Monday, March 30, 2009

The Day More Than the Music Died

A Palestinian children's orchestra from Jenin, in the West Bank has been disbanded after performing for a group of Holocaust survivors in Israel proper.

Palestinian officials said that the children and their parents had been mislead and that they had not been informed that the audience would be Holocaust survivors. The leader of the orchestra, an Israeli-Arab woman has been banned from Jenin and accused of the 'crime' of attempting to normalize relations with Israel.

Herein lies the problem. Neither the children not the survivors in the audience did anything wrong. Each were exposed to each other and new understandings were created. The survivors understanding the harsh lives of these children and the children meeting, perhaps for the first time, not only Jewish civilians but actual Holocaust survivors. As the articles above note, Palestinian children don't often receive a full education on the Holocaust which is a politicized subject for them. The opportunity for them to meet survivors, therefore, is not only an important life experience, but also another chance to try to understand Israelis, Jews and the Israeli national psyche, if there is such a thing.

Even more disturbing is the quote from the Palestinian official who shut down the orchestra:
"The Holocaust happened, but we are facing a similar massacre by the Jews themselves," Hindi said. "We lost our land, and we were forced to flee and we've lived in refugee camps for the past 50 years."
Palestinians have legitimate grievances, however, nothing that has happened to Palestinians, can be described as "similar" to what happened to Jews and millions of other "undesirables" in the Holocaust. Any such comparisons reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the Holocaust.

It's a shame that children should be punished for an educational and peacebuilding experience. It's a true loss that the orchestra leader will be denied the opportunity to lead these children on other, similar peacebuilding missions--concerts that help to build understanding and put a human face on the "other."

Rather than being banned, Wafa Younis, the orchestra leader, should receive an award from both the Israeli and Palestinian governments for working towards building an understanding between peoples and a grassroots peaceful connection. Long live her efforts!

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Three People You Meet in Egypt (A Long Post)

Just over a year ago I was traveling in Egypt with a friend. Not only was the trip amazing, but because my traveling companion spoke Arabic, with her help I was able to have a somewhat deeper connection with people we met than had my co-adventurer not spoken the language.

Three people we spoke with stand out in my mind. I've been wanting to write about them for a long time.

The Guide

We hired a tour guide for our day trip to Alexandria. Our guide was a young woman who had given up practicing law for the greener pastures of tourism. She was religious and wore a hijab.

To begin, our tour our guide oriented us by showing us a map of Egypt with Alexandria on it and then a map of the larger middle east: 'here is Egypt, here is Syria, here is Lebanon, here is Palestine...' she said while pointing to the land where Israel is on the map, which showed Israel the West Bank and the Gaza strip to be a single entity.


Throughout the day there were comments about Egypt winning the war in 1973 but being forced by the Americans to make peace, against Egypt's will. There was also the comment encouraging my companion and I to imagine Egypt having won the war in 1948 (the Israeli war of independence). Had Egypt won, we were told, there would be no war in Iraq or Afghanistan today. The implication being that Israel is somehow responsible for both these wars. We also heard comments of how American Jews who come to Alexandria look at her with her hijab as though she were 'some kind of animal' (I'm not sure how she knew these 'Americans' were Jewish.) There was also a quip as we drove past, what I think is the only synagogue in Alexandria, that there was really no purpose for that building to exist in Alexandria, that there was no need for it because there were no Jews in the city.


Other than this, our guide was really quite pleasant, nice and other than these few moments which were, for me at least, a little uncomfortable (I did not wish to challenge this woman on her political views at that time) she showed us a very nice time in "Alex," going far beyond what we may have expected of her to ensure we enjoyed ourselves. Nonetheless, her distaste, and I daresay hatred for Israel was palpable and she mentioned how after Hamas had broken thorough the Egypt-Gaza border fence a few weeks earlier she had gone into Gaza. Her facebook profile picture was the leader of Hizbollah.


The Bedouin


In the Sinai, we hired a Bedouin driver to take us in his car between (I think it was) St. Catherine and Dahab. My friend sat in the passenger seat next to him and began a conversation which she translated for me. She asked him if he had lived in Sinai when it was occupied by Israel and what that was like. His answer surprised us both.


He said that had we asked that question in public, his response would be that he hated Israel, hated the Jews and is so glad to have Egypt back. In private, however, he wishes the Israelis were still around. In the time of the Israeli occupation, he reminisced, there was nearly full employment. Education was good and health care was so good, that if you got sick, and the doctor they brought you couldn't help, you would be flown to Tel Aviv for medical care. He even noted how the road we were on was built by the Israelis and that infrastructure was nearly non existent prior to the occupation. Our driver lamented that the Egyptian government didn't care about the people and that the reality is, times were better when Israel was in charge.


The Veteran


In our last cab ride in Egypt, from Zamalek in Cairo to the airport, our driver was a friendly, older man. He told us that he had been a soldier in the Egyptian army in 1973 and was in the Egyptian Third Army that had been surrounded by the Israelis after they crossed the Suez canal and needed UN convoys to bring them supplies so that they wouldn't die of thirst or starvation.


He spoke more or less unprompted for most of the long ride. He told us how in his mind, Israel saved his life. He said that in that salient, surrounded by the Israeli army, the Israelis could have bombed, shelled and strafed every last Egyptian to death. That the entire pocket could have been wiped out and he would no doubt have been killed. Instead, he said, the Israelis decided that human life was more important. That there was no reason kill defeated people, and so they allowed the UN through, to provide the supplies that saved his life.


He said that the Egyptian people and the Egyptian government want him to hate the Israelis and love the Palestinians. He didn't understand that. "Why should I support the Palestinians" he asked "when they are killing each other?" (referring to Hamas-Fatah violence.) He maintained that the Israelis saved his life and he has no reason to hate them and doesn't think that anyone else should.


The Others


We heard a mix of such stories throughout our time in Egypt. When we would go visit most of the beautiful mosques in Egypt and my friend would mention to anyone who actually worked at the mosque that she was Lebanese, often the first words out of their mouth would be Hassan Nassralah--the leader of Hizbullah. I met a young man from Columbia who was converting to Judaism and living in northern Israel walking around in a bright red t-shirt with Hebrew writing on it and unabashedly telling people where he was living. He said often he received very hostile reactions. My friend met another young man who hired horses and he told her how if he could go anywhere, one of his top choices would be Israel, because he's met so many Israelis who are so nice and he hears the country has beautiful beaches. He couldn't go though, because he couldn't risk getting an Israeli stamp on his Egyptian passport. There was even the run in I had with someone who turned out to be a member of the Egyptian secret police who told me that he was going to name his adorable puppy either "Sharon" or "Bush" because he hated them both and thought that they were names suitable only for dogs. He wanted to know my opinion. We even met an Israeli tour guide leading a group of Nigerians who argued that the peace treaty between his country and Egypt was terrible, because it didn't stop weapons from flowing into Gaza and prevented Israel from taking its own interdiction measures.

