Monday, 28 October 2019

Normalization – the ultimate betrayal or the path to peace?

This article of mine appears in the current edition of The Jerusalem Report, dated November 11, 2019
          For hard-line supporters of the Palestinian cause, “normalization” (or “tatbia” in Arabic) is the worst political sin any Palestinian can commit. It has been adopted as a term of abuse by the Palestinian leadership and by organizations which support them, including the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, to stigmatize any form of joint Palestinian-Israeli activity. 

          In June 2019 the Palestinian Authority (PA) sacked a man from its education ministry and removed him as council chief of the West Bank village of Deir Kadis after a social media video showed four Israeli neighbours joining in the celebrations at his son’s wedding.

          In December 2018 a Palestinian court in Ramallah sentenced a Palestinian-American to imprisonment for life for brokering the sale of a house in the Old City of Jerusalem to an Israeli organization.

          In September 2016 the PA arrested four Palestinians for sharing a cup of coffee with Jewish community members in the West Bank town of Efrat, claiming that it was a crime for Palestinians to meet socially with Jewish settlers because it promoted normalization. 

          In short, in the view of the anti-normalizers, no form of joint activity, cooperation or dialogue with Israelis is acceptable - even engaging with Israeli peace activists who have the best of intentions towards them. All such undertakings must be viewed as collaboration with the enemy, the “colonial oppressors” of the Palestinian people.

          The elephant in this room is the fact that every day some 130,000 Palestinians cross into Israel from the West Bank to work for some 8,100 employers. They engage in a whole variety of jobs and their employment is an important part of the West Bank economy. Palestinians working in Israel bring home about 5 billion shekels ($1.4 billion). Their average salary is two-and-a-half times the average salary in the Palestinian autonomous areas.

          In addition to the Palestinians who work in Israel, around 36,000 are employed in Israeli firms in the West Bank, many earning up to three times the average Palestinian wage. Israel has established several industrial zones there, comprising around 1,000 businesses in all.

          This on-going demonstration of Palestinian-Israeli joint activity on a massive scale is rarely referred to by the anti-normalization activists, perhaps because of the sheer number of Palestinians, multiplied by their families, involved, or perhaps because of the economic benefits the Palestinian community undoubtedly derives from it. Attempts by the anti-normalizers to interfere with this would probably result in a political backlash from the substantial numbers of Palestinians whose livelihood depends on their Israeli jobs.

          So turning a blind eye to this inconvenient aspect of the issue, the anti-normalization campaign has devised a long and detailed rationale for its programme. Produced in 2011 by one of the founding organizations of the BDS movement, the paper (republished as “What is Normalization?”) seeks to define the term in relation to its most important manifestations. The arguments are deployed in a mainly calm and reasoned manner, designed to convince the intelligent reader of their validity. Their cogency, however, is entirely dependent on acceptance of the document’s core assumptions – that Israel is, in their terms, both a “colonial oppressor” and an apartheid state. 

          The “colonial oppressor” charge, made repeatedly in the paper, is shorthand for the anti-Zionist argument that Israel was created as the result of invasion and occupation by Western colonialists, and that the Jewish people have no historic connection to the Holy Land. “It is helpful to think of normalization,” runs the paper, “as a ‘colonialization of the mind’.” This view ignores the fact that the League of Nations and the United Nations, with the world’s approval, endorsed establishing a Jewish homeland in the area once known as Palestine. (The official wording of the Mandate handed to Great Britain includes: “…recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”)

          Ignoring or rejecting the internationally approved basis for the creation of Israel, the essential call of the paper is for resistance to Israel’s existence. Any joint project, it says, “that is not based on a resistance framework serves to normalize relations.” However the paper does not venture into any definition of “resistance”, nor offer any assessment of what the limits of such action should be. So it has no room for considering that the steps taken by Israel to protect its citizens against decades of terrorist activity, often termed “resistance”, are largely what explain the “oppressor” tag. 

          The authors attempt to persuade Arab-Israelis – that is, Palestinian citizens of Israel who form some 20 percent of the population – that they are living in an apartheid state. This argument, at least, must fall on deaf ears. As voters, tax-payers, workers and citizens in a fully-functioning multi-ethnic state, it is patently obvious to Israel’s Arab population that apartheid philosophy forms no part of the democratic functioning of their country. 

