Qatar's Gaza policy and Egypt

Qatar's Gaza policy and Egypt

From Qatari state television al-Jazeera's coverage:

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, is set to arrive in the Gaza Strip to inaugurate a $254-million Qatari investment project to rebuild the impoverished and overcrowded coastal enclave.

The leader of the Gulf nation will be the first head of state to visit Gaza since the imposition of a widespread international boycott of the Palestinian territory.

"This visit has great political significance," said Hamas government spokesman Taher al-Nunu.

"He is the first Arab leader to break the political siege."

The investment project seeks to build 1,000 homes for poor families in the devastated Khan Younis area in the south of the Strip.

The 41km-long Gaza Strip, home to 1.6 million people, sustained major damage during a huge 22-day Israeli military operation in December 2008 and January 2009.

Khan Younis has been particularly hard hit during the international blockade of Gaza, imposed since 2007, and during the half-decade before that. A 2011 EWASH report revealed that 90-95 per cent of Gaza's water is safe to drink.

In a phone conversation on the eve of the visit, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the emir's intentions to help the people of Gaza, under an Israeli-led blockade since the Hamas takeover.

A late night statement from the office of Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi said his country welcomed the emir's visit to Gaza, which it said were part of Egypt's effort "to break the siege on the people" of the territory.

The Qatari emir's visit to Gaza is indeed a massive boon to the Hamas regime there, and not just financially. They have wanted, and the international community has denied them, the kind of formal recognition this visits grants for years. And it will really sting Mahmoud Abbas and the PA, whatever nice words they have to say about it, because the erosion of the idea that the PA is the sole representative of the Palestinian people is the single most damaging thing for them.

The Qatari emir can't go to Gaza through Israel, and thus must make his way via the Rafah crossing and Egypt. This must be a difficult thing for Egypt to swallow: Qatar, which is lending $2bn this calendar year alone to support the Egyptian pound, is doing more politically and financially for Gaza than Muslim Brotherhood Egypt has. Egyptians have long fumed about "little Qatar's" over-active foreign policy and its meddling in Gaza, an Egyptian near-abroad. I suspect the Muslim Brotherhood, whatever its initial euphoria and dreams of reconquering historical Palestine, will have similar reservations about the Qatari visit. They have, in the past few months, been slowly adjusting to the reality that the Gaza-Egypt-Israel relationship is a complex one and no dramatic change in policy — such as opening the border to commercial traffic and effectively ending the Gaza blockade —  has yet come. More than that, officially Egypt still sticks to the protocol of considering Mahmoud Abbas as the representative of Palestinians and Gaza as under theoretical PA authority (or that the end state of Palestinian reconciliation should be a West Bank and Gaza united under PA control). Qatar's visit undermines this — at a time when Morsi is under pressure from his own over his Israel policy.

 

Egypt, Israel and Sinai: The need for triangular co-operation

✚ Egypt, Israel and Sinai: The need for triangular co-operation

One of the best analyses of the fallout from the Sinai attack I've read, from The Economist, worth a long quote:

For years Hamas has suppressed jihadists groups in Gaza, especially those espousing puritanical Salafist ideals that hark back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Hamas sought to prevent them from attacking hairdressers, internet cafés, Christians and other supposedly decadent influences. But it has been less eager to curb their missile attacks on Israel or to stop them infiltrating Egypt.

More recently, however, Hamas has closed the tunnel complex to slow infiltration and gun-running. If Hamas really wants to please the Egyptian government, it would arrest the 200-odd jihadists still at large in Gaza. Hisham Saidini, a jihadist preacher whom Hamas had freed soon after Ramadan started last month, defended the killing of Egypt’s soldiers on the grounds that they were protecting Jews.

Israel, too, will have to let both Egypt’s security forces and those of Hamas in Gaza control their borders more effectively. Israel may have to allow Hamas to operate in a buffer zone along Gaza’s eastern border. Egypt’s air attack on the jihadists on August 8th was the first time that air power had been deployed in anger by Egypt in Sinai since the war with Israel in 1973, and was co-ordinated with Israel in advance. The Israelis say they have had several discreet high-level talks with the Egyptians since Mr Morsi was sworn in a month ago.

