foreign culture under a puppet ruler.

The Pushtu-led resistance, involving skilled asymmetric warfare, has found increasing resonance across many other parts of Afghanistan. This has placed Nato in a quandary. The border with Pakistan continues to give the Taliban almost impregnable sanctuary, while Nato's own supply-routes are increasingly disrupted; and unlike for the Soviet Union, its own satraps in neighbouring states are highly problematic, leading to the search for other (perhaps even Iranian) options to reinforce its troops.

Nato has also demonstrated its ineffectiveness as a "hard-power" military organisation in battle situations. The dilution of its command structure and fighting capacity (not least by the inclusion of so many decorative or "pot plant" members) has rendered it hardly fit for purpose; something the Americans are seeking to substitute for with their "surge" of 17,000 troops into Helmand and the British base at Camp Bastion, as well as the 4,000 extra to be deployed under Obama's new strategy.

A reality faced

It is too early to say whether the new approach, or the conclusions reached at The Hague conference, will make a measurable improvement to a desperate situation. What is clear is that the west needs to do two things on its own account and explore three points of overlap with Afghans of all stripes.

First, the west's overriding strategic objective has to be redefined as the earliest withdrawal of foreign forces. (Both Rand Corporation and Carnegie Institute studies support Lord Roberts of Kandahar's dictum of 1880: "I am sure I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us the less they will dislike us"). All other aims are contingent upon a withdrawal.  These include the promotion of political agreements - internally (between the insurgents and central authority in Kabul) and externally (with a coalition of neighbours, including Iran, India and China). Saudi Arabia will also play an important role here,  in helping ensure that there is no external succour  for al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

Second, the fact that the epicentre of international jihadism has shifted to Pakistan makes that country ever more crucial. All western countries and their potential allies will be deeply disturbed at the thought of a nuclear state disintegrating at the hand of Islamic extremists. But their cooperation will be proportionate to the distance from their borders of American troops.

The three points where the west and majority-Afghan perspectives might find common ground are equally significant.

First, the withdrawal of foreign forces is again fundamental. Not all Afghans agree with Mullah Omar: "Our friend Osama chose the route of international jihadism; we have chosen the way of cleansing Afghanistan of foreign presence" - but many do. The west and the Afghans each need to staunch the flow of blood, treasure and reputation by withdrawing.

Second, there must be non-interference in the evolution of Afghan society, particularly the tribal structures. Again, many Afghans - not just the Taliban or its supporters - see the Nato presence as part of a series of attempts to impose an alien culture upon them.  Afghan problems have to be seen to have Afghan solutions that are Afghan "property".

Third, there must be financial input across a range of initiatives: for improved security, particularly on training the Afghan police; for rural rehabilitation and prosperity (in Helmand a thousand small generators and their fuel would have won far more hearts and minds than the monster Kijaki generator); for education, poppy-substitution, administration. This is a long and costly list, but will be far more economical than continuing fruitless and counterproductive military offensives against a proliferating enemy.

The starting point for change will be political contact with the Taliban and the improvement of coalition performance in regard to the Afghan population. The "surge" of US troops promised by the new strategy - described by one seasoned US diplomat as "not a policy but a delivery system" - may risk exacerbating this situation. 

It took the Soviets three years to withdraw even after recognition of their impending failure. They left no welcome legacy. It is to be hoped that the Americans and their allies can find a more rapid and more successful conclusion.  The same man who in one sense, as head of the CIA, oversaw the Soviet withdrawal may now have to supervise a parallel western operation - US defence secretary, Robert M Gates. It is another unsettling historical echo.

Gaza's underground economy

It has been approximately three years since Hamas won the second Palestinian legislative election on which the majority of the Palestinians pinned great hopes. These hopes have now given way to a frustration and despair daily exacerbated by the restrictions on the movement of workers and goods which has isolated the population of approximately one and a half million Gazans, and led to skyrocketing levels of unemployment and government deficit.

The economy was already disrupted as a result of the repeated closure of the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Closures lasting longer than one month exerted tremendous recessionary pressures on the economy. They restricted business activity, reduced the money supply, productivity, trade and financial flows and made it near to impossible for businesses to meet financial obligations. As a result most businesses have experienced frequent losses in sales opportunities, supply-side shocks and liquidity crises. In response to the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip, the number of tunnels mushroomed. zoriah_gaza_tunnel_tunnels_egypt_rocket_jihad_hamas_rafah__20080812_8690

Tunnels restored life to the besieged Strip. Tunnel traders strike deals with their Egyptian partners which enable them to sell goods to the local shops. For many Palestinians this is their sole source of income. For the Gazans as a whole, the tunnel economy is all that exists between them and starvation. Tunnels have been used to smuggle through a vital economic lifeline, including domestic goods, medicine, fuel, cigarettes, power generators, motorcycles, livestock and sometimes people into, or out of, Gaza. The Hamas leadership has welcomed the emergence of this new tunnel economy, as a way of circumventing Israel's blockade on the Gaza Strip. They claim that the tunnels will be shut down as soon as the main Gaza-Israel crossings are opened.

Welcome to Tunnel City

It is March 12, 2009, and I would like to welcome you to "Tunnels City", where, every 200 metres or so you will find a group of Palestinians digging a tunnel. Nowadays, they make little effort to hide the excavation work which lurks under a network of tents and jerry-built shacks along the border. Husam, 45, who like many other operators along the border refused to be named, told us that his tunnel is used to smuggle whatever can break the Israeli siege and help ease some of the hardships Palestinians have been enduring. A large loan from friends on top of his life savings as a teacher set him up as the tunnel king he has become today. In particular, his tunnel is frequently used to bring petrol into Gaza: petrol has become one of the most profitable commodities.

Abu Mohammed Al Shaer, 30, is also a tunnel owner: "Tunnels are used to procure basic stuff that cannot be had, due to the extensive Israeli restrictions on the most innocuous imports into the Gaza Strip." Our visit coincided with the  tunnels operators coming to assess the damage caused by the latest Israeli bombardment raids: "Thank God! The tubes are working and we can get fuel through," Mr. Al Shaer said. For his part, he strongly denied Israeli claims of weapons-smuggling. But no-one denies the possibility that various armed factions' weapons and funds are being brought into the Strip through secret tunnels, built inside houses nearer the border line. zoriah_gaza_tunnel_tunnels_egypt_rocket_jihad_hamas_rafah__20080812_8793

The fact is, it is really hard to be sure how many tunnels now exist beneath the Gaza-Egyptian border line, the sole remaining crossing point for Gazans to the outside world. Tunnels, dug from the basements of Gazan homes, can be up to 30 metres deep and 800 long, surfacing in houses on the Egyptian side of the border. It takes at least a month to build a tunnel and requires the expertise of a few people (highly paid at around $100 a day) equipped with electric tools, ventilation pumps, communications gear and rudimentary elevators.