          The authors go on to argue that when Israeli-Arab citizens participate in international events (they cite as an example the Eurovision song contest) they contribute to what they call a “deceptive” appearance of tolerance, democracy and normal life in Israel. In short the authors assert that Israel is an intolerant and undemocratic country where a normal life is impossible. Such an assertion, clearly at odds with reality, just as the constantly repeated apartheid charge, can gain hold only on people who have no direct knowledge of Israel and are prepared to believe whatever they are told. 

          Turning to the international context, the paper urges its BDS supporters to refrain from participating in any event that “morally or politically equates the oppressor and oppressed” since such an event “normalizes Israel’s colonial domination over Palestinians.” The authors repudiate all efforts at fostering reconciliation, healing or dialogue unless such initiatives explicitly aim “to end oppression”, as they conceive it.

          They pick out two Palestinian-Israeli bodies dedicated to dialogue and joint action aimed at achieving a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestinian dispute – OneVoice and IPCRI (the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information). Both are roundly excoriated because, in the authors’ view, their purpose is too limited. They do not embrace the need to struggle jointly against “Israel’s colonial and apartheid policies,” and they ignore “the rights of Palestinian refugees.” In short, the paper asserts that such joint cooperative initiatives aimed at fostering peace “serve to normalize oppression and injustice.” 

          As for the two-state solution, specifically promoted by IPCRI, the BDS authors reject it out of hand. In their view acknowledging Israel’s right to exist at all “advocates an apartheid state in Israel that disenfranchises the indigenous Palestinian citizens” and ignores the “right of return” of the Palestinian refugees.” 

          In passing it might be noted that in 1948 up to 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled their homes. Over the years the UN body dealing with the problem, UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency) developed a unique method of counting them – they passed on the refugee status to their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, regardless of whether these people had acquired citizenship in their host countries. For example 1.8 million Jordanian citizens are still classified by UNRWA as Palestinian refugees. 

          As a result UNRWA asserts that today there are more than 5 million Palestinian refugees – a number growing exponentially, year by year. The figure is seized on by BDS, which demands the “right of return” for all of them, without explaining how the dwellings that 70 years ago housed 750,000 people could today accommodate 5 million.

          It seems clear from what BDS and its supporters write and say that, in their minds, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not over and the sovereign state of Israel is a temporary phenomenon that will be overthrown, given sufficient time and effort. Any attempt at reconciliation, at normalization, undermines this objective. It is a sad fact that by refusing to accept that Israel is a permanent presence in the Middle East, by advocating continuing resistance and turning their backs on any attempt at reconciliation, they are essentially condemning generations of Palestinians, as well as Israelis, to a perpetual state of conflict.

          To avoid this outcome, the anti-normalization campaign would need to reassess the political situation taking account of current realities, and reshape its objectives into achieving something politically feasible. 

          The Abraham Fund is a leading non-partisan, non-profit Israeli organization working to advance coexistence and equality among Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens. On August 29, 2019 it published the results of a research study among Jewish voters in the recent election, targeting those who had voted for Centre Left parties. The research showed that a party highlighting issues of concern to Arab communities suffered no deleterious effect on the level of its support, while including a message about equality between Israelis and Arabs increased its support by 11 percent. The study concluded that there is a base of positive attitudes among left-leaning Israeli voters on which to build future Arab-Israeli cooperation. 

          There is also already a plethora of positive action. All across Israel, people of good will are reaching out to their Arab neighbors in a whole range of joint ventures aimed at fostering friendship and ending decades of hostility. There are literally hundreds of organizations and groups in every field – economic, educational, industrial, commercial, agricultural – actively encouraging cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. 

