Sunday, 31 March 2019

A diplomatic first: the Arab League- EU summit

          It is not that the European Union and the Arab League have never had a diplomatic relationship. Quite the reverse. Sparked by the so-called “Arab Spring”, a political and strategic dialogue has been developing between the EU and the League ever since 2011. As recently as 4 February 2019 a ministerial meeting brought together 10 EU and 15 Arab League foreign ministers in Brussels. In between meetings of senior officials, joint working groups have often gathered to discuss political and security matters of shared concern. As a result the EU and the League have a common position on a range of issues, including the two-state solution for the Israel-Palestinian dispute and support for a political transition in Syria. They also cooperate in attempting to solve the war in Yemen and the conflict in Libya.

          No, what had never taken place was an Arab League-EU summit – and this was the diplomatic first that occurred on 22-24 February 2019, in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheik. Representatives from more than fifty countries, including the leaders of most of the European Union member states, met to discuss migration, terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and other issues of common concern. Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, took time off from intensive Brexit negotiations to attend – doubtless seizing the opportunity for side discussions with other European leaders.

          The two-day gathering was seen in the region as an important first step towards further, and perhaps more intensive, Arab-European engagement in the future. The high-level representation, and the willingness to undertake serious interchanges on sensitive and pressing topics, suggest that both groups of countries acknowledge the need to work together in the face of increasingly complex problems.

                                       Arab League-EU summit, February 2019

          What emerged from the two-day event, co-chaired by Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi?

          First a determination to deepen Arab-European ties in order to enhance the stability, prosperity, and well-being of the two regions. Stronger regional cooperation was seen to be essential if issues such as migration were to be effectively managed. At the press conference following the summit, Tusk said: "On border control and the fight against irregular migration: we will scale up our joint efforts to prevent people smuggling, eradicate trafficking in human beings and combat those who exploit vulnerable people."

          Terrorism was another major topic to engage their attention. Both sides committed to collaborating more closely to address the root causes of terrorism, while continuing current joint efforts to combat terrorist fighters. They agreed also to encourage investment and sustainable growth by strengthening economic cooperation between the two regions.

          When considering the endemic Israel-Palestine dispute, leaders reaffirmed their commitment to reaching a two-state solution. They also discussed possible ways of achieving political solutions in Syria, Libya and Yemen in line with relevant UN resolutions.

          Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the summit was the commitment by those participating to “uphold all aspects of international human rights law”. Members of the European Union would find little difficulty in honouring this obligation. Most of the 22 member states of the Arab League have some way to go in this regard.

          Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization dedicated to expanding freedom and democracy across the globe. Each year it produces a flagship report assessing the state of political rights and civil liberties country by country. The report, “Freedom in the World” has been described as “the best source available on the state of political and civil rights around the world.”

          Under the category “Free” in the report for 2018, only one of the Arab League’s 22 member states is listed – Tunisia. Five are assessed as “Partly Free”, while no less than 15 are described as “Not Free”. Palestine, a League member, is not a sovereign state and was not included in the Freedom House report.

          The League’s members are: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The 5 states listed as “Partly Free” are Comoros, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Morocco.

          "As this meeting concludes,” said Tusk, “…we must all work together to turn our words into action...”

          Both parties considered this first high-level summit a success, and agreed to hold further Arab League-EU summits regularly, alternating the location between Arab and European states. The next is scheduled to take place in Brussels in 2022. What sort of progress will each party be able to report by then on the daunting list of problems they have identified?

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 April 2019:

Friday, 22 March 2019

The Palestinian leadership – a house divided

                                                                             Video version 
          At last the penny has dropped. Gazans are finally coming to realize that the appalling conditions under which they, and most of the population of the Gaza Strip, have been living for years are the result of the distorted policies that have been favoured by Hamas.

          Literally billions of dollars have been poured into Hamas’s coffers since the group chased its Fatah rivals out of Gaza in 2007 – resources that could have been used to build a sound economy, provide first-class health and social services for the population, fund thriving industrial and commercial enterprises and create tens of thousands of jobs.

          Instead Hamas has neglected the welfare of the Gazan population in favour of expending vast sums on acquiring military hardware, constructing sophisticated tunnels into Israel and Egypt, launching rockets and missiles, and funding three avoidable conflicts with Israel.

          Now Gazans are at last demonstrating a willingness to stand up and be counted.

