Sunday, September 27, 2009

More Awesome Archeology!

Coins were recently discovered in Egypt from the era of the biblical "forefather" Joseph. They bear engravings with Josephs name on them as well as symbols related to stories about Joseph that are recorded in the Old Testament.

Not only does this point to the veracity of some of the biblical tale, but it is also being touted by archeologist's as proof that coins were used in ancient Egypt. A theory that had heretofore been of much discussion and unproven.

I've often heard it said that there was no archaeological proof of the biblical story of the exodus. I wonder if this is further or even the first proof of Jewish presence in ancient Egypt.


The Water Carriers

Only one article in the "right" leaning Israeli paper Yediot Aharonot (YNet) reports on a group of what is (unsurprisingly) described as a group of "leftist" activists who delivered drinking water to Palestinians living in the South Hebron Hills.

The activists, come from well known peace groups like Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) which are, on the Israeli spectrum, considered to be to the left of groups like Peace Now and have been criticized for radicalism.

In this case, the group crossed a checkpoint on foot where the IDF had blocked the passage of the buses and taker truck they were riding in. The IDF had, for some reason not explained in the YNet article, declared the area a closed military zone. Evidently, the tanker somehow managed to get into the area anyway and water was distributed to people who were, apparently, living on 15 liters of water a day.

The Administration of the area said that they do provide water to the Palestinian residents of the area, but it is argued by the activists that this water comes from too far and is over 10 times more expensive than the water available in Israel.

Gush Shalom has posted a press release where they argue that Israel has a "Policy of Thirst" and that they hope to starve out people they cannot legally deport. Other groups have in the past reported similar denials of services to the Palestinians of this region. Without further information though, it seems that there's a major piece missing from this story. If the area was a closed military zone, it's remarkable to believe that the IDF would allow a bulldozer to travel with the activists and remove any roadblocks along the way to let the water tanker through. It provides the impression that the walk across the military line and the emotive language used in the Gush Shalom release is for PR purposes.

This being said, this is one more case where water, the universal need for water and the recognition of that need by good, concerned people, leads to the creation of connections and contacts that can change perceptions about the "other." The Gush Shalom activists, be they right, left or centre, whether they were pulling a PR stunt or whether they truly took the only course of action they felt was available to them, may have achieved a great deal in convincing Palestinians that Israelis are not all soldiers and that stupid, unfair policies that deny fair access to resources like water to Palestinians are recognized as stupid and unfair by ordinary Israelis who want to do the right thing.

Villagers From Each Side Turn the Green Line Green

Ha'Aretz is carrying a story about a small village in the West Bank called Wadi Fukin and their cooperation with their neighbours on the other side of the "green line" in Tzur Hadassah to protect their distinct way of life--and more specifically, the water resources that life depends on--via the Friends of the Earth-Middle East "Good Water Neighbors" project.

The article explains that Wadi Fukin is a village that employs agricultural methods that have probably not changed in centuries and that these methods are highly dependant on natural water sources around the village. The problem is that the Security Barrier is projected to pass through an area near the village which would have the effect not only of reducing the amount of land available to the Palestinian villagers but its construction could very likley damage the springs that support the village's unique way of life and potentially decimate its economy.

Villagers from Tzur Hadassah, including a woman involved in the Adam Institute, are working with the people of Wadi Fukin to petition Israel to reconsider the route of the security barrier in that sector. One key argument being used is that because of the unique agriculture in the area, the area has been declared a World Heritage site and the fence could destroy that. Unfortunately, this is only sort of true. The village does not appear anywhere on the UNESCO World Heritage website because the Palestinians have not signed the World Heritage treaty.

Whether the site is really a world heritage site or not, is irrelevant. It is, however, illustrative of some other key information missing from this article that would be helpful to know. For example, the petition to stop construction of the security barrier was signed years ago. Information on the fence in that area is hard to come by though and it's not clear if it has been built at all. Certainly, the cooperation between the villages on either side of the green line have been successful in delaying construction, but the article leaves both the future and current situations unclear.

Naturally, the desire to protect the environment is a good thing and especially water resources in this arid region. Just as it's important to protect culture, especially one as old and distinct as the one in Wadi Fukin. Cooperating over water, a resource needed by all does and will continue to have the effect of bringing people together as it has in this case. The cooperation across the green line for water, and for initiatives like this vegetable co-op, can only serve to increase and improve mutual understanding, dialogue and ultimately peace on a human, individual level, something that is just as important as on the governmental one, if not more so.

The security barrier, however, has saved lives. If the barrier can be re-routed in this sector, or other measures put in place, as Friends of the Earth-Middle East asserts, then there should be no hesitation to adopt alternate plans. If not, however, the choice becomes much more difficult, culture and the environment versus human lives and security. The choice is not an easy one. In the meantime, however, it's nice to see that the green line, at least in this area, is truly turning green.

We Can Learn A Lot From the Comics

I know this is meant to refernce US politics and health care reform being discussed in that country, but this makes the point so well that the worst evil in the history of the world--Hitler, the Nazis, the Holocaust--is not comperable to anything or anyone in our world today.

I realize this may be too small to see but you can find the original here, published September 27, 2009.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Netanyahu at the GA

On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the General Assembly of the UN.

Given the coverage of his meeting with Abbas a matter of hours earlier and the press coverage it garnered, Netanyahu's GA speech does not seem to be generating too much media buzz, especially not in Israeli media where it could have been expected that coverage would be greater. From Israeli English language media, only YNet carried a story on the speech a day after it was given while CNN gave it mention as well as did the Washington Post.

