Sleepwalking into disaster

Print edition : April 06, 2007

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh (third from left) with the newly appointed Cabinet Ministers of the Hamas-Fatah coalition after their swearing-in ceremony in Gaza City on March 17.-Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh (third from left) with the newly appointed Cabinet Ministers of the Hamas-Fatah coalition after their swearing-in ceremony in Gaza City on March 17.

As the misguided policies of the U.S. and Israel aggravate the crisis in West Asia, India must change its short-sighted, pro-Washington approach to the region.

THE fourth anniversary of the United States-led invasion of Iraq on March 20, the aggravation of the Palestinian crisis after Israel's refusal to recognise the new Hamas-Fatah government, and the military build-up targeting Iran, all highlight as never before the pivotal importance of West Asia in today's world. The region, now marked by exceptional volatility, has become the crucible in which global geopolitics and geoeconomics will be shaped in the years to come.

West Asia today contains a concentrated expression of a number of trends: the U.S.'s bid to establish its global hegemony through military force; a power struggle for the control of the world's largest agglomeration of energy resources; Israel's attempt to crush the Palestinian national movement and to prolong further its occupation of Palestine - already the longest by any state in modern history; and a concerted effort to prevent the emergence of any regional challenge, in the shape of rising Iranian power, to Western domination.

The implications of the present turmoil in West Asia should be obvious. At stake, in particular, are the fate of the world's last great struggle against colonialism (Palestine); the success or failure of the attempt to overcome the alienation of the Muslim world from the agendas of the "Great Powers" (of which the resistance in Iraq and Palestine and global solidarity with it have become symbols); and the prospect of countering what is loosely described as "terrorism" (itself rooted in a million unaddressed grievances).

And yet, such is the insularity and profound apathy of India's policymakers, and indeed of the intelligentsia, to the region that West Asia scarcely figures in our domestic debate except in a purely reactive fashion and as a response to pressures originating in the U.S. An attempt was made in February to fill this void through the organisation of an international conference on "War, Imperialism and Resistance: West Asia".

This was probably the largest conference ever held in India on the subject and was attended by more than 20 participants from that region. Among them were such distinguished figures as Clovis Maksoud (scholar and former Arab League chief representative to India and, later, the United Nations); Kamal Majid (Iraq); Mohsen Saleh and Jamal Juma (Palestine); Fawwaz Traboulsi, Saadallah Mazraani and Ali Fayyad (Lebanon); Michel Warschawski (Israel); and Ali Atassi and Georges Jabbour (Syria).

Equally significant was the participation of a number of Indian academics, activists, concerned citizens, former diplomats and, above all, leaders of political parties, including Prakash Karat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), A.B. Bardhan of the Communist Party of India, Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party, Shahid Siddiqi of the Samajwadi Party and D.P. Tripathi of the Nationalist Congress Party.

This was easily the most inspiring conference on West Asia that this writer has attended outside Jerusalem. It included a sharp historical analysis; vivid accounts of recent developments in Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Syria and Iran; a discussion of the situation in the regional states closely allied to the U.S. (for instance, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt); a dissection of India's West Asia policy; passionate appeals for global solidarity and, most important, deliberations on strategies to mobilise Indian public opinion and policy in favour of peace and justice in West Asia.

Three broad propositions can be made about West Asia. First, the region continues to bear a heavy burden and hangover from its past history of colonisation, wars, artificial redrawing of boundaries, and the imposition of puppet regimes and destabilisation or sabotage of nationalist governments and movements. It has never been free of external interference by former colonial powers such as Britain and France and, now increasingly, the U.S.

In the past, the "Great Powers" carved out whole new "nations" (for instance, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) from existing state entities; invented and imposed monarchies (in Jordan, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia); set tribe against tribe; and fomented wars. Since the mid-20th century, the U.S., keen to control oil, has played the same game - usually, but not always, covertly. West Asia will have neither peace nor stability unless such blatant interference stops.

Second, the U.S.'s misadventure in Iraq has turned into a complete nightmare for the Iraqi people. Besides causing the death of 650,000 civilians, the U.S. has reduced Iraq to misery and penury, with unprecedented hunger and malnourishment. Iraq's wealth has been systematically looted. From a middle-level human development society, it has sunk to a low-level, impoverished one.

Today, only 32 per cent of Iraqis have access to potable water; 3.7 million are dependent on U.N. food aid. With inflation raging at 50 per cent, only 16 per cent say their income meets their needs. The U.S. has achieved what an Egyptian commentator described as "a miracle": "It has made people regret the downfall of Saddam's regime."

According to pre-invasion polls, 43 per cent of Iraqis considered the U.S. presence as "liberation" and 46 per cent as "occupation"; six months later, the figures were 15 and 67 per cent respectively. In a December 2006 poll, 95 per cent felt that the security situation was better before the U.S.-led invasion; 89 per cent felt that way about the political situation; and 79 per cent about the economic situation. Between 2 million and 3.4 million Iraqis have fled the country and up to 50,000 are being internally displaced every month.