          Current unrest started on 24 February, when thousands of protesters gathered in the Gaza Strip to call for Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to resign after he had refused to pay the full salaries of public sector employees in Gaza. Over recent months Abbas has instituted a series of punitive measures in an attempt to force Hamas to allow the PA to resume administrative control in the Strip.

          The unrest soon took a different turn. A new movement (“We Want to Live”), launched by a group of media activists, emerged from the chaos, protesting against the dire living conditions in the Gaza Strip, with its limited access to water and electricity and an unemployment rate of 44 percent. Their first demonstration, which took place on 14 March, was repressed with ferocity by Hamas security forces, which proceeded with mass arrests in Gaza City, Jabaliya refugee camp in the north, Deir al-Balah in the middle district, and Khan Younis and Rafah in the south. These concerted operations, carried out with some brutality, were denounced by several human rights organizations and political factions.

          Nearly a dozen Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip have declared their support for the new movement. In a statement they said that the basic cause of the crisis currently affecting the Gaza Strip was the Israeli “occupation” (Israel withdrew from the Strip in 2005), and the Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007, but they also pointed to a number of domestic issues, such as the Palestinian political division between Hamas and Fatah, and the punitive measures adopted by the PA, including not paying the Israeli power plant to supply the population of Gaza with electricity.

          They announced their determination to continue to protest against the high cost of living and bad economic situation in the Gaza Strip. As an earnest of their intentions, they declared a general strike in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday and Thursday, 20 and 21 March, and called for civil disobedience against Hamas. They urged Palestinians to gather at public squares throughout the Strip to continue the protest.

          Israa Buhaisi, a journalist with Al-Alam news channel, said: "This is a popular movement. People took to the street to ask for a solution for their miserable life in Gaza."

          The existence of a popular independent movement was, however, denied by Hamas spokesman Iyad al-Buzom. He said that those employees on the PA payroll arrested by Hamas had been "blackmailed by the PA to provoke chaos in the Gaza Strip in exchange for the return of their salaries". More generally, Hamas has accused Fatah of trying to hijack the protests in order to turn them into a coup against the Hamas regime. The group has arrested dozens of Fatah officials and activists on suspicion of involvement in the protests.

          Fatah did not take this lying down. Since 18 March three senior Fatah officials in Gaza have been kidnapped and badly beaten – Atef Abu Seif, Ahmed Hillis and Abdullah Subuh. The PA government in Ramallah strongly condemned the assaults, and accused Hamas of being directly responsible for them.

          On 19 March Fatah officials claimed that Hamas had banned anyone, including doctors, from entering Shifa Hospital in Gaza City with cell phones, so as to prevent hospital staff from photographing Palestinians wounded during clashes with Hamas security forces.

          Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Fatah official, said that the Hamas crackdown on Fatah members in Gaza was to divert attention from the growing protests against Hamas.

          “This is an intifada of the oppressed and hungry,” he said. “Fatah supports this popular movement.”

          Tayseer Khaled, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, compared Hamas with the Gestapo in the way they had dealt with protesters. “This is not the way Palestinian security forces…should act with Palestinian citizens,” he said. “This is the way fascist organizations and security forces behave.”

          In short, the rift between Fatah and Hamas has widened considerably in the past few weeks. Hamas’s failure to address the social, health, welfare and economic interests of its citizens has finally proved too great a burden for them to bear. The worm has turned, and the PA has seized the chance of Gazan disaffection to gain political advantage over its deadly rivals. The Palestinian body politic is truly a house divided.

          Within days Hamas had embarked on the tried and tested diversionary tactic - provoking an Israeli attack in an attempt to deflect the public from internal protest towards combatting the classic enemy, Israel.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 March 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 25 March 2019:

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Who speaks for Britain’s Jews?

This article appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated March 25, 2019

                                            Marie van der Zyl               The Chief Rabbi
        Nothing is ever simple in the world of Jewish politics. An innocent-sounding question can elicit a complex tale of deep and devious manoeuvrings stretching back decades, even centuries. Take the straightforward query: “Who speaks for Britain’s Jews?”

        One long-winded answer might be “the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth”, a post currently held by Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. Originating back in the 18th century, the position of Chief Rabbi developed slowly and with periods of intense controversy, including a time of schism when two competing rabbis were claiming the title. In 1758 it was agreed that the rabbi of the Great Synagogue in London would be recognized by all Ashkenazi communities as the Chief Rabbi of Jews throughout Britain. In due course this was extended to the British Empire, and eventually the Commonwealth.

