The people of Gaza deserve our support

Middle East Eye

Words lose their meaning when the human conscience sinks to a new low of barbarity and falsehood. What Israel has done in the besieged Palestinian enclave of Gaza has little to do with self-defence or preservation. John Dugard, renowned international law professor who has served on many UN bodies and international inquiries, has comprehensively debunked the myth of Israel’s right of self-defence.

In fact, what Israel has committed is a month-long orgy of massacres in which Palestinian civilians holed up in refugee camps, hospitals and UN schools were slaughtered indiscriminately. The notion of Israeli Defense Forces launching pinpoint attacks is patently a lie, given the very high number of civilian deaths including those of children as a result of repeated hits on UN compounds. The UN said that the Israelis were given advance information of the locations of those premises.

While the Israeli Defense Forces, made up of reservists and settlers living in the occupied Palestinian land, were using some of the most lethal weaponry, families inside Israel set up their sofas on hilltops. As the Guardian newspaper reported, they came out with bottles of bear, soft drinks and snacks to cheer, whoop and whistle as the sun was about to set over the Mediterranean, and bombs came down on Palestinian slums a few miles away. Many spectators had smartphones to record explosions, or to take pictures of themselves, grinning and thumbs up, against a background of black smoke.

At the same time, the Israeli government’s spokesman-in-chief, Mark Regev, was telling the world in bulletin after bulletin that people in Israel were in mortal danger of Hamas rockets, hiding in underground bunkers and shaking with fear.

That our moral decline has sunk to these depths is a sad reflection on humanity. Bloodshed in Gaza by Israel’s firepower has become almost a ritual in recent years. Even so, the violence this time, and gloating in Israel, go against claims more than before that Israel is a civilised democracy wedded to western values of liberalism and the rule of law.

Let us take the rule of law and claims of the Israeli military’s professionalism. In his Al Jazeera opinion column, John Dugard writes about a dark contradiction. The Israelis accept that Gaza is not an independent state like Lebanon and Jordan, but assert that Gaza is a “hostile entity”. Dugard rightly points out that such a concept is unknown in international law.

Israel cannot explain this strange contradiction of its own making – a device to have it both ways. Gaza is separated from the West Bank and thus more isolated, but remains part of the occupied Palestinian Territories. For despite the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the strip in 2005, Gaza’s land and sea borders are sealed by Israel on three sides, and by Egypt on the remaining fourth. There is no freedom of movement, because all travel and transportation between Gaza and the rest of the world can take place only when Israel and Egypt permit. So people resort to underground tunnels at great risk to themselves.

Such tight control of 1.8 million people by two most powerful countries in the region can only be described as occupation, as the International Court of Justice and other United Nations bodies have recognised. Israel has a legal duty under law to respect civilian life. Yet by restricting movement and supplies, and bombing civilian targets and what infrastructure is left there, Israel continues to commit crimes under international law.

It is undeniable that those living in Gaza have the right to resist occupation and the right to self-defence under such intolerable conditions. Any ceasefire that becomes yet another means of continued occupation is utterly meaningless and deceitful. Governments and leaders who support Israel’s right to defend itself are surely lacking the basic sense of reality, for it is actually the population of Gaza that has a legitimate right of defence. This writer’s deep sympathies are with Gaza’s residents.

The United States and President Barack Obama in particular bear a heavy responsibility for the carnage. Israel stands accused of committing gross violations of international humanitarian law and law governing occupation before the world. Still, Israel continues this behaviour with impunity. The primary reason is the certainty that the United States will block any meaningful attempt to condemn and hold Israel accountable.

Obama’s parroting of “Israel’s right to defend itself” is shameless and cynical. His disregard for Israel’s crimes against Gaza, and the West Bank, is callous. Here we have a US president who brazenly repeats the Israeli prime minister’s slogans of war against millions of Palestinians living under occupation. He then goes on to bomb Iraq, ostensibly to protect a few hundred American lives, and members of the Yazidi minority from Islamist insurgents, whose rise is a direct consequence of America’s wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya and other places.

The man is supremely manipulative and a lazy thinker. The truth which he must surely know is how many Christians and Jews, indeed other minorities, have been killed or have fled Iraq since the 2003 US invasion of that country.

Others are culpable, too. The British Prime Minister David Cameron’s silence over the bloodshed in Gaza goes against the growing unease in his own Conservative Party, and the public at large. The European Union is incapable of taking a stand independent of the United States. And we have a Secretary-General of the United Nations who cannot stand up to American pressure.

South America has shown more guts. Brazil, Chile, Peru, Ecuador and El Salvador have all condemned Israel, and recalled their ambassadors. But India’s Hindu nationalist-dominated government has restricted debate in parliament because of close defence and intelligence ties with Israel.

The government asserts that there is no change in India’s long-standing policy in support of the Palestinians’ rights. But when a newly-elected government is reluctant to allow a proper debate in parliament in a democracy, its moral authority is eroded. Credibility is an essential ingredient of the national interest. A government must understand that when its credibility is questioned, other aspects of its foreign relations are at risk.

Thankfully, India has a functioning democratic system, and a diverse population with more than 180 million Muslims in the country. So when the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to launch an investigation into the Israeli offensive on Gaza, the Indian government chose to stand with a clear majority supporting the inquiry.

The United States was alone in voting against the Human Rights Council resolution. Still, Washington remains determined to block any attempt to hold accountable its Middle Eastern outpost where it matters – in the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice. In this unequal war, the people of Gaza deserve our support. 

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Why Israel is backing Kurdish independence

Middle East Eye

Developments pointing towards the possibility of an independent Kurdish state raise new questions about Middle East politics, as well as the possibility of a major transformation of the region in years to come.

The history of the Middle East has been determined by events which initially seemed localised and relatively minor, before acquiring great significant and causing many upheavals in the long run. It appears that the region may be heading for yet another transformational change which may, in turn, invite comparisons with the events after World War I that shaped the Middle East of today.

The Kurdish people claim to have lived in the same land for more than 2,000 years. Their land has been divided by imperial manoeuvres. They have struggled against oppression and persecution for almost a century. Now, Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, says that he is going to hold a referendum on independence in coming months.

The outcome is going to be a foregone conclusion. The referendum will result in a vote for an independent Kurdish state north of a truncated Iraq. The prospect is tantalising for many Kurds, persecuted for decades in a land which was divided by imperial powers between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey almost a century ago. At the same time, external powers in the region and afar will be eyeing for the consequences with a sense of delight or foreboding, depending on their own interests.

It is worth considering what has brought the idea of Kurdish independence so close to realisation. In recent months, communities in the autonomous Kurdistan Region have witnessed a growing Sunni Arab uprising in western and central Iraq, including areas around the capital Baghdad and near the autonomous Kurdish Region itself. Kurdish Peshmerga have been deployed outside Iraqi Kurdistan to block Sunni rebel advances, and defend Kurdistan’s borders. Iraq’s Kurdish population is bound to view freedom as too precious to lose, having won autonomy after the fall of Saddam Hussein at the end of a very long struggle.

The widespread alienation of Sunni Arabs caused by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarian policies, and the Sunni rebellion of late, have raised the prospect of Iraq’s formal breakup into Shia and Sunni mini-states. That prospect comes with risks as well as opportunities, not only for Iraqi Kurds, but for the Kurdish population throughout the region, especially in Iran, Syria and Turkey – three other countries with large concentrations of Kurdish communities.

Watching these developments in Iraq, and calculating their possible ramifications, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has thrown the cat among the pigeons. Only a few days after the first tanker carrying crude oil produced in the autonomous Kurdish Region arrived at the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashkelon, bypassing areas under Iraqi government control, Netanyahu made his announcement of support for Kurdish independence. Netanyahu’s words must be music to Kurdish leaders’ ears.

The notion that the Israeli prime minister’s expression of support originates from a common history of oppression and persecution of both Jews and Kurds is a sign of naive thinking. For there are Israeli calculations at play to shape a new geopolitical reality that will be more favourable to Israel’s own interests and ambitions in the Middle East.

An independent Kurdish state is a matter of great importance to its people. However from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s perspective, such an event would accelerate the disintegration of the present Iraqi state. Since the 2003 US invasion, Iraq is already a much weaker power in the region. Further partition would result in at least three mini-states – Kurdish, and possibly Sunni and Shiite, triggered by a sharpening divide between them. The process may set in motion further balkanisation of Iraq, creating an Afghanistan, Syria or Libya type situation. In the Israeli prime minister’s calculations, that scenario would enhance Israel’s status as the regional superpower. It would give Israel a carte blanche to intervene. But is it going to make Israel more secure?

