The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

The Importance of Being Israel – Why We Even Care.

I recall promising a breakdown of Israel’s geopolitical situation but, as I was looking over some past notes and refreshing my memory, I realised that the geopolitics of anywhere is a crashingly boring subject. Unless you’re the sort of person who polishes the undersides of furniture and goes out on weekends to look at interesting rocks. Or an infantryman. I figure that the first kind of person doesn’t really need me to entertain them, and the second kind already knows all about it.

So, rather than a full-blown geopolitical analysis, what I’m going to give here is a quick and dirty summary of Israel in relation to her neighbours, and then attempt to answer the question that doesn’t get asked often enough: Why do we even give a crap what happens over there? Apart from ‘Family of Humanity” type considerations, I believe that our reasons for having a firm position on the Israeli conflict cannot possibly be clear without an understanding of the second and third order consequences of its existence/dissolution. And knowing these reasons makes it difficult to go along with the hysterical prejudice that so often afflicts the issue – which can only be a good thing.

Now, as I’m in a slightly Socratic mood, I shall now proceed to ask myself some questions and then answer them.

Israel is surrounded by more populous and hostile neighbours. Why has it not already been wiped off the map?

There are two main reasons for this. The first is geographic – Israel is surrounded by some formidable natural boundaries. To the East is the river Jordan – by no means an insuperable obstacle, but one which might as well be given the numbers and equipment status of any potential enemy to the East. To the South is the Sinai, a lawless tract of desert, which presents obvious problems for an invader, and equally obvious advantages for a defender. To the North is what might be considered open territory, but as vital trade passes through this region, we may consider this as an area that any regional aggressor would be seriously loth to disrupt. And to the West, of course, is the Med.

The other reason is the nature and ambitions of their immediate neighbours. Even if Egypt and Syria were not currently imploding shitfights, they are generally hampered by disunity and by the natural direction (in the case of Egypt) for any expansionism. Egypt’s wider interests generally lie in the opposite direction to Israel, and they have little interest in definitively taking the Sinai region. For Egypt to expand northwards, it would need to be purely motivated by the annihilation of Israel. Syria, on the other hand, has a strong requirement for access to the sea, and punching through or cutting off a part of Israel to do this would make perfect sense. It is this very need, however, that hampers Syria – its truncated form is such that it cannot viably act unilaterally as it would almost immediately face problems of supply and, you guessed it, access to the sea. For allies its prospects are Egypt, uninterested in advancing in  that direction, Lebanon, incapable of expanding in any direction at all, and Jordan, uninterested in pretty well anything outside its own borders.

So, as far as regional threats are concerned, Israel is actually very well covered. This is partly what we mean when we talk about a strong strategic position.

What about the Palestinians?

If you run your eye over the last post on Israel and have a look at the major players, it becomes apparent that there is not a Palestinian state or non-state actor that is capable of representing an existential threat. This is partially due to their own disunity, poverty and, in some cases, insanity, but mainly to a decades-long policy on Israel’s part of ruthlessly clamping down on these movements. Their infrastructure, materiel, support bases and leadership have been systematically and consistently destroyed over a long period of time. Internal, non-Jewish dissension, in reality, represents no more than an irritant to the state of Israel.

Why are the Yanks always glad-handing them, no matter what they do?

Now here, I think, we get to the nub, and this is really the meat of this whole issue.

We have seen that the region that we know as Israel is actually quite well placed, strategically, so why, for more than two millenia, has Israel been the pawn of empires? It is, in fact, this strategic placement that has made it so. Both the ancient and modern states of Israel have been exceptionally well placed to fend off regional threats. This, naturally, makes it a logical location for any Empire wishing to control the wider region. Couple this with the fact that Israel sits on a nexus of access to the East from the West and vice versa, and we can see that the territory is, in fact, irresistably attractive to global powers.

Israel is small and always has been. It is, and has always been, incapable of fending off threats from what we now term ‘superpowers’. Their highly attractive strategic placement makes them a necessary conquest for any state actor attempting to achieve hegemony in the Middle East – a necessary step to the achievement of global hegemony.

In the past, this has meant that Israel spent the major part of its history as a conquered or vassal nation. Since independence in the modern era, a clever and finely balanced ‘long game’ has been played out in its foreign policy, in order to assure its continued freedom from conquest. In short, Israel’s position is such that its best guarantee of remaining a free state actor is to seek alliance with and sponsorship from a power that is interested in regional and global hegemony. Initially, this was the USSR and then, more recently, the USA. Israel’s friendliness provides a high degree of East/West mobility for a global power, as well as a safe corridor for the transhipment of supplies and, in the event of war, materiel. At the time of writing, the dominant global power in the region is, in fact, the USA, and it is through facilitation of their regional goals and the provision of free access through their territory that Israel is able to wring co-operation, toleration and security guarantees from any and every US government. Throw out your tired old conspiracy theories – this is the very real reason why anybody in the West gives the slightest crap about Israel and its security – control and/or influence in Israel equals the capability to assert regional and therefore global hegemony. While this doesn’t look as good on a cardboard sign as ‘Blood for Oil’ or ‘Zionist Conspiracy’, it happens to be the truth.

So, that’s the very quick and dirty wrap-up of the Israel problem. My hope is that readers will come away from this with the idea that this conflict does not simply boil down to race, religion and unreasoning hatred. That it is a complex power game that is played for very tangible stakes and that it can, therefore be solved. It is all too easy to just say “everyone in that region is completely insane”, throw one’s hands up and deny the possibility of resolution. I sincerely hope that I have gone some way to showing that this is a cop out.

I am Angry Face

“I think he just got carried away and did the wrong thing.”

Juror B37

“Not guilty”

Juror B37

I have nothing to say about the rights and wrongs of the Trayvon Martin case. If the yanks are happy with a big, fat, wannabe cop randomly shooting inappropriately dressed people in the street, that’s their business, though I strongly suspect many of them are not.

I do, however, have a great deal to say about the juror B37. I won’t inflict all of it on you, just the executive summary.

Executive Summary of my Opinion of Juror B37:

  • She’s a fucking moron.

Unfortunately, she is also a fair sample of juries all over the Western world. People who are clever enough to understand the law are often also clever enough to get out of jury duty. There is a small number of intelligent, high-minded people who relish the prospect of doing their civic duty but, statistically, they are what can be described as a negligible quantity. The majority of jurors are of average intellect or below. As a person who is involved in adult education, I know what this really means. It’s horrifying.

An ex-girlfriend of mine once served on a jury in Britain. She talked to me about the experience, saying that she had argued very hard in favour of finding the defendant guilty. This had been in spite of the fact that the evidence in the police case was not so much inconclusive as lacking entirely. So what had convinced her that the man in question had been guilty of this particular crime? Well, the Police Prosecutor had accidentally on purpose let slip the fact that this young man had stolen cars in the past. The jurors had been told to disregard this but, apparently, the concept that the man was only on trial for the offence in question proved far too subtle for this particular middle class professional female.

The comedian James O’Loughlin once delivered this quite sound advice to me, in his guise as a Legal Aid lawyer, when I was contemplating a Not Guilty plea for a youthful indiscretion:

“Juries are generally full of people who like Pauline Hanson because she ‘talks straight and tells it like it is’. I doubt that a jury trial would be your best bet.”

Now, we may not care whether criminals deserve better than to be judged by a committee of subhuman idiots, but we should care about justice. Justice deserves better. In fact, justice cannot possibly be served by halfwits, illiterates and the unemployed, applying their prejudices and glacial, A Current Affair trained logical processes to evidence, half of which they did not understand and the rest of which they slept through.

We live in a society that has very rightly abrogated direct participation in government to elected representatives. And why is this? Because government is a complex and highly involved business. Look at any local council and you’ll see that amateurs attempting to use their ‘common sense’ in the application of government are not exactly the last word in effectiveness and intelligent action. Most people are incapable of costing multi-billion dollar projects, conceptualising and drafting legislation, forming and enacting policy or balancing the competing interests of powerfully backed and boderline extremist interest groups. What we are all perfectly capable of, however, is complaining endlessly about the process of government and casting an ill-considered vote every few years. Happily, the system reflects this.

But what about the legal system? How many of us understand the rules of evidence, their application in the pursuit of justice, the deep principles of legal theory, opinion and assumption? How many of us are able to weigh and sift evidence, reach logical conclusions or separate emotion from the opinions and impressions that we form? I’m not exaggerating when I say that many of my students, far from being able to do all these things, actually struggle to divide round numbers by ten. And yet, these people – these solid citizens of average intelligence – are an ideal jury pool. Prosecutors love them because they will probably do whatever the judge tells them, Defence Counsels love them because they believe pretty much everything they’re told by a man in a suit (or a wig, as the case may be) – the only people who really have cause to fear them are the defendants, whose futures hang on the tortuous mental processes of twelve people they have never met, and who already think of them as ‘The Accused’.

Unlike our political system, the legal system does not reflect the capability or suitability of the average citizen for direct participation. As a result, trial by jury – which I understand is a central pillar of democratic justice – is a hollow mockery of itself.

I had suspected this well before B37 gave her interview. After she had opened her stupid fucking mouth, however, it was confirmed.

It’s not easy being grey

Ladies, gentlemen, Google internet bots – I need tell you something. For some of you, it will come as a bit of a shock. For others, it’s just confirmation of a long-held and possibly subconscious suspicion.

That’s right, everyone. I’m grey.

Yes, you heard that right. Grey. As grey as a wet week. Greyer than Liberace in that greyscale photo I once saw. Pure, unadulterated, 100% bet your life on it, grey.

Being grey is, I’m sure you can appreciate, a huge part of who I am. I wear grey clothes, I have a lot of grey friends, I go to grey clubs, I listen to grey music (Rene Greyer and Green Grey are my favourites), and I live in what I believe to be a pretty grey-friendly city. My partner is also grey (obviously), and, like most loving couples, we have a lot of socks. Sure, our grey socks might look a little different to your black & white socks, and maybe the thought of us having grey socks grosses you out a bit, but when it comes down to it, my socks and your socks are both about the same thing (keeping our feet warm, obviously).

For most of our history, the world was a very black and white place, and it wasn’t that long ago that an announcement like this would have been unthinkable, or, at the very least, extremely inadvisable. Sure, friends have often asked me if I’m grey. And yes, people still wonder if this or that celebrity or sportsman is grey, and it still makes the news if one of them actually is. There are even some people out there, in 2013, who would love to take our grey socks away from us, or in some cases bleach them white! But it doesn’t bring with it the social (and sometimes literal) death it once did.

So give it a try. Try and see people as they are, not how you think they should be. Beware of absolutes. Try and live a little outside your own narrow experience, and accept that, while we are all heading to the same place, there are 7 billion ways to get there. And your way isn’t necessarily better than anyone else’s.

But most of all, recognise that diversity is a gift, and the richness of our shared experiences is enhanced by the differences in the people around us.

Life’s better with a little grey.

The Enemy of my Enemy: A (very) Rough Guide to Who’s Who in the Israel/Palestine Zoo

Let’s start this one with a disclaimer. The author is not responsible for the failure to subdivide into its million splinters each and every faction involved in this giant clusterfuck we know as the Israel/Palestine conflict. Furthermore, the author is not responsible for failing to mention every single two dozen strong group of crazies who may or may not have made the news at some point or other.

Actually, the author is responsible, but has made the decision to stick to the big players in the highly justified belief that nobody in their right minds is going to read a thirty thousand word blog post full of foreign words. So, in the best tradition of blogging, I am not going to give you a closely argued, citation riddled essay on the fights and factions in the region. Instead, I am going to outline what I see as the major interest groups and what I understand to be their beliefs, agenda and priorities.

So, we begin, appropriately enough, with…

The Zionists

The term Zionist comes from the Hebrew word for Jerusalem (Zion). It’s meant to hark back to the time, nearly three thousand years ago, when the ancient Jews were expelled from their homelands by the Babylonian Empire. Compare this with our rooted inability to remember anything that happened more than one hundred years ago, and then think twice before making comparisons between people and cultures. Anyway, Zionism is a controversial doctrine, having been declared twice by the UN to be racist and divisive. Most Zionists will claim that all they are doing is promoting the freedom and rights to nationhood of the Jewish people. Practically everyone else says that their ideas are racist, colonialist and downright frightening. I’ll leave that one up to you.

Zionism as a movement is roughly one hundred and fifty years old. It arose in the late 19th century, and came to a violent head in the latter days of the British Mandate. All Zionists believe that the Jews have a right to a nation state in an area somewhat larger than Israel’s current borders. They call this “Eretz Israel”, meaning “The Land of Israel” and referring to Israel as described and defined in the Torah. Zionists oppose the assimilation of Jews into non-Jewish populations and, in its most extreme iterations, would seem to oppose the existence of non-Jewish populations. There are, of course, several different kinds of Zionists, including Nationalist, Cultural and Religious Zionists. These are largely variations on a theme and, in their moderate (and majority) forms, can be compared, I suppose, with a particularly enthusiastic political lobby group. Zionists and Zionist thinking are strongly present in almost every political party in Israel.

The Haredi

Haredi comes from a word or phrase in Hebrew meaning “trembles before the voice of the lord”, or something like that. Basically, translated literally, “The Haredi” means “The Frightened”. Of course, in the real world, they act like anything but. The Haredi are not a religious sect within Judaism. Both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews are numbered amongst the Haredi. They are not overtly political – in fact, politics appears to be against their religion.

The Haredi are devout. Every hour of every day, every garment they wear, every milestone in life and every decision, however minor, is decided based on interpretations of the Torah. They are educated in separate schools and are largely exempted from National Service. They believe that man’s business on Earth is to do the will of god – politics, magazines, television – none of these are of god, and therefore none are the business of man. This has not, however, stopped them from forming a small political party, which seems mainly concerned with preserving Haredi privileges and exemptions.

They currently represent about ten percent of the Jewish population and are an important counterbalance to the Zionists as, whilst few are called, many sympathise. Their general response to Zionists (even to religious Zionists) is: This is not the business of god, and therefore it is none of mine. They are a real force in popular Israeli thought, mainly because there will always be those who find purism appealing.

HizbAllah

Hizballah literally means “The Party of God”. They are a Lebanese separatist group fighting for the liberation of Israeli controlled territories around the officially sanctioned border between Israel and Lebanon. Hizballah are well funded, resourced and manned, largely because they are funded, resourced and manned by a nation state we like to call Iran. It is a matter of common knowledge that Hizballah is Iran’s idea of foreign power projection, being a deniable shadow army used to put pressure on key Arab and non-Arab states that are important to them.

Iran, pretty much since the fall of the Shah, has wanted to re-establish local Hegemony, which is difficult, they being about as popular in the Arab world as Israel. It is for this reason that Al Quds (Iranian dirty jobs brigade [SF]) pours so much money, materiel and manpower into this fringe army fighting what many believe to be a completely lost cause.

Hizballah is hampered by a few things. First and foremost, their relationship with Iran makes it virtually impossible that Israel will ever enter into any meaningful dialogue with them. Secondly, they are Shia, which largely cuts them off from the significant upsurge in availability of jihadi funding, logistical support and manpower. Thirdly, they are so used to being puppets that it is often difficult to discern, from their actions alone, anything amounting to a coherent battle plan aimed at liberating certain Israeli held territories.

What they are, though, is a constant and expert threat – violent, skilled and fanatically committed, Hizballah is not to be sneezed at. Just ask the Syrian rebels.

Hamas

Hamas is a clever acronym. It stands for Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah, which means “Islamic Resistance Movement”, whilst the acronym roughly means “enthusiasm”. Hamas was part of the second Intifada (Palestinian revolt) and is regarded as being an offshoot or related to the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. It’s paramilitary wing,  Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, is the one responsible for the rocket attacks and kidnappings, etc, that we hear so much about (in slow news weeks). Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades is, however,a bit of a mouthful, and any clever acronym would sound a bit like “Izdatanass”, so everyone just calls it all Hamas.

Hamas is a highly motivated, well organised and well armed Sunni religious group. You may remember them from such conflicts as the Gaza war, and that couple of weeks when Hamas basically rolled up the US backed military wing of Fatah. Being so good has cost them, however, and most of their military and support infrastructure has been significantly eroded by constant Israeli strikes and raids.

Hamas is officially designated a terrorist organisation by many nations, including our own. This is a little bit awkward, considering that they are also the democratically elected government of what can loosely be called Palestine (Gaza). It’s not just their paramilitary success that wins them hearts and minds, however. Hamas is strongly entrenched in the local communities of their territory and, in the darkest days of the conflict, were often the only organisation providing services (education, roads, health care, policing). They have a numerous and committed following, which is a shame, as their core mission statement is to replace the current state of Israel with an Islamic state of Palestine. They have eased off from this hardline position in recent years, but I personally believe that this is in order to secure a general ceasefire and time to regroup and re-arm.

Hamas is refreshingly non-sectarian, and is noteworthy for having built a solid relationship with the Shi’ite HizbAllah.

Fatah

Fatah is another clever acronym. It stands for… actually, who gives a crap. Basically, Fatah is an acronym of an acronym, and the word, in Arabic, connotes the period of mediaeval Islamic expansion.

Fatah was founded by Yassir Arafat, absorbed by the PLO, and has always been a major player in the conflict. The West prefers Fatah to Hamas because Fatah is largely secularist. Their main goals are nationalist, rather than Islamist, and this gives all of us a warm fuzzy when we’re trawling through group analyses. This might explain why, despite maintaining several paramilitary wings with menacing names, Fatah has ceased to be considered a terrorist organisation.

The Fatah/PLO government was the first elected government in the Palestinian Authority (I finally remembered the proper name for it!), and it was during this period that the cracks in their organisation really began to show. The problem is, Fatah is massive, ruled by a committee of rotating members, and seriously fragmented in its aims, ideology, demography and modi. This might explain why Hamas so easily rolled them up and had them declaring, within days of conflict start, that “Hamas and Fatah have no political differences”.

Fatah have consistently proven themselves to be the most reasonable to deal with, but have just as consistently proved that they have nil control of large portions of the populous and of the numerous paramilitary organisations operating in the area – theirs and others. I distinctly remember a two-state accord being reached between Israel and Fatah, world-wide celebration and the declaration of a cease fire. This was followed immediately by five days of uninterrupted rocket and small arms attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. My personal opinion is that, in seeking a peacefully negotiated two-state solution, Fatah is a broken reed upon which to lean, and the only reason we keep talking to them is that they can be relied upon to show up to the summits.

 

That, as promised, was very rough. There are, I know, a vast array of factions, parties, groups and movements that I have not even mentioned, but the goal was a rough guide, so hopefully there aren’t any expert analysts who have wasted their time reading this.

The third and final instalment, for those of you who have not become completely bored of Israel and its shenanigans, will be a geopolitical overview and a quick general sitrep followed by my own conclusions, which are likely to be just as vague as everyone else’s.

Forget it, Jake – It’s Jerusalem

Tim asked me if I might perhaps do a little infotainment on the subject of Israel. The reason he stated for his interest was: “I have no idea why things are how they are [over there]”.

You , me and the rest of the world, Tim.

It can never hurt, however, to have some of the facts, so:

This is the first in a series of blogs on Israel – a very rough guide covering history, a basic anatomy of the conflict and a very light skimming of the relevant geopolitics. In this post, we will deal with the history in a horribly incomplete fashion. Hopefully, however, we’ll be able to hit the highlights – those aspects which are directly relevant to us today.

In the beginning, there was nothing. Literally. The idea of Israel that we have today – of a small, embattled state surrounded on all sides by hostile frontiers, is a strictly modern phenomenon. Israel first appears in some very ancient (Circa 1200 BCE) texts as a reference to what was most likely a politico-ethnic group, rather than a fully formed city state or other state entity.

About five  hundred years later, we have references to the kingdoms of Judah and Israel – a split between what was presumably a previously unified kingdom. Both of these kingdoms are recorded in biblical texts as having been in a constant state of warfare with their neighbours – par for the ancient course, really. This picture of the ancient Israelites is corroborated in Babylonian and Egyptian records, as well as by archaeology. It is interesting to note just how tiny these kingdoms were. The capital of Philistine, neighbour and deadly rival, was a little place we know today as Gaza.

Around the 8th century BCE we have the kingdom of Israel destroyed by the Assyrians.

From this point until the withdrawal of the British from their mandate in the early twentieth century, Israel has been non-existent as an independent entity. It has been ruled by Babylonians, Persians, Hellenics, Romans, Arab clients of Romans, the same Ummayad who ruled Syria and  Egyptian Mamelukes. It formed part of Rome’s largest and richest province, was the keystone of the wonderfully incongruous and intriguing Crusader state Outremer, and ranked, along with Damascus, as one of the most significant possessions of the Ottoman Empire. At no point over roughly two thousand eight hundred years could “Israel” have been said to be an independent, or even a real, state entity. Palestinian Arabs, Jews, assorted Moslems – all their claims to rightful, historical ownership of “The State of Israel” should be taken with this rather large grain of salt.

Jerusalem as a holy city was built by a triumvirate of faiths. I would suggest that the man hours, resources and emotional investment/religious significance poured into Jerusalem is roughly equal between Jew, Moslem and Christian. Whilst the Jews were definitely in first, the temple as we know it was built by pagan Arab clients of Rome, the various Islamic empires that owned it over the centuries built massive swathes of the modern city and the Christian Crusaders shed and spilt oceans of blood to guard their attempt at an earthly Kingdom of Heaven. People might violently disagree with this assessment, but I cannot help but feel that each of these groups and faiths has both history and sincerity equally on their sides when they talk about Jerusalem being their spiritual home. Therein lies, in my opinion, a significant part of the problem.

With the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the conclusion of WWI, the territories we’re concerned with were doled out between the British and the French. The British ruled what we now call Israel from 1920 to 1948. During this period, there were several waves of Jewish immigration to the British protectorate known as Palestine. These were driven by persecution variously committed by Russians, various Arab states and, of course, Germany. These waves of immigration were known as “Aliyah”, and, along with other factors, were the cause of serious Arab resentment of the Jews in the region. It was also during this period that Palestinian Nationalism first emerged as a real political movement, developing roughly simultaneously with Zionism. We’ll deal with what they are in a later post.

Significantly, when the British attempted to create consultative groups to engage in dialogue and collaborate in leadership of the region, only the Jewish organisations approached actually responded. The Arab led groups refused to participate. This has left a heavy legacy of pain for the Arab populations within modern day Israel.

I don’t know about you, but the story that I was told when I was in school was that the ‘world’ decided to give the Jews a homeland after the atrocities committed against them by the Third Reich, which I always thought was very kind of ‘the world’. Unsurprisingly, the truth is neither that simple nor that heartwarming.

Aliyah Bet, the practice of Jews illegally entering Palestine after fleeing from trouble spots or the sites of atrocities, pogroms, etc., had led to a significant upsurge in the Jewish population of Palestine. The Zionists, for reasons of their own, decided to use violence in a bid to gain independence from the British, and a bitter, four year insurgency was fought with tried and true insurgency tactics – terrorism, suicide bombing and assassination. The public, however, seems to love any terrorist that is neither Marxist nor Arab, and public support for the Zionists was so strong that global political and financial pressure was put on the British to resolve the situation and give up Palestine. In true British style, they handed the problem over to the UN who created a partition plan . Significantly, Arab groups boycotted these discussions as well. Like all good partition plans, this one resulted almost immediately in a long and bitter civil war – in this case, various Arab groups fighting various Jewish groups for control and ascendancy within the newly independent state of Israel.

Such is the sweet and heartwarming story of the birth of Israel as we know it.

Next instalment, we will cover Zionism, Pan-Arabism, Islamism and the Haredi in an attempt to explain the various positions of participants in the conflict, as a nice change from the mass media practice of simply dismissing them all as random lunatics.