Thursday, 30 August 2018

Palestinian refugees – callous exploitation facilitated by UNRWA

                                                                                Video version
        Assume that you could identify the origins of your great-grandparents, and you discover that all eight of them emigrated to the United States from liberated Europe at the end of the Second World War. Subsequently, you find, all four of your grandparents were born in America, both your parents were born in America. and you yourself were born and bred there. Would you consider dubbing yourself a displaced person and a refugee?

         This is the fiction that UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) seeks to perpetuate in respect of millions of inhabitants of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, people and their descendants who fled from their homes during the Arab-Israel wars of 1948 and 1967. UNRWA deems all of them, even unto the third and fourth generation, to be Palestinian refugees.

        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. Of the Palestinians who left, one-third went to the West Bank, then under Jordanian control; one-third went to the Gaza Strip, then under Egypt’s control; and the remainder fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

        A highly relevant factor in their subsequent unhappy history is that the UN body established to assist them – 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.

        The 1949 General Assembly resolution establishing UNRWA called for “the alleviation of the conditions of starvation and distress among the Palestine refugees.” Yet the resolution 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.

        70 years have passed. The “temporary” UNRWA has 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 has mushroomed from 750,000 in 1950 to 5.6 million today. 

        How could such a situation have been allowed to develop? The transformation occurred according to the diktat of UNRWA itself, which decided to bestow refugee status upon "descendants of Palestine refugees," in perpetuity. The growth in UNWRA’s client base is therefore exponential, justifying an ever-expanding staff and an ever-increasing budget. It has been estimated that by 2050 the number of UNRWA’s “Palestine refugees” will reach just short of 15 million.

        A main function of UNHCR has been to resettle those millions of unfortunate people who have left their homes, willingly or unwillingly, over the years. UNHCR facilitates their voluntary repatriation, or their local integration and resettlement. By contrast a major effect of UNRWA’s humanitarian activities has been not only to maintain millions of people in their refugee status decade after decade, but to expand the numbers as generation has succeeded generation. 

        In pursuing this course, UNRWA has been complicit with the anti-peace policy of many Arab leaders in respect of the Palestinian refugees. To resettle and absorb these people into their new places of residence would have had the effect of normalizing the situation and removing a formidable bargaining chip. UNRWA, by officially washing its hands of any involvement in “final status” considerations, has in effect sustained and supported this policy of using the Palestinian refugees as a pawn in the political effort against Israel. UNRWA, it has been claimed, has done more than any other player over the years to prevent a resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict.

        Consider the unfortunate Arab refugees who made their way to nearby Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, where today over three million of them and their descendants are living as “registered refugees”, (registered, that is, by UNRWA), about half of them still occupying some 58 refugee camps. 

        As for Lebanon, that unhappy country now in thrall to Hezbollah and its controlling power, Iran, the extent of its Palestinian refugee population is almost impossible to determine. UNRWA’s most recent count was 450,000, while the Lebanese government census in 2017 offered 174,000 as the total. Whichever it is, most Palestinians living in Lebanon do not have Lebanese citizenship, and therefore do not have identity cards and are legally barred from owning property or earning a living from a whole list of desirable occupations. Less than 2 percent of Palestinian refugees have acquired a work permit.

        As regards Syria, just before the civil war broke out in 2011 UNRWA reported total Palestinian refugees there as over 525,000. They had been granted neither citizenship nor the right to vote. Since then, the conflict has led many Palestinians, along with native-born Syrians, to flee the country, and the number of registered refugees has fallen to some 450,000. There is no indication that the Syrian government is minded to change its policy on granting them citizenship.

        Jordan is a different case. Here, even though the state has conferred citizenship on most of its 2 million Palestinians, they are still registered as refugees by UNRWA. It is far from clear how an individual can be a fully naturalized citizen of a country yet still be considered a refugee. But UNRWA’s modus operandi is even more illogical. In Jordan only the million-and-a- half Palestinians who live in the camps are regarded as the legitimate concern of UNRWA. Some Palestinians who are not living in the camps fall under the auspices of UNHCR. So some Palestinians are being actively rehabilitated by UNHCR, while most of them, together with their children and their children’s children, are having their refugee status maintained and reinforced by UNRWA.