The YNet article on the speech gushed over it and not surprisingly, the YouTube links below to the speech (from Fox news apparently) refer to it as Churchillian, which is quite the over exaggeration.

The speech wasn't bad, but neither was it Churchillian nor was it great. It was a logical, coherent presentation of Israel's position on various matters relating to the UN.

The first part of the speech was a pointed attack on the Iranian President who had spoken the day before. Netanyahu produced Nazi documents, including the blueprints for Auschwitz as he asked the Iranian President, rhetorically, if all these documents, if the tattoos on survivors' arms and if the admission of the German government were lies. He then went on to praise countries that had refused to listen to Ahmedinejad speak while asking of the ones that stayed if they had either shame or decency. This is the first place where Netanyahu falters. Leaving the room when Ahmedinejad spoke should be seen as the correct move. It sends a message to him and to others that his rhetoric is not acceptable. Listening to him speak, however, does not accord him legitimacy. Lambasting those that stayed in the room is not the way to make friends and influence people. A more effective move by Netanyahu may have been to expand more on the evils of Holocaust denial, about how it's patently false and about why denying the Holocaust is such an affront. It would then be appropriate and perhaps even more convincing to explain that walking out on hatred like Ahmedinejad's is the best was to confront him.

The second portion of the speech examines and raises the spectre of the marriage of fanaticism and nuclear weapons specifically with regards to Iran. This portion of the speech was strong, but an effective addition would have to add a line or two on why Iran deserves such close attention when other states like Israel and the US, don't. The answer is in the reliability of the state. The fact that some states are less predictable and stable than others.

What is probably the most upsetting part of Netanyahu's speech was "The jury is still out on the United Nations, and recent signs are not encouraging." What this is meant to convey is the third portion of the speech where Netanyahu criticize the UN for its silence on rockets launched at Gaza and it's disproportionate attention to Israel. The latter arguments are generally well presented by Netanyahu, but his opening is troubling and sounds almost as though he's suggesting that the UN itself is somehow on trial, or not quite a legitimate body. Netanyahu's critiques of the UN hit the nail on the head, but the above quote seems to imply that the UN's work in aid, health, food supplies, help for refugees, development, the promotion of culture and the like are still 'being judged.' Netanyahu chose his words here badly, it's unclear if this is what he meant, bu if so, it should not sit well with anyone.

His arguments about denying Israel's right to self defense are also somewhat shaky. He mentions how those that supported the withdraw from Gaza in Israel thought that at least now they could have support in self defense. Netanyahu argues that after being condemned for self defence Israel will be less assured of the support of the world in taking security risks for peace. This could certainly be interpreted as don't criticize Israel, no matter what, because then we won't trust you. Israelis know they are not and never pretended to be angels, but here Netanyahu seems to be foreclosing the UN from criticizing it. One hopes that this is not what he means to say.

In his final comments Netanyahu reiterated much of the language used in his major foreign policy address earlier on. It reiterates the assertion that Israel is a Jewish state and that Jews are indigenous to Israel. It's also the only part of the speech that drew applause hen Netanyahu stated Israel wanted to live in peace aside the Palestinians.

Netanyahu made his points well and eloquently in English as he often does, but this was no Churchill speech and its impact and implications are likely quite small.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

No Great Moments at Abbas, Netanyahu, Obama Meeting

Yesterday, Obama managed to herd the cats, Abbas and Netanyahu into a meeting to talk about jump-starting peace talks. Obama was apparently rather terse and blunt in the meeting (at least the parts open to the public) and told the two leaders that the time has come for action and that talking about talking was useless.

Of course, the next step planned out was to set up meeting to talk about talking some more. A series of low level meetings between Palestinian and Israeli officials are to take place over the coming weeks to lay the groundwork for serious negotiations between the sides. What's noteworthy, however, is that both sides walked away from the meeting with Obama with vastly different impressions of where they stood.

Netanyahu left the meeting feeling that the demand that Israel freeze all settlement activity has been dropped while Abbas left the meeting feeling that Israel's next step was to withdraw to the pre-67 borders. Obviously, there's a deep misunderstanding on even fundamental questions such as who does what next.

Obama made clear that he felt that this next, anticipated round of talks should begin where they left off, that nothing starts from scratch. According to Netanyahu in this interesting interview he gave to CNN (worth reading in toto) Netanyahu is explicit that he does not believe there are any previous agreements with the Palestinians. He has also made clear that he does not consider himself bound by any agreements made by previous governments. This of course places him diametrically opposed to Abbas who points out that the roadmap to peace calls for a full settlement freeze, a somewhat problematic assertion considering that Netanyahu doesn’t seem to believe he is bound by the roadmap. The interview reiterates the point made by Netanyahu in his foreign policy address earlier in the summer that the major obstacle to peace was the failure of the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.

The reaction to the talks in Israel have been largely uniform as well, no matter which point on the political spectrum they originate from. The uniformity is in criticism. Settlers and those to the right of Netanyahu say that he did not go far enough in defending the settlements while those to his left also say he's not done enough--rather he's done nothing. Other editorialists have commented that the whole meeting was really just a joke and that it didn't even mark the start of a real peace process.

This is simply wrong and a failure to read between the lines. First, consider that the two leaders, even if it was against their will, met face to face to talk about how to move forward, peacefully. Second, consider that low level talks will be taking place between the two sides to lay the groundwork for more serious discussions. The indications are that communications and discussions will be taking place and that these will be monitored at the highest levels of the US government, meaning, no doubt, that the highest levels of the Israeli and Palestinian governments will be keeping a short leash on their low level officials, watching what happens at every step of the way. It is this dialogue, these murmurs between Israelis and Palestinians which could ultimately bring about better understanding of the other's negotiating position and more efficient ways of moving it forward.