Many residents have no choice but to allow the tunnel to be built from inside their homes because of their desperate need for money. You can purchase a ready-to-use tunnel for approximately $70-90,000. This market opened up when a tunnel owner raised the price of a house on the border to $50,000. Husam said that he rents the land his tunnel is built on from a poor family in return for a share of the profits. zoriah_gaza_tunnel_tunnels_egypt_rocket_jihad_hamas_rafah__20080812_8925

There are rumours circulating that the Hamas-run government has imposed strict control on what can be brought into Gaza and that they tax the tunnel operators. But the two tunnels operators we interviewed told us that they have not paid any thing to Hamas since their tunnels were built. Like many other operators along the border, however, they often supply the Hamas-run municipality with fuel.

We are joined by Mohammed Abdual'al, 23, a tunnel digger emerging from the tunnel hole "eye" breathing heavily, with sweat running off his forehead. Mohammed Abdual'al is bitter, "No matter how vital these tunnels are to the Palestinian economy, there is a human cost. I have already lost my brother and a friend who was trapped underneath and suffocated to death. However, I will not give up, as I have a 16-member family dependent on me. But there is always a risk of collapse. We tunnel diggers are digging our own graves. I smell death every day, but I have no choice."

If the death toll amongst tunnel diggers is rising, so is the number of Palestinians (currently estimated at around 7,000) employed in the clandestine industry. And for hundreds of tunnel operators who can rake in tens of thousands of dollars in a week, this has become a highly lucrative business. For instance, a sack full of goods costs about $300 to move through the tunnel system. It is said by some that Egypt would never willingly endorse the destruction of the tunnel system, due to its importance to the economy of the people of Sinai. zoriah_gaza_tunnel_tunnels_egypt_rocket_jihad_hamas_rafah__20080812_8655

We have moved now to the home of Abu Basem, one of the tunnel operators of Gaza. His villa is in Rafah City, in the southern part of the Gaza Strip. The house is furnished expensively in a way few ordinary Gazans can afford. A Land Cruiser Jeep, BMW car and Hunday Jeep are parked at the entrance. Abu Basem is open about how much he owes to the tunnel economy, "In fact, I own two tunnels: each earns $15,000 a month." He, too, was once a teacher, living with his extended family in a poverty-stricken part of Rafah.

Israel and the US have already expended a great deal of effort to shut the tunnels system down. Under pressure from the Israeli Government. the Egyptian authorities have deployed poison gas, water and even sewage in attempts to halt the smuggling. In June 2008, Haaretz reported that the US army was training Egyptian soldiers to locate and destroy tunnels in an effort to improve the Egyptian army's ability to cope with arms-smuggling from Sinai into the Gaza Strip. In January 2009, Egypt in cooperation with US Army engineers reportedly set up ground-penetrating radar along the border ‘to detect smuggling tunnels'. But as a foreman in charge of tunnel diggers told us on our latest visit, "If one tunnel is destroyed, in no time a new one will spring up in its stead."

Pakistan: a path through danger

Pakistan has in the last two years been living through some of the worst moments of its history - as well as its most promising. The relentless violence, assassinations, mass arrests, the imposition of emergency rule and rising militancy have been devastating for the country. At the same time, the people's resistance to authoritarianism, their rejection through the ballot-box of political forces aligned to the military, and their opposition to undemocratic moves by the civilian government are hopeful signs for democracy.

Asma Jahangir is a human-rights lawyer and co-founder of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission. She has been Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights since 1998.

Asma Jahangir was one of Time magazine's Women of the Year in 2003

Also by Asma Jahangir in openDemocracy:

"America, Pakistan, and the limits of militarism" (2 November 2004) - a letter exchange with Steve Coll

The extraordinary story of what has happened in the 2007-09 period suggests that the intersection of these trends leaves Pakistan now poised between two very different possible futures.

The inside track

The oppressive regime of General Pervez Musharraf, who had seized power in October 1999, appeared at the start of 2007 to be well entrenched. There was great social discontent, and many Pakistanis were in despair. Then on 9 March 2007 the general-president unceremoniously removed from office Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, the chief justice of Pakistan. This sacking of a popular and independent figure provoked a spontaneous rebellion by the legal fraternity, enthusiastically backed by many sections of society. The army and the president were unprepared for this widespread movement against the military regime. They assumed that as so often before the government would control the situation in characteristic fashion: by brute power or worse (as when political leaders in Balochistan had been hunted down and killed). They also expected that the George W Bush administration would find some way of rescuing Pervez Musharraf.

To an extent, an attempt was made to do precisely that. A plan was hatched in Washington and London to cobble together an alliance between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto (the exiled leader of the opposition Pakistan People's Party [PPP]) - that, it was hoped, might defuse the situation. It was a classic "fix" by the foreign allies and spin-masters of the Pakistani state and Bhutto alike, who in their wisdom had carved out a clean and convenient formula of military-civilian partnership to take forward the "war on terror".

Such plans have a way in Pakistan of being sabotaged by their supposed beneficiaries. In this case, Musharraf did not relent from his authoritarian path, even as he promised fair and free parliamentary elections. He was given another five-year presidential term by national and provincial assemblies on 6 October 2007, then imposed a state of "emergency plus" on 3 November. This compelled Benazir Bhutto to turn to other political forces and Pakistani civil society for support, dismaying those in the west who had promoted her inside track to power. Alas, the process in any case took a violent turn when Benazir Bhutto, two months after her return from exile, was tragically assassinated on 27 December 2007 at a campaign rally. The perpetrators - again, as so often in Pakistan - have so far evaded arrest and justice.

The politics of control

Amid spiralling violence in early 2008, Islamic militants were able to capture the tribal areas of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and other parts of the province too. A combination of financial crisis and energy shortages further worsened the situation. The election, postponed after Benazir Bhutto's death, was held on 18 February 2008, with the PPP winning a larger number of seats than the other main opposition party, Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML [N)]). The return of democracy - marked by a short-lived coalition between the PPP and PML (N), which broke up on 25 August - placed great pressure on Musharraf. He resigned the presidency of Pakistan on 18 August, to be replaced on 6 September by Benazir's widower, Asif Ali Zardari. Musharraf followed by transferring the leadership of the army to General Ashfaq Kayani on 28 November 2007.

Asif Ali Zardari, the new president, had never been popular among Pakistanis, but was tolerated as an alternative to military rule. He had cleverly used the slogan of national reconciliation to sneak his way into becoming head of state, and once there went back on all the public promises he had made of restoring all the judges and respecting the supremacy of parliament. The much promised "national reconciliation" gave way to nepotism and intrigue.

In these circumstances, the unity and morale of the lawyers' movement that had demanded the rule of law and energised the public were damaged when a number of deposed judges conditionally agreed to rejoin the judiciary at the PPP's invitation. Some lawyers were tempted - and bought - by offers of promotion.

The effect of the election had been to focus energy on the high-level political process and away from civil society. But the passing of the presidency to Asif Ali Zardari did not change the fact that the judiciary remained weak and corrupt, and delivered its judgments at the bidding of the head of state. This politicisation of the judiciary again became a key issue when Pakistan's supreme court passed an order disqualifying from office Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz, Zardari's main opponents who were in power in the largest province of the country (Punjab). 

On 25 February 2009, as soon as the judgment was made, the president imposed "governor rule" in Punjab and the doors of the provincial parliament were locked so that it could not meet to elect its leader. Moreover, decrees were issued granting amnesty to those accused of corruption and other charges.

The triumphal march

The lawyers had already announced a "long march" to the capital, Islamabad - a last desperate attempt to stage a sit-in outside of parliament until the judges (especially the deposed Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry) were restored. Now they had the backing of the second largest political party in the country, as well as of thousands of outraged citizens who believed that their new president had gone too far.

The government overreacted to the long march. It was a reminder of the Musharraf days and their destructive legacy. The security forces confiscated lorries carrying goods in order to block roads and barricade the capital. Several lawyers and political activists were arrested, beaten, threatened, and locked in their houses. Despite this, more and more people defied the curbs placed on their movement, gathering in Lahore to move on to Islamabad.

As a last resort, the infamous interior ministry warned people that militants were planning an imminent bomb-attack and therefore the long march should be abandoned. But the people called this bluff and joined the march in Lahore. An estimated one million people were on the roads.

The merciless beatings and use of tear-gas did not deter the crowds. Eventually the police chief gave up and Islamabad panicked. The prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and the army chief, with the support of foreign diplomats, won agreement from the president to restore the chief justice and find a way to settle the Punjab dispute.

Thus, in the early hours of 16 March, the prime minister addressed the nation and announced that the demands of the marchers had been accepted, including (with effect from 21 March) the restoration of Chaudhry to his post. The long march - and Pakistani civil society more widely - had won a great victory over arbitrary power.

The top-down failure

But this is far from the end. The president is still in power and retains his capacity to foment trouble. Even as the people's (and the opposition's) victory was being celebrated, the presidency was manoeuvring to keep the elected government of Punjab out in the cold, in part by approaching judges who could be "persuaded" to make the right decisions. A meeting between the prime minister and Nawaz Sharif may lead to the restoration of the Punjab government, though this will be only one concession among many infractions.

The way the president exercises power invites a dangerous intervention by the military. It also shifts the focus of governance away from far more pressing issues such as the spread of militancy. Even as the crisis over the judiciary and the rule of law has escalated in Pakistan, Islamic militants in other parts of the country have set up their own lawyer-free judicial system. It perpetrates rough and easy justice, among other things pushing back women behind four walls. The chief justice may have resumed work but the judicial system in Swat and Malakand (to name only those) has been hijacked by religious zealots.

These two years have been tumultuous. Pakistan's leaders, and their foreign allies, have thought that they could impose top-down solutions and thus secure power and subdue the Pakistani people. The people have proved them wrong. But the crises afflicting the country remain. Pakistan has a long way to go before it can claim to have established a decent democratic system founded on respect for the rule of law.  


Among openDemocracy's many articles on Pakistan:

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan on edge" (25 September 2006)

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, ""Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)

Anatol Lieven, "At the Red Mosque in Islamabad" (4 June 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan" (24 July 2007)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan: farewell to democracy" (29 October 2007)

Irfan Husain, ""Pervez Musharraf's desperate gamble" (5 November 2007)

Salman Raja, "Pakistan: inside the storm" (9 November 2007)

Shaun Gregory, "Musharraf: the fateful moment" (16 November 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy" (9 January 2008)

Irfan Husain, ""Pakistan's judgment day" (22 February 2008)

Irfan Husain. "Pervez Musharraf: the commando who couldn't" (19 August 2008)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan's political turmoil: Musharraf and beyond" (26 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: the new frontline" (18 September 2008)

Shaun Gregory, "The Pakistani army and the Afghanistan war" (25 November 2008)

Paul Rogers, "The AfPak war: three options" (25 February 2009)

Paul Rogers, "A three-front war: Iraq, AfPak...Washington" (20 March 2009)

Who'll stop the rain?

The air had been eager from the moment we arrived in Chennai for my cousin's wedding. We were there in November, typically one of the wettest months for India's southeast coast. It took a week for the rain to begin to fall in torrents, like angry fists. Two days after the wedding, I awoke to the roaring static of the rain, something like a lost radio frequency. Great, I thought, I'll be stuck inside all morning, if not all day. After all, where there's heavy rain in this part of the world, there's flooding, disease, and death.

Death. On TV, in big red and white lettering: Terrorists Strike Taj Hotel in Mumbai. The scene was surreal-an onion dome of the 105-year-old hotel engulfed in smoke, barricades erected on Mumbai's most tourist-trafficked plaza. I couldn't help but recall my last trip to India when I visited the nearby Gateway of India and the Taj. Our necks craned and swiveled to take in the architectural marvel in its entirety. Children flitted between noisy tourist groups, enamored of their newfound running space. There are moments like dioramas that pop out of the background of the past. This moment, between icon and the Arabian Sea, was one of them. My aunt and uncle watched the news in horror, and like me, they were silent. As the day passed determinedly into the next, we were shocked to discover that the attack on Mumbai had not been suppressed; in fact, it was just getting started.

The rain grew heavier the second day. I had the privilege of staying in a newly constructed apartment building with an enclosed garage space, which prevented the rainwater from accumulating. Our unlucky neighbors, on the other hand, were wading through knee-deep water in their backyard in order to retrieve things that had been left outside to dry-their kitchen utensils and chilies were now soggy and limp. My family and I swung between local and national news channels for updates on the rain and the terror attacks. The local news reported that Nagapattinam had received up to 40.8 centimeters, or sixteen inches, of rain. The locals clamored in front of the camera. "Sir, we can't even get into our house, sir," a woman screamed in Tamil. "The government has done nothing to help us; they're ignoring our problems, sir." My relatives shook their heads, sympathy rolled with aggravation. "What can the government do? It's not their fault it's raining!" The cyclone was now named Nisha and was responsible for almost eighty deaths so far. Swetha Regunathan is Assistant Editor at Guernica. Her writing has appeared in The Jackson Free Press and Quarto.

This essay first appeared in Guernica's March 2009 edition.  

On day three, I paced the apartment in resignation. The news was that the Mumbai attacks weren't yet resolved, that the Taj Hotel had yet to be secured. Later that day, we learned that the five hostages at Nariman House, members of the Chabad-Lubavitch, had been killed. The rain beat outside like a steady drum. I was stuck inside the apartment for yet another day with nothing to watch but the rain battering our neighbors' yard. Our windows faced their house, not the streets, and so my real window was the television. It was on account of my own neuroticism that I didn't venture out of the house and try to wade through the flood waters; I couldn't help but be deterred by thoughts of what might be in the water. It seemed like a giant cesspool of all that settled on the city's streets-animals, human waste, trash, dust, grime, slime, and other debris. My uncle, safe in his garage and car, relied on his driver to go to work. The driver had to find his own way home. So entirely dry and intact, my uncle's home seemed an island.

Relentless cyclones have a way of making you sit very still, of making you think. I recalled the morning of 9/11, when commuters to lower Manhattan wailed into the news cameras. Destruction of this scale was the stuff of movies, we were told by the news anchors, the commentators, and the pundits. If terror attacks are cinematic, it is because terrorists themselves know about the mainstream media-that it is, in fact, very much like the movies. It is star-studded, uses imposing graphics and special effects, and everyone watches. The confluence of terrorism and the media is prime entertainment. Not all movies have a happy ending.

It seemed a conspiracy for the two phenomena to concur, and yet, both seemed eerily unaware of the other. The attack on India's financial, cultural, and entertainment capital drew waterlogged Chennai to its television sets. Never mind that Mumbai was in faraway Maharashtra, that its people spoke Hindi and Marathi, languages that belonged to an entirely different linguistic group than Chennai's vernacular Tamil. But while most of India, and indeed the entire telecast world, watched Mumbai try to rein in terror, only part of India watched cyclone Nisha wreak its terror of rain.

The ticker at the bottom of CNN-IBN (the American network's Indian cousin) streamed viewers' comments about the terror attack from around the country. I read their expressions of sympathy and outrage and noticed the prevalence of the word "senseless" as an adjective to describe the violence. To be without sense was to be as a force of nature-coming and going without perceptible rhyme or reason-like heavy rain. I started to wonder where one disaster ended and another began. Wasn't it true that the terror attack was, by some measure, a natural disaster? After all, wasn't terrorism as shapeless as rain? Wasn't wiping out terrorism as unachievable a feat as stopping the rain?

One of the more controversial stories in the Bible is the tale of Samson, who brought down an entire temple of Philistines with himself inside. The story is one of the first recorded instances of terrorism, the first to enter the cultural imagination. The faithful interpret Samson's act as an act of God. This is the same term they used to interpret the plagues on the Egyptians, which took such forms as a hailstorm and three days of pitch darkness. For the faithful in past and present times, both terror and natural disaster have been demonstrations of divine temperament.

As science eclipsed religion in the realms of epistemology and education in the West, natural disasters shed their ancient connotations and began to be understood as expressions of spontaneous yet systematic phenomena. In modernity, meteorologists and climatologists work with government agencies to prepare relief plans, city evacuation routes, and other resources for survival. While the occasional weather-related death still cautions residents to prepare wisely for the next big blizzard, hurricane, or tornado, these numbers are kept relatively low thanks to the attention they receive from the media and independent organizations. Katrina looms in the national conscience because of the failure of a government to protect its people in the way of prevention (sound infrastructure and proper levees) and evacuation. In the post-Katrina age, the U.S. government knows the people of New Orleans, the Gulf Coast states, and indeed the nation will not stand for incompetence. But I often wonder if Indian citizens' soaked, parched, catastrophied voices carry as far, if my relatives' reluctant acceptance of these deaths echoes the sentiments of most Indians, and crucially, those charged with doing all they can to protect their fellow Indian citizens.

The history of terrorism in the cultural imagination is much more difficult to trace than the history of weather, for terrorist acts communicate sundry credos, causes, and motivations, whether religious, ethnic, economic, or irrational. Other famous terrorist groups in history include the Sicarii Zealots (a radical Jewish group that tried to expel the Romans from Judea); the perpetrators of France's Reign of Terror (who arbitrarily executed clergymen, peasants, and aristocrats for being "enemies of the people"); England's Guy Fawkes (who attempted to blow up Parliament with a crude gunpowder bomb in order to reinstate a Catholic monarch); the American Revolution's Sons of Liberty (who tarred and feathered those considered to be loyal to the British crown), and the IRA. What these and other instances and movements of terrorism have in common are the aim of creating a climate of fear, an ideological or political motive, and a loathsome disregard for human complexity, nuance, and suffering. Terrorism is indiscriminate, like the weather. The bottom line is that terrorism has itself existed in tandem with human civilization; it seems to have twisted the world, made our moral groundings a bit shakier. Yet the emergence of the counter-terrorism movement in the last few decades assures us that the war on abstraction can be won.

According to an article in Reason Magazine, Michael Rothschild, a former business professor at the University of Wisconsin, estimates that "if terrorists hijacked and crashed one of America's 18,000 commercial flights per week that your chance of being on the crashed plane would be one in 135,000." These odds are significantly slimmer than the National Safety Council's one in 1,749 odds of dying from "exposure to forces of nature." Natural disasters may make for a few high-grossing summer blockbusters when covered by major news networks, but it doesn't draw us in and pique our worst fears the way terrorism does. Terrorism is human. It is and isn't anonymous. It presumes motive and anger and evil. It's epic and emotional. It plagues us like locusts, and it informs our art. Slavoj Žižek said in his essay "Passions of the Real, Passions of Semblance" that "the landscape of the collapsing [World Trade Center] towers could not but be reminiscent of the most breathtaking scenes in big catastrophe productions." India's film industry, the largest in the world, has itself dealt with terror on-screen. A recent string of terror-themed releases, including A Wednesday, Mumbai Meri Jaan, and Dhokha, among others, capitalize on the complex emotional tug of terror attacks. It is no small wonder then that terror shows up in our nightmares while the earth kills us in our sleep.

Still lured by the persistent patience of the rain on night three, I sat by the window of our dark flat; I listened to the hushed syncopations of an Indian-accented English newscaster behind me on the television set. Security operations in Mumbai still raged on. We learned the final death toll in the next few days: one hundred and twenty. But that was just Cyclone Nisha. In Mumbai, one hundred and ninety-five would no longer eat at Café Leopold or gaze at the Taj Hotel. The people of Mumbai refused to be "resilient" this time, pointing their trembling fingers and raising their voices to the Indian government. Never again, they insisted, would a massive security failure ravage this city. Never again would terrorism be dismissed as an unfortunate side effect of life in Mumbai, a pesky problem like mosquito bites or rain.

As my father and I rode to the airport later that week, I noticed the streets had completely dried up. It was as though the storm had never happened. The only residue of the heavy rain, the only haunting remnant of the storm that had trapped us for days, witnessing the spectacle of death and destruction visited on those trapped in Mumbai, was the cool night air on my face.

The Left and Hamas

Massive demonstrations in European capitals and major cities in support  of the people of Gaza highlighted once again the core problem: the vast majority of the left agrees in supporting the people of Gaza against Israeli aggression, but refuses to support its political expressions such as Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The left not only refuses to support them, but also denounces them and fights against them.Support for the people of Gaza exists only at a humanitarian level, but not at the political level.

Nadine Rosa-Rosso is a Brussels-based independent Marxist.

She has edited two books: "Rassembler les résistances" of the French-language journal 'Contradictions' and "Du bon usage de la laïcité", that argues for an open and democratic form of secularism.

