Friday 15 August 2014

The Middle East 2014

Update: August 24/2014

The morning after September 11th, I sat at the kitchen table of my suburban home having a coffee and toasted bagel. In the newspaper, I read about the grievances of those who hated the West. I looked out the glass patio doors into my backyard and scanned the bushes, the flower beds in bloom, and the furniture set with an overhead umbrella. I gestured with my hand by sweeping it across the kitchen, the breakfast, and the backyard and said, “This is horrible and needs to be stopped immediately.”

I was trying to be funny but I knew that the world was full of inequities I knew little about. My corner of the world seemed pretty good and as a consequence I tended to ignore the plight of others, especially those in far-flung lands with names I couldn’t pronounce and people I would never meet. What did I know about suffering? I was delayed in traffic during morning rush hour. They ran out of filet mignon at the deli and I would have to make do with sirloin. I forgot to set my TV recorder and missed the latest episode of the current hit series.

The world is full of pestilence, war, famine and death. But, out of sight, out of mind. I’m okay; you’re, well, on your own. And what exactly is the problem? I’ve got what I want. Why don’t you have what you want?

It turns out that the world is a complicated place. Not everybody interprets peace, love, and understanding in the same way and as a consequence, sometimes the world is not a very nice place. What I forget, with a degree of consistency, is that my world is not the same as everybody else’s. While I’m fighting for the last raisin bran muffin at the coffee shop, there are people fighting for the very last scrap of food; they are fighting for their very lives. While I enjoy the freedom of going out to dinner tonight and taking in the latest blockbuster at the neighbourhood Cineplex, there are those who cringe in the shadows trying to avoid roving bands of extremists who would just as soon decapitate you as look at you. While I go out for a stroll through the neighbourhood market, there are those who are under the constant threat of a suicide bomber blowing themselves up and taking out everybody in the vicinity. When was the last time I had to duck for cover from a rocket attack? Oh yeah, never.

In 2010, I took a vacation in Egypt, a Third World country. What does “Third World” mean exactly? I went on organised tours. I stayed in four star hotels. I saw the best of the best and saw little or nothing of trouble. However, before the trip I did a little research. The per capita income of North America is around fifty thousand dollars. In Egypt, it’s a little over six thousand. Six thousand? That’s one eighth of what we have here. How the heck does anybody live on one eighth the amount? Can any of us possibly imagine trying to live on six thousand bucks? What the heck is life like under those circumstances? When we sit around with our double foam French vanilla latté at Starbucks discussing the latest headlines, do we truly have any idea of what’s going on in the world?

I was at an international university in residence sharing a few beers with Nadim and Abdul. Both of these gentlemen were from Beirut, Lebanon and thought to teach me about Middle East politics. Nadim was Christian and Abdul was Muslim. Nadim, who was 20, lived with his parents in an apartment building in downtown Beirut. Before coming to university, he went to high school and had a part-time job as a phto-journalist for a local magazine.

This was a period of some turmoil since the PLO had become a dominating political and military force in the country. Nadim told me that one night, he was standing in front of his apartment building having a smoke when suddenly; three or four bullets hit the concrete wall just above his head. Needless to say, he ran for cover and lived to tell the tale. At the time, I was thinking that I had never had the experience of being shot at and hoped I never would.

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. The PLO had established an ammunition supply dump in a sports stadium centered in Beirut. At some point during the conflict, Israel bombed it. Nadim described how he was up on the roof of his apartment building just mere blocks from the stadium taking pictures of the Israeli jets flying overhead doing bombing runs. I asked him if he was scared. He replied, “Oh no. The Israelis are very accurate.” While his answer had a comedic slant to it, it made me realise that events which for me were only a headline in a newspaper were for other people a fact of life.

As I said, Nadim and Abdul schooled me in local politics. Their story went as follows. Today, the Israelis did something against the Palestinians because yesterday the Palestinians did something against the Israelis. And yesterday the Palestinians did something against the Israelis because last week the Israelis did something against the Palestinians. The two of them kept backing up in time recounting various historical incidents over the past fifty years. It was obvious to me that they could continue going back in time for hundreds if not thousands of years. There was going to be no end to one side justifying their actions based on something the other side had done.

Finally, after about twenty minutes of this double lecture, I stood up and said it was time for me to leave. I added that if I ever got to the point where I understood the reasoning behind the violence on both sides in this conflict, I would probably be just as crazy as the Middle East was. In other words, there was no resolution in sight because nobody was going to forgive what happened yesterday. And not forgiving meant you were completely justified in going out today to kill somebody.

I’m watching a television report on the Israeli West Bank barrier. The journalist is interviewing a Palestinian fruit farmer who has an orchard next to the barrier. The Palestinian is angry with the PLO. A group of armed men come into his orchard and fire rockets into Israel. Israel then retaliates by lobbing mortars over the wall into the orchard destroying most of the fruit trees. Now the farmer is complaining about the plight of his family. How is he going to feed them when his livelihood has been wiped out? He didn’t want to get involved in the conflict. He just wanted to earn a living from his fruit.

This story, amongst others, has reminded me that while Israel is a nation, the Palestinians remain a collection of groups, sometimes autonomous groups. Israel may negotiate with the head of the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas, but then there is Hamas and other splinter groups that work independently and refuse to follow any direction. Abbas can sign a peace treaty but then some group, armed with a rocket, decides to vent their own frustration by taking a potshot at Israel.

I saw a film which consisted of six shorts about 9/11. I’m sorry, but for the life of me, I forgot the name and can’t find it.

One of the films takes place in an Israeli open air market. A suicide bomber has blown himself up and the dead and wounded are everywhere. We follow a policewoman as she tries to assist people and coordinate rescue workers. At some point, a colleague tells her about an important event taking place in the United States and then it comes out the event is 9/11. The woman looks around her at the mayhem which has just taken place and there’s the message that while all of us in the West were stunned and outraged at 9/11, in other places in the world, people have been dealing with this sort of thing for years. In other words, we in the West are out of touch, ignorant of what’s going on in the world.

Some “lone cell” kidnaps and subsequently kills three Israeli teenagers. Israel launches Operation Protective Edge. At last count, Israel: 67 killed, 530 wounded, Palestinians: 1,904 killed, 9,800 wounded. These numbers echo previous conflicts where the Palestinians come out far behind Israel. Headlines as of late have spoken of how Hamas is winning the political war but with numbers like that, the idea of winning anything is completely bizarre. In the face of so much destruction and civilian deaths, saying you’re winning based on scoring some political points seems cold and heartless as though people are merely pawns.

Second Infitada: September 2000 – February 2005
Israelis killed = 1,010
Palestinians killed = 3,354

First Infitada: December 1987 – September 1993
Israelis killed = 160
Palestinians killed = 2,162

The PLO against Israel for the past 50 years. Osama bin Laden and 9/11. The 2004 Madrid train bombings. The 7 July 2005 London bombings. What did any of this achieve?

Let’s just say for the moment that the West deserves all the hate and scorn felt by these various groups. These groups have attempted to change the course of history; to get what they felt was justly warranted, by using violence. What did it achieve?

In the 1982 biographical film Ghandi starring Ben Kingsley, the leader Ghandi is asked how he intends on dealing with the British rule so as to achieve the dream of an independent and free India. He says that he will not force the British to leave; he will make them want to leave. Yes, the British left not because they were forced out, they left because they wanted to.

Final Word
Yeah, like anybody’s going to listen to me.

As I said to my fellow students in 1983: If I begin to understand the justifications for all this violence, I’m going to be just as crazy as everybody else.

Muslims, Jews, and even Christians live together in many places in peace. Why not everywhere?

Israel is armed to the teeth. And who can blame them? Despite the number of conflicts which go on in the world, I can’t help thinking that the days of declaring war on a nation and actually winning, that is, annexing the entire country may be behind us. (Then again, Russia goes after the Crimea so I could be wrong here.) The PLO made a mistake from the beginning by refusing to recognise Israel’s right to exist. It ain’t going away. Deal with it.

On the other hand, Israel is constantly making a mistake by not giving the Palestinians their own homeland. The Palestinians are never going to calm down if they don’t get something.

Do the British deserve the blame for this whole mess by mishandling the creation of Israel? Maybe, but bringing this up is academic. Now, everybody has to deal with the present situation. What difference does it make what happened 70 years ago?

The Palestinians who keep firing rockets into Israel may feel good emotionally (Let’s get ‘The Man”), but just what have they achieved in concrete results towards the creation of an independent Palestinian state? Once again, they are trying to take what they want. Hasn’t anybody thought about Ghandi’s idea and trying to get the Israelis to want to give the Palestinians a homeland? If my neighbour wanted me to do something but kept attacking me, I’d dig my heels in and wouldn’t give him jack s**t. F. U. you bastard.

What a mess. What a quagmire. What a stalemate. There have been some extraordinary moments over the years when one side or another has done the unthinkable and decided to forgive yesterday.

When Anwar Sadat signed the peace accord with Israel in 1979, the two countries entered an unprecedented era of non violence. By removing war from the table, they left themselves free to pursue other interests like their economies. War is expensive. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by extremist elements in his own country.

When Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Peace Accords with the Yasser Arafat in 1993, it seemed as though a visionary could stop dwelling on history and look towards a future of mutual peace. Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a right wing radical of his own country.

Some may say I am simplifying things too much, that I don’t understand the details of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Look again at the numbers. What price are both sides paying and what has either side achieved? The fruit farmer just wanted to tend his orchard, sell his produce, and raise his family. Isn’t that what everybody wants?

Postscript: August 24/2014
NPR and other news outlets are reporting that Hamas has admitted to kidnapping and killing the three Israeli teens. Saleh Arouri told a conference in Turkey on Wednesday that Hamas's military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, carried out what he described as a "heroic operation" with the broader goal of sparking a new Palestinian uprising.

Lone cell? Heroic operation? Spark an uprising? The latest reports say that over two thousands Palestinians have died in the latest fighting. I, for one, would be very angry with Saleh Arouri. The average Palestinian is merely a political pawn, a disposible chess piece in what the leadership considers the bigger picture. Nobody, absolutely nobody, has the guts to do what Ghandi did. The PLO or Hamas has achieved nothing in the past 50 years. They will achieve nothing in the next 50.


my blog: To those who are about to kill, we salute you - Mar 23/2011
[Two people kill dozens of innocent people and are now revered as martyrs. I look at their actions.] Their motivations were political. They both felt that there was a "bigger picture", a greater cause, the importance of which trumped the importance and the safety or lives of the others involved in these situations. A total of 66 innocent people were killed; 66 people who had no direct connection to these political motivations. 66 people who just happened to be, let's say, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

my blog: Radical Islam: The (supposed) threat to America - Sep 13/2011
I ran across a blogger innocently enough inviting her readers to look at some films all devoted to the idea that radical Islam is a threat to America. Radical anything in my view is not a good thing but is somebody specifically zeroing in on "radical Islam" to put forward a personal or political agenda which is not focusing on the bigger picture? I researched the 2005 documentary "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West" and the 2009 documentary "The Third Jihad". I discovered the film maker and/or producer is Raphael Shore, a Canadian-Israeli film writer, producer, and rabbi. I found out he is the founder of The Clarion Fund, a non-profit organization that seeks to advance the idea that the United States is threatened by radical Islam.

my blog: Extremism: I'm right and you're wrong. - Sep 11/2010
As I scan the news as of late (September 11, 2010), I am inundated with reference after reference to a right wing, conservative, religious fundamentalist extremist point of view. There is no middle ground; there is no compromise; I'm right and you're wrong. In fact, I'm far right and you're dead wrong, emphasis on dead. Just what the heck is going on in the world? Have we all gone mad?

The largest domestic terrorist act in the United States prior to 9/11 was the Oklahoma City bombing carried out by Timothy McVeigh a white Roman Catholic.

"We have met the enemy and he is us."
- Pogo by cartoonist Walt Kelly (1913 - 1973)


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