        No wonder in January 2018 US President Donald Trump 
called for a “fundamental reexamination” of UNWRA, and has just announced that the US will no longer fund the agency. 

        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. 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.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 September 2018:

Sunday, 26 August 2018

The Commonwealth - is there a place for Israel?

This article was published in the Jerusalem Report, issue dated 23 July 2018
          An event that received scant attention in the world’s media was Queen Elizabeth II’s opening of the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London on April 16, 2018.  Inadequate global coverage has been the fate of the Commonwealth for many years.

The Commonwealth is a facet of contemporary life that most people know or care little about.  The Commonwealth Games, interposed every four years between the Olympics, might arouse a flicker of interest in fact, the 21st Games kicked off in Australia on April 4 but as for the background or purposes of the organization itself there is little general knowledge or concern.  And yet the Commonwealth has the potential to exert an enormous power for good on global politics.

When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1952, the Commonwealth consisted of just seven nations.  Today it is a voluntary association of 53 independent sovereign states with a combined population of some 2.4 billion people, almost a third of the world’s inhabitants. Most, but not all, of the member states were once part of the now defunct British Empire, which explains why the Queen is head of the organization.  But what unites this diverse group of nations, beyond the ties of history, language and institutions, are strong trade links and the association’s 16 core values set out in the Commonwealth Charter. 

These “Commonwealth values” commit the organization to promoting world peace, democracy, individual liberty, environmental sustainability, equality in terms of race and gender, free trade, and the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease. In short, the Commonwealth stands for all that is good in this wicked world.
It was in 1884 that Lord Roseberry, later a British prime minister, first dubbed the British Empire “a Commonwealth of Nations”, but the designation “Commonwealth” remained in the background until 1947, when India achieved independence.  Although the new state became a republic, the Indian government was very keen to remain in the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth, unwilling to lose the jewel in its crown, found no difficulty in changing the rules of the club. Henceforth membership did not have to be based on allegiance to the British crown. Members were to be “free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress.” 

Since then, fully independent countries from all parts of the globe have flocked to join the Commonwealth.  At first all were required to have some historic connection to the old British Empire – until two nations, with absolutely no such ties, applied to join.  Once again the Commonwealth demonstrated a flexibility remarkable in bureaucracies and, by sleight of hand, further amended the rules to allow first Mozambique, and a few years later Rwanda, to join.  Applications and expressions of interest in joining the Commonwealth continue to arrive from a wide diversity of states.

Back in 2012 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee considered the “Role and Future of the Commonwealth”, and in general welcomed the idea of the organization extending its membership – always provided a stringent selection procedure was maintained.

“We welcome the fact that the Commonwealth continues to attract interest from potential new members,” reads the final paragraph of their report, “and see advantages in greater diversity and an extended global reach for the Commonwealth. However it is crucial that the application process is rigorous, and that any new members are appropriate additions to the Commonwealth 'family', closely adhering at all times to its principles and values.”

Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority – or a sovereign Palestine, if or when this comes to pass – would, if they applied to join the Commonwealth, certainly meet the original criterion of “historic ties with the British Empire”.  In point of fact, both the Palestinians and Israel have, in the past, toyed with the possibility. 

In February 1997 the UK’s Independent newspaper carried a story under the headline “Palestine looks at membership of the Commonwealth”.  It reported that the representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization to Britain, Afif Saleh, had suggested that the PLO might seek associate membership of the Commonwealth as a temporary measure, while awaiting the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state.  “Once the Palestinians achieve self-determination,” ran the story, “the Commonwealth secretary general, Emeka Anyaoku, sees no obstacle to Palestine becoming the 54th member of the organisation.”

Ten years later, in December 2007, the Jewish Journal reported:
“As a former British colony, Israel is being considered for Commonwealth membership. Commonwealth officials said this week they had set up a special committee to consider membership applications by several Middle Eastern and African nations… Those interested in applying include Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both of which exist on land ruled by a British Mandate from 1918 to 1948. An Israeli official did not deny the report, but said, ‘This issue is not on our agenda right now.’”

The idea of full membership still seems politically unrealistic, but the prospect of forging some sort of link between Israel and the Commonwealth family of nations has recently gained some substance.

The Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) is a voluntary organization distinct from, but highly supportive of, the Commonwealth itself.  Founded as far back as 1868 , it is committed to improving the lives and prospects of Commonwealth citizens across the world. The RCS boasts the Queen as its patron, and numbers among its vice presidents the UK Prime Minister, the leader of the opposition, the Commonwealth secretary-general, and all the Commonwealth High Commissioners in London.

The RCS, under its chief executive officer, Michael Lake, recently embarked on an ambitious program aimed at raising the profile and relevance of the modern Commonwealth.  The Commonwealth, he said, “has been very introspective, it needs to be more extrovert."  In pursuit of that objective, “we have adopted a policy of getting branches of the Commonwealth in non-Commonwealth countries."  The idea, he said, was to promote mutually advantageous links with reliable friends around the world on everything from business to defence. 
A new branch of the RCS had already opened in Helsinki, Finland’s capital, when in 2017 the RCS opened a chapter in Dublin, as part of a campaign to help persuade the Irish Republic to rejoin the organization.  The most recent development was the opening in February 2018, with the blessing of President Donald Trump. of a US branch in Mississippi, with a view to eventually bringing America into the Commonwealth fold as an "associate member" a concept not yet accepted by the Commonwealth, but being promoted by the RCS.  Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, an ally of Trump, is serving as the branch’s chairman of the board of governance.

A major driving force behind the RCS’s expansion program has been Brexit – the decision of the British people to leave the European Union (EU).  Brexit will free the UK from many of the trade constraints imposed by membership of the EU, and allow it to pursue trading opportunities across the globe. Israel has long been regarded by the UK as a prime future trading partner, and a UK-Israel free trade deal is already in negotiation.  In the circumstances Israel would seem an obvious future location for an RCS branch office.

It is not generally known that Israel boasts an “Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association” (IBCA), a body formed as far back as 1953 with the aim of encouraging, developing and extending social, cultural and economic relations between Israel and the Commonwealth.  The IBCA would seem the appropriate broker to seek a Royal Commonwealth Society connection leading, as in the US, to “associate membership”.

How would this benefit Israel?

Although the Commonwealth is not a trading bloc, trade between members is rising strongly, and is projected to surpass $1 trillion by 2020. Among the drivers of increased intra-Commonwealth trade is the so-called ‘Commonwealth effect’.  Trade between Commonwealth members is on average 20 percent higher, and trade costs 19 percent lower, compared with in-trading between other partners. Enormous potential exists to increase intra-Commonwealth trade even further.

Israel’s trading ties with India could serve as a template. The Indian-Israeli trading relationship has recently been greatly strengthened, while some of the fields in which Israeli expertise is being deployed would be highly relevant to other developing Commonwealth countries.  For example, in 2013 Israel introduced a scheme to help India diversify and raise the yield of its fruit and vegetable crops. By March 2014, 10 Centers of Excellence were operating throughout India, offering free training sessions for farmers in efficient agricultural techniques using Israeli technology and know-how, including vertical farming, drip irrigation and soil solarisation. A year later, no less than 29 such Centers were in operation.  Now 25 more are being set up across the sub-continent.  One outcome among very many is a ‘Made in India’ version of high quality Israeli oranges, which are about to hit the Indian market, grown from disease-free plants nurtured through Israeli scientific techniques.

An RCS branch office in Israel, followed perhaps by associate membership of the Commonwealth, would give Israel access to dozens of developing countries that would benefit immensely from Israeli expertise in cutting-edge agricultural technologies. Politically, given the spread of Commonwealth countries across the globe, strengthened trading bonds could help develop warmer relations and foster greater understanding between Israel and the rest of the world.

Published in the Jerusalem Report, 23 July 2018:

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Peace in Yemen – it all depends on the Houthis

                                    Video version
Here's the background to the devastating Yemen conflict, and the way to a resolution if the current peace negotiations are carefully managed.