        The post of Chief Rabbi is not, however, what it seems. Sephardi Anglo-Jewry have their own most senior rabbi, while the British Reform movement joins with some ultra-orthodox groups in not recognizing the Chief Rabbi as representing them.

        Another body claiming to speak for Britain’s Jews is “The Board of Deputies of British Jews” – the organization that is, as they proudly announce, “the voice of the British Jewish community, the first port of call for government, the media and others seeking to understand Jewish community interests and concerns”.

        In another corner, and sometimes in the past in opposition, stands the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), with no less than 36 Jewish organizations as its constituent members. It claims as its remit “to strengthen the major institutions of British Jewry, promote cooperation between them, and help the leadership of our community articulate a confident and compelling narrative of mainstream Jewish life in the UK.”

        The JLC is a johnny-come-lately organization, founded only in 2003. The Board of Deputies goes back a very long way indeed, although not to the start of Britain’s Jewish history. Jews came over to England in 1066 with William the Conqueror, but were then expelled en masse by King Edward I in 1290. Today’s community, and the Board with it, traces its origins to the time of the Commonwealth – that brief period in the seventeenth century when Britain, having overthrown the monarchy, was under the rule of a virtual dictator, Oliver Cromwell.

        A collection of Jewish merchants from Iberia, having fled the Spanish Inquisition, had settled incognito in London. When in 1656 their origins were discovered, they threw themselves on Cromwell’s mercy. Cromwell was a man inspired by the Bible. Against vehement opposition from vested interests, he gave the People of the Book permission to establish a synagogue.

        That small Sephardic seed took root and the community flourished, but alongside it what had been a trickle of Ashkenazi immigrants quickly grew into a steady stream. A century later, in 1760, when the Sephardi committee of deputados presented a "loyal address" to King George III on his accession, they were reproached by the Ashkenazi community for acting independently. As a result the two Jewish communities agreed to consult together in the future on matters of common interest.

        In 1835 these meetings were formalized with the adoption of a constitution, and the new Board of Deputies was recognized by the government to be representative of the Jewish community in Britain. Drawing its membership from orthodox Jewish organizations and UK synagogues, the Board resisted accepting members from the Reform wing of Judaism for a long time. It finally succumbed in 1886.

        By then the ruling elite of the Board had become a bastion of the Anglo-Jewish establishment, largely comprising families long-established in the UK. Jealous of their hard-won political emancipation, they defined themselves as “Englishmen of the Jewish persuasion”. Judaism, they held, was a religion not a national movement, and they had no sympathy for the Zionist ideals supported by the majority of Jewish opinion. The result was a major crisis at the time of the Balfour Declaration.

        A question rarely asked is why Lord Balfour addressed his historic letter to Lord Rothschild, rather than to Sir Stuart Samuel, the then president of the Board of Deputies. After all, the Board was acknowledged on all sides to be the official representative of Britain’s Jewish community.

        Back in 1871 the Anglo-Jewish elite had set up an organization to protect Jewish rights in backward countries. Calling itself the Anglo-Jewish Association (AJA), it proved very effective in persuading British and foreign governments to oppose anti-Semitic activities. By 1878 it looked set fair to challenge the Board of Deputies as the formal voice of Britain’s Jewish community. Bowing to reality, the Board agreed to form a Conjoint Committee with the AJA, through which a unified position on the protection of Jews worldwide could be presented to the government.

        Something of a power struggle inevitably developed, but on one matter the leadership of both bodies was agreed – opposition to the wave of pro-Zionist sentiment that was sweeping Britain. In their view there was absolutely no need for a Jewish state. Aware that Chaim Weizmann had gained the ear of the prime minister, the joint chairmen drew up a statement on behalf of the Conjoint Committee setting out their position on the Zionist issue. Dated May 17, 1917, they sent it to The Times.

        A few days after their letter was sent, but before it was published, a major Zionist conference was held in London. As the meeting started, Weizmann made a momentous announcement: "I am authorized to state in this assembly that His Majesty's Government is ready to support our plans". So by the time the leaders’ letter appeared in print, its attack on Zionism seemed petulant and ineffective.

        In the next few weeks the pro-Zionist Jewish Chronicle was bombarded with letters and statements from rabbis, readers, community leaders, synagogues, and Jewish organizations, the vast majority opposing the anti-Zionists. The resultant furore led the Board of Deputies to censure the Conjoint Committee. As a result the Board’s Conjoint members resigned, to be swiftly followed by the resignation of the president of the Board, David Lindo Alexander, the co-signatory of the letter. Elected in his place was Sir Stuart Samuel, elder brother of Herbert Samuel, a former Home Secretary and later to be the first High Commissioner in Palestine.

        When, only four months later, Balfour penned his historic document, the Board of Deputies was still heavily tainted by the Conjoint Committee affair. Balfour could not dispatch his Declaration to an organization so equivocal about Zionism. The obvious recipient was Lord Rothschild, a leading figure in the Anglo-Jewish community and a strong supporter of Zionism, who had written to The Times to condemn the Conjoint Committee’s statement.

        The Board’s more recent struggle to retain its historic status as the premier voice of Britain’s Jews dates back to 2003. The then-president, Henry Grunwald, frustrated by what he saw as a lack of coordination between the Board and Jewish communal bodies, set up the Jewish Leadership Council to bring together the leaders of the major Jewish organizations in the UK. It took as its model the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

        Within a few years it had run into trouble. With so many influential and opinionated people as its members, it began giving itself airs and, to some minds, elbowing the Board of Deputies out of the way. The tide of adverse criticism rose and soon charges that the JLC was self-appointed and unaccountable were being hurled. Members began resigning. In 2010 Baroness Ruth Deech, academic and lawyer, left the JLC “in an effort to shake it up.” In January 2011, Lord Michael Levy, who had been Middle East envoy for former prime minister Tony Blair and a founding member of the JLC, resigned, accusing it of “grabbing too much power” while not defining its role.

        “When I helped to create the JLC,” he said, “I saw it as a forum to bring together the heads of such organizations and people who had been in leadership positions to discuss issues facing us…I certainly did not envisage it becoming a new power base and expanding its infrastructure – something that is neither necessary nor needed.”

        Then, in February 2011, came the resignation of the Jewish National Fund UK. The chairman, Samuel Hayek, explained: “…the JLC has sought to take upon itself a leadership role in areas already covered by others such as the Board of Deputies, an elected and representative institution, whereas the JLC comprises a self-appointed and non-mandated body.”

        Since then the JLC has picked itself up, dusted itself off and started all over again. Its quasi-representative status was confirmed in April 2018 when, with the row about anti-Semitism in Britain’s Labour party at its height, it joined the Board of Deputies, then under President Jonathan Arkush, in a meeting with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to represent Britain’s Jewish community. Since then the Board has elected as its President the popular and energetic Marie van der Zyl who, as a vice-president, gained national prominence opposing anti-Semitism in the Labour party. Now as President she has seized that baton, and is running with it.

        At heart, Britain is a conservative nation. It does embrace change, but tentatively, relinquishing the established way of doing things with reluctance. Who speaks for Britain’s Jews? The Chief Rabbi has great authority, the JLC has won a seat at the table, but the real answer remains, as it has been for two centuries, the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Yemen's unending agony

                                                                              Video version
          The people of Yemen are in desperate straits. The vicious conflict that has engulfed the nation has led to the worst humanitarian crisis in today’s world. At this moment the vast majority of Yemenis – four out of every five, or more than 24 million people – need assistance to survive. Nearly a quarter of the entire population are malnourished, many acutely so. There are two million malnourished children under five, while more than a million pregnant and lactating women require urgent treatment to survive. On top of this, mounting rubbish, failing sewerage and wrecked water supplies have resulted in the worst cholera outbreak in recent history.

          What has brought Yemen to this catastrophic state of affairs? It all started in the sadly misnamed “Arab spring” uprisings of 2011. Mass protests, a near-assassination of the then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and pressure from neighbouring petro-states forced Saleh to step down in favour of his vice-president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The political instability was largely caused by attempts of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels to overthrow Saleh’s government.

           Saleh gave 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 through him 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 prospect of Shia Iran, its arch-enemy, gaining a permanent foothold on the Arabian peninsula, right on its doorstep, alarmed Sunni Saudi Arabia. The kingdom determined to prevent Iran from doing so. Accordingly, in March 2015 Saudi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), 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.

          If MBS anticipated a quick or easy victory, he was to be sadly disappointed. Four years of combat have not succeeded in defeating the Houthis. On the contrary, time seems to have emboldened them. Using Iranian hardware, they have fired ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia itself.

          On Tuesday 19 December 2017 the Saudi-Houthi conflict had lasted exactly 1000 days. More than 350 high-profile figures, including generals, politicians, diplomats, celebrities and no less than six Nobel peace prize laureates, marked the anniversary by calling on the UN Security Council to act as peace brokers.

          Action – far too slow for the suffering Yemenis – did follow. In February 2018 the UN appointed a Special Envoy for Yemen, British born Martin Griffiths. It took him ten months to achieve what had for years been regarded as the near-impossible – bringing the two main protagonists in the Yemen conflict to the negotiating table. 

          The talks, held in Rimbo, Sweden, were a question of “second time lucky” for Griffiths. An attempt to sponsor negotiations in Geneva in September 2018 had foundered when the Houthis sought to trade their attendance against safe passage for some of their wounded soldiers. With such issues set aside, delegations from the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and from the Iran-supported Houthi rebels actually sat down on 6 December 2018, facing each other across tables arranged in an open square.

           The atmosphere was far from hostile. Both sides appreciated the humanitarian disaster that had overtaken Yemen’s civilian population as a result of the conflict, and seemed willing to compromise on at least some of the key issues. 

          Griffiths proposed that Hodeida port, through which most of Yemen’s food supplies and aid were shipped, should be brought under UN supervision, with the Houthis and the Yemen government cooperating with the arrangement. Both parties agreed. At a further meeting, arranged for February 2019, the two sides agreed to begin a two-stage pullback of forces in Hodeidah. Unfortunately the Houthis failed to act in accordance with the agreement, and the deal was in danger of collapse.

          When the UN Security Council met on 13 March, envoy Martin Griffiths said he was "still working with the parties to make the redeployment in Hodeidah a reality."

          "It's clear,” British Ambassador Karen Pierce told reporters after the meeting, “that one party has more problems than the other at the moment,"

          Though the battle for Hodeida is on hold at the moment, fighting on other fronts has intensified, particularly along the Saudi-Yemeni border around the Houthi rebels’ heartland of Saada. Further west, toward Yemen’s Red Sea coast, some of the fiercest fighting is taking place around the Saudi border in Hajja governorate. The fact that the Houthis are defending their home turf holds meaning for all sides. The fighting in the north could undermine hopes of a broader political process on the country’s future, even supposing the Stockholm Agreement succeeds in preventing a fight for Hodeida.

          Meanwhile the UN’s continued relief effort is essential if a humanitarian disaster on a truly catastrophic scale is to be avoided. That effort is being conducted in accordance with a Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan agreed in January 2019. Working towards achieving five strategic objectives, the plan is aimed at helping millions of destitute Yemenis to overcome hunger, at reducing outbreaks of cholera and infectious diseases, caring for displaced families, reducing the risk of displacement, and assisting existing institutions to continue delivering basic services.

          The 2019 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan has been costed at $4.2 billion. By March 11, 2019, total receipts from contributing nations amounted to just 4 percent. The Yemenis deserve, and urgently require, better than that.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 March 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 19 March 2019:

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

A journalist's journey - the memoirs of Melanie Phillips

My review of "Guardian Angel: My journey from leftism to sanity" by Melanie Phillips which appears in the edition of Jerusalem Report dated 25 March, 2019

        Melanie Phillips is among Britain’s leading political journalists and media commentators, notable for her trenchant opinions well to the right of what is now universally acknowledged as the political centre ground. And that is a situation which she both explains and attacks in her biographical memoir Guardian Angel: My journey from leftism to sanity

        Born in London to working class Anglo-Jewish parents, Phillips was psychologically damaged by the dynamics of her dysfunctional family. Her description of a young life overshadowed by a demanding mother, a weak and ineffective father, a frightening and domineering “Booba”, and a family tragedy, will strike familiar chords in some readers. She believes that her efforts to free herself from the constraints of her upbringing parallel her odyssey from the heart of the political left to the ground she now occupies.

        Notably she characterizes journey’s end as “sanity” not “the right”. For she believes profoundly that, over half a century or more, the political left in both Britain and the US has been successfully hijacking the centre ground of politics. What was once generally accepted as moderate political opinion is now vilified as “right-wing”, a term of abuse flung at anyone deviating from what is currently regarded as politically correct.

        She believes that the world-view promulgated by the left-wing intellectual élite in both countries grew increasingly out of step with the opinions of ordinary working and middle-class people. Progressive thinkers, perceiving the Western nation state as the source of colonialism and oppression, put their faith in transnational institutions like the European Union and the United Nations. They took no account of the pride that many ordinary people feel in their nation, their institutions and their independence. This, Phillips believes, largely explains the intense shock the US establishment felt at the election of Donald Trump as president, and that of the UK at the result of the referendum which revealed that a clear majority of the British public favoured leaving the EU.

        Phillips is modest in her account of how she broke into the world of journalism, throwing in almost as an afterthought the fact that in her first professional post, as a trainee on a minor regional newspaper, she was named Young Journalist of the Year. That award opened the way to a job on Britain’s major left-wing newspaper, The Guardian, in 1977. She then charts her growing disillusionment with how left-wing political attitudes on the paper developed over the next fifteen years, and her increasing estrangement from them.

         Phillips says she always thought of herself not as “left-wing” but as “liberal”. When she joined The Guardian she thought it a perfect match for her beliefs, for the paper started life as the Manchester Guardian, a bastion of liberal opinion under the 57-year long editorship of the legendary C P Scott. “Only much later,” she writes, “did I realize that the left is fundamentally illiberal.”

        There was no sudden revelation, says Phillips. Her views evolved step by step, as she saw the citadels of western belief and identity slowly crumble around her. Her motive in writing at all, she tells us, was to uphold truth against lies, justice over injustice and to protect the weak against the strong. In doing so, she began to find that she was acquiring a set of convictions that put her at odds with her colleagues. In short, far from a place in heaven, the “Guardian Angel” found herself in a sort of purgatory. So she eased herself out of left-wing journalism, moving perhaps too far to the right with a spell on the UK’s Daily Mail, until she now finds herself entirely comfortable as a columnist on The Times.

        Phillips has won a well-earned reputation as a stalwart opponent of the misrepresentations and downright lies about Israel that constantly fill the world’s media, and are peddled by people opposed either to its government’s policies or to the very existence of the state. Yet until the year 2000 she had never visited Israel or, indeed, felt the least desire to do so.

        The events of 9/11 were a catalyst for her. Only two days before, she had written: “A society which professes neutrality between cultures would create a void which Islam, with its militant political creed, would attempt to fill.” After 9/11 she foresaw a rampant Muslim extremism intent on conquering the Western democracies, and a debilitated, disillusioned West unwilling to defend itself and opting for appeasement.

        In that battle she saw Israel as the front line defender of Western civilization, and was appalled time and again by the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic prejudice she encountered in Britain. With Israeli citizens being blown up in buses and cafes, media comment continually abused Israel for defending itself. She encountered the public’s irrational hatred of Israel personally in December 2001.

        The prestigious BBC television programme, Question Time, assembles a panel of well-known personalities to be questioned in front of an audience, who are given the opportunity of responding. To a question about Israel defending itself again terrorism, Phillips’s fellow panellists accused Israel of war crimes, including the bombing of innocent civilians, while members of the audience asserted that Israel was the source of terror in the Middle East, and was responsible for ethnic cleansing. Not a word was raised in Israel’s defence. Phillips found herself the only voice condemning the murder of innocent civilians by Palestinian extremists. As she tried to make the case, she was hissed by the audience.

        Throughout the early 2000s, British politicians from the main political parties, fearful of being daubed with the tar-brush of racism, were mealy-mouthed about opposing Muslim extremism in the UK. As time went on Phillips became increasingly alarmed. “The country,” she writes, “seemed to be in denial of Islamic militants who hated Britain and wanted to destroy it and who constituted ‘the enemy within’.”

        Determined to expose the truth, she wrote her best-seller Londonistan. Rejected by every mainstream UK publisher, it was rescued by a courageous though obscure publishing house that must have made a fortune from it.

        So Phillips came to the realization that many people in Britain, in swallowing lies about Israel and prejudice against Jews, were also swallowing the propaganda of the enemies of Britain and the West. While Israel was defending the Western democratic values they believed in, they were treating Israel as the enemy. For this view she found scant support from Britain’s Jewish community, renowned at the time for keeping its head well below the parapet.

        Since the BBC had begun turning to her to make Israel’s case, Phillips decided to educate herself much more fully about the issues. She began to read widely, visit Israel often, and write and speak frequently. She has dented the UK’s public perception of Israel only slightly, but at least rejection of anti-Semitism has become a mainstream issue in Britain ever since the election of the hard-left politician, Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of Britain’s Labour party.

        For Phillips, however, this is not enough. She sees hatred of Israel as a failure by the public to perceive where their true interests lie – to combat those who hate Western civilization and aim to destroy it. In that battle, Israel is the first line of defence.

        “If Israel were ever to go down,” writes Phillips, “Britain and the West would be next in line, and with no defender in the Middle East.”

        In everything she writes Melanie Phillips is never anything but incisive and honest. In “Guardian Angel” she provides us with a powerful account of her personal and professional voyage through stormy seas. We accompany her as she resolves for herself some of the political and moral inconsistencies that she sees all around her. She writes with passionate conviction of the dangers facing the West today, and points the way towards resolving them. This is a book for the times. 

Monday, 11 March 2019

The Yazidis – a case for justice, retribution and help

                                                                                        Video version
        Towards the end of February 2019, coalition troops engaged in the assault on Islamic State’s last stronghold – Baghuz on the banks of the Euphrates in eastern Syria – made a gruesome discovery. Dumped in dustbins they found the heads of 50 Yazidi women who had been forced to act as sex slaves to the jihadists. Bloodthirsty and utterly inhumane to the last, they had decapitated the women before fleeing.

        This horrific slaughter came on top of the discovery, a few months earlier, of about 70 mass graves containing the bodies of Yazidi men and women.

        If freedom of religious belief is a fundamental human right, then surely no people is more deserving of universal sympathy and support than the persecuted Yazidis. With a long history behind them of victimization and oppression under Ottoman rule­ – more than 70 genocidal massacres are on record – in recent years their maltreatment has, if anything, intensified.

        The Yazidis are a minority religious sect within the Kurdish nation, and have preserved their own religious beliefs over the centuries. The Yazidi religion, dating back to the 11th century, is said to be derived from the ancient Persian doctrine of Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic faith which is not Abrahamic. But the Yazidis have incorporated into it elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In post-Saddam Iraq Al-Qaeda, denouncing Yazidis as infidels, slaughtered them in their hundreds. To Islamic State (IS) their mere existence was like a red rag to a bull.

        It was in June 2014 that IS announced a world-wide "caliphate" to be ruled in accordance with Sharia law. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself caliph and demanded that Muslims across the world swear allegiance to him. In its first months IS appeared unstoppable, conquering huge swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq. On August 2, 2014, IS forces captured the city and region of Sinjar, one of the two areas of northern Iraq largely occupied by Yazidis.

        Civilians were told to convert to Islam immediately or be killed. More than 100,000 fled to take refuge on Mount Sinjar where hundreds died of dehydration, injuries or exhaustion. Those who couldn’t flee were rounded up by the jihadists. As far as the Yazidi men were concerned, thousands were massacred, often in the most brutal fashion. Stories abounded of beheadings, crucifixions, of being crushed by tractors or being shot and thrown into pits.

        The fate reserved for more than 6,000 Yazidi women and children, according to Iraqi MP Vian Dakhil, herself a Yazidi from Sinjar, was to be enslaved and transported to IS prisons or military training camps. Some were conveyed to the homes of fighters across eastern Syria and western Iraq, where they were raped, beaten or sold. By mid-2016 some had escaped or been smuggled out of the caliphate, but more than 3,700 still remained in captivity, many as suspected sex slaves to IS members.

        Today, with the villages that once made up their homeland in the Sinjar district completely destroyed, something like half-a-million Yazidis are in IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps, spread across the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The camps are far from a place of refuge, for even here they are facing ethnic and religious persecution.

        "The genocide is ongoing," said officials of the UN Human Rights Commission of Inquiry on August 3, 2017, “and remains largely unaddressed by the international community, despite the obligation of states ... to prevent and to punish the crime."

        In the battle of Baghuz in Syria, still raging on 8 March 2019, the US-led coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces had pushed IS into a small enclave on the Euphrates River. More than 13,000 IS supporters had been allowed to leave the IS-held area and move to IDP camps. One Yazidi survivor named Bashe Hammo told the media how she had been held as a slave, and sold multiple times, and described being tortured by European IS members.

        While many of these Europeans have now surrendered to the SDF and are demanding to return home, the Yazidis face an uncertain future. There seems little international interest in relieving the suffering of this embattled religious minority, in pursuing an investigation into the mass slaughter, the torture, the enslavement and the intense suffering inflicted on them, or in bringing the perpetrators to justice.

        An even more urgent problem remains. More than 2,500 Yazidis – mostly women and children – are still in the hands of the IS and could be slaughtered at any moment. Yet there is no international outcry, no movement in support, nor any concerted move to rescue them. The Yazidis need help now.

Published in the MPC Journal, 9 March 2019:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 March 2019:

Saturday, 2 March 2019

The UK turns its back on Hezbollah

                                                                                Video version
        On 26 February 2019 Britain’s Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, declared Hezbollah to be a criminal terrorist organization, and banned it from operating in the UK. 
In doing this, Britain joins the ranks of the Arab League, as well as a batch of other nations including Canada, the Netherlands, the USA, all the Gulf states that form the Gulf Cooperation Council and. of course, Israel.  

        Following a long succession of terrorist attacks against Western targets, Britain first banned what it described as Hezbollah's “terrorist wing” in 2001. In 2008, after the organization had targeted British soldiers in Iraq, it added what it designated Hezbollah’s “military wing” to its ban. But it reserved judgment on the organization as a whole, citing as its reason Hezbollah’s direct involvement in the internal politics of Lebanon.

        As a consequence every year on Al-Quds Day, a rally has paraded through the streets of London waving the Hezbollah flag and chanting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic slogans. Distasteful as this annual display of racism was to many Londoners, and as much as successive Home Secretaries disapproved, so long as Hezbollah’s so-called “political wing” was not proscribed it was legal to display its flag publicly. This year the Al-Quds rally in May will be notable for the absence of the flag.

        The position of London’s mayor is up for election in May 2020, and Shaun Bailey, a Conservative who is standing against the present Labour party incumbent, Sadiq Khan, has vowed that if he is elected he will stop the Al Quds Day march altogether.

        In fact Hezbollah’s own leaders reject any distinction between “military” or “political” wings of the organization. Speaking in 2012, deputy secretary-general Naim Qassem declared: "We don't have a military wing and a political one...Every element of Hezbollah…is in the service of the resistance… We have one leadership, with one administration." In short, Hezbollah is a unified organization, and its jihadist purpose ­– which is to oppose the West and eliminate Israel – is basic to its existence.

        Hezbollah's organizational structure confirms this. It has a unified command structure consisting of five sub-councils, or assemblies. Above them sits the Shura Council, which controls the leadership of Hezbollah and all its operations, and comprises nine members, seven of whom are Lebanese and the other two Iranian.

         Iran’s involvement at the very top of today’s Hezbollah is no surprise. In the 1970s Lebanon, torn apart by civil conflict, was under the occupation of the Shia-aligned Syrian government. Around 1980 – the exact date is disputed – Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei, still basking in the glory of his 1979 Islamic Revolution, decided to strengthen his grip on Shi’ite Islam by consolidating a number of Lebanon’s militant Shia Muslim groups. He formed and funded a body calling itself Hezbollah, or “the Party of God”. Its forces were trained and organized by a contingent of 1,500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

        Hezbollah declared that its purpose, in line with Khomeini’s, was to oppose Western influences in general and Israel’s existence in particular. Very shortly Hezbollah was acting as Iran’s proxy in perpetrating a campaign of terror against their two perceived enemies. A wave of kidnappings, bombings and assassinations were carried out across the world. These include the detonation in 1983 of an explosive-filled van in front of the US embassy in Beirut, killing 58 Americans and Lebanese, and the bombing of the US Marine and French Drakkar barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 American and 58 French peacekeepers.

         In 1992 Hezbollah operatives boasted of their involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina killing 29 people, and two years later claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Jewish community centre in Argentina and the subsequent death of 85 people. The atrocities continued: 21 people killed in an airplane attack in Panama in 1994; the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing inside Saudi Arabia killing 19 US servicemen; the 2005 assassination of one-time Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri; the 2012 Burgas bus bombing in Bulgaria killing 6. Over the eight years of the Syrian civil war Iran recruited thousands of Hezbollah fighters to help keep President Bashar al-Assad in power and restore his lost territories to him.

        Over its four bloodthirsty decades of existence Hezbollah has managed to achieve a certain acceptability in Shia Muslim sections of Lebanese society. Following Israel's withdrawal in May 2000 from the buffer zone that it had established along the border, there were elections in which Hezbollah, in alliance with Amal, took all 23 South Lebanon seats out of a total 128 parliamentary seats. Since then Hezbollah has participated in Lebanon's parliamentary process, and has been able to claim a proportion of cabinet posts in each government. As a result it has achieved substantial power within Lebanon’s body politic to a point where it has been dubbed “a state within a state”.

        Lebanon’s constitution has coped with this unsatisfactory position for two decades, but if Hezbollah’s power within the Lebanese administration became too strong, Britain might have to think about its relationship with Lebanon itself.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 March 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 4 March 2019: