Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Struggle for Identity

At the core of the Israeli Palestinian struggle lays a struggle for identity couched in existential, political, national and religious terms – a struggle that reflects a quest for identity across the Middle East. That quest pervades all aspects of politics, economics, culture and daily life and shapes countries' domestic and foreign policies. The quest for identity is the architect of the region's future, sculpted in opposition to one or more perceived enemies.

For much of the Middle East's post-World War Two history, Arabs and Israelis viewed one another as the enemy. Already before 9/11 but certainly in the wake of those attacks, definitions of the enemy became more complex with new, more radical forces emerging. These new threats produced new alliances, particularly across the once impermeable Israeli Arab divide, which is giving way to a majority of Arab countries agreeing with Israel that Iran as well as Shiite and Sunni Islamists pose the greatest threat to regional stability. In turn, strategic re-alliance, even if it doesn't translate into peace treaties and diplomatic relations, has widened the gap between Arab government policy and public sentiment.

For much of post-World War Two history, Israel served as a lightning rod for Arabs, deflecting attention from domestic issues and authoritarian regimes' failure to cater to people's economic and political needs. As Arab governments shifted the geopolitical paradigm, large segments of the public turned to Islamist forces as the only credible opposition to discredited, corrupt regimes. Even so, the fault lines are not always crystal clear when it comes to defining regional threats. Conservative governments, moderate Islamists and their sworn enemies, Sunni Jihadis, may disagree in their assessment of Hamas or their attitude towards Israel, but find common ground when it comes to Iran and the Shiites. In recent months, conservative Arab governments together with Sunni moderate and militant Islamists have waged a war of words with strong racial overtones against Iran, Hizbollah and the Shiites.

Domestically, Arab governments use a carrot-and-stick mix of pervasive security forces and economic incentive to manage restive public sentiment. Nonetheless, tensions have been on the increase. Rising food and commodity prices raised temperatures in the course of 2008. Gaza is raising temperatures further. Emotions are running so high that some media even in the UAE, the Arab nation that prides itself of multiculturalism and tolerance, has harked backed to the worst demagogic rhetoric of the Israeli Arab conflict. "Today, the whole world stands as a witness to the fact that the Nazi holocaust was a mere lie, which was devised by the Zionists to blackmail humanity. The same Zionist entity swindled the world out of billions of dollars over the years to compensate the wrong and unjust which they claim to have been inflicted on their people. It is evident that the holocaust was a conspiracy hatched by the Zionists and Nazis, and many innocent people gave their lives as a result of this inhuman plot," writes Mohammad Abdullah Al Mutawa, a professor of sociology at Al Ain's UAE University in the Gulf News.

Arab governments from Oman to Morocco walk a tightrope that is becoming shakier as public anger explodes into protests demanding Arab action to put a halt to the violence. It puts governments hoping privately for an Israeli defeat of Hamas and incapable of exploiting the regional and international outcry to achieve an immediate ceasefire on the defensive. It illustrates the region's inability to translate financial clout and control of much of the world's energy resources into political and diplomatic clout and highlights Arab dependence on the United States, which in Arab eyes has little regard for Arab concerns when it comes to definitions of Israel's security.

Mounting public anger and frustration on Arab streets is unlikely to spark immediate or radical political change, but it does contribute to Arab government's continued loss of credibility and an ever growing quest for change -- a creeping process continuously boosted by regional crisis, pressure for greater political freedom, existential fear and a struggle to forge a post-colonial identity. In an emotional denunciation of Egyptian government policies towards the Gaza conflict as well as corruption, Zeinobia, author of Egyptian Chronicles,concludes: "Big strong country's future are not planned by other countries." In Saudi Arabia, where public protests are banned and demonstrators protesting the Israeli offensive have been arrested, people have started to wear Palestinian-style keffiyahs in solidarity with Gaza and are expressing their anger in the blogosphere, according to John Burgess's blog, Crossroads Arabia.

The Israeli offensive immediately after Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni rebuffed Egyptian President Husni Mubarak’s pleas for restraint, reminds Egyptians of their country's apparent helplessness. It plays into the hands of the secular neo-Nasserites and left-wingers as well as the Islamist opposition, who charge that Cairo’s alliance with Washington has brought Egypt to its knees, rendering it incapable of opposing Israeli policies. Israel’s attacks in Gaza will inevitably radicalize Egypt’s political discourse in much the same way they did after the July 2006 war in Lebanon, which placed Mubarak on the defensive, says Stephen A. Cook, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow. Robert Fisk, writing in The Independent, adds: "To admit that Egypt can't even open its sovereign border without permission from Washington tells you all you need to know about the powerlessness of the satraps that run the Middle East for us. Open the Rafah gate (to Gaza) – or break off relations with Israel – and Egypt's economic foundations crumble. Any Arab leader who took that kind of step will find that the West's economic and military support is withdrawn."

