Sunday, 20 May 2007

The Middle East

The answering hills of Palestine
Send back the glad reply.

The Palestinian Problem

I'm sure you all know of the general problems of Palestine and Israel. But what may have escaped your notice is the sudden revival of fighting in the past few days. Here's a synopsis: over the past week, numerous ceasefires between the rival Palestinian factions have been declared and broken. Palestinian militants have begun strikes on Israel once more, and thus Israel has begun retaliatory attacks.

After a six-month period of relative peace and stability, the violence has started again properly. More than 20 have been killed by Israeli air-strikes launched in retaliation to the scores of rockets which have struck Israeli towns.

The real violence, though, is actually between the Palestinians. There are two groups of Palestinian militants and politicians: Fatah and Hamas. Fatah was instrumental in the fight against Israel for a degree of independence, but have at least officially renounced arms. When they started to compromise, Hamas took over, as a much more extreme militant group. Unlike the IRA and Sinn Fein, Hamas doesn't even pretend to have any separation between terrorists and politicians. They belong to the same group. This has led the West to cease aid to Palestine, but that's a different story.

In Palestine at the moment, the President is a member of Fatah. But Hamas won the recent elections. Since then, there has been a fraught and bitter power-struggle between the two rival groups. Thus, Fatah gunmen are loyal to the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas; Hamas gunmen to the Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniya.

Yet the solution is not even that simple. The politicians do try to work together. They have a 'unity government', and have declared many cease-fires this week. But their militant 'followers' don't follow too closely. According to the UN, more than 150 Palestinians have died and more than 650 have been wounded in internal violence since the beginning of the year. In the past week, 40 have been killed. On Tuesday, 500 Fatah loyalists rejoined police ranks after military training in Egypt, amongst the growing violence. And the violence has continued to grow.

So what can we actually do about this crisis? For once, I do not think we can do anything at all. I think that for once, the blame lies squarely on the side of the Palestinians. Perhaps His Eminence would disagree. But how can any progress be made when Gaza is in such chaos? Consider the situation, as described by the honourable BBC:

Gaza is not an easy place to live at the best of times.

One of the most crowded areas of the world, where unemployment is high, people are poor and the economy crippled by an international boycott and Israel withholding desperately-needed Palestinian tax-revenues.

More than 50% of Gazans are 17 years old or younger. Most feel they have no prospects at home but no way to get out.

Foreign powers control all of Gaza's borders; opening and closing them at will. Gaza is also awash with illegal weapons.

This is an ongoing, explosive mix of internal and external pressures, all of which need to be addressed.

In this situation, there is nothing to do but to rally round and get on. And I don't mean get on with one's own life. I mean get on with one's neighbours. If a country is in chaos and crisis, co-operation is needed. If the Tories and Labour declared a civil war, would that save the Pensions fund? Altogether unlikely.

Perhaps it will be that the air-strikes will help the Palestinians work together in the face of a common foe. But that can only be cold comfort.

Alan Johnston banner


Gavin said...

In other words, Hamas are like the Real IRA while Fatah are like the Provisional IRA.

I think the desperate poverty and destitution of the Palestinians has two causes which inter-relate in a chicken-and-egg scenario. The first reasons is that Israel oppresses them, thus keeping them in their present condition. The second is that brutal in-fighting (Palestinians fighting Palestinians), terrorism, and Arab-Israeli violence keep Gaza and the West Bank from economic growth and prosperity. Now, the reason Israel oppresses them is because of the violence (i.e. terrorism), but the reason there is violence is that Israel oppresses them.

It's very similar to Northern Ireland. Catholics were once totally economically oppressed, i.e. there was open discrimination by protestants, who owned all the businesses and controlled all the money. Nationalists blamed the oppression of the protestant Unionists for their poverty. Unionists blamed the poverty on the quasi-civil war climate created by Republican terrorism. N Ireland was classified as a 3rd world country because of its total lack of investment.

So you have a conundrum. Oppressed people (Catholics / Palestinians) say there will be no end to the violence until there are concessions from the oppressors (protestants / Israel). The oppressors say there will be no concessions until the violence stops. Therefore the situation perpetuates itself.

These conflicts also bring out Lord of the Flies-esque tendencies, especially when there is in-fighting between groups on the same side. For example, Hamas and Fatah are at each other's throats, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Defence Association, the Loyalist Freedom Fighters, the Red Hand Commandos and all the other loyalist paramilitaries have just descended into gangsterism. They are on the same side of the "debate", but the climate of violence and lawlessness leads the dividing up of cities into ghettoes controlled by certain paramilitaries. Eventually all trace of the original conflict fades away as it becomes mindless killing.

Northern Ireland represents a prototype for solving the Middle East. We may not like it, but by including the terrorists in the political process (i.e. turning Sinn Fein / IRA into a political party rather than a terrorist group), you can keep the war in the debate chamber. While Northern Ireland's politcians are arguing about who should have won the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, its people are experiencing economic boom and growing wealth (since the violence has stopped), and this in turn alleviates one of the key republican grievances (poverty). The better their livs get, the less they want to plant bombs. The same idea can be applied to the Middle East. If the Palestinians were included in the state of Israel, even though they want independence (like Sinn Fein being included in British politics when they hate Britain), peace and stability would generate wealth, and the call for separation and warfare would decline.

Gavin said...

P.S. As a traditionalist Conservative I am quite sceptical about the state of Israel, unlike the Israelophile New Right. Israel may be a democratic, Western state (which Thatcherites and Reaganites are mad about), but its creation upset the balance of traditional powers in the Middle East (Palestine having previously been a British Empire protectorate). Not to mention the displacement of Palestinian Christians.