Palestine: Only God Knows

[This article is a follow-up piece to The Aidan Project Podcast episode, The Demise of the Two-State Solution, which is available at the footer of this article or by clicking here.]

The Oslo Peace Accords (1993)

The Oslo Peace Accords (1993)

Israel is not the biggest problem in the Middle East, by a long shot. But you wouldn’t know that from the disproportionate way in which the UN has treated the country.”

Maajid Nawaz
29 December 2016

The dispute between Israel and the Palestinians remains as contentious as ever, but other issues in the Middle East in 2016, principally the conflict in Syria, momentarily sidelined the Palestinian question from the front pages. However, the recent vote of the United Nations Security Council to declare Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories as illegal has again raised the conflict’s media profile. The UNSC decision was only made possible due to then US President, Barack Obama, making the controversial call that the US would not use its veto to counteract the motion. The Israel-Palestine question gained further traction when then President-elect, Donald Trump, said he would reverse Obama’s policy. If we are approaching anything resembling peace, if not order, in Syria, following the truce brokered by Russia and Turkey, it could be that the Middle East’s big story in 2017 will again be this long-running dispute between Israeli and Palestine.

The nation of Israel itself was created in 1948, when the United Kingdom ended its mandate of Palestine, which it had held since 1917 following the Balfour Declaration. The Declaration had installed Palestine as a home for Jews. The key rationale for Britain handing Palestine back to the United Nations was essentially to focus on domestic matters, the Empire having been ravaged by war. Britain could no longer hold on to Palestine; attacks on British soldiers by Zionist terrorists certainly helped foster a feeling that this was a territory no longer worth holding. Of course, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I would have no hesitation in calling a Palestinian who blows himself to pieces on a crowded bus in Tel Aviv a terrorist, but I would also freely refer to the 1946 attack on the King David hotel by Irgun (The National Military Organization in the Land of Israel) as an act of terrorism. On July 22 1946, 91 people of various nationalities were killed, and 46 injured, following the bombing by this right-wing Zionist group.

This example is not given to be provocative, but to illustrate that perspective is everything. In both cases, I feel acts of terrorism were committed. Others may feel one of these examples to be completely justifiable (according to their religious, nationalist or political persuasions), whilst labelling the other example as unjust. To each their own.

Since the political existence of Israel as a nation state, it has been attacked on numerous occasions by its Arab neighbours, and has been the victim of countless terrorist attacks. Ironically, the results of these wars have generally been victories and additional territory acqusitions for Israel. You will often hear the term “1967 borders”, which refers to the Six Day War in which Israel captured the Gaza Strip, Sinai, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, soundly defeating a coalition of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. You mess with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) at your peril. Not only do you get a beating, but you leave with less than you started with.

The territory of Israel comprises some of the most holy lands in existence for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Depending on your interpretation of history and how far you wish to go back in time, there are numerous claims to the land, and most crucially, that of Jerusalem itself. Despite a long-term peace process and the general reconciliation of Israel with Egypt and Jordan, Israelis and Palestinians have failed to reach a final peace agreement. Indeed, it has been complicated from the very beginning of Israel’s statehood. There were factions within the Jewish faith that were opposed to Jews returning to what is now Israel at the time of the Balfour Declaration due to religious objections. Literalists believe that Jews should only return to the Holy Land once God has given a clear signal that it was time to do so.

Once again, religion, as with so many conflicts, plays the most significant part of this age-old struggle, as it does with Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir, as it did with Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, to name but a few of many depressing examples. The primary issue dividing Israelis and Palestinians, from a non-secular perspective at least, is that of the Holy Land. There is no question that history will not judge such a petty dispute favourably, but it is a problem endemic within religious faith. It is quite clear that if faith were not an issue, there would not even be a territorial dispute to speak of, because the Zionist movement for a home in the holy lands would never have occurred. It all appears so obscene to this non-theist, but had I been born in Ramallah or Jerusalem, I accept that I may very well feel differently. However, this says far more about the mindless indoctrination of innoncent children than about my particular gullibility.

After 1993, with the ambitious Oslo peace process, Israel recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organisation as the representative of the Palestinian people, though, rather importantly, Israel does not recognize the State of Palestine. In return for the concession of recognising the PLO, it was agreed that Palestinians would promote peaceful co-existence, renounce violence and promote recognition of Israel among their own people. However, despite Yasser Arafat’s official renunciation of terrorism and the recognition of Israel, some Palestinian groups continue to practice and advocate violence against civilians and do not recognize Israel as a legitimate political entity. Two years after his efforts in Oslo, Israel’s Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a domestic assailant as a curt thank you for his attempts to seek peace with the Palestinians.

Since 2006, the Palestinian side has been fractured by conflict between the two major factions: Fatah, the traditionally dominant party, and its later electoral challenger, Hamas. Indeed, in the important eyes of the West, much harm has been done to the Palestinian cause by the rise of Hamas. The latest round of peace negotiations began in July 2013 but were quickly suspended without a hint of progress. Many attempts have been made to broker a two-state solution, which would officially sanction the birth of an independent Palestinian state. In polls conducted around a decade ago, the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians preferred the two-state solution over any other as a means of resolving the conflict. Moreover, a majority of Jews saw the Palestinian demand for an independent state as just. Regardless, a lack of trust and no shortage of disagreements have prevented meaningful progress.

Counter-radicalisation expert, Maajid Nawaz, wrote a much shared article for the Daily Beast in December 2016. Nawaz, a former extremist, but now deeply involved in steering others from this deadly path, wrote a thought-provoking piece, which noted, correctly in my view, a degree of hypocrisy in the way in which Israel is handled by the wider world, and how the Palestinians are not given enough intellectual credit.

Nawaz wrote: “Israel is not the biggest problem in the Middle East, by a long shot. But you wouldn’t know that from the disproportionate way in which the UN has treated the country.”

Referring to the Jewish presence of 500,000 settlers in any future Palestinian state being deemed an obstacle to the two state solution, Nawaz asked a pointed question: are Palestinians not capable of building a multiethnic state just like Israelis? Nawaz reflected, “Is this how low the standard is to which Western leftists hold Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims?” Nawaz continued, “We who have been pro-Palestine have become our own worst enemies. When new thinking on any issue is instantly labeled treacherous, only inward looking violently inbred and dogmatic ideologies such as jihadism can thrive.”

Away from the political talks, humanitarian considerations or social challenges, only God knows how to solve this mess. After all, he created the problem. Or rather, mankind created God, and then man created the problem in his image. It is near impossible to reason with anyone, Jewish, Muslim… Scientologist; with anyone whose worldview is based on blind dogmatic faith. Mankind needs to wake-up to what is real and what is simply make-believe. We need to stop forcing this nonsense on children. As Christopher Hitchens said, “Religion poisons everything.”


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History: The Executioner of Bad Ideas

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The question of capital punishment has re-emerged following the death sentence passed down to the reprehensible Dylann Roof on 10 January 2017. Roof, 22, had been convicted of the appalling murder of nine African-Americans in a downtown Charleston, South Carolina church on 17 June 2015.

Roof, it seems clear to me, is a hopeless, lost cause, much in the same way as Anders Breivik, who displayed a similar, icy lack of remorse for his crimes. But as hopeless, pathetic, repressed, undeveloped and unfeeling as Roof is, and will likely always remain, to execute a person on the state’s authority is deeply troubling. But this article is not about Dylann Roof, as should become clear.

Death, in some cases, is justified. A death resulting from a legitimate act of self-defence, or the adoption of euthanasia by an informed mind who no longer wishes to suffer are two such examples. But the state, when no longer threatened by the incarcerated individual, has no moral justification to pull the lever or press the button to end a life.

Why do people still wish to see other humans put to death? Is it a religious holdover, which is why it is so prevalent in the more religious countries, such as the United States and Saudi Arabia, than more secular ones, including Norway, home to Brevik, who is serving a life-term? An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is typical of biblical vengeance. The prevalence of Sharia Law is undoubtedly the cause of the abhorrent public beheadings in Mecca. For this writer, however, whilst decapitation is more obscene than a lethal injection, it is just that: more obscene. For humans to kill other humans as punishment is an angry display of snarling teeth and misplaced virtue. We feel we are cleansing the planet, but we are simply perpetuating the violence. We are harming our argument that murder is unquestionably wrong. Murder is wrong if I do it in my spare time, or if the state pays me to do it on their time. The legality does not make it right, it simply makes it legal.