She can be contacted at nadinerr@gmail.com

The left may register the support Hamas and Hezbollah have amongst the Arab masses, but it pays no heed to Israel's clear and aggressive intention to destroy these resistance movements. From a political point of view we can say without exaggeration that the Left's wish (more or less openly stated) echoes that of the Israeli government: to expunge popular support for Hamas and Hezbollah. This is an issue not only in the Middle East, but also in European capitals today, where the bulk of those engaged in protest are people of North African origin, or South Asian Muslims in the case of London.

I will cite a few but there are dozens of examples of this. The headline of the French website ‘Res Publica' following the mass demonstration in Paris on January 3 read: "We refuse to be trapped by the Islamists of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah!" The article continued: "Some activists of the left and far left (who turned out only in small numbers) were literally drowned in a crowd whose views are at odds with the spirit of the French Republican movement and of the twenty-first century Left. Over 90% of the demonstrators championed a fundamentalist and communitarian worldview based on the clash of civilizations, which is anti-secular and anti-Republican. They advocated a cultural relativism whose harmful tendencies are well known, particularly in England." 

Res Publica is neither Marxist nor communist, but one would be hardpressed to find 
even the most remotely positive words about Hamas on Marxist websites. One does  find formulations such as, "Whatever we think about Hamas, one thing is  indisputable: the Palestinian people democratically elected Hamas to lead Gaza  in elections held under international supervision." Looking further at "what can we make of Hamas?" one finds on the websites of both the French Communist Party and the Worker's Party of Belgium an article entitled, "How Israel put Hamas in the saddle." The article itself supplies us with little more than the assertion that Hamas has been supported by Israel, the United States and the European Union. It was published on January 2, after a week of intensive Israeli bombardment and on the day before the ground offensive whose declared aim was the destruction of Hamas.

The Res Publica quotation sums up rather well  the general attitude of the European left not only to Palestinian resistance, but also to the Arab and Muslim presence in Europe. The most interesting comment is in parentheses: ‘the Left and far Left (who only turned out in small numbers)'. One might expect following such a confession some self-critical analysis regarding the lack of mobilisation in the midst of the slaughter of the Palestinian people. But no, instead their ire is turned on the demonstrators (90% of the whole protest) who are accused of conducting a "clash of civilizations."

Mutual understanding?

At the demonstrations I went on in Brussels, I asked some of my co-demonstrators to 
translate the slogans chanted in Arabic: they were always happy to oblige. I heard a lot of support for the Palestinian resistance and denunciation of Arab governments (in particular of the Egyptian President Mubarak), Israel's crimes, and the deafening silence of the international community as well as the complicity of the European Union. In my opinion, these were all political slogans quite appropriate to the situation. Some people seemingly only have to hear Allah-u-akbar, before they start jumping to completely unfounded conclusions. The very fact that slogans are shouted in Arabic is enough to irritate them. One organizing committee was, for example, highly concerned about which languages would be used. But could we not have simply distributed the translations of these slogans? This might be the first step towards mutual understanding. When we demonstrated in 1973 against the pro-American military takeover by Pinochet in Chile, no one would have dared to tell the Latin American demonstrators, "Please, chant in French!" In order to lead this fight, we all learnt slogans in Spanish. No one was offended. 

It must be asked, are the left and far left able to mobilize on these issues at all? The problem was already surfacing when Israel invaded Lebanon in the summer of 2006. I would like to quote here an anti-Zionist Israeli who took refuge in London, jazz musician Gilad Atzmon, who already said, six months before the invasion: "For quite a long time, it has been very clear that the ideology of the Left is desperately struggling to find its way in the midst of the emerging battle between the West and the Middle East. The parameters of the so-called "clash of civilizations" are so clearly established that any "rational" and "atheist" leftist activist is clearly condemned to stand closer to Donald Rumsfeld than to a Muslim." It's a stark claim.

There are two issues that need to be addressed in any attempt to get to grips with this paralysis of the left in its support for Palestinian, Lebanese, and more generally the Arab and Muslim resistance: they are religion and terrorism.

The Left and religion

Perplexed by the religious feelings of people with an immigrant background, the left, Marxist or not, continuously quotes the famous statement of Marx on religion: "religion is the opium of the people". With this they think everything that needs to be said has been said. But what if we cite the fuller quote of Marx and give it more context. I do this not to hide behind an authority, but in the hope of provoking some thought amongst those who hold this over-simplified view:

"Religion is the general theory of this world, (...), its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. (...) The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."(Translated by Prof. W. Banning, Life, Learning and Meaning, 1960, The Spectrum (p.62-63)

I have always been and remain an atheist, but the rise of religious feelings is hardly surprising. In today's world most politicians, including those on the left, do little more then display their weakness against the military power of the US, they do nothing or almost nothing against financial speculation and the logic of profit that plunges billions of people into poverty, hunger and death. All this, we are told, is due to "the invisible hand" or "divine intervention". Where is the difference between this and religion? The only difference is that the theory of the "invisible hand" denies people the right to struggle for social and economic justice against the "divine intervention" that maintains the status quo. Like it or not, if we want to ally ourselves with them, we cannot look down on billions of people who may harbour religious feelings.

The left does exactly what it accuses the Islamists of doing: it takes religion literally. Rather than regard such religious expressions as a "protest against misery", imperialism, colonialism, or neo-colonialism, leftists cut themselves off from a huge swathe of the masses. Gilad Atzmon expressed it well when he said: "Rather than imposing our beliefs upon others, we had better learn to understand what others believe in". If we continue to refuse to learn, we will continue to lament the religious feelings of the masses instead of struggling with them for peace, independence and social and economic justice.

Left neo-colonialism

But there is more. The fate of Islam is very different from that of Christianity. I have never known the left to hesitate in showing solidarity with Latin American bishops, followers of liberation theology and the struggle against Yankee Imperialism in the 70s, or the Irish Catholic resistance to British Imperialism. Nor have I known the left to criticize Martin Luther King for his references to the Gospel, which was a powerful lever for the mobilisation of Black Americans that did not have political, economic or social rights in the US in the sixties.

This discriminatory treatment by the Left, this systematic mistrust of Muslims who without exception are suspected of wanting to impose sharia law on us, can only be explained by a colonialism that has profoundly marked our consciousness. We should remember that the Communist Party of Belgium (KPB), praised the benefits of colonization that were enthusiastically propagated by Christian missionaries. For example, in the 1948 program of the KPB, when the party had just emerged from a period of heroic resistance against the Nazi occupation, it foresaw the following developments in the Belgian Congo: "a) Establishment of a single economic unit Belgium-Congo; b) Development of trade with the colony and realization of its national resources; c) Nationalization of resources and trusts in Congo; d) Development of a white colonists class and black farmers and artisan class; e) Gradual granting of democratic rights and freedoms to the black population."

It was this kind of political education which meant that there was hardly any protest from Belgian workers influenced by the KPB when Patrice Lumumba, Pierre Mulele and many other African anti-imperialist leaders were assassinated. After all "our" Christian civilization is civilized, is it not? And democratic rights and freedoms can only "gradually" be assigned to the masses in the Third World, since they are too barbaric to make good use of them.

Along exactly the same line of political colonialist reasoning, the left rather regrets having supported democratic elections in Palestine. Perhaps they should have adopted a more gradualist approach towards the Palestinians since the majority of Palestinians have now voted for Hamas. Worse, the left bemoans the fact that "the PLO was forced to organize parliamentary elections in 2006 at a time when everything showed that Hamas would win the elections". You will find this response on the sites of the PCF and Belgian PVDA.

If we agreed to stop staring with blind prejudice at the religious beliefs of people, we would perhaps "learn to understand" why the Arab and Muslim masses who today demonstrate for Palestine are screaming ‘Down with Mubarak', an Arab and Muslim leader, and why they jubilantly shout the name of Hugo Chavez, a Christian-Latin American leader. Isn't it obvious that the frame of reference used here is not primarily religious but a judgement of their leaders' relationship to US imperialism and aggressive Israeli Zionist expansionism? And if the left formulated what is at issue in these terms, might they not partly regain the support of the people that formerly gave them their strength?

The Left and terrorism

Another cause of paralysis in the anti-imperialist struggle is the fear of being associated with terrorism.   On January 11, 2009, the Speaker of the Berlin House of Representatives, Walter Momper (SPD), the head of the parliamentarian group of ‘Die Grüne' (the German Greens), Franziska Eichstädt-Bohlig, and a leader of ‘Die Linke', Klaus Lederer, and others held a demonstration in Berlin with 3000 participants to support Israel under the slogan ‘stop the terror of Hamas'. One must bear in mind that Die Linke are considered by many leftists in Europe as the new and credible alternative Left - an example to follow.  

The entire history of colonisation and decolonisation is the history of land that has been stolen by military force and reclaimed by force. From Algeria to Vietnam, from Cuba to South Africa, from Congo to Palestine: no colonial power ever renounced its domination by means of negotiation or political dialogue alone. For Gilad Atzmon it is this context that constitutes the significance of the barrage of rockets by Hamas and other Palestinian resistance organizations throughout the conflict:  

"It occurred to me that the barrages of Qassams that have been landing sporadically on Sderot and Ashkelon were actually nothing but a message from the imprisoned Palestinians. First it was a message regarding stolen land, homes, fields and orchards: ‘Our beloved soil, we didn't forget, we are still here fighting for you, sooner rather than later, we will come back, we will start again where we had stopped'.  But it was also a clear message to the Israelis. ‘You out there, in Sderot, Beer Sheva, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Tel Aviv and Haifa, whether you realise it or not, you are actually living on our stolen land. You better start to pack because your time is running out, you have exhausted our patience. We, the Palestinian people, have nothing to lose anymore". (Gilad Atzmon - Living on Borrowed Time in a Stolen Land)

A message an Israeli receives loud and clear, the European left completely fails to grasp; rather they find 'indefensible' the necessity to take by force what has been stolen by force. Since 9/11, the use of force in the anti-colonial and the anti-imperialist struggle has been classified under the category of ‘terrorism': one cannot even discuss it any more. It is worth remembering that Hamas was placed on the proscribed list of ‘foreign terrorist organizations' by the United States in 1995, seven years before 9/11. In January 1995, the United States elaborated the ‘Specially Designated Terrorist List (STD)' and put Hamas and all the other radical Palestinian liberation organisations on it.

Capitulation on this question by a great part of the Western left, however, only really got going after 9/11, after the launching of the aggressive response by the Bush administration. The fear of being classified ‘terrorists' or apologists of terrorism has spread. This attitude of the left is not confined to theory: it has practical consequences. The European ‘Council Framework Decision' of 13 June 2002 on ‘combating terrorism' incorporated a copy-and-paste version of the American terror list into European legislation, allowing the courts to prosecute those who are suspected of supporting terrorism. During an anti-war rally in London, some activists selling a publication which carried a Marxist analysis of Hamas were stopped by the police and their magazines were confiscated. In other words, the simple attempt to inform people of the political programme and actions of Hamas and Hezbollah has become an illegal enterprise. Such a political atmosphere intimidates people into distancing themselves from these resistance movements. It is not long before they are denouncing them without reservation.

I have a concrete suggestion to make: let the left launch an appeal to remove Hamas from the terror lists. At the same time we must ensure that Hezbollah are not added to the terror list. It is the least we can do if we want to support the Palestinian, Lebanese and Arab resistance. It is the minimal democratic condition for supporting the resistance and it is the essential political precondition for the left to have a chance to be heard out by the millions of people involved.

I am fully aware of the fact that my political opinions put me in a small minority of European leftists. This worries me profoundly, not because of my own fate - I am only one activist among many - but for the fate of an ideal, of an end to exploitation of man by man, a struggle which can only happen through the abolition of the imperialist, colonial and neo-colonial system.

Why Hamas is no ‘extremist'

In the mechanistic template imposed by western leaders on the Middle East, of ‘moderates' who must be supported versus ‘extremists' who must be isolated and undermined, Hamas has to be painted, by mechanical necessity alone, as ‘extremists'. Hamas has become the ‘extremists' to answer in neat symmetry to the ‘moderates' of Ramallah, who for other reasons American and European leaders wish in any event to support.Alastair Crooke is co-director of Conflicts Forum, a former EU mediator with Hamas and other Islamist groups and author of ‘Resistance: the Essence of the Islamist Revolution'.

Special offer for openDemocracy readers for Alastair Crooke's book, ‘Resistance: the Essence of the Islamist Revolution’.

But such models, once generally accepted, force a deterministic interpretation that can blind its advocates to the perverse results of such narrow and rigid conceptualising: a defeated and humbled Hamas, western leaders suggested, was to be ‘welcomed' as a blow to Hesballah, which in turn represented a strike at Syria, which weakened Iran - all of which strengthened the ‘moderates'; and, the model implies, serves to make Israel safer. It is a narrative that has reduced the Palestinian crisis to no more than a pawn in the new ‘Great Game' of an existential global struggle waged against ‘extremism'.

The appealing clarity of such a simple, and simplistic, model-making has however obscured its overriding flaw. The pursuit of this narrow formulation of moderates versus extremists has yielded the perverse result - not of bringing nearer a Palestinian state - but of pushing it beyond reach, possibly for good.

On the one hand, Mahmoud Abbas is left discredited, lacking the legitimacy to take forward any political solution: on the other, the ‘extremist' branding of Hamas has enabled the West to block Hamas' and other factions' access to the Palestinian leadership institutions. Palestinian leadership institutions remain captive to one section of Fatah in Ramallah. In short, western policy has brought about a void in which no Palestinian leader, and no Palestinian movement, now has the potential to achieve a credible mandate - or to move forward politically.

Attempts to undermine Hamas have all failed - be they economic siege, political cleansing (with British and American experts grooming a special operations militia around Abbas in order to politically-cleanse the West Bank of Hamas influence), the repression of Hamas' political and charitable institutions, or, more recently, the Israeli military onslaught on Gaza.

The prospect of a Palestinian state has been sacrificed to a flawed political model, thus only serving further to radicalise the region. Hesballah, Syria and Iran have not been weakened: they have emerged stronger. The region has become more polarised and less stable.

But the conceptual failure of the moderate/extremist template extends well beyond Palestine. In essence, the West has got it wrong: It has the wrong Islamists cast as ‘moderates' and the wrong movements cast as ‘extremist'.

We are not here dealing with secularist movements when referring to the western desire to empower ‘moderates' as their allies: These secularist movements, as opposed to the occasional individual, are almost all seen as western proxies, and have little or no influence now. Nor are we writing of certain immoderate ‘moderate' Arab leaders who will do almost anything to ensure their survival; and who will do almost anything to undermine the Islamist movements that challenge them.

The moderate/extremist template is so crucially flawed because it misidentifies the mechanism by which a narrow hatred of all heterodoxy and heresy evolves into something truly dangerous.

This transformation of a narrow literalism into a more dangerous form occurs because the West has tried to use a particular puritan current - Saudi-orientated Salafism - for its own political ends. An oil and military coincidence of interest has given rise to a fifty year Saudi alliance; but also to one of two flawed premises underlying the moderate/extremist template of today: in which Hamas is deemed the ‘extremist' to be hollowed out and contained - ‘contained' incongruously by the very forces that have proved, time and time again, to be the root from which the truly dangerous splinters of extremism have emerged.

Salafists of this type - that is, those who follow a literalist interpretation of the Qur'an, certain sayings attributed to the Prophet, and who try to practice an exact imitation of the conduct of early Muslim believers - are for the most part, peaceful, pious and reformist Islamists who stand aloof from politics and from national and local elections. They are properly ‘apolitical'. But America and Britain have used this current for the past fifty years in order to try to contain trends emerging in the region to which they have taken a dislike.

The branding of Hamas and Hesballah as ‘extremists' has its roots in a pattern of western behaviour established in the 1960s, well before Hamas was formed. This pattern of western behaviour consisted of reliance on ‘apolitical' Salafism, managed and funded by Saudi patrons, to contain and circumscribe firstly, ‘Nasserist' Arab nationalism; then to act as a counter-weight to the spread of Marxism in the region; to contain Soviet influence; to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan; to contain the impact of Shi'ism and the Iranian Revolution; to contain the spread of ‘revolutionary' Islam; and, in Iraq, to contain al-Qae'da and the Shi'i militias. With each successive manifestly political use, essentially in support of perceived western and al-Saud interests, these dissidents have not only become progressively more ‘political' - they have become more violent, immoderate, intolerant and dangerous.

It is when this ‘apolitical' orientation is used politically; or, when major political events impinge adversely on Islam, that it fractures under the stress. With each new fragmentation and splintering, the dissidents become angry, and begin to brood darkly on the predicament of Islam. From this introspection, begins their migration to the ideas and thinking of an earlier and particularly desperate period of Islamic history.

The truly dangerous movements that the West faces - the abu Musab al-Zarqawi affiliates - are all splinters from ‘apolitical' Salafism. Western efforts to hollow-out mainstream Islamists, such as Hamas, have served only to open up the space for the entry of such Salafi splinters. Sunni groups such as al-Qae'da, the Taliban and movements such as Lashgar-i-Toiba are deeply influenced by Salafism, through Deobandism - effectively a form of Salafism transplanted to India.

The West has labelled the ‘wrong' people as ‘extremist'. It is a case of apples and oranges: there is simply no comparison between an armed resistance movement such as Hamas or Hesballah on the one hand; and the violent splinters and haters of heterodoxy and heresy of dissident Salafism, on the other.

Dissident Salafism is the opposing current to that which emerged from the Islamist revolution. Dissident Salafism is counter-revolutionary ‘conservatism': it is anti-reasoning; it is anti-philosophic; it is reductive; anti-heterodox and literalist. It is a current which, in its extreme form, so dislikes any divergence from a narrow literalist ‘puritan' vision of Islam that it stands ready to kill other Muslims who are Sufi, Shi'i or in any way unorthodox: they are as much a danger to their own communities as to the West. It is the ideology of dogmatic closure imposed on all believers.

These forces have come about, have been created, by the practice of abusing a particularly fissiparous ‘apolitical' strand of Islam through its deployment as western proxy - in a parody of a Cold War containment policy - charged with containing the forces of the Islamist revolution. The West bears some responsibility for lighting these fires of extremist schism and dogmatism; although it is no surprise that a western dogmatic closure on Islamism has in turn spewed Muslim movements of extreme dogmatism.

Paradoxically, the West has positioned itself on the wrong side of an ‘old struggle': that between reasoning and philosophy on the one hand, and - on the other hand - literalism in Islamic revelation.

Hamas and Hesballah are not literalists or fundamentalists. We have it the wrong way around. They could not be more different in their thinking from those described above.

In ‘Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution', I have argued that the Islamist revolution is capable of a clear and reasoned explanation. It is neither irrational, nor whimsical, as is often asserted.

It stemmed from the crisis in which Islam found itself in the aftermath of the First World War. Islam was in shock, it was disoriented, and it was struggling to find a solution to its predicament. It embarked on a journey to discover a new ‘Self'; it went back to its roots; and found new insights that gave it political, social and economic ‘solutions' to its problems; it began to imagine itself in new ways. The revolution was about ways of thinking, understanding the human being, and the world in which we live.

It is, in short, a revolution of ideas, of philosophy and some of its conclusions put into question the purpose of politics. It is of course at the outset of this journey. Like any revolution, it remains vulnerable and with major shortcomings - as its architects acknowledge. But the key development is that Islamism has started to transform itself, after 300 years, to be a dynamic religious, social and political force again.

That the Europe of the Enlightenment should have assumed this posture is truly paradoxical. It has arrayed itself with the forces of narrow literalism, reductionism and dogmatism in its illusory quest for a de-politicised, pro-western Islam - against a dynamic questioning of thinking, of understanding and the purpose of politics.

But there is another strand to this story beyond the West's slothful and habitual recourse to a form of Islam that they believed might curb and weaken the intellectual and religious renewal that so disconcerted western leaders. This is the second pillar and the second flawed premise that explains why Hamas, Hesballah and Muslim Brotherhood affiliates have had to stand in as the West's ‘extremists' - and not its ‘moderates'.

Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, evolved in the 1950s a defensive strategy of an ‘alliance of the periphery'. The aim was to balance the ‘vicinity' of hostile Arab states by forming alliances with Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia. It was an attempt to strengthen Israeli deterrence, to reduce its isolation, and to add to her appeal as ‘an asset' for the US.

It was against this background that Iran came to be seen firstly as a ‘natural ally' for Israelis. It was rooted in an imagined cultural affinity between two non-Arab peoples. This sense of close affinity persisted beyond the Iranian Revolution, and prompted even hard-headed Israeli politicians of the Right to reach out to the new Iranian leadership.