According to an opinion poll, commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation, ABC News and others, on the eve of the invasion's anniversary only 18 per cent of Iraqis have any confidence in the U.S.-led forces. In Baghdad, 100 per cent said the occupation forces had done a bad job in Iraq.

But the U.S. has learnt no lessons despite losing more than 3,000 soldiers. From "shock and awe", it has moved to another disastrous strategy - "surge", involving the addition of many more troops than the declared 21,500. By June, the number of U.S. troops will rise to 160,000, compared with 132,000 at the beginning of 2007 and 117,000 a year after the invasion. The increased numbers have totally failed to quell the attacks on American coalition troops, which now run at 180 a day!

With defeat and disaster staring it in the face, the U.S. blames Shia-Sunni sectarian strife and Al Qaeda for its troubles in Iraq. But the poll finds: "One thing Sunnis and Shiites agree on is that Iraq should remain one country." According to Kamal Majid, himself an Iraqi (Sunni) Kurd, such ethnic conflict is not part of Iraq's history. (On a personal note, he told the conference how six of his nine siblings have married Shias.)

On Iran, the U.S. is pursuing a strategy of diplomatic isolation, sanctions, threats and elaborate plans for an invasion - on the spurious grounds that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons, when there is no weighty evidence of this. As International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed El-Baradei put it: "We have yet to see a smoking gun that would convict Iran."

Washington's vicious propaganda against Iran conveniently avoids any reference to Israel's status as the only country in West Asia-North Africa to possess nuclear weapons or to the countless resolutions, supported by Iran, calling for a regional zone free of all mass destruction weapons. This monumental hypocrisy undermines the U.S.'s credibility. It will ensure a massively hostile reaction from the entire region to any attack on Iran.

Third, Israel's role in the region could not be more pernicious and condemnable. It is the last of the world's settler-colonial states and was established through the expulsion and "ethnic cleansing" of the Palestinians and the theft of their land and, since then, of their water and other resources. Israel is hell-bent on breaking up the West Bank into a series of Bantustans through the 700 kilometre-long Apartheid Wall, which has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice. Israel's present strategy is to isolate, demonise and victimise the new unity government formed by Fatah and Hamas following the Makkah agreement.

As Israel's politicians and their apologists prattle on about "terrorism" by Palestinians, which "seriously endangers Israeli lives", it is pertinent to remind ourselves that Israel practises disgraceful forms of state terrorism, including hostage-taking, collective punishment and "targeted assassinations" - with a disproportionate number of casualties.

According to Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, Israeli forces have killed a total of 4,029 Palestinian civilians since the second Intifada (2000). This is more than five times the number of Israelis killed in terrorist attacks (705). Almost half of the 4,029 had not taken part in hostilities. In 2006, 17 Israeli civilians (including one minor) and six soldiers died in terrorist attacks; the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces that year was 660 - three times the number killed in 2005. The number includes 141 minors.

The Makkah agreement and the new government in Ramallah offer an opportunity to revive the peace process. But it is unlikely that Washington will break what has effectively become a veto by America's powerful "Israel Lobby" on its West Asia policy. Take Dead in the Water, a recently released documentary by British film-maker Christopher Mitchell, which shows how Israel got away with a bomb attack on a U.S. Navy ship during the 1967 war, which killed 34 American sailors. The incident was hushed up despite the high number of casualties and an Israeli attempt to kill the survivors who were trying to escape.

Clearly, an abnormal and criminally inclined state like Israel, with all its deep social pathologies, must be brought to heel if West Asia is to gain a modicum of security and stability. This will not happen without concerted international pressure, including some directed at the so-called "Quartet", comprising the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the U.N. That is where the Non-Aligned Movement and India come in.

India can play a potentially important role in mobilising public opinion and in organising diplomatic pressure on the "Quartet" and Israel. New Delhi can also take healthy initiatives for an early withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, for a negotiated solution to the Iran nuclear crisis, and for peace in the larger Gulf region. That is what the international conference demanded, among other things, while expressing solidarity with the peoples of West Asia and calling for "a much broader resistance against the U.S.-Israeli axis". In speech after spirited speech, the political leaders who spoke demanded a radical change in India's policy towards Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and, above all, Palestine/Israel.

The conference resolution said: "The Government of India has not only failed to support the cause of the people in West Asia but has connived with U.S. policies in the region... . Its continued military relationship with Israel in which India has become the largest importer of arms from Israel sits ill with its protestations of support for the Palestinian cause." It minced no words in demanding an end to Israel's occupation and the Right of Return for all Palestinian refugees.

But will India's policymakers listen, or will they continue their march of folly?

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