While Fisk's widely-circulated writing reflects a popular sentiment, the article coupled with demonstrations in several capitals outside Egypt's embassies against Egypt's alleged collaboration with Israel in the build-up to the Gaza war and the shooting of an Egyptian border guard by Hamas gunmen is provoking a backlash among Egyptians, including government critics. The backlash is compounded by calls by Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Egyptians to rise up in their millions to force open the Rafah border gate and Al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri's description of the killing of the border guard in an internet message as "an example to follow for the zealous and free in the Egyptian army". Says female Muslim blogger on Tales of a Fattractive Egyptian Woman: "I'm sick of the sudden 'let's blame Egypt' mentality." Blogger Sandmonkey was far more explicit, laying into "all of you f*****s who are badmouthing my country, which – by the way – fought four f*****g wars for the Palestinian cause and lost more people than all of you."

Authoritarian Arab governments have little to be proud of. They preside over anemic economies and poor educational systems and have failed to educate their citizens to participate effectively in a globally competitive economy. Average unemployment hovers around 15 percent, second only to sub-Saharan Africa. Some 30 percent of the region's population of which 60 percent is under 30 years of age is believed to be illiterate. Political and economic reforms have been cosmetic and symbolic at best, primarily designed to maintain the image of progress. In many Arab countries, dissidents still go to jail, albeit that today they are given the courtesy of a trial.

Many Egyptians see the Palestinian problem and Egypt's role in it as inextricably linked to corruption, repression and the looting of Egyptian state assets by the country's western-backed business and political elite. Opposition demonstrations in the 1990s rallied around the slogan "The road to Jerusalem goes through Cairo." Demonstrators then saw Egyptian financial interests and the country's security forces as prolonging the status quo of Israeli occupation. Today, they view the government's privatisation programme accompanied by corruption scandals, rising unemployment and inflation as part and parcel of global interests that keep Gaza under siege and consign Palestinian self-determination to a pipe dream. "The Gazan crisis has emerged just as popular actions to subvert the systems of social repression that keep Egyptians alienated from their own economic and political processes are snowballing. The previous two years have seen more strikes and sit-ins than at any time since the second world war; a second major industrial sector has managed to break free of the five-decade state monopoly on trade unions; over 2,000 police officers have just resigned en masse over the use of torture as a security tactic and woeful working conditions, writes Jack Schenker in The Guardian.

The battle for Gaza does not constitute exclusively a boon for Islamists, across the Arab world, with the Muslim Brotherhood in the vanguard. Public anger at a lack of Arab response constitutes a welcome opportunity to garner increased support for their efforts for political change. The Islamists will be able to capitalize on the Gaza war as long as Hamas retains control of Gaza and is not ousted in favor of the Palestine Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel is unlikely to destroy Hamas or crush continued resistance against Israeli occupation but could deal it a significant blow from which it will take time to recover. Glorification of the Palestinian struggle will resonate with public sentiment and allow the Islamists to blame a possible setback on Arab collusion with Israel and the United States. "A solution (to the Palestinian problem) has to be found on an equal basis. That is what the new message is from Hamas and Hizbollah. Arabs will no longer allow themselves to be subjugated to colonialism. They no longer accept colonialism. They can resist as long as any human can resist. There are new rules that apply to the Israeli-Arab conflict by some people who insist on fighting for their rights. This is the new paradigm" in the region's quest for identity says Rami G. Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut told Al Jazeera International.

The rise of the Islamists is the product of a pervading colonial-era mentality that dominates Arab governments who look for protection and salvation from foreign forces rather than their own populations, which they seek to control through heavy handed security forces and a buy-in into economic development. As a result, Arab governments are dependent on the United States. That mentality and dependence increasingly has polarized Arab society. In response, large segments of society have turned to religion for their salvation and self-assertion in what is the most dramatic social and political shift in the region in the past three decades. Spearheaded by Islamists, the shift constitutes a break with the 'vassals of the West' mentality in a bid to assert their own identity and interests.

Yet, the Islamists have been unable to translate their call for an Islamic state and the rule of Shari'a into a coherent program offering solutions for political modernization, economic development including job creation and protection of the environment. Gaza buys the Islamists time given their effectiveness at confronting Western powers and Israel to formulate constructive and coherent positions on economic and social issues that will become even more pressing as the global economic turn down takes its toll.

Islamist movements have so far failed to influence policy. They must convince their supporters that political participation is the best way to affect government in the long term, despite seemingly poor short term gains, concludes a Carnegie Endowment study,Islamists in Politics: The Dynamics of Participation, written by Marina Ottaway and Amr Hamzawy. “While participation is not invariably a process of further democratization and moderation, it is also clear that non-participation—either enforced by governments or chosen by the leadership of Islamist parties and movements—is a guarantee that a process of moderation will not take place. This is a sobering thought for those governments and their international backers that would like to set the bar for participation by Islamists extremely high. The choice is not between allowing the somewhat risky participation by Islamists in politics and their disappearance from the political scene. It is between allowing their participation despite the existence of gray zones with the possibility that a moderating process will unfold, and excluding them from the legal political process—thus ensuring the growing influence of hard-liners inside those movements and the continued existence of gray zones," the report says.

An Israeli victory against Hamas would pose a problem for the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded Islamists, who dominate the religious inspired opposition among Sunnis in the Middle East, not only because it could affect their standing in the region, but because it would create a vacuum that at least in part could be filled by the Jihadi fringe of the Islamist movement. The rise of Jihadi groups in Gaza would repeat developments in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. To Al Qaeda and its supporters, Hamas constitute a deviation from the true path of Islam. "They are traitors. Compared to us, they are Islamism lite… Hamas represents an American style of Islam," says Abu Mustafa, a Jihadi leader in Gaza who studied chemical engineering in Germany in a rare interview prior to the Israeli offensive.

Dressed in Pakistani garb and walking on crutches since he was wounded after an Israeli retaliatory missile strike a year ago minutes after he and his comrades fired rockets into Israel said Gazans were disappointed with Hamas' failure to introduce a real Islamic lifestyle and its willingness to accept democracy.. He said up to 10 people, many of them Hamas fighters, approach him daily to join the ranks of the Jihadis. "These are tough men and they have insider knowledge. They will be very useful should it come to a power struggle," he says. Many of the Hamas defectors opposed Hamas willingness to join a Palestinian conflict and agree to a truce with Israel. Jihadis in the Gaza Strip first made their mark when in 2007 they kidnapped BBC correspondent Alan Johnston and held him for four months. "It was nothing personal. It was a message to the West that they should release imprisoned Muslims," Abu Mustafa says.

Seeking to exploit, the moderate Islamist dilemma and Jihadi criticism of Hamas, Al-Qaeda's second-in-command Zawahiri called on Muslims on Tuesday to strike Western and Israeli targets around the world in response to Israel's raids on the Gaza Strip. He accused US President-elect Barack Obama of complicity. "Hit the interests of the Zionists and crusaders wherever and in whichever way you can," Zawahiri said in an audio tape posted on Islamist websites. "What you are facing now ... is a link in a chain in the Zionist crusader campaign on Muslims and Islam," Zawahiri said. "These attacks are Obama's present to you (Palestinians) before he takes office." Zawahiri, an Egyptian, blasted Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak as a "traitor" for failing to back Palestinians in the face of Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.

A Hamas weakened by the Israeli offensive is likely to complicate Egyptian efforts led by General Intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman to mediate between Hamas, Israel and the Palestine Authority. The Israel Hamas ceasefire that ended last month aimed to position Hamas as the force preventing other militant factions like Islamic Jihad, the Fatah-affiliated Al Aqsa Martyrs brigade and Al Qaeda supporters from launching rockets on Israel. In post-war Gaza, Hamas is unlikely to be able to wield that kind of power and may well be unwilling to do so. As a result, Egypt, and Israel, could face turmoil, lawlessness, and factional violence in Gaza. Egyptian officials fear that could undermine stability in Sinai where Palestinian and Egyptian militants could link up and attack Israel from the peninsula. The question for Egypt is how Israel would respond to such an attack. In his internet message, Al Qaeda leader Zawahiri called on the bedouins in the Sinai to help Palestinians break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

If Hamas viewed a full-fledged military confrontation with Israel as its opportunity to repeat Hizbollah's 2006 success in Lebanon, it made a strategic miscalculation; not only because of the ferocity of the Israeli offensive but because the very success of the ceasefire with Israel in the period between June and November 4, 2008 was turning Hamas into a legitimate negotiating partner. That may well have been one reason why Israel pounced on Hamas' refusal to extend the ceasefire. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abdoul Gheit, a key mediator between Hamas, Israel and the Palestine Authority, for that reason, described Hamas' refusal to extend the ceasefire as Hamas giving Israel – and with it conservative Arab states like Egypt itself and Saudi Arabia -- a gift on a "golden platter." Boston University professor Augustus Richard Norton and Harvard Middle East Center researcher Sara Roy quote an Israeli intelligence report published on the website of the Israeli Foreign Ministry as saying that "Hamas was careful to maintain the ceasefire" and that "the lull was sporadically violated by rocket and mortar shell fire carried out by rogue terrorist organizations in some instances in defiance of Hamas." The report goes on to say that the vast majority of rockets fired from Gaza at Israel occurred after November 4 when Israeli forces killed six Palestinian fighters in an attack on Gaza. In addition to failing to exploit an opportunity that even Israel was forced to acknowledge, Hamas went to war at a military disadvantage and in an environment in which it had alienated key Arab governments. Only weeks before the Israeli offensive, Hamas infuriated Egypt by foiling Egyptian attempts to bridge the divide between it and the Palestine Authority. One indication of Hamas' post-war strength will be its ability to follow through on a pledge to derail an Egyptian and Saudi initiative to extend Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential term until 2010. Hamas has said it intends to appoint as president the Palestinian parliament speaker – a Hamas member now in an Israeli prison – once Abbas’s presidency officially ends on January 9.

For all the horror of the television pictures emerging from Gaza, the suffering of the Palestinians in the strip, the discussion of proportionality and Israeli denials of the humanitarian crisis in the strip, identity also shapes Israel's conduct of the campaign. Israeli leaders are quick to note that their assault is a far cry from past wars waged by others like the United States against Germany and Japan or the Russians in Chechnya where less caution was exhibited to limit the number of civilian casualties; yet the public relations battle over the humanitarian aspects of the conflict is one Israel cannot win. If anything, is Israel is shooting itself in the foot by seeking to downplay or deny the human suffering and suppress coverage by preventing media from accessing Gaza. To be sure Israel is exercising a degree of caution in a bid to buy the time needed to fulfill its military goals before international pressures forces a focus on the humanitarian cost of the war and a halt to hostilities. Priding itself on being a democracy, it also has to take into account intense scrutiny by its own lawyers, judges, opposition politicians, reporters and human-rights activists. Mass demonstrations in 1982 in the wake of the massacre of Palestinians in the Beirut refugee camps by Christian militiamen under the watchful eye of Israeli troops forced the resignation of then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and led to an independent commission condemning the Israeli government. Virtually every Israeli military campaign against a non-state actor has had its Sabra and Chatilla, a single incident that occurs by design or default involving the deaths of a large number of civilians that comes to symbolize the hostilities. The Gaza war's may have been yesterday's attack on a UNWRA school.

Israel's conduct of the war is defined by a field of tension between on the one hand the moral fiber of a democratic society exhibited in the response to Sabra and Chatilla and the scrutiny mechanisms that go with that and on the other the concept of the New Jew described so well by Tom Segev in his book, Elvis in Jerusalem, the Jew who unlike his brethren who allowed themselves to be led like sheep to the gas chambers during World War Two, does not turn the cheek but hits back hard at those who threaten his existence. This latter mentality leads to the view that will to resist can be broken by overwhelming force and terror, a view that focuses on the effect of resistance rather than he cause. Israel cannot ignore Hamas's attacks, not only because of the primarily psychological damage they inflict, but also because Israel continues to view itself as a state that is one battle away from destruction, and therefore cannot allow its enemies to think that it can be attacked with impunity. But at the same time Israel cannot do what it takes to wipe out the enemy, because of the constraints imposed by its own public, which is far less willing than in the past to suffer or inflict bloodletting and at the day more sensitive to human suffering than Israeli conduct of the Gaza war and current public support for that war reveals. "Israelis have to discard Gen. Douglas MacArthur's famous maxim: 'War's objective is victory -- not prolonged indecision. In war there is no substitute for victory.' They will have to settle for a substitute because from their standpoint 'prolonged indecision' is better than the alternatives -- the annihilation of themselves, which would be unthinkable, or of their enemies, which would be unconscionable," writes Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in The Wall Street Journal.

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