Indeed, one glimpse of this improved understanding is perhaps the most fascinating incident of the whore meeting. While underscoring the vast lack of understanding many Israelis have of Palestinians, Israeli foreign minister Lieberman commented on how impressed he was by Palestinian negotiator Erekat's excellent Hebrew. How strange that an Israeli foreign Minister should be surprised that the lead negotiator of a government speaks the language of his neighbor and partner for negotiations well. It would behoove more Israelis to learn Arabic, one day, they may need those linguistic skills for tourism.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

More Reasons I should Have Been an Archeologist!

Again, more reasons I wish I were an archeologist. I just can't help it, I find this stuff so fascinating.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Obama, Abbas, Netanyahu: More Than a Photo-Op

Just last week, prior to the Jewish new year, Israeli media was reporting that there was a long way to go before a proposed meeting between Israel and the Palestinian Authority could take place on the margins of the UN general assembly in New York. It was said the sides were too far apart, that Israel would not agree to a full settlement freeze and the PA would not meet with Netanyahu until such a freeze was in place. Then, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: despite the impasse, Obama simply invited Abbas and Netanyahu to meet and neither of them could refuse. How could they?! The US president requests their presence at a joint meeting, to act as a mediator, to move the peace process forward--if the sides were already trading accusations that the other was acting as an obstacle to peace, saying no to the US president would have made very clear who was not willing to go the distance.

The PA was quick to apply a caveat to the tripartite meeting, as it is being called. A PA spokesman made clear that the PA did not consider the meeting a resumption of peace talks and that such talks would not begin until all settlement activity was frozen. Then, in a statement that underscores the challenges that lie ahead, Hamas issued a statement that they do not recognize Abbas as a representative of the Palestinian people and will not be bound by anything he does. The complications this presents are self-evident, as a significant portion of Palestinian territory and population are subtracted from the meeting and that the process taking place in the West Bank would have to be duplicated for the Gaza strip.

Netanyahu too has chinks in his negotiating armour as well, though perhaps not as obvious as the PA's. This chink is the in the form of Member of the Knesset Danny Danon who is suggesting that Netanyahu is not being true to Likud Party values and is meeting not only with US politicians but also leads a group of Likud parliamentarians critical of and upset with the idea that Netanyahu would ever negotiate with the Palestinians. For a better idea of what Danon believes, check out his website where he calls for an immediate end to all talks relating to the establishment of a Palestinian state, or even better, watch this clip where he explains his opposition.

So, President Obama is faced with a meeting between two leaders who each enjoy questionable support from their populations, one of whom does not want to be there at all and is trying to control the title of the meeting, and the other is more or less hamstrung by his domestic political situation. No wonder the White House is playing down the chances of success these meetings may have.

It really is not very important what the meeting is called though. It could be called a photo-op, a Broadway Show tunes Singalong Summit or the Palestinian-Israeli Twister Championships. What's important, is that Abbas and Netanyahu will be meeting, in the same room as the leader of what is perhaps the only country in the world able to broker any type of peace deal. As is evident from the meeting itself, which for a while looked like it would not happen until Obama stepped in, what is said publicly, is often quite different than what actually happens.

It should not be a surprise if as a result of this meeting each side is able to announce a face-saving measure allowing peace talks to begin. Netanyahu for example may be able to announce that some schools or communal (not housing) construction can take place in the settlements while Abbas would be able to promise his people that no new people will be moved to the West Bank and that perhaps further checkpoints and roadblocks will be removed, easing life for his people. This may not be an ideal situation, but it's something that may allow Abbas to back down from his hardline position and allow Netanyahu to placate the vultures circling within his own party. This is exactly the type of "upgrade" the US is hoping will come from this meeting.

In any event, stay tuned for some great photography, an emotive rendition of Memories from cats or Mr. Netanyahu's right hand on the yellow square. It will be interesting in all cases but will likely not be a waste of time.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Gaza's Water: Everyone's Problem

To summarize a summary, a recent UN report has found that the availability and quality of drinking water in the Gaza strip is hovering somewhere around dismal and is so bad, that high concentrations of nitrates in some of the water is leading to non-fatal medical conditions that turn babies blue.

The report finds that many of the problems existing in the Gaza strip have existed for many years. The cause of this tends to be overuse of the underground water aquifers (here known as the coastal aquifer) which is being polluted by a number of sources, including improper waste disposal and insufficient sewage treatment. The report points out that some sewage facilities were damaged in Operation Cast Lead and that this has exacerbated the pre-existing problem as well.

The report makes a number of recommendations related to the water situation. Some of these are: Remove water from the ongoing conflict in the region; Provide safe water to infants; Rest the coastal aquifer; Develop alternative water supply to the Gaza Strip; Improve efficiency of the water supply network; Eliminate all inflow of salty and nitrate-containing recharge into the groundwater; Establish new sewage treatment plant(s); Improve the sewage system; Decontaminate sewage ponds and Wadi Gaza; Rebuild environmental governance.

Much of what is being recommended here is the responsibility of Gazans--to improve governance for example, to ensure the proper resources are dedicated to sewage treatment and to be judicious in their water use. Finding other sources of water falls into this category as well, but the report makes an interesting point: the coastal Aquifer is shared with Israel and Egypt and so these two countries will need to assist with its maintenance.

This point is so important because it's a demonstration that water--being a universally required resource--provides the opportunity for cooperation and the building of peaceful, collaborative ties rather than conflict. This aquifer, used by so many people and in so many countries needs to be protected by all so that it can be used by all. Damage to the aquifer by Gaza will harm the ability of Israelis and Egyptians to benefit from it as well. In this respect, it is in the interests of these two countries to ensure that overuse and bad governance in Gaza does not imperil their own access to water and one such way would be to assist in helping to provide new sources of water.

For example, Israel is a world leader in water desalination boasting one of the worlds largest and most efficient such facilities in the world. Similarly, other Arab states like Saudi Arabia are at the vanguard of desalinization as well, with Saudi Arabia able to claim title to the worlds largest desalination facility. Imagine the potential for a confluence of Israeli or Saudi Technology, with the ability of Saudi, Egypt, the US, EU or other donors to construct such a facility in Gaza. There would be universal benefit. Benefit to Egypt and Israel in helping to preserve the coastal Aquifer, benefit to the companies providing the technology in question, benefit to the people of Gaza for having cleaner, more accessible water, benefit to the donors, not only for the prestige, but for helping to improve stability ion the region, stability that would result from the cooperation of all the players that would be required to make the project happen.

In the meantime, however, though the report does not touch on this in any more than a superficial manner, it seems that even with outside support, not much will change in Gaza without a change to the circumstances which make true statements such as "Environmental governance in the Gaza Strip has been weakened by internal political developments, as well as by the recent escalation of hostilities."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Mitchell's Shuttle Diplomacy

There is a massive amount of attention in the Israeli media being placed on the recent report written by the commission led by Justice Goldstone which is, unfortunately, overshadowing frantic efforts by US peace envoy Mitchell to cobble together some sort of peace mini-summit or chat about restarting Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Nonetheless, Mr. Mitchell seems to be working very hard and is picking up a great many frequent flier miles.

In recent days Mitchell has been in Israel, Egypt and Jordan trying to apply pressure to bring about the conditions to allow any sort of discussion on peace to take place at the UN General Assembly in New York where Netanyahu will, no doubt, be spending his time fending off diplomatic attacks against his country in the wake of the Goldstone report.

In Israel, Mitchell met with The Prime Minister

and the President Peres

which in both cases seem to have resulted in little more than nice statements about how peace is within reach and that September should not be allowed to pass without seizing the opportunity to restart talks. Nonetheless, the US and Israel are still quite far apart on the issue of peace with the US insisting on a freeze on settlement building for at least one year and Israel offering only 6 months.

Mitchell also met with Egyptian President Mubarak and his Security Advisor where the post meeting statement said little more than that the US is encouraging all parties to take responsibility for peace, but curiously, mentioned nothing about any Egyptian position on the matter or what Egypt will be doing.

His next stop was Jordan, where he met with the King who urged Israel not to obstruct peace with the building of settlements.

Mitchell's next stop will be back to Israel to meet Netanyahu again, and then to meet PA President Abbas. All this shuttling around seems like it may be working though. Signals are coming from the Palestinians that Abbas may be willing to meet with Netanyahu in New York after all as a result of US pressure. This is the only reason they would meet, however, and the PA stands by its position that no real negotiations can resume until the settlements are frozen.

This can only be good news. With the PA insistence on settlement freezes and the domestic political difficulties Netanyahu faces at such a prospect each side perpetuates a vicious cycle where talks would never begin. Settlement construction should stop, but settlement construction is not the issue upon which peace will be made or will fall. Issues like Jerusalem, the right of return and final borders are. Only negotiations will solve these issues and holding them off until the other side does something very difficult, politically makes Netanyahu look like a rejectionist for not taking a bold step and telling the settlers "no" and makes Abbas look obstinate for not agreeing to at least start talking and see where things go, or to accept part of what he's asking for as a precondition to negotiations.

This seems to be part of what Mitchell means when he says all parties need to take responsibility for peace. Israelis need to realize how hated the settlements are and act against them. Palestinians need to realize that they will need to be flexible in what they ask for. Arab states like Egypt and Jordan need to approach Palestinians as friends and tell them negotiations are in their best interests for their goals of statehood. Everyone has a job they can do, and nobodies job is easy.

A meeting of any kind in New York will be good news. It may give the leaders a taste for talking and inspire in each of them the realization that they can together, do something great for their people. It also gives them each an opportunity, a pretext of sorts to preserve their honour and back down from their stubborn positions by finding something that each can say they gained from talks and which allows them to continue. Talking, directly, at any level of formality is the right way to go. Mitchell seems to be successfully pushing in the right direction.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Predictability from Goldstone

CAVEAT: the following it written prior to having read the report that is the subject of this post in great detail. I have only had the opportunity to read the executive summary and certain other sections rather quickly. As such, it is my intention to read more thoroughly over the coming few days and provide more comment.

Cue the chorals. "Goldstone the Jew" and the UN commission he led has published its report entitled "HUMAN RIGHTS IN PALESTINE AND OTHER OCCUPIED ARAB TERRITORIES" which had as its mandate "To investigate all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law that might have been committed at any time in the context of the military operations that were conducted in Gaza during the period from 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, whether before, during or after." Critics are lining up to take shots at the report, from NGOs, to bloggers to governments, (also) everyone has an opinion.

The report is perhaps somewhat predictable given the criticism that was leveled at it even in advance of its publication. It concludes that both Israelis and Palestinians committed war crimes during the period of the mandate it was to have investigated and proposed that if Israel failed to conduct a serious independent investigation of the report's findings, it should be sent to the defendants docket at the International Criminal Court in the Hague upon receiving the requisite recommendation from the UN security council. Israel is not a signatory of the Rome Statute of the ICC and so only the UNSC would be able to order a trial against Israel (see article 13.) This is a position that Israel may never find itself in so long as it has friends on the UNSC that hold vetos. It's hard to imagine the US allowing Israel to be brought before the Hague.

The report is heavy on testimony--some of it perhaps skewed by Palestinian witnesses who seemed reluctant to discuss certain matters in full--by individuals and information provided by Hamas, but notes that the Israeli government would not cooperate with the mission writing the report. This article suggests that perhaps Israel should have overwhelmed the mission with its account of events and refuted in detail every accusation against it, to combat the distasteful outcome of the document produced. The urge to say "told you so, Israel" it too strong to resist. It is also worth noting that the report acknowledges that the information they gathered at no time meets the standards required to make a case against any party for war crimes, meaning the authors acknowledge that what they have been told or found could be little more than speculation or entirely untrue.

The report also delves into areas that have nothing to do with operation Cast Lead or the Gaza strip. It pronounces dubious suggestions of Israel persecuting dissent, questions the integrity of Israeli courts and looks at activities in the West Bank, having no connection to Cast Lead.

One area that could prove to be more controversial than others is the question of the status of Gaza as an occupied territory. An occupier has certain obligations towards the occupied population. This includes, for example, the obligation to provide food to the population of the occupied territory. Much of the criticism of Israel in this report stems from the premise that the Gaza Strip remains occupied territory and so Israel failed in many of the obligations it would have as an occupier. This is a flawed position. The Gaza strip is not occupied territory, a position thoughtfully presented here. It is true that the Gaza strip is more or less under siege by Israel, but Israel has no obligation to supply or trade with the population of a region governed by an enemy. Israel has no more obligation to the people of Gaza than it does to those in south Lebanon.

The report correctly based its position that Israel occupies Gaza on the point of the effective control test. It wanted to see if Israel effectively controlled the Gaza strip. It's conclusion that during Cast Lead, Israel did control the strip is flawed. Hamas remained the government of the strip, directed activities of Hamas forces and life and never relinquished power. Nor was it Israel's goal to remove Hamas or to remain and reoccupy the region. Israel also was not able to merely waltz in to Gaza, but was forced to fight its way into the strip and its forces were at all times under the threat of violence. An occupier would not need its forces to fight its way into a territory over which it exercised effective control.

The report also suggests the strip is occupied because the international community thinks it is, and in so asserting, looks to UNSC resolution 1860 (2009) in which the following line appears: “Stressing that the Gaza Strip constitutes an integral part of the territory occupied in 1967 and will be a part of the Palestinian state..." That the Gaza strip and the West Bank form an integral part and will both be part of a future Palestinian state is not a point of contention, but this does not mean that just because the two create a whole occupation of one means occupation of the other. It sounds here that the commission is making a highly technical and flawed argument that since the west bank is occupied, then so is Gaza.

The argument of Israeli occupation of Gaza is flimsy at best. The same is true of arguments that follow from this flimsy premise.

Israel is gearing up for a diplomatic campaign to counter the report so no doubt the Israeli foreign ministry and Public Diplomacy will be in high gear for the next while. What they say will be interesting to watch. My thoughts on this matter will be further elaborated and developed in the days to come. I note, however, that i do not wish for this report to distract from attention to efforts that are ongoing to jumpstart peace talks. It is calamitous that the ugly shadow of a highly critique-able report is being cast over efforts to move towards a day when such reports will be a relic of the "bad old days."

Monday, September 14, 2009

Peace Buzz

There's quite a bit of activity taking place, a scramble of sorts, to jump start Palestinian Israeli peace talks by the end of September. Between this weekend and this coming Wednesday alone, Netanyahu has met with Mubarak and will meet with Mitchell who has met with Peres and will meet with Abbas who is to be pressured by all of the above to agree to peace talks.

Prior to the Netanyahu-Mubarak meeting (which took place between the late afternoon and a fast-breaking Ramadan dinner before Netanyahu headed home) speculation was that talks would focus on a settlement freeze, the normalization of relations between Israel and Arab states and the Iranian threat. There were also expected, according to media sources, to be discussions relating to weapons smuggling into Gaza and a general re-starting of peace talks.

Netanyahu did not bring any media with him, however, and so the actual content of discussions is unclear. Many speculate that the real agenda topping item was a deal to free Gilad Schalit. This is because many note that Hamas leaders were in Egypt just prior to Netanyahu's visit. Some even suggested that peace talks were probably not raised at all during the meeting. This is a proposition that may be supported by noting the duration of the meeting, it's lack of fanfare and the very general statements issued afterwards relating to cooperation between all parties and Netanyahu's comments prior to the meeting that the visit may help bridge diplomatic gaps. Moreover, Netanyahu was also supposed to meet with Omar Suleiman in Egypt, who has been Egypt's point man on negotiations for Schalit's release.

This may even be a hint that Netanyahu is willing to go farther for Schalit than a prisoner exchange. Perhaps what he's saying here is that bold steps are needed and perhaps Israel will agree to speak more directly with Hamas in exchange for Schalit's return. This would be truly shocking, however, as it flies in the face of Israeli and Netanyahu doctrine for refusing to accord Hamas any legitimacy.

Meanwhile, Peres' meeting with Mitchell seems to have accomplished little with Mitchell wishing Peres well after being released from hospital following a fainting spell, Peres being pressured by Mitchell to stop settlements and Mitchell being assured by Peres that despite media hype and small disagreements, Israel is 100% on-board with Obama's goals for peace. All of which sounds like a fairly ho-hum meeting with little new or significant take-away. Talks between Netanyahu and Mitchell may be more substantive with the parameters of a renewed series of peace talks being discussed.

Strangely, as almost all parties seem to be scrambling to ensure that Israel and the Palestinians meet for talks, the PA and the EU seem to be implying not only that talks will take place, but that they'll take place with the goal of setting up a Palestinian state within two years, as per the PA PM Fayyad's plan. The hope is that the setting up of agreed borders in the West Bank (with the exception of Jerusalem) will be the basis upon which a new state may be founded.

Much remains to be seen, especially how Abbas responds to Mitchell, but it's hard to imagine how the talk of peace could be a bad thing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Settlement Illusion

There has been harsh criticism leveled at Israel for recently approving new settlements in the West Bank.

455 new housing units have been approved in various West Bank settlements prompting even UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, speaking though his spokesman, to condemn the settlements as contrary to international law and the roadmap.

Nonetheless, the housing units have been approved, supposedly with the full knowledge of the US government and the US middle east peace envoy, and in addition to these housing units the Israeli Education Minister has recently promised to continue building schools in the settlements. All this has provoked comments from the PA that US credibility is at stake for their inability to force the Israeli government to stop construction.

Meanwhile, Egyptian officials noted that--in what would seem to be in spite of US efforts--some Arab states would be inclined to normalization with Israel in exchange for a settlement freeze, but that a settlement freeze is not equal to full normalization of relations.

Amidst all this concern over the approval of new housing units, it seems that the units are not new at all. According to Ha'Aretz, most of these housing units already exist or are being constructed. That's not to say that all the condemnation is much ado about nothing, but it's much ado about something that has happened as long ago as 1999. The facts that these permits may have created already exist and have for years.

That this announcement was made about all these housing units being built, when internationally such an announcement is unhelpful and the facts already exist seems to indicate that the announcement was a domestic political move. The current Israeli government is likely merely appealing to the settler constituency by demonstrating that they are willing to help the settlers, despite the reality that nothing new has really been given.

It also exposes some interesting points about the value of settlements as a bargaining chip. It is true that the settlements are part of the road map and ought to be stopped. Nonetheless, the current Israeli government seems to be using a settlement freeze as a commodity to offer in negotiations. The Egyptian comments that a settlement freeze is not the same as normalization of relations but only an inclination towards such normalization will no doubt make the Israeli government somewhat less inclined to offer the freeze when all they may get for it is a possible change in attitude from certain, unnamed Arab states. Netanyahu is being asked to make a very difficult political decision in exchange for a possible intangible.

Following from this point is the question of US credibility in the region. If the US can be said to lose credibility if Israel doesn't freeze settlements, surely it also loses credibility if Arab states are not willing to normalize relations. The reality is that the US can apply pressure to foreign states, but it does not control the government of foreign states, neither Israeli nor Arab. Indeed the proposition that the US ought to be able to force Israel to do or not do something implies that Israel is somehow a colony of the US or under control of the US government, which is simply not true. It would also be a dangerous proposition to reinforce in the Arab world which sees Israel as illegitimate, and the impression that it is not sovereign, serves only to feed this perception.

Friday, September 11, 2009

I Should Have Been an Archeologist

...Because I find stories like this so interesting. I can't help but let my imagination wander and picture the actual people these artifacts belong to, what their lives were like, what they looked like, what they talked about, etc.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Counting the Gaza Dead

The numbers of Gazans killed during Operation Cast Lead is not certain. What's even less certain is what percentage of the people killed were "legitimate targets."

The Israeli Human Rights group, B'Tselem, has produced a report in which they claim their thorough research has demonstrated that 1,387 Gazans were killed during Cast Lead and that of those 773 "did not take part in hostilities."

As an indication of just how varied these numbers are, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) suggests 1,419 Gazans were killed in Cast Lead with 1,167 "non-combatants" which includes "...civilians and civil police officers who were not involved in hostilities."

On the other hand, this report from the International Institute for Counter Terrorism finds that at least 564 casualties from Cast Lead were "...casualties affiliated with the organization or one of its units, or who bear a title identifying them as Hamas casualties..." (emphasis in original) but does not take on the question of how many casualties there were in total. Similarly some blogs, like this one, have been doing some of their own research--which though it may be less credible, is not necessarily wrong--that concluded there were "...656 legitimate targets..." amongst the casualties.

The IDF, which has its own statistics, did not issue a response to any of these reports.

This seems to beg two questions, first, what is a "legitimate target" and second, who has their numbers right?

B'Teslem explains that their standards for what a legitimate target was summarized as follows from a Red Cross study of the question:

"1. Persons who fulfill a “continuous combat function.” Such persons are
legitimate objects of attack, even if at the moment of attack they are not
taking a direct part in the hostilities. This category includes persons who are involved on an ongoing basis in the preparation, execution, or command of combat acts or operations. An individual recruited, trained and equipped by such a group to continuously and directly participate in hostilities can be considered to assume a continuous combat function even before he or she carries out a hostile act. On the other hand, persons who continuously accompany or support an organized armed group but whose function does not involve direct participation in hostilities maintain their status as civilians and are not legitimate objects of attack. Thus, recruiters, financiers and propagandists may contribute to the general war effort, but as long as they do not directly participate in hostilities, they are not a legitimate object of attack.
2. Persons who do not fulfill a “continuous combat function” but take a direct part in hostilities (for example, on their way to fir [sic] a rocket, during the firing of the rocket, and on the way back)."

The definition excludes from the list of legitimate targets those involved in political activities or support activities. Of all the statistics cited above, the B'Tselem report seems to be the only one to clearly lay out the standards it used to determine who was a combatant and who was a non-combatant.

Entire books have been written on this question and so it cannot be treated fairly here, but suffice to say that the Red Cross definition sounds reasonable for defining those who are directly involved in hostilities, but it does not treat the question of who is a legitimate target. Certainly, anyone involved in hostilities would be a legitimate target, but what of the political leadership of a group like Hamas? It could be argued that they commanded combat acts. The definition also contains ambiguities, suggesting that financiers are not combatants, but if the preparation for an attack requires fundraising, then it seems financiers actually fall into a grey zone.

Legitimate target, therefore, remains a term subject to an almost case by case definition. As explained here by a former IDF lawyer, in Cast Lead, Israel decided that the threat against it was such that the entire infrastructure behind the threat was a legitimate target, and so it broadened the definition of legitimate target beyond the Red Cross definition of those directly involved in hostilities.

As for which statistics to trust, it seems that with such wide variations and regular sniping--one side against the credibility of the other's numbers--the exact figure may never be agreed upon. In reading the reports (or summaries, as the case may be), however, it seems that B'Tselem offers the most balanced presentation of its statistics, noting significantly that just because more civilians were killed, does not imply a violation of international law. This is a crucial point that PCHR does not seem to consider in its report which is difficult to consider seriously based on the terminology it employs alone (IDF becomes IOF--Israeli Occupation Forces, and Hamas is the "resistance" in PCHR reports.)

This being said, despite what seems to be prima facie superior credibility for B'Tselem (due in no small part to the thorough work they appear to have carried out and the documentation they claim to have), important legal questions remain about whether it is right to include an individual amongst the civilian casualties or illegitimate targets merely because they did not participate in hostilities.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Goofin' Around

I made some minor changes to the blog. They may be so minor that frequent readers wouldn't even notice, but if you do have an opinion on the look or feel of the blog, please let me know.

Eisenhower's Prophecy

Though details remain sparse, an interesting new group is appearing in the Israeli "peace" landscape.

A group called "blue and white peace" (no link to any website available) is reportedly being started by what both the Jpost and YNet refer to as a group of Israeli leftists with the goal not of supporting Netanyahu, but of reminding him that the public is behind him in efforts to make peace.

Many of the people involved have solid credentials either from the Israeli security services (including the IDF) or the political/diplomatic world or in working towards peace or some combination of the above. Their goal is to use their credentials to rally public support behind the plan outlined by Netanyahu in his earlier foreign policy speech and around the idea of the creation of a Palestinian state.

Some of the people involved in "Blue and White Peace" are already involved in groups like this one (site in Hebrew only) called the "People's Voice", which in a nutshell tries to get Israelis to sign on to a petition advocating a demilitarized Palestinian state with the right of return of Palestinian refugees to that state and some sort of sharing arrangement for Jerusalem.

The idea behind "People's Voice" and "Blue and White Peace" is to show Netanyahu that the public is behind him, to show that his efforts are not the result of yielding to pressure for an outside source, but home-grown, and to convince him that he has the political capital to make the difficult decisions.

The challenges faced by Netanyahu are well illustrated in this somewhat unrelated article where an IDF general explains the paralysis the Israeli parliamentary system can cause. The point is, that Netanyahu may choose to act, or not act based on fears that his government could be brought down by a political misstep not supported by the public. This new group being created is intended to show him, forcefully, that the public is behind him.

Perhaps even more valuable, however, would be efforts to convince other parties in the Knesset that to stand in the way of Netanyahu in his efforts to make peace would have disastrous electoral consequences for them. A strong show of support for peace by the Israeli public, and not just by people who may be "expected" to stand for a two state solution (Labour, for example) but also those who may normally vote Likud or for other right leaning parties is what's needed to create the political will to move forward.

Given relatively recent polling of Israelis and the findings that nearly 60% of them support a two state solution, perhaps "Blue and White Peace" will not have that much work cut out for them, but the goal is noble and reminiscent of the words of former US president Eisenhower: "...I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it."

Monday, September 7, 2009

MIA Redemption

In the wake of talk of releasing Gilad Schalit and the cautious optimism that he may be home soon, I came across a story I had never heard before.

The story is about an Israeli soldier named Guy Hever who in 1997 vanished from his base in the Golan Heights without a trace. A true mystery, not a sign of him was found, except for the dog tags of a Syrian soldier, now in the possession of his family.

One hypothesis put forward was that Guy left his base after fighting with his officer and fell or jumped off a cliff in the Golan. The area has been thoroughly searched, however, and not a trace has been found.

In 2007, a Syrian group claimed to be holding Guy, and wanted to exchange him. Apparently, upon further investigation, this claim was found to have no merit.

Israel has recently ramped up diplomatic efforts to find Guy and an organization in Israel has offered $US10 million for any information relating to his whereabouts or to the whereabouts of any of the other missing Israeli soldiers.

When a soldier is listed as missing in combat, sometimes it's because they have literally been vaporized, but a bomb, a shell or some other weapon and that nothing remains of them. This is different, because Guy was not in combat when he went missing. It is very possible that the soldier died in an accident, commit suicide or was even prey to domestic crime in Israel, though these scenarios seem unlikely given the thorough searches that have taken place.

It's possible that the soldier went AWOL and is maybe hiding somewhere now, but again, unlikely that he would not have contacted his family and that nobody would have recognized him.

Maybe he is in Syria then. What's difficult to explain is why would Syria hold him, and not admit he's being held? What is there to gain from this? Why wouldn't they say clearly that the have this soldier in their custody? This is part of the mystery. One answer may be that they're waiting for the time to be right. Perhaps they are waiting until negotiations between Israel and Syria have reached an impasse and then the allure of redeeming Guy Hever will be presented to Israel to break an impasse in Syria's favour. It's hard to know.

In all cases, while it must be difficult to know that a loved one is a prisoner, or in a POW camp, or even killed, it must be infinitely harder for a family to not have any idea at all.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Swedish Goose, Spanish Gander

When a Swedish paper published highly dubious, unsubstantiated claims about the IDF stealing organs from Palestinians, Israel asked that the Swedish government condemn the story for what it was, a blood libel. The Swedish government refused citing the high value Sweden places on the freedom of the press.

Contrast this with Spain. Recently a Spanish newspaper published an interview with a known Holocaust denier, a man who spent time in an Austrian prison for Holocaust denial, where denying the Holocaust is a crime. In response, the Spanish foreign minister himself issued a condemnation of the interview "...while maintaining the most absolute respect for freedom of expression..."

Why is such a condemnation possible in Spain, but not in Sweden?

To Sweden's credit (though it does not absolve them of silence in the face of blood libels printed in their newspapers) the Swedish government will be pushing the EU to combat antisemetism.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Ideas for Peace

Amidst the recent to-ing and fro-ing over whether there will be a peace summit in late September, a couple of other ideas are being discussed in the background.

The first is an idea from the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. What he lays out, in his own forward to his 65 page plan is a "...program, which sets out our national goals and government policies, centers around the objective of building strong state institutions capable of providing, equitably and effectively, for the needs of our citizens, despite the occupation. We believe that full commitment to this state-building endeavor will advance our highest national priority of ending the occupation, thereby enabling us to live in freedom and dignity in a country of our own." In other words, Prime Minister Fayad sees his plan as a roadmap to the creation of all the institutions and infrastructure of a functioning state so as to simply make Palestinian Independence real. It's not the first time such an idea was proposed by Fayad, but may be the first time his idea was given enough thought to be compiled into a comprehensive document.

Israeli President Peres, for his part, also has some similar ideas, in line with the "roadmap for peace" in which he proposes "the establishment in the near future of a Palestinian state with temporary borders, with guarantees and a timetable for a permanent agreement that will include solutions on all core issues." In other words, an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, with "fuzzy" borders and a time table to solidify these borders and deal with the stickier issues.

Combined with Netanyahu's calls for Economic peace between Israel and Palestine, Fayad and Peres are saying very similar things, Netanyahu, however, seems to have already rejected Peres' suggestion despite news that the US is considering Peres' plan.

Fayad, however, is getting mixed reviews. This op-ed in Ha'Aretz supports Fayad's plan, saying that the critics on each side of the argument are on the fringes--some saying that it's wrong for a timeline to be established and others that the plan is too cooperative with Israel. That latter view is expressed here, on the website "electronic intifada" where the author suggests that the Palestinian Authority is nothing more than puppets of the US and Israel, that Fayad is politically too weak to accomplish anything and that basically, his plan is doomed to failure.

In responding to criticism of settlements, a retort of those who support settler extremism sometimes say "a Palestinian extremist is a suicide bomber, a Jewish extremist builds a house." It's hard not to be excited at the thought of a new wave of Palestinian radicalism: infrastructure and institution building. Infrastructure that will improve the quality of life for Palestinians and institutions that can keep peace, order and friendly relations. This optimism, however, needs to be tempered with the realization that neither plan resolves the core issues of refugees, Jerusalem or the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Neither does it touch that tricky little question of Hamas and Gaza.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Too Early to be Optimistic?

Israeli President Shimon Peres has predicted that peace talks will resume in a US-Israeli-Palestinian summit at the end of September. This optimistic announcement was followed by reports that such meetings are actually quite unlikely and by statements from the Palestinian Authority that peace talks would not resume in the absence of a total freeze on all settlement activity.

This is interesting for a few reasons. Peres' statement has the effect of making Palestinians appear to be the rejectionists in the face of an offer to talk peace. By publicly announcing that the talks would take place--or at least could easily take place--Palestinians choosing not to jump at the opportunity, despite one of their demands not being met, makes them look like the opponents of peace. It's hard to know if this move was intentional, but if so, it was quite clever.

A second interesting point is the impact the Palestinian position has on settlements. Many have argued that settlements are not the problem in the Israeli Palestinian conflict and that violence against Israel existed before 1967 and before the existence of any settlements. Suppose it were true that the settlements are not an obstacle in any way to peace, the PA's unwillingness to talk peace in the absence of a settlement freeze turns settlements into an obstacle. It's a way of saying that no matter whether settlements were a problem or not, they are perceived to be a problem and so absent a freeze in their growth, peace efforts will not move forward. The response to which becomes "freeze them and get on with it already," and less "forget the settlements and get on with it already."

One problem with the former approach is that the PA is insisting that not only West Bank settlements be frozen, but also building in the Eastern (formerly Jordanian) part of Jerusalem. This would be a very difficult proposition for Israel to accept given that Jerusalem was annexed by Israel (officially) in 1980 and that many Israelis would consider a building freeze in Eastern Jerusalem no different than a building freeze in Tel-Aviv. Inconceivable. The latter approach, however, denies Abbas anything tangible in terms of concessions from Israel and some may see him to be negotiating from weakness. A fair response to this is "concessions come from negotiations, not prior to them."

Late September will be an interesting time, when the three key players will be present in the same place at the same time. Will they really miss out on this opportunity to talk and try to get talks going again? Hard to say.