It won’t end

The bombing has resumed in Gaza after what had looked like a promising cease-fire agreement broke down all too quickly. The two sides, Hamas and Israel, had repeatedly extended the reprieve as talks in Cairo, brokered by Egypt, continued. Alas, the talks came to naught. The negotiators were too far apart, with two key issues creating huge stumbling blocks: the economic blockade of Gaza, and Hamas’s armed capabilities. Hamas is demanding the end of the former, Israel the end of the latter. Each conditions their acquiescence on the prior action of the other side: Hamas will disarm if Israel ends the blockade, Israel will end the blockade when Hamas disarms.

And thus, as for the last fifty years, we have a stalemate. Even if this round of fighting and talking miraculously leads to a breakthrough (partial disarmament for a bit of economic relief, perhaps), the deadlock will just re-emerge in another form. Neither side has any incentive to make serious, painful concessions because they won’t gain anything if they do.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as real and important and heart-breaking as it is, is also a proxy war. The behind-the-scenes belligerents are America and Iran, two of the world’s most bitter foes. Their animosity fuels the activities of Hamas (supported by Iran) and funds the Israeli’s disproportionate response (America supplies the IDF). As with all Middle Eastern conflicts, everyone gets drawn in by the cobweb of geo-political, religious and downright cynical allegiances which smothers the region.

There is some sign that America’s blind support of Israel has become a little more conditional on good behaviour, but this is only likely to last as long as Obama’s presidency. In the long run, with a hawkish Republican or different kind of Democrat (read: one who relies on the money of the Jewish lobby) in the White House, Israel can trust in America to have its back, especially as it desperately tries to retain a foothold in the region now that many of its old dictator friends have fallen.

On the other hand, Iran backs Hamas as a mere pawn in its plan to dominate the Middle East and create a Shia monopoly on power and, in turn, belittle Washington  into leaving the region alone. For this to happen, Israel must be weakened.

Until these two begin to work together, there is little hope of peace in Palestine. The prospect seems unlikely, although they have recently found common cause with opposition to the Islamic State. It is doubtful that this small glimmer of shared aspiration will materialise into anything more; America and Iran are still on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, a conflict not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

The best bet is to appeal to Iran’s craving for stability, and to tweak sanctions in response to its behaviour – good or bad. In the US, it is time that politicians on all side explain that a wish to see a two-state solution in Palestine is not an abandonment of Israel. Until we end the proxy war, rounds of violence will continue to devastate Gaza. Don’t hold your breath.

Iraq and the West are haunted by history

Once again, Iraq is tearing itself apart. The country’s existence as a cohesive whole is now in more danger than it was at the height of the civil war in 2006/07, when the yearly civilian death count was over 20,000. Now, with a disintegrating Syria providing an ideal base for terrorism, Iraq is being threatened by ISIS, a group aiming to establish an Islamic caliphate across much of the Middle East.

Much of the debate swirls around the controversies of Western intervention. Two apparently contradictory questions are being asked again and again: did the 2003 invasion set up the conditions for ISIS’s emergence (namely, the severe weakening of the Iraqi state, and the dominance of Nuori al-Maliki’s Shia government over minority Sunnis)? And, even so, should the West act again, to save the Iraq it spent so much blood to create?

But there is one Western act neglected in the endless news articles and opinion pieces, and it is the one perhaps most crucial in understanding ISIS’s determination to redraw the map (and, as it happens, sheds a lot of light on the recent history of both Iraq and Syria): the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1917. As WWI put strain on the empires of France and Britain, the countries’ diplomats drew up a plan for a quasi-independent Middle East; dividing their territory into countries with arbitrary strokes of a pen. Thus, the region’s countries never lined up with its nations, and the stage was set for the next 100 years of bloody strife.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement failed, crucially, to distinguish between Sunni and Shia Arab areas, resulting in the formation of countries with sizeable minorities and powerful majorities. Sometimes, as was the case in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it is the minority group which wields power – often by force. It is hard to overstate the feelings of animosity between Sunnis and Shias, especially in the most polarised countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon); there hasn’t been peace between the two groups since the great schism after Muhammad’s death.

Al-Maliki’s divisive style of government has not helped matters, but it is naïve to blame the Prime Minister for all of is his country’s woes. Iraq is a product of Western imperialism – and in many ways should never have existed in its current form. ISIS is abhorrent for many reasons, but its rejection of arbitrary borders isn’t one of them; it is based, instead, on an embedded historical narrative.

So we have to ask ourselves, is Iraq’s integrity really our paramount priority? In the case of the former Yugoslavia, the West advocated self-determination for ethnic minorities, and now many countries exist where once stood just one. Surely the same right cannot be denied to the peoples of the Middle East. And yet, the consequences of the dissolution of Iraq are hard to fathom, both within its current borders and worldwide. Having misguidedly brought the country into being, the West is bound to defend it. There is no righting the mistakes of history.

Stop stereotyping Northwest Africa

The events of recent weeks, in both Algeria and Mali, seems to have surprised many globe watchers. A militant Islamist force with somewhat inevitable links to Al-Qaeda suddenly began to threaten Bamako, the Malian capital, forcing the ex-colonialist power, France, to intervene and save the city from harsh sharia law. In retaliation to such an ‘invasion’, another force attacked a BP-run oil plant in Algeria, taking hostages and then killing many foreign workers. At a first glance, the continent seems to have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. It took Western media about a day to dub the area ‘the new Middle East’.

But surely the threat was obvious before it became overt? This is a region with problems which hardly anywhere else has to deal with to such extremes – tribalism, vast ungovernable areas, debt, poverty and political instability. Any of these factors would be cause for alarm, taken together it is astounding that Britain’s government is only now focusing on intellegence gathering in the region. The realities which make life for many Africans so hard also breed religious fanaticism. We cannot just be noticing the relationship between cause and effect.

At best, certain recent events have made things worse and caught our attention. The Arab spring has turned countries which once acted the region’s police force (Egypt, particularly) into political quagmires. The Malian rebels grouped together in neighbouring Libya. At worst though, it is only the direct threat to Western lives and interests which has made us care about the world’s most vulnerable nations.

Leaving this debate over the reasons for the West’s unpreparedness for you to mull over, I want to examine why the press’s comparison of Northwest Africa to the Middle East is flawed. And flawed it is.

One of the central causes of Middle Eastern Islamism in recent years has been systematic repression and abuse by entrenched militarist regimes. This hasn’t been the case in Africa. Here, although political freedom has been scant, there has not been any stable regimes. If the Middle East has suffered from overbearing power, northwest Africa has suffered from a vacuum of it. The West would do well to remember this crucial difference as it attempts to help liberalise both regions. It should also keep in mind that its aim is not just fighting terrorism directed at its shores, but also securing the safety of its southern neighbours.

Finally, Palestine?

Yesterday the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas received a standing ovation from the UN General Assembly as he presented his country’s bid for statehood to the Security Council. It was by all accounts an historic moment. And yet, amid the furore, we all knew that the Council will not pass the bill because of the US, whose government is doubly bound to its obligation to oppose a Palestinian state. Firstly, the US and Israel are joined at the hip, and secondly no one in America is willing to risk the wrath of American Jews a year before the election. They will, therefore, veto any positive ruling.

Which is a shame, really. Everyone, even the US and Israel, has long been agreed that peace in the Middle East will only be achieved with the creation of two separate states (apart from the Palestinian, Islamist group Hamas – which still wants to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth). I too am an advocate of the two state solution. Problems have arisen, however, because no one can agree where these states should draw their boarders. The popular refrain is ‘along the pre-1967 lines, with land swaps’ which means nothing and is a fantastic way to avoid saying anything that could lead anywhere. One feels as if one is walking in circles. In my opinion, the US should stop playing to political agenda and get something moving.

The case is also moral. I have no problem with the idea of the Israeli state being where it is. There is an obvious and compelling historical – as well as religious – case for its location. Very few people would disagree with me. Therefore, does it not follow that the Palestinians have an equal right to a state in the area, having lived there for just as long? What makes Israelis more important than Palestinians? It would be possible to argue that the West’s long-term backing of Israel constitutes religious discrimination. The Palestinians deserve their country.

No matter what I write here, the US will veto a Palestinian state at the UN Security Council. Mahmoud Abbas has foreseen this and has already made plans to return to the General Assembly. The Assembly does not have the power to grant full statehood, but it can award the Palestinians the status of an ‘observer state’, on par with the Vatican. Judging by the reception Mr Abbas got yesterday, the Assembly is eager to further the Palestinian cause. Being an observer state would give the Palestinians more clout at any new negotiations with Israel, which can only be a good thing – providing they forgo their prerequisites before talks begin. Palestine is not about to spring onto the map, but with a little luck and a lot more judgement, a two state peace deal may be a tiny bit closer. Don’t hold your breath though.