          To pluck out just a few examples. Tech2Peace brings Israeli and Palestinian young people together to learn tech skills. The Palestinian Internship Program (PIP) provides young Palestinian graduates with work experience at leading Israel-based companies. The Hand in Hand centre for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel is a network of integrated, bilingual schools for Jewish and Arab children. The Hagar school is an integrated, bilingual educational institution for Jewish and Arab students in the Negev. Olives of Peace is a joint Israeli-Palestinian business venture to sell olive oil. Daniel Barenboim has created a world-class orchestra – the West-Eastern Divan – by bringing together young Israeli and Arab musicians without regard to ethnic or political affiliations. The Peres Center for Peace and Innovation runs an impressively wide range of programmes fostering joint Israeli-Palestinian cooperation across business, agriculture, education, health, culture and sport.
The list of such joint Israeli-Arab ventures aimed at breaking down barriers and promoting understanding is very long. All such efforts are condemned out of hand by anti-normalization campaigners, and their influence reaches deep into the Palestinian political leadership. Clearly they fear that normalization is the thin end of a wedge that will promote mutual understanding and eventually end the age-long Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

But this total rejection of normalization could prove to be their Achilles heel. If those who seek peace – both Israelis and Palestinians – began promoting the concept of normalization with the same zeal as those who expend so much energy opposing it, they might find themselves beating the rejectionists at their own game.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 30 October 2019:

Friday, 25 October 2019

Lebanon's biggest problem - Hezbollah

       This article of mine appears in the Jerusalem Post, Sunday 9 November 2019
        Lebanon is in chaos. For more than a week mass protests have been blocking city streets and town squares across the country. The crowds are demanding the resignation of the government, an overhaul of the country's political system and an end to the growing financial burdens imposed on them. Prime Minister Saad Hariri's economic reforms package, announced on October 21 has failed to placate them.

        For the moment, though, the prospect of the government resigning is remote, since it contains a strong Hezbollah element. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, has said that calls for government resignation were "a waste of time". There are, however, wheels within wheels, and while the President, Michel Aoun is certainly pro-Hezbollah, Hariri is not a political friend. On October 29 Hariri formally resigned as prime minister, but he remains in office as acting PM until some other nominee is approved. As the most obvious Sunni political leader, and given Lebanon’s unique constitution, he will most probably be re-elected into post.

        Many believe that Hezbollah, a body deemed a terrorist organization by large parts of the world, has created a “state within a state” inside Lebanon. Many believe that the Lebanese state and Hezbollah are in effect indistinguishable.
        In theory Lebanon should be a template for a future peaceful Middle East. It is the only Middle East country which, by its very constitution, shares power equally between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and Christians. Theory, however, has had to bow to practical reality. Lebanon has been highly unstable for much of its existence, and its unique constitution has tended to exacerbate, rather than eliminate, sectarian conflict. 

        Around 1980 – the exact date is disputed – Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, still basking in the glory of his 1979 Islamic Revolution, decided to strengthen his grip on Shia Islam by consolidating a number of Lebanon’s militant Shi’ite Muslim groups. He formed and funded a body calling itself Hezbollah, or “the Party of God”. 

        Hezbollah declared that its purpose, in line with Khomeini’s, was to oppose Western influences in general and Israel’s existence in particular. Soon Hezbollah was acting as Iran’s proxy in perpetrating a campaign of terror against their two perceived enemies. Waves of kidnappings, bombings and assassinations were carried out across the world, many of them indiscriminate, slaughtering Westerners and Muslims alike. 

        It is no surprise, therefore, that Hezbollah in its entirety has been designated a terrorist body by the Arab League, as well as by a batch of other nations. 

        How complete is Hezbollah’s takeover of the state of Lebanon? As regards the economy, Hezbollah has large investments in the Lebanese banking sector and in a wide range of businesses. On the political front, it is stronger than ever. 

        The country went to the polls in May 2018. The elections saw the Hezbollah-led political alliance win just over half of the parliamentary seats. A major factor in Hezbollah’s popularity – especially among Lebanon’s Shi’ite population – is the vast network of social services, funded by Iran, that it runs, providing healthcare, education, finance, welfare, and communications. It has virtually taken over the state’s function in many areas. The bodies providing the social provision are used to disseminate Hezbollah’s ideology and strengthen its position within Lebanese society. 

        The government that was eventually formed some nine months after the poll reflected the dominant position attained by Hezbollah and its allies. The organization was allocated three ministries, while the Finance Ministry went to a Hezbollah ally. Might is right in Lebanon, and Hezbollah dominates within government because it is backed by the financial and military sponsorship of Iran. Corruption in official circles, and exploitation of the population are both endemic. 