What struck me about all these people, especially The Three, was that the one who hated Israel and disparaged Jews, was the only one who had never actually met an Israeli. She accepted what she was told, and that was it. Her understanding of the world was so skewed that one could not help but wonder where her information was coming from and what the motives of those informing her was. Even more alarming was that this was a young, educated woman.

The Bedouin and the Veteran were both older, perhaps wiser and stood out, like some of the others, because they had both actually met Israelis. One of them even fought against them in a full scale war. Having seen Israelis, having realized that Israelis are people not much different than Egyptians, having realized that propaganda is just that, propaganda, these latter two had more reasonable opinions and views on the world.

The Three are not representative of Egyptian society. Traveling for two weeks in any country does not an expert make but these encounters were eye opening. In my mind, they drive home the opinion that the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, just a shade over 30 years old as I write this, as well as the Jordan-Israel peace and any future peace that Israel may sign with its neighbors, to be a true peace between people, as opposed to politicians, requires the population to contact one another.

If Israelis go to Egypt at all, it's to the resort playgrounds of the Sinai, almost never to Cairo, Luxor or anywhere else. Egyptians traveling to Israel is almost unheard of. There are almost no academic, cultural or other exchanges and so the populations remain alien to one another. This needs to change for the peace to flourish.

The state of relations between Israel and Egypt is not where it was expected to be thirty years after the treaty was signed. The Israeli foreign Minister Livini expressed this very well in her comments on the anniversary of the peace treaty:
"While the historic images and voices of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty are those of leaders, I would wish to see that the associative context of the words "peace with Egypt" would not relate just to voices from the past. I would also like to see that for every Israeli "peace with Egypt" would connect with images of Egypt today, voices of conversations with Egyptians, tastes and aromas of dishes, and sights and sounds of places. Likewise, I would like to see that "peace with Israel" for the Egyptian people would connect with images of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and phone numbers of their friends in Israel."

30 Years of Peace

March 26, 2009 marked 30 years of peace between Egypt and Israel. Israeli media descriptions of commemorations that took place don't describe anything overly exciting having happened but they do make some noteworthy commemorative activities. For one, a ceremony took place in Jerusalem featuring the current Israeli foreign Minister Livni who said:
Leadership should first of all aspire to peace not just as a slogan, but as a genuine personal and national aspiration. Only afterwards should a leader look deeply into himself and realize the price that will be required to live in peace and understand that the price is lower - much lower - than the benefits of peace.
The President of Israel, Peres, also picked up the phone to call his Egyptian counterpart to wish him well on this historic day. Even the US President Obama chimed in with his comments that the enduring Israeli peace with Egypt should offer hope that peace is always possible, even in the face of the greatest adversity.

In Egypt, however, it seems that commemoration of the occasion was quite lukewarm. The Israeli embassy in Cairo did not report receiving invitations to any events which some experts attribute to Egyptian anger over one or the other or both the Israeli elections which resulted in a right wing government or Israeli actions in Gaza.

Indeed, one Egyptian newspaper carried an editorial highly critical of Israel, though it's worth noting, the same paper carried a separate piece which said:
'And while not all the prosperity Egyptians have dreamed about has been achieved, "they are certainly better off than they would have been had the situation of war continued unchanged."'
Perhaps the reason for the half-baked 'celebrations' and 'commemorations' is because many Egyptians still see Israel as a threat to their country. Or, perhaps it is because the peace was expected to bring great prosperity to both countries, but did not. There have been economic arrangements which have created improved economic conditions, especially in Egypt, but the real value of the treaty lies elsewhere. The value of not having to maintain large combat ready armies on the border, the value of not having to bury young soldiers, and the value of generations of Egyptians and Israelis who have not ever been attacked by the other country is significant. Also enormously important is the role Egypt can now play as a mediator in negotiations between Israel and groups like Hamas or, in the future, perhaps even other Arab states.

There is still much work to be done before this cold peace warms into more normalized relations between the two states. In the interim, however, a cold peace is far preferable to a hot war.



Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Long Arm of the IAF

Arabic Media Shack flagged this story when details were still sketchy. Things are becoming a bit clearer.

Apparently, the US are deflecting claims by the Sudan that a convoy of weapons headed to Gaza from Iran was struck by the US air force with the counterclaim that actually, it was the Israeli air force that carried out the strike. Predictably, Israel is neither confirming nor denying the reports.

This issue raises questions such as: Were there other similar strikes? Who was complicit in this arms smuggling? Why could Israel have not cooperated with Egyptian authorities to intercept the weapons at the Sudan-Egypt border? How was the information about this convoy collected by Israel? What are the implications of this strike?

One thing it would demonstrate if true is that without any doubt, Iran is supplying Hamas with weapons. This direct military supplying ought to be seen as at least complicity in terrorism and attacks on Israeli civilians if not--on the other end of the spectrum--an act of war by an openly hostile state using a proxy (Hamas) to carry out its attacks. In either case, the complicity and knowledge of both the Sudanese and Egyptian government (the latter for some reason being consulted by the former for reasons that are unclear) will be called into question.

This is fascinating news, but begs more questions than answers.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Water Binding

This past week Israel and Jordan applied Annex II (Water) article III(5) of their peace treaty which guarantees the quality of the water shared between the two countries after Israel supplied clean water to Jordan following an oil spill in the Yarmouk River. Not only was polluted water originating in Israel replaced, but subsequent arrangements were made by Israelis and Jordanians to assure this-first ever--incident, never happens again. Jordanian officials stated that the pollution has been cleaned up and that Israel has pumped more than the normally required amounts of water into the drainage basin which supplies Amman with its drinking water. (The reason the volume of fresh water transferred to Jordan was larger than the amount contaminated is that under agreements, Israel had to transfer a certain amount anyway.)

In a time when the region is facing severe drought, it's encouraging to see that even when national water resources are under stress, the tenants of the treaty are respected. It may have been easy for Israel to dispute claims of pollution or for Jordan to have exaggerated the water contaminated, but both countries adhered to the treaty. This incident has the effect of 1) deepening relations between the countries by demonstrating good faith cooperation and open publicity of this cooperation. 2) demonstrating the effectiveness and relevance of--at least this section--of the peace treaty and 3) demonstrating that the mutual need and dependence for water encourages good faith relations between states because negative treatment of a riparian's claim could disincline that riparian to reciprocate in future instances.

The Coldest Peace

Just a short post tonight. On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Israeli-Egypt peace treaty, this article by a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt tracing the relations between the two countries and highlighting the work left to be done is a worthwhile read.

Monday, March 23, 2009

"Preemptive" Defensive Lawfare

Alan Baker, the former Israeli ambassador to Canada is suggesting that Israel take the first step and investigate allegations of war-crimes domestically, before being asked. Baker's argument is that in an effort to delegitimize Israel, groups and individuals will seek to wage lawfare against Israel at international tribunals and in countries with universal jurisdiction. Baker argues that such international courts can only claim jurisdiction where the accused state refuses to conduct its own internal investigations. Ergo, if Israel independently investigates accusations against it, then it can stave off lawfare attacks and cases against it in other, foreign jurisdictions and in so doing, demonstrate that it takes such accusations seriously and gives them the attention they merit.