The three governments also need to agree on new economic arrangements. For the past five years, the joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza that fostered smuggling through the tunnels has hugely benefited people in Sinai who are beyond the law—of any country. Opening the borders to legal traffic and trade should lessen the power of jihadists and smugglers in Sinai and Gaza, and thus strengthen the arm of the governments in Cairo and Jerusalem.

Mr Morsi seems well aware of the dilemma. Egypt’s main military academy and senior civil posts have been opened up to the Bedouin, and plans are afoot to improve the peninsula’s several hundred villages, many of which have no piped water. He had already made a point, early in his presidency, of visiting Sinai. He has also hosted Hamas leaders. Before the Sinai attack, he received Mr Haniyeh and discussed definitively lifting Gaza’s siege.

Israel may also have to consider co-operating with Hamas, its avowed enemy. After the attack on August 5th, Israel’s leaders were careful to blame global jihadists rather than Gazans or Hamas. Although Egypt has yet fully to open the crossing at Rafah, Israel has already reopened its one nearby at Kerem Shalom, for trade if not yet for people. With the influence of Islamists in Syria likely to grow in the event of Bashar Assad’s fall, Israel may have to decide whether to accommodate itself to the likes of Hamas lest a still fiercer version of Islamism comes to the fore.

Next in Gaza, Palestinian elections or Israeli preemption?

Paul Mutter contributed this commentary — and I have a note at the end.

Ebaa Reqez, an activist who helped organized the “March 15” Movement demonstrations in 2011 that laid the groundwork for the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement I’ve been tracking this week commented on the political sectarianism that is undermining a deal that was always a tenuous proposition:

In Gaza many of the organizers support Fatah and want to end the rule of Hamas. In the West Bank, they want to oust Fatah. And they both used March 15 and afterwards to try to get what they want.

This contest of wills and patronage was clearly illustrated three weeks ago when Hamas presented its “conditions” for becoming part of a unity government, conditions that Fatah partisans – even if they were willing to defy Israeli and American pressure – would balk at because of the key ministries Hamas was demanding control over. The talks in Cairo that were supposed to mark the next step in Palestinian reconciliation are now on hold, and spokesmen from both parties are blaming each other for the collapse of talks.

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Living with the enemy in the Gaza Strip

Yousef Bashir, 22, lives with a bullet lodged near his spine.  “When I imagine myself without the bullet in my back I ask myself would I be the same?” he said. “That bullet talks to me and I talk to it everyday. It is a very personal thing that I go through,” he continued. “I know that it was put there to destroy my life. I look at it and I say I am not destroyed yet.”

Bashir has very personal ties to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. He grew up in the Gaza Strip next to the Israeli settlement Kfar Darom, which was evacuated in 2005. The battle lines ran right through his house. When the second Palestinian Intifada broke out, Israeli soldiers moved into his home. Bashir was 11 years old at the time. His father, Khalil Bashir, refused to leave the house and so the family - Yousef Bashir, his grandmother, parents and his siblings - spent five years living with the soldiers, who occupied the top two floors.

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Obama and the Gaza war, revisited

Report: Documents expose U.S. wiretaps of Israeli officials in Washington - Haaretz:

the Israeli Embassy in the United States provided “regular written briefings” on Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza intended for "President Obama in the weeks between his election and inauguration."

Remember, back then when Obama was studiously ignoring the Gaza war and refusing to comment on it because "there is only one president at a time." Even though he commented on other things.

On Egypt's Gaza policy

After the recent cabinet change, Egypt now has a Prime Minister and a Minister of Foreign Affairs who argue against Egypt's role in the Gaza blockade. Nabil al-Arabi, the new FM, in particular is on record has criticizing that policy on the grounds of international humanitarian law. Will we see a change in the policy anytime soon?

In some sense, it already has changed. Palestinian officials from Hamas have been allowed to travel from Rafah. The border crossing has also been re-opened after a month-long shutdown following January 25, although it is still only taking 300 people a day. But fundamentally, the official position is the same for now. It's based on a legal reality that the siege of Gaza is Israel's responsibility, since it is the occupying power, as well as more convoluted legalism that the border cannot fully be reopened until Gaza is part of an independent Palestinian state. The real reasons for Egypt's participation in the blockade were a mixture of anti-Hamas sentiment, legitimate concern that Egypt could be held responsible for Hamas' actions by Israel, American and Israeli pressure on Cairo, and a fear that the Israelis were maneuvering to dump the Gaza problem onto Egypt's lap.

