Thursday, March 24, 2011

The churning Middle East and . . . .

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing Husam Zomlot speak at the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard where he is, among other things [a PLO representative to the UK (2003-2008);  PhD degree in economics from the University of London, an MSc in Development Studies from the London School of Economics and a BA in Economics and Political Science from Birzeit University; specializing in international peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction programs; the United Nations; the Oxford Research Group; the London School of Economics; and the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute] a Visiting Fellow. His topic was "A Paradigm Shift: The Arab-Israeli Conflict and Regional Transformation." His lecture raised a couple of questions for me, one of which I'll share here.

Husam distinguished clearly between past revolutions in the Middle East which were really coups - violent takeovers of existing regimes, usually led by relatively small groups from the "top." Tunisia and Egypt [but not Libya], however, were mass non-violent, grassroots movements aimed at dislodging the leaders of existing, non-democratic regimes [e.g., Mubarak and Ben Ali]. He presented a mostly optimistic view of what all of this upheaval will mean for Palestine. He was in Ramallah, for instance, when 2000 Palestinians came out to the streets before being dispersed [non-violently] by Palestine Authority police. He expressed his disappointment at the relatively low turnout in the West Bank but feels that this has to be seen in the context of ongoing non-violent demonstrations that have been, and continue to go on elsewhere like B'illin. Husam also contrasted that with 10,000 demonstrators in Gaza who were violently dispersed by Hamas.  

Like the topic of this presentation, many people have been asking what effect the events in Egypt, Tunisia and potentially elsewhere will have on Palestine, which raises a question for me: Were Palestinians to rise up, who would they be confronting? The Israelis whose occupation of their homeland is strangling them? A Palestinian Authority/PLO that many see as helpless at best, collaborationist at worst? A Fatah party that is only marginally less corrupt than it was when it lost the election to Hamas? Hamas whose support has been quite low but grows steadily the longer Israel's siege continues?

My point is this; Palestinians are, in effect, struggling on three fronts all within a physically dwindling battlefield. Add to this the growing paranoia in Israel as its leaders see quasi-allies like Mubarak being pushed out and the fear of what comes next overwhelms them. Along with bombs in Jerusalem, mortars coming from Gaza and horrific murders in "settlements" moves Israel to what seems to be its only way of responding: harder, more violent retaliations. It makes one wonder what Palestinians can do to fulfill the aspirations that a good part of the world agrees they deserve but few will do enough to help their actualization. Many people feel that world opinion is finally shifting and things are beginning to change - certainly that was part of Husan Zomlot's perspective.

In my travels in the West Bank and Gaza I have been continually amazed at the resilience and persistence of the Palestinian people. Yesterday [and I'll say more about this in my next post] Husam repeated something I often heard in Palestine, particularly when people talked about what Israel was doing or trying to do to them: "We're not going anywhere." For a people, many of whom still carry the keys to houses they were forced to leave, some of them six decades ago, that's a pretty amazing statement. Inshallah.

Just a word about the bad news from Israel this week.  There can be no debate over the horrific nature of the murder of the Fogel family in the settlement of Itamar. The settlements are illegal and Itamar is populated by some of the  most extreme Jewish settlers - none of which begins to excuse or explain the awfulness of the slaughter. Likewise, while the growing obstinacy of of the Netanyahu/Lieberman regime makes some of us have some understanding of why a small number Palestinians turn to armed resistance, ultimately we cannot feel anything but condemnation about the recent bombing near the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem. And, frankly, I don't know what to say that hasn't already been said about the consequences of lobbing mostly useless missles into Israel from Gaza.
Having said that I can't let a couple of things pass. First, I have to wonder if Israel's leaders will ever learn [as our, Jewish, tradition teaches us] that the cycle of violence is never ended by violence. Already Israel has begun it's usual "retaliation" in Gaza and Interior Minister Eli Yishai's solution is to build 1,000 more settlement units for every Jew murdered [and this while Israel and the PA are still looking for whoever it was that murdered the Fogels]. In the U.S. meanwhile the institutional Jewish community is already churning its well oiled wheels in order to bang the war drums [my apologies for the mixed metaphors] not to mention the e-mails I've already begun to receive asking me, in the wake of the "growing attacks on Israelis," to contribute to one or another institutions or specific funds. I'm willing to accept that when the people making the decisions in Israel hear about these incidents they are first pained by the terrible loss of life but I just can't push away the horrible feeling that, on some level, they are also happy to have another excuse to carry out these terribly misdirected [and I think ultimately self-defeating] retaliations. I could say much more, but what's the point.

Tomorrow: Palestine, Economics, Deval PATrick and Bob Kraft

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