The world now knows that Yemen has become a vast battlefield, the scene of unending armed conflict.  As a result the civilian population is in the throes of what is universally described as “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.”  On the brink of famine, the nation faces mounting rubbish, failing sewerage and wrecked water supplies, all of which have led to the worst cholera outbreak in recent history.  The UN reckons three-quarters of Yemen’s 28 million people need some kind of humanitarian aid.

What has led to this catastrophic state of affairs?  Even more relevant, of course, is what can be done to bring it to an end?

On one level, the situation in Yemen is just one instance of the fault line that runs through Islam – the Sunni-Shia divide.  The main protagonists are, on the one hand, Saudi Arabia and its eight-nation Sunni Muslim coalition, and on the other, Shi’ite Iran supporting the Shia Muslim Houthi rebels.  However historical issues and political considerations complicate the situation, sometimes obscuring, sometimes overriding the religious imperatives.

The Houthis, for example, while certainly on the Shia side of the great Islamic gulf, are in fact a minority group within that Islamic Shi’ite minority.  They are Zaydi Shi’ites, or Zaydiyyah, taking their name from Zayd bin Ali, the great grandson of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, and they differ significantly in doctrine and beliefs from the Shi’ites who dominate in Iran. 

It was in the ninth century that followers of Zayd established themselves in the mountains of north Yemen. For the next thousand years they fought with varying degrees of success for control of the country. Finally, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, a Zaydi monarchy took power in North Yemen. So there are long-established precedents for the North Yemen Zaydiyyah fighting for control of the country as a whole.  

Conflict between North Yemen and Saudi Arabia is also nothing new. The Zaydi monarchy fought and lost a border war with Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, ceding territory to the Saudi state.

In fact, turmoil is the predominant theme of Yemenite history. The monarchy was replaced by a republic, and the republic by a virtual dictatorship under Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for 33 years, surviving a Saudi-backed civil war in 1994.

But Zaydi resistance continued to smoulder up in the north, and from its midst emerged a charismatic leader named Hussein al Houthi.  Soon Zaydis, intent on resisting Saleh and his increasingly corrupt regime, were calling themselves Houthis. In 2004 al-Houthi was killed in one of the Saudi-backed military campaigns launched by Saleh in an attempt to destroy them. 

Saleh himself became a victim of the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. Mass popular protests and pressure from neighbouring states forced him to step down in 2012 in favour of his vice-president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. But Saleh had given up the keys of office with a very bad grace, and was quite prepared to ally himself with his erstwhile enemies, the Houthis, in an attempt to manoeuvre his way back to power.  The Yemeni military had remained largely loyal to Saleh, and it was through him that the Houthis gained control of most of Yemen’s fighting force, including its air force. As a result, and supported with military hardware from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, they overran large tracts of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a. 

 The subsequent turn of events seems depressingly familiar in the context of Yemen’s long history.  Saudi Arabia, determined to prevent Iran from extending its footprint into the Arabian peninsula, intervened in March 2015 to beat back the Houthis.  Saudi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, assembled a coalition of Arab states, obtained the diplomatic backing of the US, UK, Turkey and Pakistan, and launched a series of air strikes against the rebels.
The unconventional Saleh-Houthi partnership came to an abrupt end on December 2, 2017, when Saleh – a modern manifestation of the Vicar of Bray − went on television to declare that he was splitting from the Houthis and was ready to enter into dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition.  This volte-face was to end in tragedy. On December 4, Saleh's house in Sana'a was besieged by Houthi fighters.  Attempting to escape, he was killed.

The Houthis were emboldened. Using Iranian hardware, they started firing ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia itself. Although responsible for initiating the turmoil, it is not the Houthis but the Saudis and their coalition receiving the world’s opprobrium for the subsequent humanitarian devastation. It is not surprising that Prince Mohammed is said to want to cut his military losses and withdraw from Yemen in exchange for some diplomatic arrangement. 