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Egyptian Wikileaks: The Gaza Wall

A bunch of as-yet-unreleased Wikileaks cables have been shared with al-Masri al-Youm and other Egyptian newspapers, which will start releasing them today and over the rest of the week. 

For English coverage check out al-Masri al-Youm's site, which already has stories about how the Gaza-Egypt wall is due to be completed this month:

“The MOD had frequently discussed this project with us since the beginning of the year, but only recently received the corrugated steel sheets,” reads the document. “It is unknown, however, if the wall will be effective at deterring smuggling in the long-run, as the steel sheets are basic construction-grade material that can be cut using a tool like a blow torch.”

The document references international, regional and local press reports that criticize the wall for representing Egyptian support for Israeli security, describing them as “erroneously stating the wall is a US-funded project.”

The document also reveals the US has provided technical support for the installation of the tunnel detection system, which was due to be finished by the US Army Corps of Engineers and handed over to the Egyptian military in April 2010..

I've long believed the wall financing issue was set up to create US deniability that it was financing the wall. The cable says it cost $40m — not much compared to the $1bn and more of US military aid — and its most expensive technological component, the detection system, was US provided. So yes, it is US-backed and financed.

In another cable, US diplomats get warnings from Sinai Bedouins that the wall will radicalize the peninsula. More to come...

 

Did the PA kill the Goldstone report?

Asks Jared Malsin in FP:

GAZA--Israeli soldiers shot a mentally ill Palestinian man in the leg when he ventured near the Erez crossing, in the northern Gaza Strip on Tuesday. Last Wednesday, a 65-year-old man was shot in the neck in the same area. A week earlier the soldiers shot a 17-year-old, who entered the 300 to 500 meter "buffer zone" in northern Gaza to collect construction scrap which he hoped to sell for a few dollars. Human rights groups say there is a direct link between these daily shootings and the international community's failure to hold Israel accountable for past violations, especially during its 2008-2009 offensive on Gaza, which left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead, most of them noncombatants. Fourteen Israelis also died. "The attacks [are] still going on, and the Israelis are taking the same stance as during Cast Lead. They're failing to distinguish between civilian and military targets," said Mahmoud Abu Rahma, of the Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza.

Last month, under US and Israeli pressure, the Palestinian Authority (PA), once again delayed the process of accountability. This came at a September 29 vote at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, in which the PA backed a resolution to give Israel and Hamas officials in Gaza six more months to investigate crimes documented in Richard Goldstone's UN Fact Finding Mission report. According to Palestinian and international human rights groups, the Palestinian Authority has decided that the Goldstone report must remain in Geneva, away from the relatively more powerful UN bodies in New York. This is a position identical to that of the US State Department, which wants to keep pressure off Israel during the newly re-launched political negotiations.

On the contrary, the PA should be increasing pressure during negotiations. But Abbas is a good boy: he does what he's told.

Also, do bookmark Malsin's blog on Palestine.

Now that would be change I can believe in

Via Coteret, a great blog translating from the Hebrew media, this piece in today's Yediot Ahronot:

The lifting of the blockade on the Gaza Strip and permission for Palestinians to leave the Gaza Strip freely through Israeli border crossings. These are the unequivocal demands that President Barack Obama is expected to make during his meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the White House in two weeks.

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Khouri on the flotilla

I am quoting from most of this Rami Khouri column, because it is so on the money:

The experience of the Free Gaza Movement over the past few years, which sent half a dozen boat expeditions to deliver humanitarian aid to Gazans, suggests to many that in-your-face confrontation is the most effective way to challenge Israel and force it to change its policies. Israel’s reduced siege of Gaza is the fourth example of its changing a policy under pressure. The three other cases were the withdrawals from south Lebanon and Gaza’s heartland in the face of Hizbullah- and Hamas-led resistance, and the partial suspension of some settlements for 10 months last year in response to American government pressure.

So the question now is: How will people and states in the Arab world and nearby lands, like Iran and Turkey, react to the latest lesson in challenging Israel with forceful action, over making only meek pleas? 

