Georges Corm / Le Monde Diplomatique – 2006-03-20 08:19:23
(March 2006) — Although the world’s political observers were surprised by the landslide victory of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January, it should have been foreseen as inevitable given the disregard for international law and human rights in the Palestinian territories that have been occupied by Israel since 1967.
The inhabitants of East Timor have wrested independence from Indonesia, and Bosnia and Kosovo have benefited from major international action to protect their peoples and grant autonomy as a prelude to independence. Meanwhile the Palestinians have seen what is left of their territory consumed by expanding settlements, and the illegal construction of the wall that is turning the West Bank into a huge collective prison (1). Gaza was evacuated ceremoniously by its 8,000 settlers and the Israeli army, but security has still not been restored: every day Israeli air strikes cause more civilian casualties.
No one dares invoke the peace process launched in Madrid in October 1991 or the Oslo accords in 1993 between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel. Yet it is claimed that a peace process still exists, although it is now no more than that faded United States road map, endorsed by the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. Claims that the Hamas election victory meant the end of any peace process seemed shocking, since in fact “the peace process” has no real, external existence.
Hamas was bound to win the election outright. The Palestinian Authority (PA) had long since thrown away all its advantages, making every possible concession to Israel and the international community that supports Israel: the PA had recognised Israel without reciprocal recognition of the Palestinian right to statehood, declared the PLO charter no longer valid, renounced armed resistance to the occupation, and de facto accepted the settlements and their further expansion.
Israeli intransigence left the PLO at a dead end. The intifada resumed in September 2000, leading to reoccupation of most of the West Bank and Gaza by the Israeli army and destruction of most of the PA’s infrastructure, which had been substantially funded by the EU. Living standards fell drastically as military checkpoints made the movement of Palestinians increasingly difficult within the meagre territory left to them.
With the Palestinians abandoned to their fate, the PLO bureaucracy sank into inefficiency and corruption, denounced by all western governments, which blamed the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat. He was in political, and often physical, quarantine in his Ramallah headquarters. Hamas continued the armed struggle through suicide bombings in the heart of Israel’s cities, provoking harsh reprisals that caused many civilian casualties, especially in Gaza. Israel, the US and the EU constantly pressed Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen, who was elected PA president after Arafat’s death) to subdue Hamas, by force if necessary. Tension between Fatah and Hamas ran high, and the PA imprisoned Hamas activists.
Nevertheless, the Palestinians have so far managed to avoid the civil war that Israel would like to happen, since it would end all armed resistance.
Israel encouraged the growth of Hamas in the 1980s to counter the secular Palestinian resistance movement. Over the following years Hamas gained much practical experience, military and social. Its task was helped by the failure of the Oslo accords and the bankruptcy of the PLO’s unreciprocated policy of compromise, which secured neither independence nor an end to Israeli settlements. Hamas, using its financial resources for social welfare and armed resistance against the occupying forces, gained popularity as the policies and conduct of the PLO’s old guard led to worsening poverty and oppression (2).
The victory of the Lebanese Hizbullah resistance over the Israeli army, which withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000 after 22 years of occupation, and with no gains, confirmed the view held by Hamas and by much of Palestinian and Arab public opinion that armed struggle was the only effective means to end Israeli occupation.
The Israeli leadership and its western supporters could have understood that a confined and oppressed population would admire and extensively support Hamas resistance fighters, rather than hold Hamas responsible for Israeli reprisals. Victory for Hamas only surprised those commentators who believe in the anti-terror rhetoric so prevalent in western media and diplomacy, which conceals the realities and the suffering, and accuses those who draw attention to them of sympathy with terrorism.
The fantasy comes true
There had been a similar, though worse, situation in occupied southern Lebanon. Media in the west had described the local militia that was mobilised by Israel as “defenders of the independence” of Lebanon against terrorists – Palestinians, then the Lebanese Hizbullah (on the US government list of terrorist organisations). In September 2004 the strongly worded Security Council Resolution 1559 called for the disarmament of Hizbullah.
Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon was never completed: it still violates Lebanese air, sea and land space almost daily, holds many former Lebanese resistance fighters in its prisons, and prevents the Beirut government from exploiting its water resources in the south. Despite this, the US and the UN consider Hizbullah to be both responsible for the destabilisation of Lebanon and a threat to Israel’s security (3); they often accuse it of helping Hamas. As with Palestine, the international community has developed a doctrine about Lebanon that takes no account of local realities and only increases tension.
The international community was surprised in June 2005 when the hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president of Iran, defeating by a large majority Hashemi Rafsanjani, who symbolised the corruption rife in Iran, but was seen as a moderate in international affairs. The West was blind to the real situation. During the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, who was a convinced advocate of dialogue between civilisations, US policy-makers had continued to isolate Tehran politically and economically, and had named it a part of the axis of evil, along with Iraq and North Korea. North Korea has disappeared from US and European concerns, but Iran is more than ever in the line of fire. The US is using the excuse of Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory statements on Israel (which should indeed be condemned) to increase international pressure on Iran to force it to abandon the development of nuclear technology.
The US and France, taking advantage of the UN resolution on Lebanon and the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, are increasing pressure on Syria and Iran. The Lebanese Hizbullah has been described as an extension of the Syrian-Iranian rejection front opposed to western policy in the region. But the constant denunciation of Iran and Hizbullah, and pressure on the Syrian regime, can only foster anti-western rhetoric in the Arab and Muslim world and play into the hands of political Islam, moderate, radical or jihadist.
The speeches of President George Bush complete the dismal picture. With the pretext of the development of terrorism in Iraq after the US invasion, as well as the 9/11 attacks and the Madrid and London bombings for which Islamist groups have claimed responsibility, Bush repeatedly denounces Osama bin Laden’s aim to restore an Islamic caliphate as a plan to enslave the civilised world (4).
The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, has produced a paper on reform of the UN in which he claims that the only military and political danger facing the world is transnational terrorism, with its aim of acquiring weapons of mass destruction (5). That is an unqualified, unlimited endorsement of US doctrine, which identifies terrorism, necessarily Islamic, as the enemy of humanity.
The war-of-civilisations theorists must be thrilled, since major decision-makers in international politics have not only adopted their ideology but are helping to make their direst fantasies come true – the civilised Judeo-Christian world is confronted by multiple Islamic enemies, with powerful Chinese and Russian allies; they use terrorism and, in the near future, will use weapons of mass destruction supplied by rogue states.
Jihadist movements – which were born and encouraged during the cold war, when they were sent as cannon fodder against the Soviet army in Afghanistan, the Balkans and the Caucasus – never dreamed of being given such publicity by the president of the greatest world power, and by the UN. They believe that the West has been savage and unjust in dealings with Islam and Muslims. And things seem to be going well for the jihadists, since the US army and other troops supporting it are bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, both ideal battlegrounds for the struggle that the jihadists see as between “Judeo-Christian forces of evil” and “Islamic forces of good”, defending the integrity of Muslim society against foreign invaders.
The continuing injustices against the Palestinians, and the condemnation and fear aroused by the Hamas victory, strengthen the Islamists; as do the threats of an Israeli blockade to starve the Palestinian population, the existence of the extraterritorial prison in Guantánamo and the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by the US army at Abu Ghraib.
It is not surprising that 80 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were elected to the Egyptian parliament in November and December 2005, confirming an Islamist upsurge throughout the Arab world. If free elections were held in Syria tomorrow, the same thing would happen. Despite the US occupation, or because of it, the Iraqi elections marginalised liberal and secular groups to the benefit of religious conservatives, both Sunni and Shia.
From out of this stifling background came a sudden eruption of outrage at cartoons in a Danish publication insulting the prophet Muhammad and holding him indirectly responsible for terrorist attacks. The resultant violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world gave vent to frustration and feelings of injustice. Unable to liberate Palestine or the Golan Heights, or ease the West’s grip on the Arab and Muslim world (especially Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Palestine), the crowds released their anger against the diplomatic missions of those countries in which the cartoons had been published.
The Islamist upsurge is actually an expression of nationalist demands long absent from the secular discourse of the decolonisation period, and different from third-world militancy, which has collapsed over the past 30 years (6). Will Islamism swell to an unstoppable torrent? That is the fear of the secular Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in a recent interview in Le Monde: “If there were free elections throughout the Arab-Muslim world, the Islamists would win everywhere. It’s as simple as that. The Arab-Muslim world lives with a deep feeling of injustice for which it holds the West responsible. And the West responds with a form of imperial fundamentalism that only strengthens that feeling” (7).
The cauldron bubbles
We may be on the verge of major upheavals. Given the blindness of western politicians and the stupidity of Arab leaders, the only common sense question is whether the present explosive situation can last much longer without a more serious incident igniting it.
Is it possible that the West can continue to ignore the cruel reality and absurdity of the situation in the Middle East? The Palestinians continue to be the victims of occupation, construction of the separation wall and the expansion of West Bank settlement, 38 years after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. A democratic country, the US, has invaded two sovereign states in reprisal for an act of violence committed on US territory. The West and the UN believe that terrorism is enough to explain such diverse movements and events as resistance to occupation, attacks in New York, Madrid and London, and a long series of bombings in Muslim Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Pakistan since 1995.
Thirty years ago conventional police procedures ended the era’s terrorism in industrialised countries (the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, Action Directe in France, the Red Army in Japan); now armies are deployed internationally, encouraging young candidates for martyrdom to take violent action against illegal occupation by infidels. Western countries, plus Israel, India, Pakistan (Muslim, but an ally of the US), and even North Korea, are allowed weapons of mass destruction, but there is an outcry whenever an Arab or Muslim country attempts nuclear capability.
It is considered bad taste to reflect on what creates a geopolitical breeding ground for jihadists, or to show sympathy for the Palestinians and indignation at their fate. The EU is becoming more closely aligned with Israel and the US, and their anti-terrorism rhetoric.
Of course, Arab governments also bear much responsibility; they ignore public opinion in their own countries, yield to every US demand without getting in return any just settlement of the Palestinian question, or even-handed treatment of Israel and Arab countries on disarmament issues. Arrogant interference by the US government in the internal affairs of Middle Eastern countries (8), without any reaction from Arab foreign ministries, affronts the dignity of peoples who felt European colonisation offended their honour and now feel that their religion has been offended by those cartoons.
It would be better for regional stability if submissive Arab governments resisted US pressure. Their own peoples would respect them more, and it would be possible to hold free elections without Islamist movements sweeping the board.
US and Israeli policy counts on the weariness of Arab public opinion and a split between those who want to continue resistance and those who want to speed up submission in the hope of achieving peace in the region. Peace, in theory, would lead to the fall of dictatorships, the emergence of states governed by law, and economic prosperity. The divide in Arab public opinion has deepened since the invasion of Iraq and the adoption of Security Council resolution 1559, which called for disarmament of Hizbullah and the Palestinian camps in Lebanon.
Once again, Lebanon is the place where the contradictions in the Arab world, aggravated by the geopolitical situation, are most evident. The region is experiencing a resurgence of the cold war, but this time without the Soviet Union as a partner.
There is still a rejection front in the Middle East, with the Tehran-Damascus axis at its centre. It is made up of a wide range of political movements all claiming allegiance to Islam. The cartoon affair strengthened the Islamic camp by uniting Shia and Sunni groups in joint rejection of western policy. Islamic movements skilfully use religious language to focus nationalist demands in Iran and the Arab world, demands that have been long abandoned by most secular intellectuals after the rout of Nasserism and the powerlessness of such Arab nationalist movements as the Ba’ath.
In this new cold war, the US and EU do all they can to strengthen the democrats who advocate political reform in the Arab and Muslim world, the end of resistance to globalisation and US superpower, and priority for the fight against terrorism (without distinguishing between resistance to foreign occupation and violent action against western and Arab or Muslim capitals). Seminars and conferences on political reform, transparency and governance follow each other, sometimes sponsored by Arab governments in a show of good faith (9). Their aim is to mobilise the Arab intelligentsia in favour of peace and democracy and put pressure on Arab regimes. But the limits of such action were revealed by the Iranian, Egyptian and Palestinian elections.
Present western policy faithfully reproduces 19th-century European policy. This proposed the modernisation and democratisation of the Ottoman empire and the Persian monarchy, but only as a cover for colonial ambitions and for the dismemberment of those declining entities. Those colonial ambitions brought the Balkan cauldron to the boil, thus precipitating the first world war, which led to the second.
At the beginning of the 21st century, it seems increasingly likely that it will be the Middle East cauldron that will bubble over and scald us all.
Translated by Barry Smerin
Georges Corm is the author of ‘La Question religieuse au XXIe siècle’ (La Découverte, Paris, 2006) and ‘Le Proche-Orient éclaté, 1956-2006’ (Gallimard, Paris, 2005)
(1) The International Court of Justice in The Hague on 9 July 2004 severely condemned all Israeli practice in the occupied territories on grounds of international law. No action has been taken in support of that opinion. See Willy Jackson, “Israel: verdict on the wall”, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, November 2004.
(2) See Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, “Palestine loses the initiative”, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, January 2006.
(3) See “Lebanon: a cedar ready to fall”, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, April 2005 and Alain Gresh, “Lebanon: an illusion of unity”, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, June 2005.
(4) See his speech to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington in October 2005 and comments on it, especially “Doing the 9/11 time warp again”, International Herald Tribune, Paris, 8-9 October 2005.
(5) See In Larger Freedom. Towards Development Security and Human Rights for All, UN General Assembly Document A/59/2005, 21 March 2005.
(6) See my book La question religieuse au XXIè siècle: Géopolitique et crise de la post-modernité, La Découverte, Paris, 2006.
(7) Le Monde, 12 February 2006.
(8) See President Bush’s description of Ariel Sharon as a “man of peace”. Jack Straw, the British foreign minister, on an official visit to Beirut, called on the Lebanese to pray for Sharon, forgetting about the massacres at Sabra and Shatila and the victims of the Israel invasion in 1982 led by Sharon.
(9) In 2004 there were five solemn declarations on reform in the Arab world: the Sana’a document of 10 January, the German foreign minister’s speech of 2 February, the US document of 13 February that served as basis for the plan of action for Middle East reform drawn up at the G8 summit in June, the British foreign minister’s speech of 1 March, and the Alexandria document of 13 March.