        The distinguished commentator on Middle East affairs, Jonathan Spyer, recently analyzed the extent to which Hezbollah, acting as a proxy for Iran, has swallowed up the Lebanese state. The shell of the state has been left intact, he pointed out, both to serve as a protective camouflage and to carry out those aspects of administration in which Hezbollah and Iran have no interest. As a result, he concludes, it is impossible today in key areas of Lebanese life to determine exactly where the official state begins and Hezbollah’s shadow state ends. 

        Lebanon’s March 14 Alliance is a coalition of politicians opposed to the Syrian régime and to Hezbollah. March 14, 2005 was the launch date of the Cedar Revolution, a protest movement triggered by the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri earlier that year. The demonstrations were directed against Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, suspected from the first of being behind the murder, and his Iranian-supported allies in Lebanon, Hezbollah, widely believed to have carried out the deed. 

        The echoes of Rafik Hariri’s cold-blooded slaughter have continued to reverberate through Lebanese politics. Saad Hariri, Rafik's son, had been demanding that Hezbollah disband its militia and direct its thousands of fighters to join Lebanon's conventional armed forces, a demand that leading opinion-formers in Lebanon continue to make. With Hezbollah fighting to support Assad, while a large segment of Lebanese opinion is in favour of toppling him, the conflict has inflamed sectarian tensions. 

        Many Lebanese, even those of Shi’ite persuasion, resent the fact that Hezbollah is, at the behest of Iran, fighting Muslims in a neighbouring country – activities far from the purpose for which the organization was founded. They resent the mounting death toll of Lebanese fighters 

        Mass unrest has shaken Lebanon before – it had its share of “Arab Spring” upheavals in 2011 – but for the first time protests are just as evident in the south of Lebanon, an area tightly controlled politically by Hezbollah, as in the rest of the country. 

        That Lebanon’s masses may be rebelling against the stranglehold that Hezbollah has exerted on the country is, perhaps, the most hopeful aspect of the current situation.

Published in Israel Hayom as "Hezbollah has become Lebanon's main problem" on 29 October 2019

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 November 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 3 November 2019:

Erdogan’s bid for supreme power

        Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to straddle the global stage like a colossus. With one foot firmly planted in NATO, he should in theory be closely aligned with his Western colleagues. His other foot, however, appears to be resting in the snows of Moscow. He has concluded an arms deal with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin which gives him access to an anti-missile system designed to detect and shoot down stealth fighters like the F-35 produced by the US, which he was also seeking to acquire. Forced to make a choice, he plumped for the Russian deal.

        He is also the fulcrum of current political and military activity in the Middle East. Domestically he has for years been combatting the PKK, a group struggling for Kurdish autonomy, sometimes prepared to use terrorism to make its point. He maintains that the YPG group, which dominates the Kurdish Peshmerga military force stationed on the Syrian-Turkish border, is indistinguishable from the PKK.

        When US President Donald Trump suddenly announced a withdrawal of US forces from the area, Erdogan sprang into action, launching a military attack aimed at forcing the YPG back further into Syria. He proposes to construct a so-called “safe zone” several kilometers wide, into which he intends moving the nearly 4 million Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey during their civil war.

        Undeterred by the arrival of Syrian national forces in support of the YPG Erdogan, having agreed to a short ceasefire to allow the Kurdish troops to retreat from the area, is intent on reaching his military objective. What gives him the ability to act unfettered on the international scene?

        By the time Adolf Hitler seized the reins of supreme power in August 1934, his Nazi party had gained control of every aspect of the nation’s administration. Thereafter he ruled Germany, and the vast territories that his armed forces conquered and subjugated, totally unencumbered by any political, judicial or constitutional constraints.

        Examine Erdogan’s rise to power in Turkey, and disturbing parallels emerge. Yet Erdogan is still not the absolute ruler that Hitler was.

        In July 2016 Erdogan had been Turkey’s president for two years, and had made no secret of his determination to transform the office – traditionally simply ceremonial – into that of a political supremo. The timetable for accomplishing Erdogan’s constitutional revision envisaged its passage through parliament by the end of 2016, and a popular referendum a few months later. However his AKP party were at daggers drawn with the followers of Erdogan’s main opponent, Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric who lived in the US. Popular support was spread evenly between them, and the result of the referendum seemed far from certain.