Israel is already initiating two new aggressive acts that will quickly test the mettle of both its friends and foes. It will destroy several dozen Palestinian Arab homes in occupied East Jerusalem to build an Israeli tourism facility, and it will initiate work on the ground to build another 600 homes for settler-colonial Zionists in the Jerusalem area.

The fascinating issue today is not whether Israel is making any major changes in its policies: it is not. Its changes are only cosmetic, to ward off foreign pressures. The really important new development is the growing Arab and international realization that the criminal and inhuman excesses of Zionism – colonialism, discrimination, collective punishment, racism, siege and starvation, murder on the high seas, mass incarcerations, and more – can best be confronted using the same tactics that finally brought down the two major examples of racism and inequity in modern times: the civil rights movement that broke the back of official racism in the United States, and the anti-Apartheid movement that forced the white minority government in South Africa to accept a fully democratic system.

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Did the Freedom Flotilla work?

Israel announced today that it will allow civilian goods to enter Gaza and loosen restrictions on freedom of movement:

Senior cabinet ministers on Sunday approved steps toward easing Israel's land blockade of the Gaza Strip, days after Jerusalem had issued a non-binding declaration supporting such a move.

In a statement released following the cabinet vote on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office emphasized that the change would not counter Israel's policy "to defend it citizens against terror, rocket fire or any other hostile activities from Gaza."

The PMO said that Israel would release "as soon as possible" a detailed list of goods that would not be allowed into the Gaza Strip, which would include all weapons.

"Israel seeks to keep out of Gaza weapons and material that Hamas uses to prepare and carry out terror and rocket attacks toward Israel and its civilians," Netanyahu said. "All other goods will be allowed into Gaza."

Israel's new policy will allow an inflow of construction material into the Gaza Strip for projects approved by the Palestinian Authority or under the auspices of international supervision, including schools, health facilities, water treatment and sanitation, the statement said.

Israel also said it would keep the right to ban "dual-use" construction materials that could be used by Hamas to manufacture weapons and to rebuild its military facilities.

The change in policy is also aimed at improving economic activity in the coastal territory, said the PMO. The new policy was also to allow humanitarian aid to be brought into Gaza in a more effective way and to ease movement in and out of the coastal territory, said the PMO.

Israel would consider further easing its siege as the situation on the ground improved, said the PMO. It would also continue to inspect every item brought to the Ashdod Port bound for the Gaza Strip.

The PMO emphasized in its statement that its defense regime along the Gaza border would remain in place and that Israel still sees Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Many reactions to this. The first is simply that it took the courage and lives of the organizers of the Freedom Flotilla to make this happen. The lesson to retain here is that confrontation works, it is not only effective, but necessary. Nothing will be given, you have to take it.

The second is that you have to treat anything that comes from a government that has lied and weaseled its way out of its treaties and international obligations for decades with a grain of salt. The devil will be in the details, such as the list of allowed goods Israel still has to publish and the character and length of the border procedures for people and goods moving in and out. It's crucial to wait to see what this means and how it's implemented.

That, in turn, will influence a bunch of other things. Assuming this does mean a general relaxation of the blockade, but not its lifting altogether, what are the larger consequences?

First there's the political fallout. This might not entirely be a popular move for the Netanyahu government considering the strong backing for collective punishment policies among many Israelis. For Hamas, they have arguable gained very little and potentially lost much face, since they are neither responsible for the blockade being lifted (the Freedom Flotilla and the international community achieved that) and now are back at being isolated but with less obvious ways to play the victims here. Likewise Fatah and the Palestinian Authority really appears ineffective here, and the recent decision by the PA to postpone municipal elections is hardly a sign of confidence.

For the Palestinians and especially people of Gaza, this will be hopefully bringing much relief and enable the reconstruction of the terrible destruction wrought by Israel's Operation Cast Lead. It still leaves impunity for Israel for its actions during that war, and efforts to get the Goldstone Report and other attempts to hold it accountable should be redoubled. But some of the basic rights of the Palestinians, such moving within their country (that is, between the West Bank and Gaza) are still curtailed. They now all have unrepresentative governments that have outlived their mandates, and a leadership that not only appears reluctant to reconcile but may be actively prevented from outside powers from doing so.  

For Egypt, which was again destabilized by the renewed attention to the Rafah border, this will come with some relief. But I wonder for how long — this issue is not going away for long, and a continued spilt Palestinian polity and the unlikeliness of a peace deal makes it ever more likely that Gaza will be dumped on Egypt.

And for the Obama administration, which put out a press release (reproduced below) welcoming the Israeli decision without even a cautious wait-and-see approach, perhaps it means that an embarrassing moment may be over — for now. But while the White House is finally encouraging relieving the blockade and allowing traffic of goods and people between the West Bank and Gaza, it is still ignoring Hamas and Palestinian reconciliation. The name of the game is still West Bank First. It may take another crisis to abandon that policy.

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The EU, Egypt and the IP conflict

Recently a bunch of EU country ambassadors were summoned by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and urged not to waver and engage Hamas, because "all of this is their fault." As some of the European powers try to find a solution to the Gaza blockade, it's not only Israel scuttling solutions — the Egyptians are doing it to in order to preserve their monopoly on talking to Hamas, stay relevant, and make sure they're not short-changed in any future deal:

Kouchner has said the EU could defuse tensions around Gaza by checking the cargo on ships bound for the tiny Palestinian coastal enclave as well as the Rafah border crossing from Egypt into the Hamas-controlled territory.

Providing further details of the proposal made last week, the French diplomatic chief said the checks could take place in Cyprus, which, unlike Gaza, has a deepwater port. Cargo could also be unloaded in the Israeli port of Ashdod.

"This would simplify the checks," he added, though acknowledging the plan "is not a success for now."

According to Kouchner, there would also be a list of banned products, but not a blanket ban on merchandise delivered to the Palestinians.

He expressed pessimism for the Rafah proposal, saying "it's not certain this would work because our Egyptian friends do not want us to speak directly with Hamas."

I wonder if Kouchner expressing this publicly is meant to embarrass the Egyptians and signal that they might just ignore them (and their American protectors). More details on possible deals over Rafah here.

This is coming at a time when there are voices within the EU rising to act more effectively on Middle East issues, as well as more independently from the US. For the last few decades, despite being a full members of the Quartet and the major donor to the Palestinians (as well as an important trade partner to the Israelis), the EU has played second fiddle to hopelessly biased and ineffective US administrations.

Chris Patten writes in the Guardian:

Today's miserable standoff in the Middle East requires new initiatives. The short-term failure of Israeli policies has concentrated global attention on their blockade of Gaza rather than on Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. The long-term failure has rendered increasingly difficult a two-state solution as Palestine is broken up into barriered Bantustans.

As President Obama's military commanders have told him, the absence of anything resembling a peace process in the Middle East, and the identification of Washington with a very rightwing Israeli government, has made it more difficult for the US to deal with Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and others.

If politics does not succeed, then humanitarian aid will continue to be necessary. Yet we should never depend on the provision of humanitarian relief as an excuse for diplomatic drift and the failure to confront intransigence. Organisations such as Medical Aid for Palestinians do not exist so that others can duck their moral and political responsibilities.

. . .

However, the EU has too often since taken the view that only Washington really drives things forward. Yet what should the EU do when American policy is going nowhere? Not surprisingly, the secretary-general of the Arab League called the so-called quartet (the EU, US, UN and Russia), which supervised the non-implementation of the road map for peace, "the quartet sans trois".

. . .

Today, the EU should not only call for an immediate end to the Gaza blockade but should work harder to promote reconciliation between the splintered Palestinian body-politic. The UN should be tasked with preventing the flow of weapons while the EU should take the initiative with Turkey and the Arab League to re-establish a government of national unity involving Fatah and Hamas for the whole of the Palestinian territory. In due course, the EU should monitor free elections there. You cannot favour democracy everywhere except in Palestine.

Without Hamas there will not be a peace settlement. What we should require from Hamas is simple – a ceasefire, acceptance of the outcome of a peace process provided it is endorsed in a Palestinian referendum, and help in securing the release of Corporal Shalit. To insist that they accept all past agreements is bizarre when no such requirement is made of Israel. Look, for example, at settlement building.

We should go further. There has been speculation the US may consider unilaterally tabling an agreement with a timetable for achieving it. Opponents of this proposal have questioned whether it would be wise for the US to thus risk its prestige. The EU could work with Turkey and the Arab League to draft proposals for an agreement to be tabled in the UN security council. This may not be immediately acceptable to the US but would at least bring some momentum.

Go for it!

More on the flotilla fallout for Egypt

I stayed away from blogging today because of family obligations and looming deadlines. But here's my new piece for Foreign Policy, looking at the fallout of the flotilla raid for Egypt.

The silver lining in the tragedy of Israel's brutal raid on the Free Gaza flotilla is a new urgency about lifting the blockade on Gaza and addressing the territory's humanitarian crisis. Calls for the blockade to be lifted have been made in the Arab world, in Europe and even, albeit more timidly, by the Obama administration. But Israel's siege is not the only thing that has been highlighted: the role of Egypt, Tel Aviv's silent partner in the blockade, has also been brought to the fore. This is an uncomfortable development for Egypt, which denies playing any role in the blockade even as it closed its border with Gaza at Rafah since the June, 2007 Hamas takeover. Even now, after quietly opening the Rafah border crossing to avoid popular outrage, the Egyptians are preventing an aid convoy led by the Alexandria Pharmacists Association from reaching the crossing. The renewed uproar over Rafah has the potential to destabilize Egypt, exponentially raising the cost of its participation in the Israeli-led, Quartet-endorsed blockade -- an outcome that the Egyptians will seek to avoid but is also a concern for their Arab allies, Israel and the Obama administration.

The Egyptians have for the past three years offered an elaborate explanation to deflect blame for their enforcing of the blockade -- despite the fact that the border, with a few exceptions for a few medical cases and hajj pilgrims, has remained closed since June 9, 2007.  Whatever the legal merits of Egypt's position, domestically and regionally it lost the moral and political argument: there has been widespread outrage at what is essentially seen as Egyptian collaboration with Israel to punish Gazans for Hamas' actions. Its intentions have also been made clear by acts that can be best described as petty and vindictive, such as the treatment of last December's Viva Palestina convoy, which arrived at the southern Sinai port of Nuweiba only to be told to it could not disembark: it was forced to go to the northern Sinai port of al-Arish by heading back to Jordan, driving up to Syria, and then chartering a boat to al-Arish.  Its reported intention of building an imposing wall across the border has been the subject of intense debate.

Why has Egypt taken such an unpopular hard line towards the Rafah crossing into Gaza?  What will it do now?

Read the rest here.

More Israeli propaganda failures

Max Blumenthal shows that the IDF is quietly redacting its own press releases to remove allegations of links between the IHH members of the flotilla and al-Qaeda:

Not content to believe that night vision goggles signal membership in Al Qaeda, Israel-based freelance reporter Lia Tarachansky and I called the IDF press office to ask for more conclusive evidence. Tarachansky reached the IDF’s Israel desk, interviewing a spokesperson in Hebrew; I spoke with the North America desk, using English. We both received the same reply from Army spokespeople: “We don’t have any evidence. The press release was based on information from the [Israeli] National Security Council.” (The Israeli National Security Council is Netanyahu’s kitchen cabinet of advisors).

Today, the Israeli Army’s press office changed the headline of its press release (see below), basically retracting its claim about the flotilla’s Al Qaeda links.

We debunked the basis of previous al-Qaeda links here.

Where is Obama?

GC at the The Majlis points out Obama's thundering silence:

As a journalist covering this story, it's been striking to see Washington's irrelevance over the last 72 hours. We've heard almost nothing from Obama or other US officials -- one 20-second sound bite from Hillary Clinton, that's it -- compared with (literally) hours of material from Turkish, Israeli, Arab and European leaders. The White House has gone out of its way to avoid taking a high-profile stance on the flotilla attack.

But here's the thing: Nobody in the Muslim world seems surprised! After the US ran interference for Israel at the United Nations, there wasn't much anger in the Arabic press. Instead there was mostly a sense of cynicism, like nobody expected America to behave differently.

We've seen a few anti-American protests over the last few days -- there was a small demonstration outside the US consulate in Adana, for example -- but overall there's been very little vitriol directed at the United States.

It's not for lack of interest in the flotilla attack, which has been covered almost non-stop on Arabic news networks for three days. But you get the sense nobody had higher expectations for the White House.

So when Gibbs says Obama's weak response won't affect his outreach to the Muslim world, maybe he's right. Obama's outreach has been stalling for months, particularly in the Arab world. He increasingly looks like just another American president: The promises of his Cairo speech are fading, he refuses to take strong public stands against Israel, and he's carrying on many of the Bush administration's most inflammatory policies (stepping up drone strikes, failing to close Guantanamo Bay, etc.).

The flotilla attack was a golden opportunity for Obama to reverse that trend, to demonstrate that he's serious about shifting US policy in the region. He passed on that opportunity -- and, in doing so, merely confirmed what many people in the region already suspected about his presidency.

While the US is now backing some relief for the Gaza blockade, no real change of approach is being seriously considered, apparently. They want to relieve the blockade, not really end it and restore Palestinian economic integrity.

Joe Biden says the problem is Hamas, Laura Rozen points out:

The Vice President also said Hamas shares blame for Palestinian suffering and said Hamas should join a Palestinian reconciliation government with its political rival, Fatah.

"So the problem is this would end tomorrow if Hamas agreed to form a government with the Palestinian Authority on the conditions the international community has set up," Biden said.

Except the "international conditions" are ridiculous and designed to prevent a national unity government while going ahead with a West Bank First policy. Rozen cites Biden's interview with Charlie Rose:

Joe Biden: Yes, we know that, but they could have easily brought it in here and we'd get it through. And so now the question is what do we do? Well, we had made it clear, the President of the United States has spoken three times, yesterday with Bibi, or the day before yesterday, he's spoken once yesterday with a guy that I have spent a fair amount of time with, with Prime Minister Erdogan in Turkey; the Turks, we passed a resolution in the U.N. saying we need a transparent and open investigation of what happened. It looks like things are -- 

Charlie Rose: International investigation -- 

Joe Biden: Well, an investigation run by the Israelis, but we're open to international participation, just like the investigation run on the sunken sub in — off the coast of Korea. That was run by South Korea, but the international community joined in that investigation. And so that is very possible here as well. I might add by the way for all those who say the Israelis, you know, you know, you can't trust them, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled today that every one of the people on those ships had to be released immediately, immediately.

So in the Korean case, the victim gets to do the investigation, whereas in the flotilla case, it's the aggressor? Of course, no surprise to see this: AIPAC embraces Biden statement.

The Obama administration has no moral ground to stand on in this case, so it's either spinning by keeping focus on the investigation rather than ending the blockade or keeping silent. Shameful. The US needs a clean break in its relationship with the Israeli regime, a radical departure. Will we ever get it?

Because the other alternative will become, over time, at the region's stronger states solving the problem by excluding the United States, rather than calling for it to play a greater role. Right now, the net balance points towards Washington being a liability for regional peace — in Iraq, in its attitude towards Iran, and of course in its defense of Israel no matter what.

The Israelis can't even get propaganda right anymore

My friend Ibn Kafka has a wonderful post catching Israel in a propaganda f**k-up. The Israeli Ministry Foreign Affairs posted on its Flickr account pictures of the terrifying weapons they found on the IHH ship. You know, things like bulletproof vests for emergency services, pepper spray, kitchen knives, bits of wood and other weapons of mass destruction. Except that they did not realize that Flickr displays EXIF data, which is the information that cameras record when they take pictures: aperture, shutter speed, flash status... and the time the picture was taken.

Which, as Flickr commenters quickly pointed out, was sometime in 2006. 

So the Israeli MFA quickly changed the EXIF date, but not before I was able to take snapshots of before and after:

I don't know what's most ridiculous: calling these objects weapons or messing up your propaganda.

Flotilla fallout: strategize and disentangle

I want to get this quick thought down amidst tons of work and much distraction from Twitter and the flotilla fallout.

There are three issues that have been raised at the heart of international debate as a result of the flotilla murders:

  1. The need for an investigation into the incident;
  2. The need to lift the Gaza blockade;
  3. The longer-term need for a breakthrough in the deadlock in the Middle East peace process caused in part by Israel's intransigeant and aggressive behavior, from settlement expansion to landgrabs to assistance to attacks by settlers to its lack of desire for a permanent resolution that is in anyway reasonable (or indeed, its lack of interest in a viable two-state solution)

These must be disentangled from one another and prioritized. The international response so far, at the UN, has put the focus on the investigation. It should instead be moved to lifting the Gaza blockade. Several governments have explicitly come out in favor of this, as well as many opinion leaders around the world.

The investigation process is underway, and there will inevitably be battles over what direction it takes. There is a principle in parts of international law that countries get to conduct investigations on their own actions themselves, and that things go to an international investigation only after the country in question is shown to be incapable of conducting a fair investigation. This is certainly the case with Israel — the precedent of the military investigation into the Gaza war, which was inadequate and led to the Goldstone report suggests that. There may also be a legal argument that Turkey should be conducting the investigation, although that's up to Turkey. I say let that process take place and be debated, but do not allow it to take center stage.

Gaza is the crux of the matter. An international effort towards lifting the blockade must be inventive and propose a solution to a complicated problem quickly. They should be focused on lifting the restrictions Israel imposes on goods coming into Gaza and ensure that reconstruction materials are allowed in. They must also tackle the security demands that Israel will make to prevent weapons going into Gaza. International institutions like the UN will almost certainly have to play a role, and perhaps also the European Union as monitors (as has been suggested before.) This is costly both politically and financially, support needs to be rallied around the idea. But an immediate aim must be allowing aid and reconstruction material, and secondly relinking the Gazan economy to that of the West Bank, i.e. restoring Palestine's economic integrity. 

This brings us to reviving an admittedly discredited peace process.

Update: to clarify (see Helena Cobban's comment below) I think focus peace process and what follows from here should take place after the blockade on Gaza is lifted.

Fully normalizing Gaza's status has to mean abandoning the "West Bank First" strategy implemented by the Bush administration in 2006, endorsed by the Quartet and continued by the Obama administration. It has to mean working towards Palestinian reconciliation leading to new elections and a legitimate Palestinian representation (neither the PA nor the Hamas government are currently legitimate, since their electoral terms have expired), and turning the proximity talks into preliminary talks while that can happen. It means renewed efforts at stopping potential spoiler states (Iran, Syria, Egypt and the United States) and spoiler factions (parts of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Dahlan Gang, Shas, Israel Beiteinu and others). And it may mean abandoning some of the legal infrastructure of the Oslo process and the Quartet process and bringing a fresh approach. I'm not optimistic, but as I see it this might be necessary. There is a great risk that various parties involved in this conflict will choose to grandstand and temporize — the Arab states with their threats of reneging the Arab Initiative, the US by continuing a policy based entirely on shielding Israel from hard decisions and sensible behavior. Now is the time to push, not retreat.

Out of chaos and tragedy, a breakthrough is possible — but only with intensive and continuous effort.

Update: Along the same lines do read Helena Cobban, who has much deeper knowledge of the intricacies of the Middle East peace process than I do: How to end the siege of Gaza and How to end the siege of Gaza, addendum.

The flotilla murders: not piracy, but war

Craig Murray, the courageous former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan who denounced Western silence over that brutal regime's practices, who brings his diplomatic and legal expertise to shed light on the legal issues surrounding the attack on the flotilla:

A word on the legal position, which is very plain. To attack a foreign flagged vessel in international waters is illegal. It is not piracy, as the Israeli vessels carried a military commission. It is rather an act of illegal warfare.

Because the incident took place on the high seas does not mean however that international law is the only applicable law. The Law of the Sea is quite plain that, when an incident takes place
on a ship on the high seas (outside anybody's territorial waters) the applicable law is that of the flag state of the ship on which the incident occurred. In legal terms, the Turkish ship was Turkish territory.

There are therefore two clear legal possibilities.

Possibility one is that the Israeli commandos were acting on behalf of the government of Israel in killing the activists on the ships. In that case Israel is in a position of war with Turkey, and the act falls under international jurisdiction as a war crime.

Possibility two is that, if the killings were not authorised Israeli military action, they were acts of murder under Turkish jurisdiction. If Israel does not consider itself in a position of war with Turkey, then it must hand over the commandos involved for trial in Turkey under Turkish law.

In brief, if Israel and Turkey are not at war, then it is Turkish law which is applicable to what happened on the ship. It is for Turkey, not Israel, to carry out any inquiry or investigation into events and to initiate any prosecutions. Israel is obliged to hand over indicted personnel for prosecution.

More legal arguments here. I hope the next ships are escorted by the Turkish Navy!