Roots of a conflict

Published : Jun 19, 2009 00:00 IST

THESE are days when to think of West Asia is to think of Gaza. The world imagines the people of Gaza to be its indigenous population, but the truth is that Israel drove out thousands of Palestinian families from the villages of Ashkelon and Beersheba in 1948 to Gaza, which was then under Egypt; and ever since the Six-Day War of 1967 when Israel captured Gaza, they have lived under Israeli hegemony. To this day, the region remains under blockade with Israeli supervision rea ching out to even the basic necessities such as water and electricity.

The massacre of over 1,300 Palestinians in Gaza at the end of 2008 was one of the worst attacks on a civilian population, an action that amounts to a war crime. Forceful occupation is itself an act of violence and demands retaliation. The continued targeting of the Hamas leadership, the blockade of the Gaza Strip with a cut in fuel and electricity supplies as also chlorine, which is essential for obtaining potable water; and the withholding of insulin, chemotherapy drugs and dialysis supplies have undoubtedly made the lives of the inhabitants of this war-torn land miserable. The air attacks have not spared the Islamic University in Gaza, which has 18,000 students, of whom 60 per cent are women. The fishing port was bombed daily so that no food went into Gaza. This cannot be called an attack on Hamas, but one on the very structure of Palestinian society. The enemy is not Hamas but a captive population whose mosques, universities and even hospitals are not spared.

Any disproportionate military action that kills children and civilians is a downright infringement of international laws. It has been condemned in the past by the European Union and other Arab states but without any tangible effect on the Israeli leadership, which continues to adopt a hawkish policy much against the sentiments of the general Israeli public, which dreams of a peaceful solution to the conflict and an end to the military deployment across the border.

Israel has thrown to the wind the rules laid by the Fourth Geneva Convention, the Nuremberg Principles, and all the laws of war generated in the 20th century. Any air attack on such a densely populated area as Gaza would mean sure death of civilians. The intentionality of the Israeli bombing itself could then be termed as an act of state terrorism.

While young children played soccer or families slept in residential neighbourhoods, the Israeli Defence Forces unleashed its severest attacks on Gaza, determined to enforce a military solution to the daily skirmishes on the border, and thereby deter the incorrigible Hamas belligerence. The notion that Israel has the right to defend itself against the 1.5 million starving refugees, holed up in the worlds largest concentration camp itself is not worthy of any credibility. On the other hand, the death toll in Gaza is reminiscent of that in the German-run Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War and the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish civil war.

Professor Rashid Khalidi, author of Sowing Crisis, The Iron Cage, Resurrecting Empire, Origins of Arab Nationalism and Under Siege, occupies the Edward Said Chair in Arab Studies and is currently the Director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, U.S. Khalidi points out: This war on the people of Gaza isnt really about rockets. Nor is it about restoring Israels deterrence, as the Israeli press might have you believe. Far more revealing are the words of Moshe Yaalon, then the Israeli Defence Forces Chief of Staff, in 2002: The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.

However, the will of the people of Gaza remains indomitable; they have not surrendered to years of Israeli dominance. Being kept like animals in a zoo or trapped in a prison, they continue to resent the attacks and are not prepared to buckle under military pressure.

In the slightly changed world context with Barack Obama in the White House, it is time now to re-evaluate the situation in West Asia. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahus recent meeting with President Obama in Washington lends some hope. Peace-loving people are optimistic that a solution could be around the corner, not because Israel wants it but because its ally, the U.S., has a leader with an ideology different from that of his predecessor. However, the scars of the George Bush era are deep, and antagonism between the West and Islam is all the more intense. Only Obama has the imagination and the political will to shift the age-old confrontation in the region towards a meaningful dialogue.

Such a positive political scenario counters the historical development of the West Asia crisis, especially when it is seen in the context of the Cold War era. As pointed out by Khalidi, one of the foremost historians in this area, the understanding of this conflict from the light of the age-old U.S.-Soviet Union rivalry could enable the initiation of a peace process.

