Monthly Archives: January 2009

Two pieces on the ‘Iran-Hamas’ discussion

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had time in the new year to reflect on the most important topic in the discussion of the Middle East right now: the Israel-Hamas War in Gaza. Fortunately, other people have had time! I recommend the following pieces:

Daniel Luban criticizes the neoconservative and Israeli statements and narratives of Hamas being an ‘Iranian proxy’ to drive home the point that it is not. In these days of all-out propaganda warfare against Iran and actual all-out war on the Palestinian people, this is important reading.

However, with her recent brilliant piece on ‘Israel, Gaza War, Return of “Emboldened Iran” and Obama’, Farideh Farhi places the discussion in a broader perspective. Instead of dwelling on what has become an art in itself – i.e. to determine, weigh and define the nature of Iranian influence on Hamas – Farhi maintains that the recent linking of the Gaza events with ‘the Iran threat’ is part of the general crisis over how to deal with Iran. Farhi also treats an extremely interesting aspect: the Basiji ‘Gaza volunteer’ sit-in in Tehran’s airport. The ‘volunteers’ are demanding to be sent to Palestine, but the state refuses (just as it seems to be restraining Hezbollah). Why? Read Farhi’s article!

More to follow soon!

The Other War

by Sune Haugbolle.

Below is a translation into English of my op-ed on Gaza, published January 9 in the Danish daily Information (to non-Danes: Information is a leftist daily roughly equivalent to the Independent – in fact they publish Robert Fisk’s pieces). Link to the Danish piece here.

The Other War

One the eve of January the 4th, as the IDF rolled over the border crossing into Gaza, the Israeli government’s spokesman Mark Regev appeared on TV screens across the world and assured viewers that the ongoing conflict is nothing more than a defence against Hamas’ rocket attacks. The war simply put.

Israel unquestionably has a security problem in form of Hamas. But this war is about more than Hamas’ rocket attacks and the Israelis’ brutal attempt to stop them. Israel’s attempt to portray the war in 2009 as a defence against the assault of a terrorist enemy conveys a here-and-now image which suits the short time frame of our TV reality, and which consciously tries to obfuscate the broader lines of the Middle East conflict.

Without too much information, or historical memory, it is easy to sympathise with the state of Israel’s wish to neutralise an aggressive enemy on its door step. Regev’s simple formulation probably won the sympathy of many Danes, despite Israel’s continued bombing of densely populated areas and the many reports of civilian casualties, which viewers have had to swallow with their nine o’clock tea – the regrettable collateral damage that we have been taught to accept in every conflict against terrorists.

While the land invasion continues to rage it is important that we keep in mind that the tight Israeli blockade was one of the reasons why Hamas on the 19th of December chose to end the ceasefire from last summer. In the words of one Hamas leader, the blockade gave them choice between starvation and continued struggle. The group probably also reasoned that fighting could provide a way to ease the pressure on them from an increasingly desperate population looking to the de facto government of Hamas for solutions.

The blockade, which several international observers have condemned as an inhuman form of collective punishment, officially serves the purpose of restricting smuggling of weaponry and ammunition into Gaza. Even though Israel in 2005 ended its occupation of the Gaza strip, the IDF still controls access and hence are masters of the area’s aid dependent economy. The southern border crossing is still controlled by another former occupation force in the strip, Egypt.

To Gaza’s citizens, the blockade feels more like a form of collective strangling. By minimising the import of basic goods, materials and fuels to the Gaza strip, Israel has within the last year made most of its 1.5 million inhabitants completely dependent on international aid organisation. According to UNRWA and the World Food Program, which together provide for more than half of Gaza’s total population, in the last two months only a small percentage of clothes, medicine and other basic goods have arrived, as a direct consequence of Israel restricting the number of trucks into Gaza dramatically. How shoes, medicine and tea mugs can be a security threat to anyone is really not clear.

On November the 5th, Israel closed the border crossings to Gaza completely in response to rocket attacks from Hamas, which in their turn came in response to an Israeli incursion killing six Hamas members. The total blockade and quick worsening of an already dire energy and nutrition situation in a few weeks turned a serious humanitarian crisis into a catastrophe.

The blockade is not the only reason for the war, of course. Hamas can be blamed for gambling with ending the ceasefire and attacking Israel when they must have known that the coming Israeli elections could prompt its leaders to react harshly. In a wider sense, the situation today in Palestine also bears witness to what a miserable deadlock the Palestinians’ historic struggle for independence has ended in since the second Intifada in 2000 all but put an end to the Oslo peace process. Yasser Arafat’s successors in Fatah have been too weak, and lacked sufficient American support, to continue the negotiations for an independent Palestinian state, which came close to succeeding at Camp David in 2000.

Of course the lack of Israeli will to end their settlements is the real reason for the death of the Oslo process, but it doesn’t change the sad fact that is the divided and ineffective Palestinian national movement today, since Fatah lost the elections to Hamas in 2006 and was evicted from Gaza in May, 2007.

Since then, Gaza’s international status has, more than ever before, been unclear. Officially the Gaza strip forms part of the Palestinian National Authority, but in effect they are now ruled by Hamas, who, it must be said, have not exactly been the picture of good governance according to reports by Amnesty International and others.

When Fatah left Gaza in 2007, the area entered into a status of no man’s land, in terms of international law. Add to its isolation the fact that many in the West have chosen to adopt the Israeli view of Hamas as a terrorist organisation and a key opponent in the war on Islamist terror in which we are supposedly engaged. These discursive constructions of Gaza as illegitimate and isolated make the war tolerable and justifiable to the Western public. They are designed to do so. And they make it possible to drink that nine o’clock tea even if it’s now starting to taste a tad bit bitter from the increasing hundreds of civilian casualties.

What ever one might think of Hamas’s violent ideology and the negative impact it has had on the peace process, there is no denying the fact that the group is the main political representative of the Palestinians in Gaza. And the Palestinians must not be robbed of political representation in the face of Israel – that would, politically speaking, be the greatest crime of all. For the time being, there is no alternative to Hamas. Even if they are really toppled in the coming weeks, it is impossible to see Mahmoud Abbas somehow entering Gaza on the back of an Israeli tank.

In fact, despite the pounding they are taking in these days, Hamas in all probability will remain the political representatives. The lessons Israel should have learned from the war against Hizbollah in 2006 is that such organisations which rest on social networks cannot be knocked over by bombs. Hamas is not a series of buildings, but an ideology of Islamic resistance that will only be strengthened by a long and bloody fight.

In a regional context, Hamas belongs to the group of Islamic non-state organisations which, like Hizbollah, claim the right to fight Israel independent of the state. What Israel and the West have apparently failed to register is that these organisations thrive on war and sacrifice. Seen through the optic of martyrdom even a bloody defeat is the foundation of future victory.

Thus, the war is part of a regional struggle between Arab states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan who support an American dictated peace in the Middle East – and to which group Abbas belongs – and on the other side the rejection front consisting of Hizbollah, Syria, Iran and Hamas.

If the strategic calculation from Israel’s side has been to strengthen Mahmiud Abbas and the moderate Arab states by neutralising Hamas militarily, then that is unlikely to succeed, an besides an almost incredible misreading of the empathy of other Palestinians and Arabs. The longer this war continues, and the more civilians are killed, the more support Hamas will get from Arab populations. Exactly like in 2006, the war in 2009 spells out a dilemma in Arab politics, namely that while most Arab governments have been edging towards normalisation with Israel, great parts of its populations back up the uncompromising Islamic resistance groups.

That fact is not least due to the direct, unmitigated and often emotional view of the war offered by TV channels. Al-Jazeera, still the most widely viewed Arab TV channel, has so far covered the war in way that bears witness to the strong, and in may ways understandable, wish among Arab media and Arab publics to counter what they see as the West’s hypocritical attempt to cover this as a war of two equal sides – Mark Regev’s “rocket logic.” The result so far has been a media coverage which, to a large extent, makes Hamas the heroes and martyrs they want to be.

This is what the war in 2009 is about: structural violence against a brutalised people, a divided Palestinian political class, and strengthening of the extreme positions in Israel, which will soon be lead by a right wing government, among the Palestinians, who can be forgiven for giving up hope that they have a partner for peace in Israel, as well as in the Arab populations who turn against their own leaders in disgust. Violence breeds violence and, what is worse, self-righteousness.

Obama, Clinton and the need for a new look on the Darfur ‘genocide’

by Anders Hastrup.

The crisis in Darfur has captured public imagination in the US and thus the rest of the Western world in a manner unprecedented for a conflict on the African continent. Not since the anti-apartheid campaigns in the 1980s have students on US campuses been so passionately concerned about the plight of civilian Africans. Never before have the US public and various lobby groups from all sides of the political spectrum and different religious organizations been speaking with such a united voice about ending what former Secretary of State Colin Powell called a “genocide” in 2004. In their respective presidential campaigns both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have openly criticised the Bush administration for not putting any action behind the declaration and ending the genocide in Darfur. Before the new US administration takes over and we can expect a tougher line on the Sudanese government responsible for atrocities in Darfur, should Obama put force behind his words, it is of great importance that everyone engaged with the Darfur in the US read this piece and try to revise the root causes of the current tragedy and use these reflections to create a more balanced response. In this piece I wish to highlight some of the problems in labelling Darfur a “genocide” and separating the history of this tragedy from the history of the rest of Sudan.

Before moving on with some of the shortcomings of seeing Darfur as an unprecedented catastrophe in both the history of Sudan and Africa, let me say that I thoroughly appreciate the efforts of individuals, students, journalists, celebrities, community organisations, religious and political figures in the US who have put an incredible amount of energy in speaking out for the plight of the suffering civilians of Darfur. I myself have lived in Sudan for more than 2 years and have spent more than 1 one year working with the many internally displaced persons in the huge camps in Darfur. I have witnessed a humanitarian situation that has only deteriorated, families fleeing their homes for the second and third time all telling their stories of husbands slain in front of their wives, sexual violence and burnt down villages. I have met women gang-raped so violently they were unable to walk months after it took place, I have seen infants on the brink of starvation who I know can no longer possibly be alive as humanitarian access has been hindered by the deliberate attacks on NGO and UN vehicles all through Darfur.

I do not wish to downplay the need for action and upgraded international engagement, yet in my view a continued uncritical use of the term “genocide” where “Arabs” kill “Africans” to describe the horrors in Darfur is not only historically wrong, it may potentially be counterproductive and reproduce the current patterns of conflict, where civilians pay the highest price. Here is why:

•    The Sudanese government armed loyal Arab militias, the janjaweed, to carry out a scorched earth campaign as a counter insurgency strategy crushing an armed rebellion against the Khartoum government in 2003-2004. This led to the displacement of more than 2 million people, mostly non- Arab Africans throughout Darfur. However, many senior janjaweed commanders did not feel they where adequately rewarded by the Sudanese government wherefore they turned against Khartoum. In some cases these Arab rebels formed new alliances with the rebels they had set out to crush. Across ethnic boundaries they came together in unified resistance to Khartoum.
•    Since the failed Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006, where only one of the rebel-fractions signed a deal with Khartoum a new front has opened between the two major African tribes in Darfur, the SLA/M, who signed the deal, and SLA/AW who didn’t. The SLA/M has carried out campaigns against civilians allegedly supporting SLA/AW in a very brutal manner. So brutal, in fact, that the SLA/M soldiers have been nicknamed “janjaweed 2”, their use of scorched earth campaigns and sexual violence a repetition of the horrors initially imposed on themselves and their fellow Africans by the horse-mounted Arab militiamen.
•    The reasons for joining the janjaweed militias were, and are primarily economic. It is not the first time the Sudanese government arms Arab militias and make them do the dirty job. In the eighties they were known as murahaliin and were instrumental in securing the border South of Darfur against the rebel group SPLA. They also carried out massacres against the civilian African population of the Dinka tribe in the South Darfur/South Sudan borderland. These militias who undertake such atrocities are not a master-race of Arabs from Khartoum but traditionally the poorest and most desperate of Darfur’s population. Unfortunately, NGOs have failed to grasp this socio-economic dimension as a major root cause of the conflict. Very few food aid or development programs have integrated the Arabs, whose livelihood opportunities are as destroyed as those of the “Africans”. Because of the “genocide” term and the continuing use of the “Arab” vs. “African” dichotomy by western media and lobby groups, giving food aid to Arabs is not politically correct. Many Arabs are thus marginalised by both the Sudanese government and the international agencies in the most expensive relief operation in the world. The pull towards human rights abusing militias thus remains compelling should the Arab tribes continue to feel this double marginalisation.

I have previously written a thesis on the history of displacement in Sudan using my year working in the biggest camp for the displaced in Darfur where these points are put in an elaborate historical perspective. A summary of my fieldwork and a discussion of the coexistence between an international vocabulary of human rights and universal justice and the local experiences of the displaced of Darfur can be found in the article “Violating Darfur. The Emergent truth of Categories in my own and Sune Haugbolle’s “The Politics of Violence, Truth and Reconciliation in the Arab Middle East”.

Let me conclude these remarks by reiterating my gratefulness to all individuals far away from Darfur and most notably in the US, where a tougher Darfur policy can be expected from the Obama administration, for their compassion with the Darfurians and their earnest desire to end the current catastrophe. Perhaps because I have been there so long and seen the situation change and words and meanings shift that I am uncomfortable uncritically applying the term “genocide”.

Tony Blair, special envoy to the Knightsbridge Armani store

by Sune Haugbolle.

Kul ‘am wa intu bikhair! In these war times it is nice to know that we have skilled diplomats who work day and night to secure a ceasefire. Thanks to Mark Farha for allerting me to the story.

Tony Blair, special envoy to the Middle East, has been spending Christmas and New Year with his family, only arriving in his Jerusalem office on Saturday, just in time to watch the land invasion from a safe distance. 

“For at least part of the time he was in London, where he was spotted at a special private opening of the Armani store in Knightsbridge,” the Daily Mail reports

“Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said: ‘People in the Middle East are entitled to ask themselves, “Where is Tony Blair?”

“‘So far he has been conspicuous by his absence.’”

“In a weekend interview, Gordon Brown was asked if he had talked to his predecessor since the crisis began. He replied: ‘Tony’s on holiday at the moment.’”

Well, with hard work he has put in in 2008, he must have badly needed one. 

More Gaza related entries soon. In the meantime, I recommend the commentaries by Robert Fisk here and here, and Glenn Greenwald here and here.

New article on ethnic unrest in Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

I would like to draw to your attention my recently published article on ethnic unrest in Iran:

‘State of Mind, State of Order: Reactions to Ethnic Unrest in the Islamic Republic of Iran’ in Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, vol. 8, issue 3, December 2008. Read the abstract here.