        Then, on 15 July 2016, just before 11 pm, military jets were seen flying over Ankara, and a group of Turkish soldiers took over several institutions there and in Istanbul. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced that part of the military was making an "illegal attempt" to seize power. The coup, if that indeed is what it was, was soon thwarted by national forces, but it justified Erdogan in imposing a state of emergency. Retribution of unprecedented severity was exacted from suspected opponents. More than 110,000 people were arrested, including nearly 11,000 police officers, 7,500 members of the military, and 2,500 prosecutors and judges. 179 media outlets were shut down, and some 2700 journalists dismissed.

        Subsequent intensive inquiries left a large number of questions unanswered, and the New York Times was not alone in believing that these loose ends led to the suspicion that the government may have allowed the coup to unfold, or even encouraged it.

        In April 2017, with the state’s constitutional and judicial powers still outside the executive’s control, the referendum on the constitutional changes duly took place. The result – a narrow 51% in favor against 49% against – strengthened suspicions about the nature of the coup the previous July. Had opposition voices not been removed, and a major propaganda campaign not been possible, Erdogan could well have lost the referendum, and with it his long-desired bid for supreme power.

        After the referendum came the constitutional transformation, described by one commentator as “maybe one of the starkest examples of constitutional gerrymandering.”

        The office of Prime Minister was abolished as was the parliamentary Cabinet, and their powers were transferred to the presidency, together with a tranche of traditional parliamentary powers such as setting the annual budget. Authority over the armed forces was, for the first time, invested in the president.

        The judiciary similarly lost power to the president. The High Council of Judges and Prosecutors was completely revised. The new Council was reduced from 22 regular members to 13, Of these four are appointed directly by the president while, in addition, the minister and deputy minister of justice – both members of the president’s cabinet – take up two more seats. As a result six of the 13 council members are presidential appointees.

        Erdogan now heads a system of executive rule virtually free from the constraints of separation of powers, thus enabling him to establish by decree the structures to support his system of one-man rule.

        And yet a modicum of the basic constitutional and judicial structure of the old Turkish republic lingers, and the popular will still has the ability to break through. Erdogan began his political career as mayor of Istanbul. Subsequently, throughout his time in national politics, his AKP party ruled Istanbul. Indeed he is on record as saying that if his party “lost Istanbul, we would lose Turkey.”

        Then came the municipal elections of March 2019. To the shock and horror of the AKP and of Erdogan himself, the AKP candidate was defeated by 0.2% of the vote – a mere 13,700. The AKP immediately challenged the result and petitioned for a rerun. That did not sit well with the electorate. In the new vote, held in June 2019, the anti-AKP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, boosted his margin of victory 57-fold to win 54.2% of the vote against 45.0%. It was a record in the history of Istanbul local elections.

        Several commentators considered the result the "beginning of the end" for Erdogan. It was scarcely that, especially given the almost unassailable position he has acquired within the body politic. The whole episode does however indicate that all is not yet lost for Turkey, that democracy is bubbling away, and that hopefully absolute power will continue to evade Erdogan.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 26 October 2019:

Published in the Mashreq Politics and Culture Journal, 27 October 2019:

Friday, 18 October 2019

The Kurds, Assad and the shape of a future Syria

          Media commentators are in a spin over recent developments along the Turkish-Syrian border. For example, several are scratching their heads over the game plan that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has in mind. 

          On the one hand Syrian president Bashar al-Assad could most certainly not be sending troops to support the Kurds without the clear agreement of Russia. In fact, some commentators describe the arrangement as a “Russian-brokered deal”. So Putin must be looking with equanimity at the prospect of Syrian government forces coming into direct conflict with Turkish ground troops.

          On the other hand on October 10 Russia joined the US in blocking a UN Security Council resolution calling on Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to cease military action and withdraw from Syrian territory – and Putin has indicated that he will exercise his veto on any future anti-Turkish motions as well. So Putin is apparently both against Turkey’s incursion into Syrian territory and against stopping it.