In the book, Khalidi holds the conflict between the two superpowers as strong reasons for the germination of the West Asia conflict. He believes that unless we come to grips with this specific historical truth, it would be hard to arrive at any solution. The presence of oil led to control over the politics of the area being the chief concern of the superpowers. Khalidi notes: The pattern of superpower intervention during the Cold War deeply affected and exacerbated regional and civil wars throughout the Middle East [West Asia], and the carefully calculated manoeuvres fuelled by the fierce competition between the United States and the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics] actually provoked breakdowns in fragile democracies.

Going back over the long history of American involvement in West Asia, Khalidi reminds us of the role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who stood behind the nationalisation of the oil industry, and of the delivery of briefcases full of cash to Lebanons President Camille Chamoun in order to help him manipulate the 1957 parliamentary election.

Such a critical analysis of the strategic reasons for establishing military bases in Israel as well as the emphasis on not permitting the conflict to end in the region, draws attention to the interventionist role of the U.S., a role that profoundly undermined whatever limited possibility there might have been of establishing any kind of democratic governance in a range of Middle Eastern countries. Behind such involvement lies the reason for countering the perpetual threat from the Soviet Union, a pretext that gives legitimacy to the U.S. interventionist policy in West Asia.

Rashids argument, therefore, is to understand the legacy of the Cold War, which would open up new grounds for comprehending the ongoing and unabated wars in the area. More than emphasising the internal dynamics, Khalidi focusses on the external reasons for the military presence and dominance of the U.S. in West Asia even during the Cold War. In the recent years, particularly, the increase in American bases in the region has been combined with the sale of military equipment and armaments, an impetus that was necessary for the sagging U.S. economy.

Khalidi is of the view that in the context of the recent economic meltdown, the promotion of a war economy might lead to the escalation of hostilities in the region. Sowing Crisis focusses on the dark history of Americas undermining of democracy in West Asia, whether in Lebanon, Jordan, Iran in the 1950s or in Palestine today.

Interestingly, Khalidis thesis brings out the parallels between Cold War politics and the present obsession with the war on terrorism: [t]he global war on terror is in practice an American war in the Middle East against a largely imaginary set of enemies. The communists have now been replaced by Al Qaeda or Islamic fundamentalists like the Taliban. The passing of the Cold War would have left a vacuum had the enemy not been replaced.

There are no rules to the West Asia wars; it is a free and exploitative policy that would benefit only the economic and military interests of the U.S. In the era of change that Obama professes, the only solution to the problem lies in taking an objective view of the grievances of the Palestinians without ignoring the Israeli standpoint; all players in the West Asian drama need to be heeded before any peace can be conjectured for the region. Non-Al Qaeda political Islamists have to co-exist, and Obama needs to take full consideration of the problem from all angles to ensure that his much-vaunted historic speech to the Muslim world on June 4 does not go waste or unheeded.

His initiatives of a plan to withdraw from Iraq and send in imaginative diplomats to take stock of the situation both in West Asia and on the Afghan border are harbingers of a concrete rethinking of the American policy that for ages has sown more seeds of conflict in the region than peace. Obama has the political will and the intelligence to overcome the dark legacy of the Cold War and move towards a more constructive and lasting peace and understanding in the region.

In the long run, the recent bloodbath in Gaza could be a catalyst for a new solution to the West Asian problem. Israel could be pressured to come to the table and negotiate. A Hamas commitment could be reached to end all attacks on Israel while Israel agrees to a ceasefire and the opening of the borders with Gaza. E.U. and United Nations forces could also put in their peace efforts.

Obama needs to act now and try at least to regard the ceasefire as an opportunity for bringing lasting peace in West Asia. Though Sowing Crisis is written by the terrorist professor with whom Obama attended a party in 2003, and which led to a nationwide raising of eyebrows on the eve of the U.S. presidential election last year, it would not be wrong for President Obama to go through it and come to a clearer understanding of whether the U.S. is solely responsible for the West Asia conundrum. It might help somewhere in fostering peace in West Asia.

Prof. Khalidi is shocked by the cover-up of the Bush-era crimes, but is hopeful that the new dispensation in the White House will take lessons from the tragic history of the Cold War and the recent war on terror. His book is not only provocative but intellectually challenging and insightful for any serious scholar of West Asia politics.

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