If you are reading this article in 3017, I am quite sure you will be baffled at the continuing practice of state execution in this writer’s era. You will doubtless scratch your head at other aspects of our behaviour, too. “I cannot believe you continued to eat animals despite their suffering”, “I cannot believe you continued to burn fossil fuels and that some of you denied climate change”, and “I really cannot believe you elected the celebrity hotel-guy as President.” This is how we, in 2017, look back at the witch trials and in not sailing too far towards the horizon for fear of falling off the other side of the world. Eventually, capital punishment will end, because human development, as slow as it seems to us in our short life-terms, is generally progressive. The rise of religion, especially fundamentalism, and fascism, is very concerning, but for the most part, humans do become better, more enlightened humans in the long passage of time.

Be honest with yourself. You know state executions are wrong. I will be honest with you. If a member of my family were murdered, I would want death for the perpetrator. There is no question about that. Maybe, in a fit of rage, I would seek to enact this personally. But the state should operate on moral principles that set the tone for the society we want for our children. If life is about anything, is it not about making society more progressive and enlightened for our descendants? Keeping a man, or a woman, locked-up for years on end is a huge burden on the state, but morality is priceless. Dylann Roof, in some abstract sense, deserves to die. But the state has no moral authority to execute him. Nobody ever said that morality is inexpensive. Much of what a state does in the public good, such as education, pensions, health care and social security, is expensive. Not killing people is also expensive. But I am quite sure that our reader from 3017 will quite understand, and will wonder why we took so long to form the same opinion.

Aidan

Dunkirk: From Spike Milligan to Christopher Nolan

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When defining what it is, or perhaps increasingly, what it was, to be British, courage under fire and Churchillian intransigence rank highly. Stiff upper lip, staying calm and carrying on. Much of this identity is born out of World War 2, when Britain, so it was claimed at the time, stood alone. Alone, of course, apart from its vast Empire. There is no question, I hasten to add, that the evacuation from the northern French town of Dunkerque was an incredible undertaking. However, for understandable reasons of wartime propaganda, there are prevailing myths associated with Dynamo that continue to this day; etched in stone within the British consciousness and collective memory.

How will Christopher Nolan’s 2017 summer blockbuster, Dunkirk, handle the realities and address the myths of Operation Dynamo? It will be intriguing to see how far Nolan goes in telling the harsh home truths about 27 May – 4 June 1940. Little is known about the project, which is in keeping with Nolan’s closely guarded filmmaking process. The first trailer for the film looks gritty enough. We see abandoned vehicles, a woebegone soldier walking into the sea to end his life, and the horrified reaction of a terrorised Cillian Murphy when informed that his rescue vessel is returning to the beach. Indeed, Operation Dynamo was, quite literally, far from plain sailing.

Will we see the spat between the army and the RAF, which arose as a result of the former wrongly believing that the airmen had not taken to the sky to combat the Luftwaffe? Churchill, in his voluminous memoirs of the war, noted how much it upset him to hear that misinformed rescued soldiers were furious with the RAF, unaware that a great struggle had indeed taken place above the channel. Will the bravery of the French to hold the line be featured? Will we see scuffles on the beach between the English and French over the precedence in evacuation? Nolan did much to make Batman real, so I imagine realism will dominate myth in his telling of the real story of Dunkirk.

Certainly, the fortuitous decision of the Germans not to press the assault on Dunkirk with tanks and artillery, and to instead rely on Herman Goering’s confident posturing that his Luftwaffe could finish the job, was the primary reason 340,000 personnel made it off the beach. The Allies were heroic, no doubt, but the Germans had made a huge tactical blunder.

Another aspect of 1940 which remains little known is that Britain was not as united in its desire to fight to the end as popular imagination tells us. Indeed, Churchill’s defiance was not even shared by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, who considered attempting to topple the Prime Minister to pursue an armistice with Hitler. Another enduring myth of the evacuation is the apparent eager acquiescence of boat owners to assist in the withdrawal. Whilst it is true that many bravely answered the call, many certainly did not. One can quite understand their reluctance.

Another film set during the opening months of World War 2, due for release a year from now in December 2017, is Darkest Hour, in which Churchill is portrayed by Gary Oldman. Could either film be bold enough to explore the claim that three of Churchill’s famous radio speeches were actually read by the actor, Norman Shelley, including the legendary “Fight them on the beaches” oration? In truth, this is unlikely for reasons of disputed evidence, and moreover, because the most prominent historian to make this claim is David Irving.  To put it mildly, Irving has a less than stellar reputation, and is perhaps best known for his denial of the Holocaust and the famous libel trial that resulted from it.

In any case, as a massive fan of Nolan’s work – especially Inception, The Dark Knight and The Prestige – and a proponent for the teaching of history in as many forums as possible, I look forward to seeing Dunkirk when it hits cinemas on 21 July 2017. Much of the reality of Dunkirk has been glossed over for the benefit of national pride, but Dynamo is doubtless an incredible story, especially when told accurately. The harsh realities of Dynamo, for my money, make the event more engaging, not less. The proud flag-waving propagated at the time and since cannot be dismissed out of hand, because, after all, war is war. But the truth is that Dynamo was something of a disaster. The British Expeditionary Force was saved, but its equipment was lost to the shores of a defeated France.

There is no question that Churchill sincerely believed what he said when voicing a willingness to continue the struggle; to fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields, in the streets and in the hills. However, what equipment Britain would have had to do such fighting is, fortunately for the United Kingdom, something that never required an answer.

The late comedian, Spike Milligan, who was serving in the British army on the English side of the channel during the evacuation, offered a frank summation of the real Dunkirk in his autobiography. Milligan could have spoken for many when he wrote, “As the immensity of the defeat became apparent, somehow the evacuation turned into a strange victory.” Milligan further noted the striking words of a Bombardier, Kean, who had made it off the beach and was posted to Milligan’s regiment thereafter. When Milligan asked what the operation had been like, Kean responded, “Like, son? It was a fuck up. A highly successful fuck-up.” Churchill, for all his celestial talk of deliverance and miracles, did offer a similarly grounded, though more refined, conclusion when he told Parliament on 4 June 1940, “Wars are not won by evacuations.”

Aidan

2017: Great Expectations?

What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

Christopher Hitchens

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The world desperately misses Christopher Hitchens. I certainly know that I do. Whilst I never met the man, somehow, in a way that is beyond me to explain, I feel like I did. I certainly wish that I had.

Hitchens possessed a beautifully eloquent, unparalleled ability to speak thought-provoking common sense without any undue reverence to his opponent. The United Kingdom’s embarrassing exit from Europe, and Donald Trump’s evisceration of decency at the highest level would have been meat and drink to Hitchens. Moreover, I am quite certain that Hitchens would have had little patience for the internecine conflict within the left and its ceaseless self-strangulation. This illogical balancing act of many well-intentioned liberals has a lot to answer for, including, I would argue, those two 2016 blockbusters previously mentioned.

Hitchens saw himself as a liberal, broadly defined. But he would not tie himself down to ideology. He was in favour of the Iraq War. He spoke favourably of Margaret Thatcher. And he absolutely loathed Bill Clinton. And I mean really loathed. The latter point would have made Hitchens’ articulate foray into the vacuum of honesty that was the Presidential race all the more fascinating. Although I am quite sure that Hitchens would have abhorred Trump, he would not have taken kindly to Hillary, either, on whose husband he wrote the scathing book, No One Left To Lie To, in 1999.

Hitchens, who was born in England but would later become an American citizen, died of cancer in 2011 at the premature age of 62. Premature not simply for him, but for a world which needs his unique qualities now more than ever. I assume that it is because of this sense of loss, selfish as it is, that I have found myself referring back to so much of his voluminous work in recent months. Reading Hitchens’ polemics or watching him on the debate podium is something of a temporary antidote to the stupidity, ignorance and lies that have blighted 2016. Hitchens versus Nigel Farage? First round knockout for Hitch. If, somehow, the battle made it out of the first round, there would no doubt be a blood stoppage from the referee to save Farage from life-altering injuries. Hitchens could go the distance, but he seldom had to. He was the Muhammad Ali of rational argument. He had swagger, for sure, but his ability to propel his arguments with energy and panache was unmatched. He floated like a liberal, but he stung like a bee.

Nobody had a quip like Christopher Hitchens. He had a return volley for everything. Speaking during one of his countless debates with committed theists, Hitchens said, “We’re half a chromosome away from chimpanzees and it shows. It especially shows in the number of religions we invent to console ourselves or to give us things to quarrel with other primates about.” Hitchens was not afraid to cause offence in the process of putting across his argument, yet he was so gifted an orator, the most offensive aspect about him was simply how damn intelligent he was.

A side of Hitchens that all too many have perhaps not seen, as he is often regarded, unfairly, as simply an angry, atheist intellectual, was his incredible wit. An example of this comedic intelligence is a word game which is featured in his memoirs.  The basis of the game is to replace a word within a well-known book title with a similar, but rather less effective one. The results are non-bestselling titles such as Mister Zhivago, For Whom The Bell Rings, and the unsurpassable Good Expectations.

Back to reality and, indeed, this time of madness, complete as it is with much burying of heads in the sand, I certainly have low expectations. However, if we can be serious about waking up from our collective coma of confusion, then perhaps, inspired by the unapologetic rationality of Hitchens, our expectations can indeed be great. To be sure, he was the greatest.

Aidan

Putin

A Dangerous Alliance: Putin and Trump

Randa Selim, Director of the Initiative for Track II Dialogues at the DC-based Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera last year, “Talking with Assad will neither defeat ISIL nor achieve a political solution. Instead, the US, Europe, and their regional allies should talk to his Russian and Iranian sponsors, while increasing military pressure on the ground to deny them and Assad a military victory in Syria.”

Only time will tell if a new direction can be sought in Syria. It is clear that the answer to the problem of Syria cannot be found within the country itself, or even within the region, but only within the White House and the Kremlin. Could Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin be already forming what, in another time, would be an unlikely alliance? I say “already”, because if Trump’s calls to Taiwan and Pakistan are any indication, he has probably been Skyping his pal, Vlad, for months. They may well be friends on Snapchat.

But what could be good for Syria, in as much as ending the conflict, may not necessarily be good for the rest of the world. Could the US legitimise Putin to pursue other interests, such as in the Ukraine? CNN reported in August 2016 that Trump had claimed Putin would not make a military move into Ukraine, even though Putin had already done just that, having seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Trump either does not know or does not care about such things, which, to understate it somewhat, is rather troubling. It is hard to imagine a misinformed John Fitzgerald Kennedy mistakenly saying that Nikita Khrushchev has no nuclear missiles in Cuba in the Autumn of 1962, before being corrected by the interviewer. Of course, Trump is merely President-elect at this stage, but if he is already eager and willing to pick-up the telephone and call whomever he pleases, regardless of established US policy, it is hard to be sure whether the White House would curtail him, where he will be surrounded by advisors, or empower him further to do as he pleases.

So, how close are Trump and Putin? Much of the speculation is simply based on Trump’s notorious Twitter activity, from where he has sent warm messages regarding the former KGB member. What is clear, however, is that both sides seek a working relationship, but I fear this is a mixture of star-struck, idiosyncratic excitement from Trump, and raw opportunism in the case of Putin. It is not going to be a relationship of intellectual equals. Trump is more KFC than KGB. And Putin is still living in the Cold War; it has been widely speculated that Russia is quietly rejoicing at Trump’s election victory because, in classic Cold War mentality, it makes the US look foolish. It is further speculated that Russia did all it could to assist in Trump’s win, spreading fictitious news and facilitating the leaking of content injurious to Hillary Clinton’s election campaign. If the Kremlin really was as active in the election as has been alleged, what we may be about to witness is an era of manipulation of the US President by a far smarter man, with even less moral scruples. The purely cognitive comparison is not saying much, but the latter, ethical, point is most disconcerting for us all. Putin’s moral convictions make Trump look like a choir boy.

The free world must hope that Trump’s administration is wise to the machinations of the Moscow machine, and that they are able to successfully impart the type of advice that Trump can both understand and implement. For if this is not the case, we could be seeing a new “Special Relationship” forming, but not the traditional Anglo-American one, but a new, antithetical US-Russian incarnation, albeit with the US playing the role of the junior partner. Whilst the US undoubtedly has the upper hand over the Russians in both military and financial terms, when it comes to a battle of wits, it is a non-starter. Only one side has the ability to manipulate the other into achieving foreign policy initiatives. Putin is an implacable student of Machiavelli, Trump is a brazen man-child of McDonald’s. The world awaits a joined-up strategy for Syria, but if Trump does not have his admittedly minor wits about him, or indeed, simply does not care, an agreement over Syria may soon be followed by a shirtless Putin riding jauntily through the streets of Kiev on a white charger.

Aidan

P.S.

In a recent podcast covering Brexit, I discussed Winston Churchill’s vision for a post-Cold War Europe, and also looked at Christopher Hitchens’ views on the European Union. I feel that both great men would be most concerned at the developments in Washington in 2016. Please click here to visit the Podcast section.