The implications of Netanyahu’s scheme would not be limited to Iraq’s partition into smaller, mutually hostile, states. He knows that many Kurdish people aspire for independence from Iran, Turkey, even Syria. Once Iraqi Kurds secede, it would embolden their brethren in those countries. The idea of greater Kurdistan is going to be a powerful agent, and confrontations with the central authorities in Ankara and Tehran will follow. Kurdish communities in Syria have been left to their own devices amid war.

Much of Syria lies in ruins. Its state structure and military are under great strain. Once a powerful and uncompromising adversary of Israel, Syria’s future hangs in the balance, and the country no longer poses a credible challenge to Israel. Syria’s destruction has left three more regional powers to neutralise – Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Netanyahu’s open support for an independent Kurdish state is a start on that strategy.

Iran, too, is on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s target list. Israel’s relationship with Iran was close before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the two countries have been at loggerheads. Tehran’s nuclear programme and its support for the Palestinians are the main causes of the Iranian-Israeli animus.

Netanyahu’s advocacy for action against Iran has been particularly aggressive in recent years, and President Barack Obama’s attempts for some kind of rapprochement with Tehran is a source of disagreement between Israel and the United States. The creation of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq may encourage similar demands from the Kurdish population in western Iranian provinces of Kordestan, Karmanshah and West Azerbaijan. If Netanyahu’s scheme succeeds, those demands will fuel the discontent in the Kurdish and other minorities of Iran. They may even lead to conflict. Iran’s preoccupation with any worsening of the internal situation will suit Netanyahu.

Israel has serious issues with Turkey as well. Their relations have suffered a sharp decline since the Turkish government denounced Israel’s Gaza War in 2008-2009. A major crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations came when the Israeli commandos raided a flotilla of ships in the open Mediterranean Sea carrying humanitarian supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish activists, including a Turkish-American with dual citizenship, were killed in the incident. Relations between Turkey and Israel have not recovered since. Both sides remain adamant, and there are scores to be settled. Ankara’s difficulties in the Kurdish south-eastern region of Turkey will be of considerable interest to Israel.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement of support for an independent Kurdistan is interesting in one particular respect – he is vague about the boundaries of such a state. His words seem carefully calculated, leaving a number of possibilities as to the size and shape of a Kurdish independent entity. The statement may well be designed to raise anxiety in Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus. It is certainly a recipe for upheaval in future.

The modern Middle East, with Israel as a Jewish state in Palestine, emerged as a result of Anglo-French carve up of the region as part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916, and a promise made for the creation of a Jewish state under the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. The idea of Kurdish independence within borders not yet specified, and the decision to hold a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, raise the prospect of momentous transformational changes in years to come. Exactly what forces are behind the scheme remains shrouded in mystery. We know only that the idea has come from the prime minister of Israel, and has been seized by Iraq’s Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. How events unfold from now on is going to be of interest to many in concerned capitals and beyond.

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What is happening in Iraq?

Indian Council of World Affairs

The escalating crisis of recent weeks in Iraq has brought the country under new spotlight. A militant group widely described in the media as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has captured a number of cities and towns from government forces in northern and central Iraq. More territory is contested. ISIS successes include Mosul close to Iraqi Kurdistan, areas around Baghdad in the central Anbar province, Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra and Tikrit. Some places have fallen to ISIS after fighting. Others have been lost because Iraqi government troops, depleted by low morale and mass desertions, have simply withdrawn. The Iraqi map, already fragmented, looks more divided than before as a result of the latest rise in militancy.

A decade after the United States invaded Iraq to overthrew President Saddam Hussein and created a new political structure, these events pose a stubborn challenge to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government. Reports in the international media put the blame squarely on ISIS. The organisation is described as an offshoot of, and more brutal than, al-Qaeda, which has actually disowned the group. Last February, a message posted on Islamist websites said the leadership of al-Qaeda had announced that ISIS was “not a branch of al-Qaeda, nor does it have an organisational relationship with al-Qaeda network.” Some have also claimed that ISIS grew out of a previous militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq, whose leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike north of Baghdad in June 2006.

The names of al-Qaeda and those supposedly associated with it have a particular resonance in the American psyche. Think tanks within the Washington Beltway and the Obama administration have described the unfolding scenario in Iraq as a threat to the region and America’s interest. President Obama, cautious and calculative, has ordered the despatch of special forces as “military advisors” to Iraq, but seems reluctant to go much further. He has himself quashed speculation that he may order air attacks against militants unless, he says, there is an accord on Sunni inclusion in Iraq. The experience after the 2003 invasion still haunts America. Usually reliable sources say Obama wants Prime Minister Maliki out as a price for bailing out the Iraqi government. Will Maliki step down easily? Or if he is forced out, what will be the repercussions?

A complex picture
The situation in Iraq is a lot more complex than reports in the media convey, and the local reality does not get the attention it deserves. That fighters from outside, including Syria, are infiltrating Iraq’s porous borders is not in doubt, but Iraqi Sunnis, too, are part of the rebellion. ISIS is known to be well entrenched in Syria, fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, as well as more moderate anti-government groups. From northern and central Syria, militants can move to Ramadi, Fallujah and areas around Baghdad along the Euphrates with relative ease. Mosul, north of the Iraqi capital, is within reach.

ISIS has made some effort to win the hearts and minds of local residents where the group dominates, but its strict application of Sharia law has also alienated communities. The conduct of ISIS brings mixed results for the group. ISIS tends to harness discontent in areas of Sunni population that has become alienated because of the central government’s discriminatory policies. However, the sentiment is different in secular Sunni and Shia communities.

Maliki’s sectarian policy
In many ways, the crisis for Prime Minister Maliki is of his own making. For the rebels could not have achieved such military successes in a wide area of Iraq without local support. Sunni communities in many parts of the country, once dominant in Saddam Hussein’s power structure, have found themselves increasingly side-lined under Maliki’s rule. Within days of America’s military withdrawal in December 2011, ending eight years of occupation, Iraq’s Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashemi was accused of organising murder squads and terrorism and fled to Turkey. Hashemi was later sentenced to death in absentia.
Maliki’s increasingly sectarian approach since America’s withdrawal has caused deep alienation in the Sunni minority.

To say that the challenge to Iraq’s Shia-dominated government is from ISIS alone is a partial truth. The reality is that not only does ISIS enjoy local support, there are rebellions by Iraqi Sunnis across the country. This explains why Mosul fell without much fighting. The Iraqi army withdrew after a period of tension and uncertainty. Mosul’s Sunni residents, who resent Maliki’s rule, were left behind. There was hardly any resistance from the Sunni population of Mosul.

No plain-sailing for rebels
The Iraqi government’s authority was already weak because the country is a much reduced entity. The alienation of Sunnis caused by Maliki’s policy has further eroded his control to the extent that questions are being asked about his future. Nonetheless, predictions in the western press that Baghdad could soon fall to Sunni rebel forces are exaggerated.

ISIS has no doubt made dramatic gains in a short time, but its victories have been limited to Sunni areas. Baghdad today is overwhelmingly Shia except a few neighbourhoods. Shia militias operate with Shia-dominated security forces. Baghdad is hit by suicide bombings from time to time, but a physical takeover of the capital by Sunni rebels seems a far-fetched idea for now. A more likely scenario is continuous weakening of central government control over large parts of the country, thereby making the Iraqi government even more vulnerable and prone to foreign pressure.

America’s return to Iraqi theatre
Events have come full circle in Iraq for the United States. When American forces invaded the country in 2003, they supported the Shia population and pulverised Sunni areas in Baghdad and elsewhere. When the American military subsequently encountered fierce Shia resistance, the Bush administration switched sides. With American help, Sunni tribal militias were created under the umbrella of Sahwa (Sons of Iraq) in 2005 to counter Shia opposition.

Prime Minister Maliki has persistently refused to integrate Sunni tribal militias into the state security forces while packing the Iraqi military and police with Shia loyalists across all ranks. By the end of 2013, the Sahwa militias had become non-existence. Most militiamen were unemployed or had joined ISIS, contributing to the deep Sunni resentment against Maliki’s government and causing the problems he faces today. Now, the United States is again supporting the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, by despatching special forces to begin with, to quell the Sunni rebellion spreading across northern and central Iraq. These alliances are little more than marriages of convenience between disgruntled Sunni communities of Iraq and some foreign fighters on one hand, and the beleaguered Iraqi government and President Obama on the other.

Will these marriages last and Iraq be stabilised? There must be serious doubts. Assassinations of suspected militants with special forces’ help, or high altitude bombing, do not have a good record of success. Maliki, or his successor, will need to adopt an inclusive policy. Even then, there will remain competing interests of Saudi Arabia, other Arab countries and Turkey on one hand, and Iran and Syria on the other. Major powers, the United States and Russia, will continue to vie for influence in the Middle East. Iraq is likely to remain unstable.

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