What Yemen needs is a return to a unified structure, democratic elections, and an inclusive government – a process that had actually begun in 2011.  So far the Houthis have been reluctant to share power. But the future of Yemen largely depends on them. Do they wish to remain an outlawed militia permanently, or would they prefer to become a legitimate political party, able to contest parliamentary and presidential elections and participate in government? 

UN Resolution 2216 aims to establish democracy in a federally united Yemen.  Although trenchant in its criticism of the Houthis, it could nevertheless be the basis for a peace initiative.  Backed by a UN peace-keeping force, with Iran deterred – by new sanctions if necessary – from sustaining the Houthis, a lasting political deal would involve the end of the Saudi-led military operation, and probably a major financial commitment by Saudi Arabia to fund the rebuilding of the country. Can the enmities of centuries finally be put to one side?  Negotiations aimed at a peaceful transition to a political solution for a united Yemen  − a long shot, but one eminently worth attempting.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 September 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 4 September 2018:

Friday, 17 August 2018

Afghanistan - who is winning?

                                                                                   Video version
“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” says Sherlock Holmes on first meeting Dr Watson, later to be his great friend and companion.  But already, in the first words of the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, Watson has provided an account of his unhappy experiences in the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

Because of its position plumb in the middle of central Asia, Afghanistan is a prize that has been fought over and won by foreign occupiers many times in its long history.  Its domestic story is equally turbulent, with warring tribes battling it out over the centuries for power and control.  In 2018 the basic pattern persists.

            It was in the first part of the 19th century, at the apogee of its imperial history, that Great Britain perceived Afghanistan to be a major strategic objective. The Russian empire was expanding rapidly to its south, and Afghanistan, which lay adjacent to Britain’s Indian Raj, could not be allowed to fall within the Russian sphere of influence and thus threaten India.  Britain first invaded the country in 1838, at the start of what came to be known as “the Great Game” – a struggle for power and influence in Central Asia between the British and the Russian empires.  It was a disaster. Nothing deterred it invaded a second time in 1878, and was more successful.  It gained control over Afghanistan’s external affairs, and established the country as a permanent buffer between its Indian empire and Russia.

            The dynamics of the situation changed dramatically following Britain’s withdrawal from India in 1947.  From the early 1950s pro- Communist, indeed pro-Soviet, rulers prevailed in Afghanistan, and twenty years later general Mohammed Daoud Khan overthrew the monarchy and established a republic closely aligned to the USSR, with himself as president.  When he was killed in a coup five years later a battle for power ensued, but a new element had entered the situation − the rise of conservative Islamic and ethnic religious leaders.  Swiftly gaining clout, they established a guerilla movement called the Mujahadeen and engineered an armed revolt against the pro-Soviet leadership.

            When President Nur Mohammad Taraki was assassinated, alarm bells were set ringing in the Kremlin, and in 1979 the USSR invaded.  The Mujahadeen rebels united against  the Soviet invaders as well as the USSR-backed Afghan Army, and the fighting dragged on year after year.  Finally the situation became a microcosm of the Cold War, and by 1986 the Mujahadeen were receiving arms from the United States and Britain.

            In 1989 the USSR admitted defeat and withdrew its troops, but the turbulence had left  its legacy − the establishment by Osama bin Laden of the jihadist group al-Qaeda, later the rise of the Islamist organization calling itself the Taliban, and finally the incursion into Afghanistan of Islamic State (IS).  A series of terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda against American embassies in Africa led to demands for bin Laden to be handed over – demands ignored by the Taliban.  The final straw came with the destruction of the twin towers in New York on September 11, 2001.  Within a month US and British forces began air-strikes against Taliban targets in Afghanistan, prior to an invasion by ground troops.  The Taliban were chased from their strongholds.

            But 17 years later, despite enormous efforts by the US and Britain to stabilize the country, train the military and establish a democratic form of government, the Taliban are still fighting against government forces around Kabul and engaged in a three-way battle against IS in the north.

IS first emerged in Afghanistan in 2015.  Although the caliphate it proclaimed in Iraq and Syria has been swept away, the Afghan branch has endured.  It has built a stronghold in the north-eastern province of Nangarhar and parts of Kunar. The local populations have been beaten into cowed submission. Beheadings and public executions have become commonplace. Neither US-led counter-terrorism forces, nor the Taliban, have managed to root it out.
Meanwhile the Taliban seem to be gaining military, political and diplomatic influence with its assault on the strategically important town of Ghazni city, which links Kabul with southern Afghanistan.  On July 29 discussions actually took place between the Taliban and the US about possible peace talks.  The Taliban have also been gaining increased attention from Russia recently − Washington has accused Moscow of arming them.  The most significant sign of the Taliban’s increasing clout was the four-day meeting early in August between a Taliban delegation and the Uzbekistan government, following an offer made by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in March to broker peace in Afghanistan.

Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban, said that discussions had covered everything from withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan to possible Uzbek-funded development projects that could include railway lines and electricity. 

The West, however, has taken a hard line against the Taliban’s latest campaigns.  On August 13 the UK prime minister, Theresa May, announced that 440 more British military personnel would join the Nato mission in Afghanistan whose task is to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces.  It is, in a way, an admission of defeat.  It is almost four years since British troops left the heat and dust of Afghanistan's Helmand province where hundreds lost their lives. Today the Taliban still control most of Helmand.
The same is largely true of the Americans.  Although they returned two years ago in smaller numbers than previously, their commander, Brigadier General Ben Watson, thought the decision in 2014 by US and British forces to leave "premature". If the Americans had not returned, he says: "I would imagine that Helmand would be pretty solidly under the Taliban right now."

History shows that Afghanistan is both a military quagmire and a political and diplomatic minefield.  The current fighting seems to have narrowed down to a battle for Western values against the Islamist aspirations of both the Taliban and IS. It does not seem to be a battle with a foreseeable outcome.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 August 2018:

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Sara Manobla: Israel's English voice

This article was published in the Jerusalem Report, 20 August 2018

          Kol Yisrael, until 2017 Israel’s state-supported radio network, translates as Voice of Israel, but for nearly forty years the true voice of Israel for millions of English-speaking listeners was the voice of Sara Manobla. Those warm, engaging, English tones were quite unmistakable, and much loved. 

          Until her retirement in 1999, Manobla was Head of English Programs for Kol Yisrael. Over many years the programs she commissioned were required daily listening not only for English-speaking Israelis, but also for visitors to Israel from English-speaking countries, and for a vast, global audience of people eager to hear about life in Israel.

         In its heyday, up to five English language broadcasts were carried by Kol Yisrael each day, transmitted both on the domestic radio channels and, via shortwave, to the world. Each began with a newscast, and then came Manobla’s variegated picture of life in Israel - its culture, politics, sport, business - so appreciated by her huge English-speaking audience.

          The people of note who passed through her radio studio over the years are legion – a galaxy of presidents and prime ministers, as well as celebrities from the worlds of music, literature, art, sport and business.

          Ursula Sara Towb was born in Newcastle in the north of England. Late in life she discovered that three of her grandparents had emigrated to the UK from Lithuania, while her paternal grandmother had come from the Lithuanian town of Zagare.

          In 1998 Sara joined a small party that visited Zagare to celebrate its 800th anniversary. It was not an entirely easy occasion. Their hosts were well aware that in 1941 the Nazis, assisted by local collaborators, had rounded up virtually the entire Jewish population of the district - some 3000 people - and slaughtered them. The Jewish visitors discovered little acknowledgement among their hosts of this Lithuanian involvement in the massacre.

          Over the following years Sara worked patiently with others in helping all those concerned - Jews and Lithuanians alike - to come to terms with what had happened. Their efforts were rewarded on July 13, 2012. In Zagare’s town square Sara presided over a ceremony to unveil a plaque commemorating the annihilation of the town’s entire Jewish community. Part of the dedication read: “German military occupiers and their Lithuanian collaborators brought the region’s Jewish men, women and children to this square on 2 October 1941. Shooting and killing of the whole Jewish community of Zhager began here and continued in the forests nearby. About 3,000 Jewish citizens were killed.”

          For everyone who participated in this ceremony the event marked not only an acceptance of what had happened, but also a step toward reconciliation.

          Later Manobla wrote a riveting account of her involvement with this project. She called her book “Zagare: Litvaks and Lithuanians confront the past”. In it she includes the surprising postscript to the story. She discovered, living in Jerusalem, an elderly woman who, as a little girl, had been hidden with her grandmother in Zagare by the Levinskas family. Manobla passed the facts to Yad Vashem, and in due course, in a ceremony in Zagare, the family was awarded the title of “Righteous Among the Nations”.

          Graduating from Durham University, Manobla set her heart on joining the BBC. Starting as secretary to the Music Organizer, Television, she was soon progressing up the career ladder, and by 1960 was producing foreign language radio broadcasts for the BBC World Service.

          In March 1960 she came to Israel on holiday, and decided to stay. She resigned from the BBC and settled in Jerusalem. Desperately in need of a job, she presented herself at the offices of Kol Yisrael. By some miracle of timing or good fortune, someone with radio experience was required. News of her presence reached a producer. He picked up the phone. “Tell the girl from the BBC to go to Studio 2.” Her life’s work with Kol Yisrael had begun.

          Reads "Kol Yisrael".  The entrance to the studios back in the 1960s

          Over the next four years she married Eli Manobla, a Jerusalem-born architect and artist, and they had three children. By 1964 she had been promoted to Head of English Programs, heading a team of radio journalists and filling a busy schedule of overseas and domestic broadcasts. In 1977 the Cold War was at its frostiest. Contacts with the West were heavily discouraged. Soviet Jews who applied to emigrate to Israel − refuseniks, as they came to be known − were often dismissed from their jobs and sometimes subjected to long terms of imprisonment.

          Shortwave radio broadcasts from the free world were routinely jammed. Kol Yisrael’s Russian broadcasts were subjected to this treatment. By some oversight those in English were not. So when Manobla, representing Israel at an international conference of journalists in Moscow in 1977, was able to meet a group of some 20 refusenik Soviet scientists, she was greeted as an old friend. “We know your voice. We tune into your shortwave broadcasts.”

          On her return to Kol Yisrael, Manobla made contact with activist groups such as the Public Council for Soviet Jewry, and launched a weekly broadcast report on refusenik activities called “Let My People Go”.

          But change was on the horizon. In 1995 the Israel Broadcasting Authority announced that all radio broadcasts in English other than the news were to end. For a year or two she and her staff were transferred to the English newsroom to prepare and read the daily news bulletins. In 1999 she retired, and finally left Kol Yisrael.

          Now her chief passions in life, apart from her family, are music and travel. She plays piano, flute and cello in amateur chamber groups and orchestras, and she delights in travelling within Israel and abroad to music festivals and workshops.

          Sara Manobla was a permanent presence in the lives of English-speaking listeners to Israel radio for nearly four decades. Her voice was, and remains, unmistakeable, associated in people’s minds with a civilized, liberal view of the world in general and Israel in particular. She still regularly meets strangers who recognize her the moment she starts speaking. Whether she realizes it or not, there are countless people in Israel and across the globe who have the warmest memories of what she contributed to their lives, and regard her still as their friend.
                                                Sara Manobla today

Published in the Jerusalem Report, 20 August 2018:

Friday, 10 August 2018

Iraq in turmoil

                                                                           Video version
Widespread suspicion of political chicanery plus record levels of unemployment, food shortages, a lack of water, and the direct involvement of a foreign power – these would add up to a toxic brew for any government.  They are some of the problems facing the Iraqi regime, and as a result, the past few months of continuous public unrest and protest can scarcely have come as much of a surprise.

Current problems started immediately after Iraq’s parliamentary elections on 12 May 2018.  There were immediate accusations of vote-rigging, and the results were so widely contested that on 6 June the newly- elected 329-seat parliament ordered a manual recount of the results. On 10 June a storage site holding about half of the ballot papers caught fire or was deliberately torched.

Allegations, denunciations and conspiracy theories filled the media.  The speaker of the outgoing parliament, Salim al-Jabouri, claimed that the incident was “planned [and] deliberately intended to conceal cases of fraud and falsification of votes and to deceive the Iraqi people...” 

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is heading a fragile caretaker government until the new government is formed, described the fire as a “plot” aimed at Iraq’s democracy, but a few days after the fire Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji claimed that the damage both to the warehouses and to the stored ballot papers had been minimal.  All the same, the manual recount went ahead on 3 July.  A month later the results were still awaited.

The parliamentary elections had thrown into prominence the issue of Iranian influence in the internal affairs of Iraq. The winning group, known as the “Sairoon Alliance”, was headed by Muqtada al-Sadr, often described as “the firebrand Shiite cleric”.  He once led the Mahdi Army, an Iranian-supported force used to fight the United States during the Iraq war in the 2000s. After the elections, Al-Sadr entered into a partnership with the group led by Hadi al-Amiri −  the Fatah Alliance − an organization completely under Iran’s thumb.

Al-Abadi, who had relied heavily on US military support during his battles against Islamic State,  headed a group called the Victory Alliance. 

On 14 July electricity supplies in southern Iraq were suddenly cut off. Iran provides much of the region’s electricity and, when it was discovered that it was Iran that had cut the electricity, citing an unpaid bill of around $1 billion, popular discontent boiled over into street protests.  Into the breach stepped the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Sabah.  He provided 17 mobile electric generators with a total capacity of 30,000 kilowatts to the southern port city of Basra, together with fuel to operate all the power stations in the country.  Videos were circulated on social media showing a convoy of generators and fuel tankers heading into Iraq.

But nothing could stop the demonstrations, not government statements nor a crackdown by the security forces.  In Baghdad, hundreds of people poured into Tahrir Square and the eastern Shiite district of Sadr City. When demonstrators broke into the offices of the Badr Organization – Hadi al-Amiri’s political headquarters − guards opened fire.  This too did nothing to quell the increasingly violent protestors denouncing corruption and demanding water, electricity and jobs.  In a bid to stamp out the protests of a population whipped into a fury by chronic shortages of basic services, authorities imposed a curfew and shut down the internet and social media.

 “Water.” said one protester, caught on video at a demonstration in Basra city. “I’m demanding water.  It’s a shame that I’m demanding water in 2018 and have oil that feeds the world."

In the summer months, under regular temperatures of 48 degrees Celsius or more, Basra’s water supply, fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, always dwindles – a situation about which successive Iraqi governments have simply shrugged their shoulders.  The Tigris and the Euphrates flow into the country through Turkey, and they join in Abadan in Iran.  Iraq’s endemic water problem has been increased because storage facilities have been constructed by Turkey and Iran to draw off their waters. In recent decades the levels of the two rivers in Iraq have dropped by at least 40 percent.

In addition, Turkey’s Ilisu dam on the Tigris. some 20 years in the construction, was completed early in 2018.  The filling was scheduled to start in March, but concern over water shortages in Iraq led to a delay of three months.  By June Iraq’s water situation had deteriorated  further, and an emergency session in Iraq's parliament led to a second postponement while the two governments agreed a method of filling the dam which still allowed for a sufficient flow of the Tigris into Iraq.

By early July protesters in Basra, Iraq’s main oil-producing province, were targeting operations at key energy-sector facilities, demanding jobs and improved services. Following the killing of a protester on 8 July, up to 1,000 demonstrators attempted to block the road to the oil fields in the south. On 15 July al-Abadi, having sacked his Electricity Minister, announced the release of 3.5 trillion Iraqi dinars (around $2.5 billion) to Basra for water, electricity and health services.  But by that time feelings were running too high to be placated,  Powerful and influential religious figures like Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, were expressing solidarity with  the protesters and declaring al-Abadi the source of Iraq’s many troubles.

This draining of political support, piled on the chaotic internal situation, could cost Abadi another term as prime minister, despite his widely acclaimed successes last year in leading the Iraqi government to victory over Islamic State and resisting a Kurdish bid for independence.  If Abadi is forced from power following the election recount, Iran’s influence inside Iraq would be greatly enhanced and America’s much reduced.  Not a prospect to be welcomed.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 14 August 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 August 2018: