An interview with Gilbert Achcar, Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Conducted on January 10, before the withdrawal of the IDF from Gaza, some of his speculations about the future course of events seem irrelevant in retrospect. His analysis of the Palestinian political situation and the wider dynamics of the Middle East, though, remains spot on.
I’m no big fan of Rashid Khalidi. He is a rather tame academic, not quite the fighter that Edward Said was. When in 2007 the London Review of Books organized a symposium in New York on the Israel Lobby, he, to the bemusement of his own debating partners, spent the better part of his time arguing against his own side. Like many veterans of the PLO, he remains too much of a Fatah man to be a spokesman for all Palestinians. He recently made comments during his trip to Egypt which could have come from Muhammad Dahlan’s script. However, now it appears even he is finding it hard to be a Fatah man. The following is a more nuanced analysis of the Gaza situation than his earlier words in Egypt but he takes a few disingenuous digs at Hamas all the same.
It is commonplace to talk about the ‘fog of war’, but war can also clarify things. The war in Gaza has pointed up the Israeli security establishment’s belief in force as a means of imposing ‘solutions’ which result in massive Arab civilian suffering and solve nothing. It has also laid bare the feebleness of the Arab states, and their inability to protect Palestinian civilians from the Israeli military, to the despair and fury of their citizens. Almost from the moment the war began, America’s Arab allies – above all Egypt – found themselves on the defensive, facing accusations of impotence and even treason in some of the largest demonstrations the region has seen in years. Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hizbullah in Lebanon, reserved some of his harshest criticism for the Mubarak regime; at Hizbullah rallies, protesters chanted ‘Where are you, Nasser?’ – a question that is also being asked by Egyptians.
The rumbling from Gaza, writes Hassan Nafaa, is the overture to something truly momentous.
The birth of the Arab system is usually associated with the creation of the Arab League (AL), in 1945. But two earlier developments paved the way for the AL’s creation. One was that Egypt, acting as the key country in the region, had a clear vision of what it wanted to do and was ready to act on that vision when regional and international circumstances were right — which is exactly what happened after the end of WWII. The other was that the conflict in Palestine had reached a point where most Arab countries recognised the danger posed by the creation of an independent Jewish state in their midst.
Reeling from the protracted fighting of World War II, Britain gave its endorsement for any scheme promoting unity among the Arabs. The endorsement, which was made public in 1943, was aimed to deter Arab countries from siding with Germany. Egypt, at the time ruled by a Wafd government led by Mustafa El-Nahhas, saw its chance. Soon it opened bilateral and multilateral consultations with Arab countries in an effort to lay down the framework of a regional political structure. The AL came into being as a result. It wasn’t a first step towards federalism as many hoped but a congregation of seven semi-independent countries willing to pass resolutions by consensus, more of a political club than a blueprint for unity.
Contributors to the London Review of Books — the best publication out there — react to events in Gaza.
A few weeks before the assault on Gaza, the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army published alevelheaded document on ‘Hamas and Israel’, which argued that ‘Israel’s stance towards the democratically-elected Palestinian government headed by Hamas in 2006, and towards Palestinian national coherence – legal, territorial, political and economic – has been a major obstacle to substantive peacemaking.’ Whatever their reservations about the organisation, the authors of the paper detected signs that Hamas was considering a shift of position even before the blockade:
It is frequently stated that Israel or the United States cannot ‘meet’ with Hamas (although meeting is not illegal; materially aiding terrorism is, if proven) because the latter will not ‘recognise Israel’. In contrast, the PLO has ‘recognised’ Israel’s right to exist and agreed in principle to bargain for significantly less land than the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, and it is not clear that Israel has ever agreed to accept a Palestinian state. The recognition of Israel did not bring an end to violence, as wings of various factions of the PLO did fight Israelis, especially at the height of the Second (al- Aqsa) Intifada. Recognition of Israel by Hamas, in the way that it is described in the Western media, cannot serve as a formula for peace. Hamas moderates have, however, signaled that it implicitly recognises Israel, and that even a tahdiya (calming, minor truce) or a hudna, a longer-term truce, obviously implies recognition. Khalid Mish’al states: ‘We are realists,’ and there is ‘an entity called Israel,’ but ‘realism does not mean that you have to recognise the legitimacy of the occupation.’ Continue reading “LRB contributors react to events in Gaza”
A much needed historical corrective by Howard Friel to the amnesia that seems to have engulfed much of mainstream media coverage of the war on Gaza:
June 18, 2008
Israel has approved a ceasefire to end months of bitter clashes with the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas in Gaza, Israeli officials have confirmed. Under the terms of the truce, which is set to begin Thursday (June 19), Israel will ease its blockade on the Gaza Strip. At the same time, talks to release an Israeli soldier [Gilad Shalit] held by Hamas would intensify, an Israeli official said. Hamas, which controls Gaza, says it is confident that all militants will abide by the truce [by not firing rockets into southern Israel]. The agreement is supposed to last six months. (Emphasis added) (“Israel Agrees to Gaza Ceasefire,” BBC, June 18, 2008)
Continue reading “Chronology: Which Side Violated the Ceasefire?”
‘Holding Out in Gaza: Waiting for the Israelis‘. Safa Joudeh in Time reporting on the ongoing Nakba in Gaza:
As Israeli tanks push deeper and deeper into the Gaza Strip from the north, south and east each night, we feel certain that come morning, Phase 3 of the Israeli offensive will be upon us. Yet the Israeli military seems insistent upon teasing the population, playing a ruthless game of terror against those living in neighborhoods that are at the forefront of the incursions, which are heavily bombarded each night. Each afternoon, four families of relatives who live only five minutes away from us gather their blankets, clothes and valuables and arrive at our front door, fearing that this will be the night. Each morning they return to their homes, thankful that, so far, only minimal damage has been done to their houses during the night. Each morning the Israeli military retreat to their original posts, on the outskirts of the neighborhoods. So far.
“Our struggle is not against the Jewish people, but against oppression and occupation. This is not a religious war,” says Basim Naim, Gaza’s Minister of Health, in the Guardian:
We believe in resistance, not revenge
Sixteen days into its attack, Israel continues to bombard all areas in the Gaza strip from F16s, Apache helicopters, ships and tanks. Weapons used against our people include white phosphorus rockets, made in America, which burn the skin black and destroy human soft tissue completely. Now we can hear shooting around the outskirts of Gaza City.
Ninety per cent of the targets attacked are civilian. Of nearly 900 confirmed dead, 32% are children. More than 40% of the 4,000 wounded are children, while medical centres and 13 ambulances have been destroyed.
Hamas is not the only group fighting against this aggression: its fighters are joined by members of Islamic Jihad, the PFLP and Fatah. But the popularity of Hamas has increased during the invasion. Every occupied people has the right to resist if negotiation fails. People know very well that those who took the other path – of negotiation without resistance – got nothing from it: only more settlements, checkpoints, killings, prisoners and occupation without end.
Some thoughts in favour of plain speech concerning Zionism.
The numbers of the dead don’t mean much any more. It was round about the five hundred mark when I realised the impact of death on my mind was lightening. There are pictures on the internet – burning half bodies, a head and torso screaming, corpses spilt in a marketplace like unruly apples, all the tens and tens of babies and children turned to outraged dust – but how many pictures can you keep in your heart? How much anguish can you feel? Enough anguish to mourn 500 human beings? And of what quality can your anguish be? Can it be as intense as the anguish a bystander to the murder would feel? As intense as that of a friend of a victim, or of a father? What about the fathers who have seen all their children burn?
I remember the days when I was outraged if ten were killed in one go. Ah, happy days! Ten in one go would be good. But of course, this is what the enemy wants: the enemy wants us to value Arab life as little as it does. It wants us to stay in our numbness, to descend deeper in. It wants us to forget.
On February 29 last year the BBC’s website reported that Israel’s deputy defense minister Matan Vilnai had threated a ‘holocaust’ on Gaza. The story would undergo nine revisions in the next twelve hours with the original headline — “Israel warns of Gaza ‘holocaust'”– replaced by “Gaza militants ‘risking disaster’“. (The story has been revised again since then with an exculpatory note added to soft-pedal Vilnai’s comments). One can see why an Israeli threatening a ‘holocaust’ might be unpalatable to those who routinely invoke its spectre to deflect criticism from the Jewish state’s criminal behaviour. In a deft move, not only had the BBC redacted the reference to a ‘holocaust’, it also shifted culpability into the hands of the ‘Gaza militants’.
One could argue that the BBC’s radical alteration of the story reflects its susceptibility to the kind of inordinate pressure routinely brought to bear by the Israel Lobby. But, as subsequent examples reveal, this story is exceptional only for its initial candor. The norm is reflexive self-censorship. Continue reading “Another Chorister for Israel”
by M. Shahid Alam
“History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.” — Henry Ford, 1916
On some days, a glance at the leading stories in the Western media strongly suggests that Muslims everywhere, of all stripes, have gone berserk. It appears that Muslims have lost their minds.
In any week, we are confronted with reports of Islamic suicide attacks against Western targets in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Western countries themselves; terrorists foiled before they could act; terrorist attacks gone awry; terrorists indicted; terrorists convicted; terrorists tortured; terrorist suspects kidnapped by CIA; or warnings of new terrorist attacks against Western targets.
Unprovoked, without cause – we are repeatedly told – Muslims everywhere, even those living in the West, are lashing out against the civilized West. Many in the Western world – especially in the US – are beginning to believe that the entire Islamic world is on the warpath against Civilization itself.
Expert commentators in Western media want us to believe that the Muslims have lost their minds. They tell us that Muslims are inherently, innately, perverse; that never before has violence been used in this way, against innocent civilians. It is always ‘innocent’ civilians.
Other peoples too have endured colonization, slavery, expulsions, extermination at the hands of Western powers: but none have responded with violence on this scale against the West. Certainly not with violence against civilians. Never have Aborigines, Africans, indigenous Americans, Hindus, Jews, or the Chinese targeted civilians. They never attacked Westerners indiscriminately. They never targeted ‘innocent Western civilians.’
Is this ‘insanity’ slowly raising its head across the Islamic world really unique? Is this ‘insanity’ a uniquely Islamic phenomenon? Is this a uniquely contemporary phenomenon? Is this ‘insanity’ unprovoked?
We cannot of course expect any history from the corporate US media on this Islamic ‘insanity.’ In order to take the moral high ground, to claim innocence, the rich and powerful – the oppressor classes – prefer not to talk about history, or invent the history that serves their interest.
What is surprising, however, is that few writers even on the left bring much history to their analysis of unfolding events. Not being a historian – of Islam, China or Britain – I can only thank serendipity for the little bit of history that I will invoke to provide some background to the ‘malaise’ unfolding in the Islamic world. A little history to connect Islam today to China in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Implausibly – perhaps for some – the history I invoke comes from Friedrich Engels – yes, he of the Communist Manifesto, friend of Karl Marx, revolutionary – writing in May 1857 when the British were waging war against China, known to history as the Second Opium War.
More implausibly, this history comes from an article published in a leading US newspaper: The New York Daily Tribune (available in Marx and Engels Internet Archiv). Yes, in some remote past, a leading US newspaper routinely published commentaries by the likes of Marx and Engels. Today, the publishers of NYT, the Washington Post or LA Times would become apoplectic just thinking about it.
During the First Opium War of 1840-42, when the British waged war to defend their ‘right’ to smuggle opium into China – Friedrich Engels writes — “the people were quiet; they left the Emperor’s soldiers to fight the invaders, and submitted after defeat with Eastern fatalism to the power of the enemy.” Yes, in those times, even enlightened Westerners spoke habitually of Oriental fatalism, fanaticism, sloth, backwardness, and – not to forget their favorite – despotism.
However, something strange had overtaken the Chinese some fifteen years later. For, during the Second Opium War, writes Friedrich Engels, “the mass of people take an active, nay fanatical part in the struggle against the foreigners. They poison the bread of the European community at Hongkong by wholesale, and with the coolest premeditation…They go with hidden arms on board trading steamers, and, when on the journey, massacre the crew and European passengers and seize the boat. They kill and kidnap every foreigner within their reach.”
Had the Chinese decided to trade one Oriental disease for another: fatalism for fanaticism? Ah, these Orientals! Why can’t they just stick to their fatalism? If only the Orientals could stick to their fatalism, all our conquests would have been such cakewalks!
It was no ordinary fanaticism either. Outside the borders of their country, the Chinese were mounting suicide attacks against Westerners. “The very coolies,” writes Friedrich Engels, “emigrating to foreign countries rise in mutiny, and as if by concert, on board every emigrant ship, and fight for its possession, and, rather than surrender, go down to the bottom with it, or perish in its flames. Even out of China, the Chinese colonists…conspire and suddenly rise in nightly insurrection…”
Why do the Chinese hate us?
No doubt the Europeans then were asking this question. And, like the democracy-mongers in the United States today, unwilling to examine the root causes, the history of their own atrocities, unwilling to acknowledge how they “throw hot shell on a defenseless city and add rape to murder,” the Europeans then too were outraged. European statesmen and newspapers fulminated endlessly about Chinese barbarity, calling their attacks “cowardly, barbarous, atrocious…” The Europeans too called for more wars, endless wars, till China could be subdued, totally.
Friedrich Engels was not deceived by the moralizing of the British press. Yes, the Chinese are still ‘barbarians,’ but the source of this “universal outbreak of all Chinese against all foreigners” was “the piratical policy of the British government.” Piratical policy? No, never! We are on a civilizing mission; la mission civilizatrice Européenne. It was not a message that the West has been ready to heed: then or now.
Why had the Chinese chosen this form of warfare? What had gone wrong? Was this rage born of envy; was it integral to the Chinese ethos; was this rage aimed only at destroying the West? Westerners claim “their kidnappings, surprises, midnight massacres” are cowardly; but, Friedrich Engels answers, the “civilization-mongers should not forget that according to their own showing they [the Chinese] could not stand against European means of destruction with their ordinary means of warfare.” In other words, this was asymmetric warfare. If the weaker party in a combat possesses cunning, it will probe and fight the enemy’s weaknesses: not its strengths.
Then as now, this asymmetric warfare caused consternation in the West. How can the Europeans win when the enemy neutralizes the West’s enormous advantage in technology, when the enemy refuses to offer itself as a fixed target, when it deploys merely its human assets, its daring, cunning, its readiness to sacrifice bodies?
“What is an army to do,” asks Engels, “against a people resorting to such means of warfare? Where, how far, is it to penetrate into the enemy’s country, how to maintain itself there?” The West again confronts that question in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. The West has ‘penetrated into the enemy’s country,’ but is having considerable trouble maintaining itself there. Increasingly, Western statesmen are asking: Can they maintain this presence without inviting more attacks?
Friedrich Engels asked the British to give up “moralizing on the horrible atrocities of the Chinese.” Instead, he advises them to recognize that “this is a war pro aris et focis [“for altars and hearth”], a popular war for the maintenance of Chinese nationality, with all its overbearing prejudice, stupidity, learned ignorance and pedantic barbarism if you like, but yet a popular war.” If we can ignore the stench of Western prejudice in this instance, there is a message here that the West might heed. Is it possible that the Muslims too are waging a “popular war,” a war for the dignity, sovereignty of Islamic peoples?
In 1857, the Chinese war against Westerners too was confined to Southern China. However, “it would be a very dangerous war for the English if the fanaticism extends to the people of the interior.” The British might destroy Canton, attack the coastal areas, but could they carry their attacks into the interior? Even if the British threw their entire might into the war, it “would not suffice to conquer and hold the two provinces of Kwangtung and Kwang-si. What, then, can they do further?”
The United States and Israel now hold Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. How strong, how firm is their hold? On the one hand, they appear to be in a much stronger position than the British in China. They have the ‘rulers’ – the Mubaraks, Musharrafs and Malikis – in their back pockets. But how long can these ‘rulers’ stand against their people?
What if the insurgency that now appears like a distant cloud on the horizon – no larger than a man’s fist – is really the precursor of a popular war? What if the “extremists,” “militants,” “terrorists,” are the advance guard of a popular war to restore sovereignty to Islamic peoples? Can the US and Israel win this war against close to a quarter of the world’s population? Will this be a war worth fighting: worth winning?
Shouldn’t these great powers heed the words of Friedrich Engels? Shouldn’t they heed history itself. After nearly a century of hard struggle, the Chinese gained their sovereignty in 1948, driving out every imperialist power from its shores? Today, China is the world’s most powerful engine of capitalist development. It threatens no neighbor. Its secret service is not busy destabilizing any country in the world. At least not yet.
Imagine a world today – and over the past sixty years – if the West and Japan had succeeded in fragmenting China, splintering the unity of this great and ancient civilization, and persisted in rubbing China’s face in the dirt? How many millions of troops would the West have to deploy to defends its client states in what is now China – the Chinese equivalents of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq? If Vietnam bled the United States, imagine the consequences of a quagmire in China?
Would the United States prefer this turbulent but splintered China – held down at massive costs in blood and treasure, with bases, client states, wars, and unending terrorist attacks on American interests everywhere in the world – to the China that it has today, united, prosperous, at peace; a competitor but also one of its largest trading partners?
At what cost, and for how long, will the United States, Europe and Israel continue to support the splintering, occupation and exploitation of the Islamic heartland they had imposed during World War I? At what cost – to themselves and the peoples of the Islamic world? There are times when it is smarter to retrench than to hold on to past gains.
That time is now: and that time may be running out.
Another turn of the screw – another attack by the United States or Israel – and this window may close irrevocably. If wars, civil conflicts or revolutions sweep across the Islamic world – unlike the Chinese revolution, most likely this turbulence will not be confined to one segment of Asia. In one way or another, this violence will draw the whole world into its vortex. One cannot even begin to imagine all the ramifications, all the human costs of such a conflagration.
The most vital question before the world today is: Can the United States, Israel or both be prevented from starting this conflagration?
M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Challenging the New Orientalism (2007). He may be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at: http://aslama.org. © M. Shahid Alam.