          Media commentators are equally at sea over the Kurdish-Syrian arrangement. Several see the deal as a move forced by events on a reluctant Kurdish administration and believe, with the Daily Telegraph’s Raf Sanchez, that “the deal appeared to strike a death knell for Kurdish hopes of maintaining autonomy from Damascus in their own semi-state in northeast Syria.”

          But Assad’s Syrian administration is not at permanent loggerheads with the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Kurdish forces have indeed fought the Syrian military on several occasions during the 8-year civil war, but by mid-2018 the SDC had begun to seek better relations with the Assad regime. On July 27, 2018, in response to an invitation from the Syrian government, a delegation of the SDC arrived in Damascus to hold direct talks − its first official visit to the Syrian government.

          There had been several other signs of this shift in political direction. The SDC had already announced that it intended to open an office in Damascus, while the day before the SDC delegation travelled to the Syrian capital, it announced that Kurdish forces were ready to join any military operation by government forces in the northern governorate of Idlib aimed at retaking the Kurdish area of Afrin (Afrin was captured by Turkish-backed troops in March 2018, as part of a drive by Erdogan to prevent the Kurds from dominating Turkey’s southern land border). No such military action was mounted, so Turkey was in control of a segment of Syrian territory even before the current incursion.

          North-eastern Syria is under Kurdish administration. Known as Rojava, the area covers some 25 percent of what used to be sovereign Syria. There is, therefore, a pragmatic political rationale for both Assad and the SDC to seek an accommodation. In bringing Rojava under Syrian government administration Assad, who now controls some 70 percent of old Syria, would effectively be regaining some 95 percent of pre-civil war Syrian territory.

          As for the Kurdish administration in Rojava – known since 2012 as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) – they are not seeking independence, but a degree of autonomy. They perfectly understand that if Assad decides to grant it, a huge chunk of territory would be placed under some form of government control, but anticipate that it would be akin to the arrangement in Iraq where an autonomous Kurdistan operates in alliance with the government.

          In such a deal, Assad’s regime, and himself as its President, would acquire substantial additional political support − vital if ever events force a presidential election on him as part of a peace deal. In short, both parties stand to gain from an accord.

          As for Erdogan, he maintains that the YPG group, which dominates the Kurdish Peshmerga military force, is indistinguishable from the PKK, a Turkey-based terrorist group in support of Kurdish autonomy or independence, and indeed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and the PKK leadership have publicly recognized the YPG as part of the PKK structure.

          But media commentators seem to ignore the fact that back in the 2000s, when Erdogan led his AKP party to victory in the general election and formed his first government, an accommodation was actually reached with the PKK. As the Kurdish language began to be used in broadcasting, education and the print media, the PKK softened their demands for a state of their own in favor of equal rights and autonomy. A deal including an end to violence on the part of the PKK was actually announced in 2013. The whole accommodation came to a violent end in July 2015 when the leader of the HDP, a legitimate Kurdish political party, refused to back Erdoğan's plans to convert the Turkish presidency into the sort of autocracy it has since become.

          So there is a precedent for an accommodation with the PKK. In the words of Sir Peter Westmacott, one-time British ambassador to Turkey: “The aims of the PKK have evolved over the years. If they could now renounce the use of violence as part of an understanding with the Turkish government that the reform process of the early years of the Erdoğan government will resume, everyone could emerge a winner.”

          The building blocks for an acceptable outcome of the current chaos lie all around.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 17 October 2019:

Friday, 11 October 2019

UNRWA under scrutiny

                                                                                 Video version    
At around the time the State of Israel came into being, something over half the non-Jewish population of what used to be called “Palestine”, some 750,000 people, left their homes – some on advice, some from fear of the forthcoming conflict, some during it.

        The UN body set up to assist them – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) – began its work in May 1950, seven months ahead of the establishment of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). As a result, Palestinian refugees have been designated and treated quite differently from − and much worse than − all other refugees the world over, ever since. 

        While the 1949 General Assembly resolution establishing UNRWA called for the alleviation of distress among the Palestine refugees, it also stated that “constructive measures should be undertaken at an early date with a view to the termination of international assistance for relief.” In other words, the new refugee agency’s mission was intended to be temporary.