Baker's reasoning is sound, notably when he points out that inappropriate or illegal action by Israeli soldiers were aberrations and that "...Israel did not systematically go in and commit war crimes." Therefore, these aberrations should be investigated and their perpetrators rooted out, as Canada did with its disgraced airborne regiment, for example.

Calling this preemptive lawfare is a bit of a misnomer. Preemptive lawfare would best be characterized as launching a first legal strike and taking action against those who would pursue you, prior to you pursuing them. What Baker is proposing is fortification, defense and rendering it more difficult, if not impossible for the opponent to hit at you.

The downside to this approach, however, is that in a way, it allows lawfare to succeed by requiring the Israeli legal system and government to dedicate large amounts of additional resources to investigate all claims against Israel and Israelis and to examine what may even be frivolous claims, just to make the point that the claims are being examined. In some ways, it would allow those who would perpetrate lawfare to keep Israeli jurists and the Israeli legal system 'pinned down' and perhaps even slow to respond to not only new complaints, but other pressing domestic legal issues.

Lawfare is a phenomenon that cannot be ignored and will come to represent an increasingly important component of asymmetrical conflict, especially in the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict. If Israel will be faced with legal cases on the international scene anyway, it is a better decision for the state to take pains to preempt what could be costly cases on the international stage by dealing with them at home, in a system Israeli lawyers will already be more familiar with.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Arabic Voice of the Israeli Right

A member of the Israeli Knesset (parliament--MK for short) Ayoub Kara is claiming to have had relatively high level contacts with the Syrian and Egyptian governments on behalf of his party--the right wing Likud--with a view towards peace. What is unique about MK Kara, is that he's a Druze, a religious minority found in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria and, an Arab. Kara claims to have diplomatic contacts across the Arab world and has appointed himself the unofficial Israeli ambassador to these countries. This is significant because for probably the first time an Arab, from Israel will be speaking to other Arabs from a right wing Israeli perspective. There are high ranking Arabs in the Israeli diplomatic corps but they speak on behalf of the Israeli government in power at a given time, Kara, however, is not bound by normal diplomatic constraints, he is a Likudnik.

Critics are already pointing out that Kara is probably less connected then he claims. Other MKs have pointed out that the Syrian official he claims to have met with is likely an exiled dissident, sentenced to death in absentia. The Egyptian ambassador to Israel has denied claims Kara made about Israeli-Egyptian relations and there are those in the Knesset that question how much he really speaks for the Prime Minister-in-waiting Netanyahu when he suggests that Netanyahu's peace plans will be surprising to the whole world.

So, what to make of this guy? Well, his critics say that he's probably just blowing around some hot air and really is not speaking to anyone of import. Kara has also been known to hold some fairly extreme right wing views and went so far as to praise an the actions of an Israeli soldier who was arrested by the military police and was subsequently punished for the very actions that Kara had praised him for. Kara is also hoping for a portfolio in Netanyahu's cabinet. These things combined paint the image of a somewhat eccentric individual whose claims should not necessarily always be taken for granted. Nonetheless, Kara is a unique case and may yet have success in reaching out to Arabs and presenting to them, perhaps for the first time, views which they had previously only ever heard from Israeli Jews. For this reason alone, Kara is worth watching.

Che: the ("Non")-Fiction Movie

Che, the movie, parts one and two is now in theaters.

The movies, divided into two, two hour segments as opposed to the original four hour single feature they were supposed to have been, documents periods in the life of the iconic Argentinian born revolutionary. Ernesto "Che" Guevara's worldview was to export his brand of violent, communist revolution around the world and to overthrow the capitalist system stifling progress and oppressing the masses in some of the worlds poorest places. Che not only talked the talk, but he walked the walk too. Che was involved with leftist forces in Guatemala in the 1950s as they fought against a US backed coup, and he fought for the communist cause in Cuba, the Congo and Bolivia. A well written comprehensive biography of Che, worth checking out for anyone interested, is "Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life" by Jon Lee Anderson.

Turning to the movie, the story is entertaining, despite being so long. There are exciting action sequences, visually beautiful shots and good, convincing acting, but this is essentially where the praise should end. Anyone interested in really learning about the life of Che, what he stood for and why he is so iconic should take the time to read Anderson and forget about the movie. Those four hours were little more then an entertaining series of simplistic half-truths (including a surreal Cameo by Matt Damon) glorifying an 'unjustified' protagonist. 'Unjustified' not necessarily meaning that Che was not worth of 'glory', but rather that the movie was not able to convince that he was.

For starters, when watching Che, one gets the feeling that the director assumes that the audience already considers Che a hero. The movie does nothing to convince the viewer that its protagonist is worthy of his role. There is no character development explaining why this person is actually such a remarkable figure. The movie launches right into Che's "revolutionary career" with him in a central role and never explains why he's so deserving of such a position.

The movie also fails at explaining how Che became Che. How did he find himself in the central position he played in the Cuban revolution? How did he fall in with the likes of Castro? Why would he even have wanted to? There are answers to these questions, and Che's gravitation towards and embrace of "revolutionary" values are nowhere to be found in the movies. It is simply accepted, Che is a "revolutionary" and has a rightful place at the centre of the Cuban revolution.

The question of Che's political development is not all that's omitted from the movie. His youth, his time in Guatemala, in the Congo, in the revolutionary Cuban government and other significant aspects of his life are either completely ignored or given just passing reference. These are all important to understanding the character but lacking.

It has been said that biographer's fall in love with their subjects. This is true to a degree with Anderson but especially so in the movies. Che can do no wrong. He is portrayed as principled, disciplined, fair, yet stern, a visionary, a leader, a healer, as inspirational and with only one exception, infallible. Clearly, many see Che that way, and this movie will no doubt reinforce that image, but its not accurate. Che shot people in cold blood. He killed them because they "deserted" his revolutionary "army," or because they were traitors. Che conducted "trials" in Cuba, after the revolution where he passed death sentences against "traitors." He also participated enthusiastically in a revolution where his comrades, such as Castro's brother, Raul, dug a trench and machine gunned 70 captured Cuban soldiers into it. (As an aside, Che did call Raul an extremist, but he continued to play a role in the revolution and certainly, Raul was never punished for this action.) In Che Part two, where Che is fighting in Bolivia, there is little examination of the ethics of Che, continuing to lead under supplied, sick, weak men and women into battle against a far superior Bolivian military even when it became clear that victory and the revolution would not be possible. The option always remains for a Guerrilla force to fade away, regroup and come back to continue their struggle another time, but Che pushed his forces onwards, even in the face of certain death. Finally, the question of Che's methods is also ignored. At one point, Che gives a short monologue about why revolutions like his must be violent. There is no real discussion of this question. Yes, this is a movie about Che and is supposed to present Che as he was, but it would have been appropriate to challenge this value of his a bit further. The only real critiques of Che in the whole movie are scenes of marginalized, barely visible people protesting a public appearance he makes in the US.

Anyone who has four hours to kill, wants some entertainment and wants to learn at least something about Che should see the movie. Be very conscious, however, that the whole of the four hours should be taken with several large grains of salt, and not just on your popcorn.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Crimes of "the Greatest Magnitude?"

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk said that in Gaza, Israel perpetrated crimes of "the greatest magnitude." David Schraub has an analysis of this point. Worth a look.

War is Hell: Children's Edition

An art therapist living in Israel, well within range of rockets from Israel has published a children's book about Kassam rockets. The book, called "Color Red" (the warning that is broadcast indicating that there are 15 seconds or less before a rocket from Gaza will make impact) is meant to be a therapeutic tool of sorts and tells the story of a character named Red and Red's path from helplessness to empowerment.

The idea of a book, a form of art, seeking to empower the helpless draws an interesting parallel to the Israeli movie clip "Closed Zone"which also tries to convey an image of helplessness (though with less encouraging outcomes.)

Another striking point, though unrelated to the content of the book itself is that since the author lives on a kibbutz--a collective community--all profits from the book will be returned to the kibbutz and not the author.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

War is Hell

Some disturbing news from Israel today. In public discussions about Israel's operation in Gaza several veterans have come forward alleging that they and their comrades did not behave morally and killed civilians. Ha'aretz reported the story here and some more detail was provided here in the New York Times.

Naturally, this news raises questions. Firstly, how widespread was this type of behavior? There are two separate incidents discussed in these articles and it is said that there will be more testimonies published in the coming days. Were these incidents the result of a policy or the actions of only a few? Some Israeli soldiers who were in Gaza are already coming forward appalled at the stories in these reports and offering their own anecdotal evidence of complete opposite types of behavior. So the question again, is there a rot in the IDF or are these reports isolated horror stories?

The IDF is pledging an investigation, as they should. One can only hope that it will be complete, and thorough. Those found responsible for breaking the rules and deliberately or maliciously killing civilians or damaging property deserve severe punishment. If the problem is endemic, then the punishment must be meted out higher-up along the chain of command and, if need be, the whole system should get a good shaking up--no democracy should tolerate this sort of behavior from its armed forces.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Durban II Bandaid

It appears that references which singled out Israel, which which were considered antisemitic and were one of the two reasons (the other being limitations on criticism of religion) that some countries were backing out of the Durban II anti-racism conference have been removed from conference documents.

This may stem the exodus of countries from Durban II (for example the EU had been sitting on the fence about attending) but on the other hand, it may not. That crucial reference to criticism of religion remains and will be something EU countries are sensitive to. For example, a policy whereby criticism of religion is equal to a human rights violation would see the infamous "Danish cartoons" of the prophet Mohamed to be considered as violations of the human rights of Muslims. It could also serve to limit "moderate" members of any faith from criticizing the most orthodox or conservative interpretations of whatever religion they happen to subscribe to.

The conference documents also reaffirm the outcomes of the first Durban conference which any observer would have to acknowledge was a festival of sorts for antisemitic, anti-Zionist, anti-Western countries and NGOs. A conference where the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were openly being sold. Other than the language change in the document, there is little that may reassure those states that have already planned a boycott that anything will be different. For example, the UN Human Rights Committee which includes such human rights violators as Iran, Cuba and Lybia is still the conference organizer and just because the language these countries have pushed for has been removed from the documents, does not preclude these countries from unleashing further, hate filled tirades at the conference itself.

So, though Europe may be willing to participate in Durban II given these latest revisions, they may end up sitting in on a repeat of Durban I. A repeat that may have taken place if they were present or not and if the documents had been revised or not. A strong message could be sent by western and like-minded states holding a parallel conference where they could drive the agenda and address real issues of global racism and strategies to combat them.

The Gilad Problem

Israeli media today was dominated (and here, and here) by news that talks for the return of the Israeli soldier--Gilad Shalit--captured by Hamas in a cross border raid almost 1,000 days ago have broken down. The main points of contention are the number and identities of prisoners Hamas is asking for in a prisoner swap and the location to which they will be released--Israel would like some of them to be exiled.

There are several interesting aspects to this story. The Shalit family has lobbied very aggressively to bring their son's plight to the public's attention and has succeeded in garnering much popular support in Israel which has in turn placed enormous pressure on the Israeli government to do something. As negotiations break down, Israeli officials have commented that this popular support actually harms the Israeli position as it emboldens Hamas who feel that the clock is ticking for Israelis but not for them.

In reaction to this breakdown of negotiations, one option Israeli officials are considering is to begin to treat the prisoners Hamas has demanded, more like Hamas is treating Shalit. It will now be the task of the Israeli minister of Justice to propose measures that can be taken against prisoners held by Israel to bring their treatment closer to that of Shalit. The problem with this, of course, is that nobody can really be sure how Shalit is being treated. Hamas will not allow the Red Cross to visit him. One retaliatory option Israel may consider is to disallow family visits for Palestinian prisoners. One problem with this approach is that it may not have any impact on Hamas. Hamas may not care very much about the well being of its prisoners and may be more interested in simply recovering them. Further restrictions on Palestinian prisoners may even drive Hamas to worsen Shalit's conditions. If this is the road Israel chooses to go down then it is incumbent upon Israel not to infringe on any of its prisoners rights (as opposed to their privileges.) Indeed, it is a slippery slope.

Another surprising twist is that Israelis are becoming increasingly vocal in their opposition to any prisoner swap for Shalit. Citing concerns that such a trade could demonstrate to Hamas and others that kidnappings of soldiers are "lucrative" and produce political and military results. Partial lists of terrorists Israel is willing to free as well as lists of those they are not willing to free have been made available. Many of these people have been convicted with multiple life sentences and are a veritable who's who of Palestinian terrorism. Opponents to the Shalit swap point out that in the past, terrorists that Israel has released in prisoner swaps can be linked to at least 180 Israeli deaths. One may speculate, however, over whether the threat to Israelis of releasing these prisoners is actually so great, or whether the greater threat is granting Hamas what could be perceived as too large of a victory.

Refusing to exchange for Shalit is the approach that removes emotion from the equation. It argues that Shalit was a soldier sent to protect Israelis, the cost of releasing him will endanger Israelis, so don't release him. It is a surprising argument from a country that's so small, that sees most of its citizens serve in the military--a military with a mantra of 'leave nobody behind on the battlefield.' One response of these anti-exchangers is that rather than exchange, Israel should repatriate Shalit by force. This is much easier said than done. One would imagine that if Israel knew where Shalit was held and felt they could repatriate him, they would have by now. The IDF has conducted far more daring raids, such as the 1976 raid on the Entebbe airport where passengers from a hijacked Air France plane were freed and returned home with remarkably few casualties. On the other hand, given that the purpose of the 2006 Lebanon war was to recover three Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizbollah in a cross border raid (later, amongst other freed prisoners, a notorious terrorist who had killed a child, along with the bodies of many other Palestinian and Lebanese killed in fighting with Israel were returned for the bodies of these three soldiers) and that was unsuccessful, Israel may be more hesitant to try and risk failing. On the other hand, in the case of Entebbe, Israel negotiated for the release of the hostages up until several short hours before the fighting began.

A frightening potential result from a prisoner swap could be vigilante justice. This article describes the relatives of victims of terrorists who may be released for Shalit who chillingly indicate their readiness to avenge the deaths of their loved ones in any way. Without having ever lost anyone to terrorism, it is probably impossible to put oneself in the shoes of these families. On the other hand, vigilante justice is a frighteningly lawless prospect. On the other hand, most of these relatives have pledged that any action they take will be legally sanctioned. This would likely imply lawsuits against the released prisoners in jurisdictions they are released to (provided they are exiled.)

Another important consideration is that the current Israeli PM, Olmert will probably soon be replaced by Netanyahu. Netanyahu may well continue negotiations, but he has spoken against the last exchange with Lebanon and has members in his coalition who advocate 'freeing' captive soldiers, as opposed to negotiating for them. The longer any party waits for a deal, however, the closer Shalit comes to being the next Ron Arad, an Israeli pilot missing since 1986 and whose whereabouts are unknown.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Language of the Locker Room

In Montreal, many people see the home hockey team, the Canadians as a nearly religious symbol. In fact, the University of Montreal is even offering a theology course on this subject. So, when the coach of the Montreal Canadians is fired, it's not too surprising that it becomes bigger news than hurricane Katrina was.

It's also not surprising, given that this is Quebec, that the linguistic abilities of a replacement coach becomes a hot-button issue. Though most commentators seem to agree that it's more important to have a hockey team that wins than to have a bi or multilingual coach, and though the team's general manager has indicated that he would prefer a bilingual coach to a unilingual one, the French language press repeatedly notes that the main contender for the position, speaks only English and that this, is a strike against him.

The last thing anybody should care about when choosing the coach of a hockey team (with players from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe and in a league whose lingua franca is English) is the language he speaks. The first consideration should be, can he make a team win. If the coach is unilingual in Dutch but can lead my favorite hockey team to victory, he (or she for that matter) is the one for me. It's so frustrating that the ugly politics of language has to rear its head in a game that and surrounding a team that people who speak all languages are passionate about. Those who would complain about a hockey coaches first language must truly live charmed lives. It must be wonderful to have this be the most important issue in your life.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Durban II Continues to Shrink

The European Union has announced that unless their suggested changes to the proposed working documents for the Durban II anti-racism conference are accepted and the antisemitic references as well as the resolutions that equate criticism of religion with a human rights violation are removed, they will withdraw from the conference (see here, here and here.) Though a member of the EU, Italy has announced that they would not participate some time ago. This is a sound approach. If sincere efforts at engaging those responsible for the current conference documents fails, then western democracies ought not to lend legitimacy to a hate fest. Given that those who will not participate now include the US, Canada, Israel and potentially the EU it could be an interesting idea for these countries to host their own, parallel anti-racism conference where they could discuss issues of much broader concern, as opposed to an almost single minded focus on Israel, Jews and the Islamophobia.

The Pain Threshold

This is a long-ish, but interesting article from Ha’aretz. In it, the author argues how the Hamas strategy of firing rockets into Israel has driven Israeli voters to the right and how this strategy hardens the position of those who seek to permanently annex the West Bank.

In short, the argument is that the rockets discourage Israel from wanting to leave the west bank, this in turn results in Israel occupying a large Palestinian population. This population will eventually outnumber Israel and their demand for a vote will be impossible to ignore, especially if the territories are actually annexed. A majority Palestinian vote would drastically change the character of Israel. Therefore, if Hamas can hold on and fire rockets long enough to keep the Israeli political spectrum on the right, there will eventually come a time when Palestinians living in territory occupied by Israel, outnumbers the Israeli Jewish population, and a vote under these circumstances will result in an Israel completely unrecognizable from its current iteration and the vision of its founders.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Baby Seeking Missles and other Shinanigans

This video which I found on this website (endorsed by none other than Noam Chomsky!!!) is rather remarkable. It shows a group of people marching into a Carrefour (a Walmart-like store) in France, removing all products made in Israel from the shelves and staging a sit in at the cash register. All throughout, those leading the group comment on how Israelis are war criminals, Israel was stolen from Palestinians, Israel is a racist, apartheid state, wearing t-shirts with pictures of a missile aimed at a baby carriage and alternately chanting "boycott" and "we are all Palestinians."

Let them boycott. Let them protest. These people are not doing anything illegal and are exercising their valuable freedom of speech. They are, however, intellectually dishonest. The image of the missile aimed at the baby carriage alone is a cruel distortion of reality, suggesting that babies were targets. The rhetoric of racist, apartheid and war criminal is also without basis, and a distortion of reality. These types of publicity stunts do little more than to bring people further apart. Just once, it would be wonderful to see such committed people dedicate their energies to encouraging Palestinians to stop trying to kill Israeli civilians or to channel the vigour and rage seen in this video towards creating something positive, rather than always seeking to tear everything down.

Opinions on this video would be very interesting and very welcome. If there is enough demand, I can try to produce a translated transcript.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Missing the Point: Turkish Water Exports to Israel

Israel is looking at a plan to import water from Turkey in the face of severe water shortages facing the country. The water import plans (on which much more interesting detail and history is provided here) which would be part of a larger strategy of finding other sources of water--such as recovering 'grey water' for agricultural use--is being closely scrutinized for two reasons.

First, the technology used to transport the water is uncertain. An Israeli invention, which is essentially a giant sleeve which can be filled with fresh water and towed through the sea (and which would likely be favored by the Israeli government because it's home-grown) is still considered unproven. The article is unclear as to why proven technology, like Medusa Bags are not being considered instead.

Secondly, Israeli officials are nervous about having to depend on a foreign state for water, especially one like Turkey, which whom recent political relations have been uneasy.

Both these considerations miss the point. Water imports are a band aid solution. Israel's per capita levels of water use fall somewhere above Europe but below North America. Israelis need to learn to be more careful with their use of water. Yes, it's true, climactic conditions in Israel which may require more water for agriculture than is needed in Europe is an important contribution to this disparity, but much of Canada, one of the largest per capita consumers of water in the world, and a country with plentiful precipitation is far worse than any place in Europe, so there must be other factors afoot. The conclusion is therefore that Israelis (well really, people in all developed countries) need to be even more judicious in their use of water. There is an environmental cost to water transfers and a false sense of security created by being able to just ship water in. More needs to be done on the consumption side to prevent inefficient solutions on the production side.

Stephen Colbert: A Funny Man

I can't resist!

Tonight, on the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert noticed that his image was being used by a men's clothing store in Iran for promotional purposes. In retaliation, he decided to use the Iranian president's image to market products in the US. Colbert's first product to be sold using the unauthorized image of Ahmedinejad?

Streitz Brand Matoh!

The show is on now, as I speak. i hope it will be posted here later.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Orthodox Jewish Gay Pride

This must be one of the most unusual and difficult "sub-cultures" to be a part of. Homosexual Orthodox Jews. They're not as rare as one may think though. This was a very interesting and well done movie on the subject.

The Quebec Political Fallacy

The fallacy of ad hominem is the attempt to win an argument by attacking the author of the argument as opposed to the substance of the argument itself. For example, the leader of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) calling the Premier of Quebec 'three foolish monkeys' and a liar at every opportunity is, according to the Quebec Liberal Party, nothing more than a name calling match. According to these same Liberals, this name calling has become part of the PQ's strategy.

A sad reflection on the Quebec electorate is that this name calling could be working as the Liberals have taken a hard hit in the polls in recent weeks. It is debatable whether this name calling is the cause of the drop or if it's more closely related to hard economic times. Nonetheless, it's disappointing to see how frequently these types of empty, fallacious forms of argumentation are deployed by politicians (of all stripes.) Do they really think we can't see that all they're doing is poking fun at one another and not making any real arguments? Yeah, they do. They may even be right.

The Most Contested Spot on Earth?

On the same day that the current Israeli Prime Minister Olmert stated that Jerusalem will have to be divided, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel released a report outlining a plan for sharing the city. Or, to be more precise, the "old city" where the holiest sites are.

the "old city" of Jerusalem, which is quite small, is contentious because it contains some of the holiest sites in Christianity, and Islam and the holiest site in Judaism. Israelis claim Jerusalem to be their eternal, undivided capital and Palestinians also have aspirations for establishing a capital there too. This plan, however, does not divide Jerusalem, it shares part of it, and in doing so, aims to satisfy everyone.

The plan calls for an international committee to govern the old city. The committee would contain Israeli and Palestinian representatives, each of whom would choose other, international officials to join the committee. The committee would administer the old city as though it were a separate municipality, with it's own police force, laws and the like.

This plan is already being rejected by Palestinians who are arguing that since all the land is rightfully theirs, they should not have to share it. It's a safe bet that many Israelis will feel similarly. Even secular Israeli Jews may feel a tug at their heartstrings to consider that the site which is at the core of their faith will not be entirely theirs to control.

There is also the question of religion, which is, after all, the reason Jerusalem is so important. Will Israelis, with their large number of different Jewish streams (Orthodox, conservative, etc.), Muslims, with their religious divisions and Christians who have broken into fistfights over their holy sites be able to find compromise?

It will be no easy task for any central Jerusalem administration to satisfy the competing claims of these religious groups and it could well be that such divisions and mistrust within the Jewish, Muslim or Christian communities will scuttle such a plan on their own. The pressures these religious groups bring to bear on the Israeli government alone are massive.

Trust will be a major factor in the success of this plan. Israeli and Palestinians cannot be expected to trust each other, at least not in the short term, and Israelis have long felt that as Jews, nobody is looking out for their interests, other than themselves. When former Palestinian leaders like Yassir Arafat (and others) have tried to cast doubt on archaeological evidence that their ever was a Jewish temple in Jerusalem and Right wing Israeli Jews cling to their hopes of destroying the Al-Aqusa mosque and replacing in with a new Jewish temple, the deep divisions over Jerusalem become clear. Even the members of the proposed police force to be established under this plan will need to be very carefully managed to ensure that its membership and its officers are seen as impartial and fair.

Any peace plan will necessitate a solution for Jerusalem which will require some compromise over the issue of sovereignty. By allowing both parties to deny that they have relinquished sovereignty to the other side (though they will have relinquished sovereignty) and combined with excellent political salesmanship arguing that it's better to have peace and the ability to visit holy places, than eternal war, this plan has slightly better than a snowballs chance in hell. It will, however, require bold political decisions by Israelis and Palestinians and assurances that the unlucky person chosen to administer the city will have the patience of a saint, an impeccable record of trustworthiness and the wisdom of Solomon.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Quebec City-Ottawa Political Switcheroo

The rumors are swirling that the current federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Cannon, may be tapped to replace the current leader of the Quebec Provincial Liberal party, Jean Charest.

Cannon, a minister in the Federal Canadian Progressive Conservative party, is considered a "red Tory," fiscally conservative (the Tory part) and socially Liberal (the red part.) Though he denies he's considering it, many say he would be an excellent choice to replace Charest in the Liberal party because he has previous experience in Quebec provincial politics and that he would be a natural fit in the center-left Quebec Liberals.

On the other hand, Mr. Charest, who's facing a great deal of heat at home over the economy is not expected to run for a fourth term. Rumors have it that he may be considering a run at the top job in the Federal Conservative Party. This would not be too unusual for Mr. Charest either as he used to hold almost exactly that job, only as part of a previous incarnation of the Tories.

In Quebec, unlike in other provinces, there is no official affiliation between the federal and provincial Liberal parties and there is no provincial Conservative party. This being said, federalists of all stripes who want to enter into Quebec politics end up in the Quebec provincial liberals. There is a strange situation, therefore, where federal Conservatives become provincial Liberals and vice versa. The Question is which way would Cannon lean as premier of Quebec. That's yet to be seen.

If such a switcheroo happens, Cannon may find himself in a better position than Charest. Cannon seems to be the darling of the Quebec Liberal Party, for the moment and so the likelihood of him being given the chance to walk into the top Quebec office seems high. Charest, on the other hand, will, if he leaves any time soon, be leaving Quebec an unpopular leader only to take the reins of a party which can be rightly criticized for having such weak support in Quebec. Then there's the Question of the current leader of the Federal Conservatives, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He doesn't seem ready to go anywhere, and so Charest would have to contest him in a leadership race. On the other hand--having met the man--Charest is an articulate, charming, likable, fluently-bilingual, "red Tory" who may have wide appeal across Canada, especially amongst those "soft" Liberal and Tory voters.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Neighbours Shouldn't Let Neighbours Go Thirsty

According to official reports, despite being in a period of water shortage, Israel has been exceeding its agreements to provide water to its neighbors by supplying more than the amounts agreed upon. This article asks whether Israel should be sharing its water or if Israel should adopt an approach whereby less water is shared.

Though the article does not explicitly answer the question, it raises a few points explaining what the advantages of continuing to provide water to ones neighbors are. One of these relates to international law while the other relates to international relations.

International law applies here not only because Israel has agreements with its neighbors to share water that must be respected but also because, the article says, water is a human right. This is true, but the limitations of this right are much less clear. Water for basic uses such as drinking and bathing is necessary, but it is less clear that the use of water for industrial, purposes, for example, qualifies as part of this right. This is an issue in international law that remains undecided. A challenge for future water negotiations will be to develop a hierarchy of uses for water and some sort of schedule to determine which countries must cut off water to which uses in times of severe shortages.

Another question is how can a state ensure supplies of water when it's dependent on rivers that originate in a foreign state to flow into their own territory? Normally, this situation is dealt with cooperatively, but in the case of Lebanon and Israel and Syria and Israel, where diplomatic relations don't exist, it's difficult for Israel to address a situation where Syria or Lebanon reduces the water supply to Israel. It is not the first time that the middle east has been in a situation where water shortages required cooperation between enemies for resolution.

In 2005, I discussed how these sorts of agreement take place with a former Israeli water negotiator and previous Israeli Ambassador to Canada, Allan Baker. He explained how though a state of war existed between Israel and Jordan at the time he was a negotiator, he met with his Jordanian counterpart in the presence of a UN mediator. According to Ambassador Baker, the UN mediator didn't say a word as Israeli and Jordanian negotiators worked together towards agreement. An excellent book on these negotiations was written by Ambassador Baker's Jordanian counterpart, Munther Haddadin. Check it out here.

Another case was the Johnston Plan where U.S. diplomats commit shuttle diplomacy to develop agreement between Israel and its neighbors to share water. For anyone with some time, this article which explains the plan is quite good. At first, one of the objections to the plan raised by Arab countries was the concern that an agreement on water would be a step towards the normalization of relations with Israel. This concern raises an important point: since water is needed by all, regardless of nationality, and since water resources are finite, they must be shared; this sharing requires cooperation and could lead to closer relations. In effect, cooperation on water issues can be used as an important bridge for peacebuilding.

Discussion between Israel, Lebanon and Syria for water is a valuable way to open relations between these countries. Water, being a resource needed by all is a good first step towards opening a wider dialogue, especially if agreements resulting from these discussions are respected and as a result, confidence and trust is built. It is also encouraging to see how water cooperation is deepening relationships between parties with whom Israel has already signed broader peace agreements. Local level cooperation between Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians is being fostered by the NGO "Friends of the Earth Middle East." This article by a member of the group explains the cooperation envisaged and goes into greater detail on the challenges faced. This is a valuable opportunity not only to benefit the environment, deepen international relationships but also develop personal human connections between people in these three states that have at best, a cold peace.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Towards a Ban of Bottled Water Sales?

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities is considering a ban on bottled water sales on municipal property.

In most of Canada, tap water is perfectly safe for drinking. Bottled water (concerns about the danger from the chemicals in the bottle itself aside) is little more than a marketing success. For example, look at the Aquafina bottled water website. If you read their FAQ section carefully they distinguish spring water, which they don't use, from purified water, essentially tap water which has been filtered a few more times than the municipalities had. In fact, I seem to recall reading on bottles of Aquifina that the water was sourced from the municipal supplies (read tap water) of various different municipalities. Bottling and selling tap water is perfectly legal in Canada. In short, the public has been convinced that they need bottled water and that it's better for them, when really, that's a dubious assertion.

On the other hand, bottled water is somewhat of an environmental disaster. This article (from an anti-bottled water group) notes that from Toronto alone, millions of empty bottles from bottled water end up in landfills. Some of them are recycled, no doubt, but the ones that are not don't even biodegrade. They just sit there. Forever. This is on top of the environmental costs of running a factory to bottle it, loading it in trucks to ship it all over the place and keeping refrigerators full of it in stores and vending machines. An article with somewhat more detail, including industry's response that bottled water provides a healthy alternative to pop, is here. While it's true that bottles from soft drinks also end up in landfills, the two can be distinguished because pop can only be purchased, bottled water is a replacement for a free alternative--carrying around a re-usable bottle filled with tap water.

Banning bottled water sales on municipal property may not make a huge dent in the amount of waste produced. It will send a message to attentive consumers though: there is more to bottled water than meets the eye. A ban is also not a quick fix. Consumers need to be educated as well. Municipalities would do well to promote more recycling, promote the use of re-usable water containers and educate consumers about the real costs of bottled water. If there are areas or cases where bottled water is needed, then yes, by all means, use it, but in places where the tap water is safe and clean, then bottled water is an environmentally irresponsible choice.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Controversial Israeli Video About Gaza

The animator of the excellent film Waltz With Bashir has produced a short video clip about Gaza for the Israeli NGO the Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement.

I have no idea how to paste a video directly onto my blog, but you can check out the short clip
here. It shows a young boy trying to chase a bird as it flies around Gaza but the boy is blocked at every turn. Rockets can be seen launched from Gaza and return fire erupts around the boy as he tries to flee.

The clip makes its point: there are ordinary people in Gaza who are suffering who want and have nothing to do with politics. People whose lives are hijacked by events. Such is the case, unfortunately, in all war.

Though the Gisha makes its point through this video, it also oversimplifies things. Certainly there are innocents in Gaza suffering for events beyond their control, but there are also some pretty sinister characters there too. Characters with few qualms about using these innocents as shields. The video doesn't quite make that point.

The video has already come under some
criticism in Israel, specifically, that it ignores complex realities and the suffering of Israelis. Critics of this short clip would likely want you to also see this and this. To critiques, the animator's response is a re-affirmation his love for Israel, hatred of Hamas, and desire to show the predicaments of ordinary people.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

No Quebec Electoral Reform by Legal Means

The Superior Court of Quebec ruled against an action brought by the Association pour la revendication des droits democratiques (loosely translated as the Association for the Re-establishment of Democratic rights) or ARDD. The ARDD argued that Quebec's first-past-the-post electoral system, as used in the rest of Canada was unfair and discriminated against minorities, notably, Montreal Anglophones.

The proportional representation the ARDD argues for would ensure that deputies sent to the National Assembly in Quebec City would be chosen based on a formula that would factor in both the number of votes cast for an individual and the number of votes cast for a party. A great deal of detailed, mathematical explanations of this system are on the ARDD's website. In a nutshell, the system proposed will better reflect the popular vote for the whole province, as opposed to just individual ridings.

I have been unable to find a copy of the judgement, handed down on February 28, 2009 so I cannot comment on the judge's ratio. This article in la Presse, indicates that the judge reasoned that the question put to him was a political one and not to be decided by the courts. Therefore, he rejected the plaintiff's case.

In the first-past-the-post system in place in Quebec, winning the popular vote does not guarantee a majority in parliament. The system proposed by the ARDD would prevent the drowning out of the voices of minorities that do not carry enough weight to elect a representatives to speak to their particular interests. A similar system exists in Australia where voters (who must vote by law) rank candidates in order of preference. This nifty little video explains it.

I look forward to reading the Court's decision when I can get my hands on it. If anybody out there has access to it, I would love to have a look. Until then, I welcome thoughts on this decision.

Time for JDate in Arabic?

This article about men from Arab countries writing to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs seeking Jewish-Israeli women for marriage was amusing; the bit about offering a herd of camels as a dowry was particularly cute.

The bit about the camels also highlights something much deeper about this story: that this man in question thought that someone in Israel would really want the camels. Of course, this man was offering what he had, what he considers wealth, but it indicates that there is a deficit of understanding in parts of the Arab world about Israel.

Jewish Israeli women, with the obvious exception of the orthodox, tend to be secular, and not much different from women in the west. So, when a man suggests that his Israeli wife will fit in well with the rest of his wives, it is clear that he doesn't understand that joining a harem, is probably not the desired endgame for most Israeli women. On the other hand, who knows what women really want!?

Another interesting point is that these men are writing to the Arab media department of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is at least an indication that whatever is being put out by this department in the Arabic world, is being viewed and responded to. Activity which can build some sort of connection, or dialogue between the ordinary people in Israel and the Arab world should be welcomed and encouraged. An interesting article about the activities of this department (which may be a good subject for another post) is here.

Israel's Letter to the U.N. and its Implications

On Monday, in the wake of more rockets from Gaza harming Israeli civilians and landing on schools, the Israeli ambassador to the U.N. delivered a letter to Ban Ki-Moon, U.N. Secretary General and the president of the U.N. Security Council, who is currently the Libyan ambassador. The letter indicated that rockets from Gaza continued to hit Israeli civilian areas and reiterated Israel's right to self defense.

This raises two interesting points. First, the letter does not actually ask for anything. It merely says: 'we declared a ceasefire, they keep shooting, we have the right to shoot back.' A similar letter, using almost identical language in some places was sent to the U.N. by Israel on December 22, 2008, days before the war against Hamas began on December 27, 2008. That letter also did not ask for anything but merely stated Israel's position. If history repeats itself, perhaps a new round of intensified (because the last round never really ended) violence is about to begin.

The second point is that it appears that Israel, a country whose leaders and media have--at best--a lukewarm attitude towards the U.N. continues to view the organization as having value. The purpose of these letters may have been nothing more than to serve notice of impending military action or to comply with international law as enshrined by the "self-defense" article 51 of the U.N. Charter which requires that acts of self defense be reported to the U.N. Security Council. Whatever the intention, it bodes well for the future of the U.N. and the maintenance of an international law regime that those who have been so critical of the body, continue to recognize its role.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Memory Loss in Quebec

An interesting op-ed in La Presse about what the columnist describes as a sudden shift in attitude amongst Quebec separatists reflecting the idea that Canada is a foreign entity and even Quebecers who work for the federal government in Quebec ought to be viewed as hostile.

In reference to the cancellation of the re-enactment of the battle of the Plains of Abraham the article has a fascinating quote from Pauline Marois, leader of the separatist PQ: "Nous refusons qu'une autre nation vienne ici, au coeur même de notre capitale nationale, nous dire quel sens donner à cet événement et de quelle manière le commémorer." Loosely translated: 'We reject that another nation come here, to the very heart of out national capital, and tell us what meaning we should accord to this event and how we should remember it.'

The re-enactment of the battle and planned, solemn memorial for the soldiers of both armies was deemed to be provocative. A celebration of the victory of the English would likely also be provocative. Ms. Marois does not want to be told how to commemorate history because it seems, she would rather not remember it at all. It seems she has already forgotten the part about Quebec being declared a nation within Canada. No "other" nation is telling her anything.

Monday, March 2, 2009

What is "Lawfare?"

Lawfare (forgive the wikipedia) is a relatively new form of asymmetrical war (conflict where the parties are unevenly matched.) The way it was originally defined by Dunlap, a US Military lawyer and amongst the first to use the term, lawfare is the use of law as a military tool. Since these early definitions, three types of lawfare can be identified. 1) the use of international laws of war by armies to enable them to maximize the military means they have at their disposal 2) the use of international law by the weaker party to impede, hinder and harass the more powerful 3) much more dubiously, the use of law to subvert a society through legal means.

1) Use of international laws of war to maximize the deployment of military means

A premise of lawfare is that military activity will be scrutinized by the public and so war must be conducted in such a way as to guarantee that it can stand up to scrutiny under international law. Dunlap comments that many U.S. military commanders will not make a decision to strike a target without a lawyer's approval. The dual role of these lawyers is to reassure commanders that their actions are justifiable under the law and have the effect of being a defensive weapon against accusations of inappropriate use of force.

In its recent war in Gaza, Israeli lawyers played an unprecedented role in the selection of targets and in trying to ensure that all military activity conformed to the laws of war. Critics of Israels actions in Gaza will say that Israel used the laws of war to enable it to kill civilians. This presumes that civilians were the targets of military action and not tragic victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, for example, in areas where rockets were launched towards Israel or in homes that contained the entrances to weapons smuggling tunnels. There is no expectation in the international laws of war that civilian casualties be avoided at all costs. In fact Dunlap would argue that after being warned of impending attacks (as the Israelis made efforts to do) any civilian who chose to stay in the vicinity of an attack becomes part of the defense system of the place they are in, essentially a human shield, and therefore a legitimate target. This view seems somewhat extreme, however. The potential for civilian casualties must be weighed against the value of the target and the lives that may be saved in the future by striking it, this is what the lawyers help to do.

2) Use of international law by the weaker party to impede, hinder and harass

The role of the lawyer is also to protect military commanders from the possibility that their opponents "goad" them into violations of international law. In cases such as this, claims of violations of the laws of war can result in cases aimed at "decapitating" a foe. For example, an allegation, frivolous or not that a commander or politician was involved in a "war crime" could lead to the launching of legal action which would have the effect of not only distracting the defendant and draining personal and national resources and energies in their defense, but also causing them to hesitate in their decision making, even when the law is actually on their side.

The case of Spain applying its doctrine of universal jurisdiction to investigate war crimes charges against Israel in the wake of (but not related to) the recent Gaza offensive illustrates that these legal cases, brought by individuals or NGOs, can strain diplomatic relations between states. This is true even if the cases are frivolous because, as can be expected in any democracy, the courts are independent and may render unpopular verdicts that may place stress on political relations. In this case, even the decision to consider the charges and apply the doctrine of universal jurisdiction was politically sensitive. The paradox is that those who would support groups like Hamas, which are decidedly anti-west and themselves are violators of the laws of armed conflict (indiscriminately targeting civilians with rockets, as an example,) take advantage of the legal institutions of the societies they hate to make "war" against them.

3) the use of law to subvert a society through legal means

Ezra Levant, a fairly right wing Canadian journalist was the subject of a complaint before Canadian human rights tribunals for publishing the controversial cartoons of the prophet Mohamed which caused violent rage across much of the world some years ago. He writes in his blog that there is a threat of "jihadis" using western laws as tools to stifle freedom of speech and silence anything they find offensive. He does offer some bizarre cases of Muslims using human rights laws to complain about dubious offenses, but it is hard to see any concerted effort of "warfare" in these claims.

Levant approaches the issue as a left-right political one and blames the leftist elites for paying heed to the concerns of these modern day "fatwas." This misses the point. There are limitations of free speech, notably, hate speech. Hate speech is defined as inciting hatred, not merely saying something distasteful. It is not enough that one be offended by an image or statement. That statement must incite others to feel hatred as well. Levant is not a victim of lawfare, which is more of a concerted effort, he merely found himself on (what seems to be the correct side of) a legally contentious matter.

The above does not fully address all the nuances of this (I think) very interesting issue. It is at best a sketch of an emerging issue that will impact military conflict and the development of international law in the future. I would be interested in the thoughts others may have on "lawfare."