But 1990 - 1992 witnessed two events that changed the outlook for the whole region - and set the scene for Iran's demonisation by Israel.

In this brief period, the Soviet Union imploded, and Saddam Hussein was defeated in the first Gulf War. These two events removed both the Russian threat from Iran, and Iraq's threat to Israel. This left Iran and Israel as unchallenged rivals for leadership and pre-eminence in the region. It also saw the US emerge as a unipolar, unchecked power.

Israel read the new map of the Middle East and realised that it needed a new role from that of America's ally against the now-imploded Soviet Union - as the rationale justifying its strategic relationship with Washington.

Emergent Iran was now seen as a threat to Israel whose survival was deemed to depend on its military supremacy. Any prospect of an US-Iranian rapprochement risked undercutting Israel's relationship with the US, and therefore Israel's continued military supremacy too.

Israel, in 1992 in a dramatic move, decided to drop the strategy of wooing the periphery, and instead opted to make peace with the Arabs - a far-reaching and radical reverse of strategy. It was also a highly problematic strategy: whereas the periphery doctrine enjoyed broad popular consensus; its reversal - to seek affinities in the vicinity and to make peace with them - carried no such broad support.

This shift placed Israel and Iran on opposite sides in the new equation, and the change was as intense as it was unexpected: "Iran has to be identified as Enemy No.1," Yossi Alpher, at the time an adviser to Rabin, told the New York Times four days after Clinton's election victory. From this time, Israel and its allies in the US began insistently to accuse Iran of seeking nuclear weapons.

Iran had to be demonised as a part of an ideological shift in Israel. Israel needed to find a new, post-Soviet ‘purpose' to justify its role to the US as indispensible vanguard and ally. It found it in the new war against Islamic ‘extremism'.

Israel's re-configuring of its own template from ‘moderate periphery' versus ‘extremist Arab vicinity' to one defining Iran and political Islam as the new ‘extremists', and certain states of the Arab vicinity as the ‘moderates', inexorably led to Hamas' branding as ‘extremist' by the West too. It is no coincidence, therefore, that it is Israel's own particular ‘enemies' who have become the West's ‘extremists' also - and perhaps no coincidence that the outcome of this conceptualising is a Palestinian state pushed beyond reach.

Quartet Envoy Tony Blair's proselytising around the world on this moderate/extremist theme has been a huge asset for an Israel who has always aspired to be the leading member of a ‘moderate' bloc, rather than an isolated island in a hostile region; but Blair's, and other Quartet members' attempts to fit this simplistic and terribly flawed template over a complex Middle East has left the region a more dangerous and unstable place.

 

The Pakistani identity crisis

Last Monday, at 10pm, my phone beeped.

"The Sri Lankan cricket team attacked by terrorists in Lahore," read the text message.

"This is outrageous," my husband mumbled, reaching for the TV remote.

I did not register footage of the attack in real time. Instead, as the bedlam played out around the Liberty Roundabout in Lahore, my mind turned back to November 2007 when I passed that spot on my last visit to my homeland.

The call to prayer had prompted my driver to mute the volume of the CD player. I controlled a twinge of annoyance to accommodate this gesture of respect. He turned the volume back up when the call ended. I didn't ask him to rewind the part I had missed.

And such is the balance we struck - and were constantly striking in our attempt to build a real pluralistic society.

Because Lahore's dusty embrace was big enough to absorb the designer clad liberals with their swanky parties, and the bearded shopkeeper who halts business five times a day to pray.

The Pakistan I grew up in was always an upholder of Islamic and conservative values in its constitution and in public life. But it remained home to energetic and strong liberal currents. We sustained both elements - albeit not to the same degree. Islamic influence flowed freely through our society, but citizens absorbed it only to the extent they desired. We coexisted in peace.

Now with the rising threat of a militant Islam - that is as frightening to the deeply religious Pakistani as it is to the liberal Pakistani - that balance is teetering.

It has been harder and harder to dismiss the steady trickle of terrorist attacks in Pakistan as random acts of violence. Expats like myself quell the rising waves of panic by calling each other and rehashing theories floating around on cable TV.

"They are targeting government buildings as retaliation against the military strikes in the northwestern tribal areas," I said to my husband when they struck the Lahore High Court last January.

"They are out to get foreigners," I explained to myself when they attacked the Islamabad Marriott in September.

"They hate liberals," I mumbled after the incident at Lahore's World Performing Arts Festival in November.

Ashamed and alarmed as I am at these events, reading and watching the pundit post-mortem is even more painful. More and more, Pakistanis feel blamed for what is happening to our country. Like a pack of salivating hyenas, the experts gather to point fingers at the failed state, the complacent people, the inept government.

I have a hard time reconciling the place of which they speak and my home of twenty four years. Rabia Mughal is a San Francisco-based journalist and writer

They say it is important to disarm an unstable nuclear Pakistan. I don't have a more peaceful memory than that early spring drive by a sun-sprinkled canal brushed by weeping willows. As they warn of Islamic militancy, I remember young couples dancing up a colourful bhangra storm on the night before my wedding. As they discuss the Taliban's bloody campaign against girls' schools, I recall heated political debates with my girlfriends at late night coffee shops.

For my generation of Pakistanis, this disconnect is very real.

We recognise our share of responsibility for the horrors going on inside our borders. There are warped and misguided people in Pakistan as in any country. But I also know from my years in Pakistan that these problems are not exclusively the result of faults in our society.

We made mistakes. Weary of the constant power struggle amongst corrupt leaders we chose to make individual well-being a priority. We placed guards at the gates of our neat bungalows, made quality education the privilege of the few, and neglected the sweeping economic disparity in the country.

So when international terrorism - backed by the wealth of many other countries - chose my homeland as a battleground, they had a ripe recruiting field.

Drones, bombs, and international rebuke are now tuning out the voices of moderate Pakistanis. And it is just as well because for too long we have viewed the war in our own country from a distance. Even though news of violence in troubled border regions was a source of concern in the metros, the Afghan frontier seemed so far away.

Then the conflict spilled into Swat, the picturesque valley not far from Islamabad. Suicide attacks then reached the capital itself, and subsequently Lahore with men detonating themselves a quarter of a mile from my father's office.

Last week's shooting at the Sri Lankan cricket team has finally shaken me into accepting reality. The war on terror will not remain confined to "that region." It is knocking on my door threatening to break it down.

Now that so much is at stake, I realise in a very real sense how heavy a price Pakistan is paying for this war - in civilian blood, in jeopardised security, in a stigmatised national identity, in a murky, unsure future.

Though enmeshed in the conflicts in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Americans view the war as a sad but distant affair, far removed from their own lives. They need to realize that this is their war; the key to solving the problem is not just to urge Pakistan to take more decisive action, but to build a mutual understanding of the "common threat". Just as Pakistanis are waking up to the encroaching disaster, so too must Americans.

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