        By 2018 the “temporary” UNRWA had been transformed into a bloated international bureaucracy with a staff of 30,000 and an annual budget of around $1.2 billion. As for the number of Palestinians registered by UNRWA as refugees, that had mushroomed to 5.6 million as a result of its decision to bestow refugee status upon “descendants of Palestine refugees” in perpetuity – children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. The growth in UNWRA’s client base was therefore exponential year on year, justifying an ever-expanding staff and an ever-increasing budget. 

        It was at this point that US President Donald Trump decided enough was enough. He slashed US funding from $364 million to $60 million, and announced that as from 2019 US funding would cease. “The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation,” stated the US State Department. 

        While the main UN agency dealing with refugees – UNHCR – concentrates on resettling them, facilitating their voluntary repatriation or their local integration and resettlement, UNRWA maintains millions of people in their refugee status decade after decade, expanding the numbers year on year. 

        Organizations secure in the knowledge of an ever-expanding client base, thus justifying continuous growth and an ever-increasing budget, provide ripe ground for malfeasance and internal corruption. So it has apparently proved in the case of UNRWA. 

        On July 20, 2019 it suddenly emerged that seven months previously a 10-page confidential internal report, with input from dozens of current and former UNRWA staff, had been sent to the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, According to the Agence France-Presse news agency, the report alleged that UNRWA’s commissioner-general. Pierre Krahenbuhl, and other top officials, had been guilty of a range of abuses including “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent, and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives.”
        The Al Jazeera media network claims to have obtained a copy of the ethics office report from a source close to UNRWA, who said that agency employees were concerned about a seeming lack of action, given that the report was lodged with Guterres in December 2018. Now the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) has opened a probe into allegations detailed in the report.

        The ethics report claims that since 2015 members of UNRWA’s inner circle have been steadily consolidating their power, but that the situation escalated markedly from the beginning of 2018, coinciding with the US’s decision to remove its funding. This, the report claims "served as an excuse for an extreme concentration of decision making power in members of the 'clique'.” It further alleges that these developments led to an "exodus of senior and other staff" and a work culture "characterized by low morale, fear of retaliation ... distrust, secrecy, bullying, intimidation, and marginalization ... and management that is highly dysfunctional, with a significant breakdown of the regular accountability structure".

        Much of the report focuses on allegations surrounding the conduct of Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl, who took up the post in March 2014, citing a range of corrupt and unprofessional activities.

        Shortly after the details of the report became known, the Netherlands and Switzerland suspended their funding of UNRWA. They were followed in August 2019 by the government of New Zealand.

        UNRWA’s mandate from the General Assembly comes up for renewal every three years. Due to expire in June 2020, it was renewed during the 74th session of the UN General Assembly which came to end on September 30, 2019. Nothing has emerged in the media to suggest that Guterres’s investigation into the ethics report came up in the discussions.

        Speaking during the 42nd session of the UN Human Rights Council on September 23, 2019, former UNRWA general counsel James Lindsay declared that the agency must evolve or dissolve. UNRWA’s major structural problem, he said, is its unique definition of who qualifies as a refugee. This differs fundamentally from the definition used by the UNHCR, which is responsible for all other refugees around the world. By not demanding that UNRWA adopt this definition,” says Lindsay, “the General Assembly has elevated politics over morality.”

        Also speaking on September 23, former Knesset member Einat Wilf said that the Palestinians had “hijacked” UNRWA after refusing to accept the outcome of the 1948 war that led to the creation of the State of Israel.

        “The core issue,” she said, “is that in their mind the war is not over. In their mind, the State of Israel is temporary. If they view Israel as temporary, they will never sign an
Pagreement that will bring peace. They will wait it out.”

        Wilf castigated Western donor states, “whose definition of peace is two states,” but who continue to “funnel money into this organization that makes [Palestinian refugees] think otherwise,”

        All in all, the Palestinian refugee story is one of heartless exploitation of Arabs by Arabs – the callous manipulation of powerless victims for political ends, with little regard for their welfare or human rights. Whatever the result of the enquiry into the UNRWA ethics report, this inhumanity must be brought out into the open, the UNRWA farce of “refugee status” in perpetuity must be ended, and steps must be taken to allow people and their families who may have lived in a country for fifty years or more to settle and become full citizens.

        In short, UNRWA should be wound up, and its responsibilities passed over to the UN agency responsible for all the rest of the world’s refugee problems - the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Published in the Jerusalem Post as "UNWRA in trouble", 15 October 2019:

Published in Israel Hayom, 11 October 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 12 October 2019:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 October 2019:

Friday, 4 October 2019

Is ISIS regrouping at al-Hol?

                                     Video version
          During its heyday in 2014-2015 Islamic State (ISIS) conquered, and ruled over, great tracts of Iraq and Syria. It took four years, but the US coalition, relying heavily on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), slowly but surely won back ISIS-held territory, squeezing its fighters into an increasingly tight enclave. The final battle took place on Saturday, March 23 2019, in the village of Baghuz on the banks of the Euphrates, on Syria’s eastern border.

          But just before the last stand, tens of thousands of ISIS supporters, almost all of them women with their children, fled the battleground. Kurdish officials directed them to a camp for displaced persons set up some 300 kilometers to the north at al-Hol. And there they have remained, a mixture of Syrians, Iraqis and foreigners from around the world who had been attracted to the extreme Islamist concepts espoused by ISIS.

          At the end of September 2019 the population of the al-Hol encampment stood at just under 70,000. Living conditions are appalling. The tents were freezing cold in the winter and have been swelteringly hot this summer, with temperatures rising as high as 50 degrees Celsius. In the early months latrine facilities were primitive, much of the water was contaminated and medical care was limited. As a result child deaths soared. In the nine months to August 31, 2019, 406 deaths were registered in the camp, of which 313 were children under the age of 5.

          Some relief is being provided by relevant UN organizations. For example UNICEF and its partners are now trucking in nearly 2 million liters of water every day, and have installed tanks, showers, latrines and water purification units. But the gap between the funding required and the funding provided by relief organizations is currently more than $25 million. It is likely to grow, because the prospects of shipping out the inhabitants and closing the al-Hol camp are negligible.

          The Kurdish authorities overseeing the camp have pleaded for the non-Syrians to be allowed to return to their own countries, but only a few states – including Kazahstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – have repatriated their citizens on a large scale. Western governments have refused to take back any except a few young children.

            On September 3, 2019 the New York Times reported fights between camp residents, some women attacking or threatening others with knives and hammers. Twice, in June and July, women stabbed the Kurdish guards who were escorting them, sending the camp into lockdown.

          On September 30, the Daily Telegraph reported that a female ISIS supporter was killed and seven others injured during an exchange of gunfire over a secret Sharia court set up in al-Hol. A group of female ISIS supporters ordered several other women in the foreigners' section to be flogged for refusing to attend an informal Koranic studies class. Kurdish guards intervened, and opened fire after one of the ISIS members pulled out a pistol that had reportedly been smuggled into the camp.

          Former Syria adviser to the Pentagon, Jasmine El-Gamal, described the situation at al-Hol as “a full-blown security threat.” For the leaders of ISIS, however, al-Hol represents a golden opportunity. It is a hub from which regrouping of the organization as a whole is already under way.

          "We started to notice that the new arrivals were very well organized," says director Mahmoud Karo. "They organized their own moral police. They are structured."

          Beneath a cloak of secrecy, the radical women inhabitants have continued to enforce the draconian laws of the former so-called caliphate. They police women's allegiance to ISIS, punishing those suspected of wavering in their support.

          A Pentagon report in August warned that a drawdown of the US military presence in the area has allowed "ISIS ideology to spread 'uncontested' in the camp."

          Growing extremism in al-Hol runs parallel to signs of ISIS resurgence elsewhere in the region. ISIS attacks in northwestern Iraq, just over the Syrian border, are becoming more frequent.

          At al-Hol ISIS is master-minding its resurgence while the rest of the world turns a blind eye. With only a few exceptions, the governments concerned have dumped the problem into the lap of the Kurds. While finding minimal resources to ease the humanitarian problems of housing 70,000 women and children, they persistently ignore the equally pressing security issues that are fomenting inside the camp.

          On both humanitarian and security grounds al-Hol is a problem demanding the world’s immediate attention.

Published in Israel Hayom, 3 October 2019:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 October 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal. 9 October 2019:

Published in the Jerusalem Post as "Al-Hol - the aftermath of ISIS"
on 10 October 2019: