This is the first humanitarian dictionary for colleagues and practitioners in the field! And it’s open access for everyone.
I contributed with the entries ‘livelihoods’ and ’emergency’.
You can download the file by accessing this link:
This is the first humanitarian dictionary for colleagues and practitioners in the field! And it’s open access for everyone.
I contributed with the entries ‘livelihoods’ and ’emergency’.
You can download the file by accessing this link:
What does it happen when local residents of the Beirut southern suburbs speak of the Lebanese state offering Lebanon “on a silver tray” and Syrian refugees in the northern region of Akkar mention the Lebanese state as a repressive political actor allied with supposedly neutral humanitarian agencies which manage their everyday life?
In this article, just published in the main Canadian Anthropological journal Anthropologica 61(1): 83-96 (University of Toronto Press), I rethink liminality in anthropology and I identify in liminality the behavioural politics of the Lebanese state, whose enmity is perceived by refugees and local citizens, both frustrated by failed attempts at befriending the central state throughout Lebanon’s history.
Here below you can find the abstract in English and French, as well as the link from where to access my article.
Abstract: Drawing on the July 2006 Israel–Lebanon War in Beirut’s southern suburbs and the Syrian refugee influx into the villages of Akkar in northern Lebanon, I suggest that the Lebanese state aspires to officially assert itself as a liminal space in a bid to survive crises and preserve its political capital, therefore aborting the attempts made by citizens and refugees to leave such liminality. I look at how professed state liminality meets with humanitarian neutrality, which is a principle of several international humanitarian agencies that assisted the internally displaced in 2006 and Syrian refugees from 2011 in Lebanon. Although in anthropology liminality has mostly been approached as anti-structural and an embodiment of the mar-gins, by proceeding from people’s perception of state enmity and their frustrated aspirations to befriend the state, I suggest that state liminality rather captures the structural peculiarity of the Lebanese state’s agency and violent presence, made of repressive and neglectful politics.
Keywords: refugees, Lebanon, humanitarianism, welfare, NGOs
Résumé : Partant de la guerre israélo-libanaise de juillet 2006 dans la banlieue sud de Beyrouth et de l’afflux de réfugiés syriens dans les villages du Akkar au nord du Liban, j’émets l’hypothèse que l’État libanais cherche à s’affirmer officielle-ment comme espace liminaire afin de survivre aux crises et de préserver son capital politique, faisant ainsi échec aux efforts de citoyens et de réfugiés pour quitter cette liminarité. J’exa-mine l’intersection de la liminarité étatique proclamée et de la neutralité humanitaire, ce dernier principe étant mis en avant par de nombreuses agences humanitaires internationales qui ont assisté les déplacés internes en 2006 et qui accompagnent les réfugiés syriens au Liban depuis 2011. Si en anthropologie la liminarité est généralement abordée comme un phénomène anti-structurel et comme une incarnation des marges, je m’ap-puie sur la perception qu’ont les gens de l’inimitié étatique et de leurs aspirations frustrées à se rapprocher de l’État pour avancer que la liminarité étatique permet plutôt d’appréhender la particularité structurelle de l’agencéité et de la présence violente propres à l’État libanais, lesquelles sont marquées par une politique conjointe de répression et d’abandon.
Mots clés : réfugiés, Liban, humanitaire, protection sociale, ONG
In this blog post I would like to share my personal experiences of carrying out qualitative research in what contemporary scholars call the “Global South” (Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt) and the “Global North” (Australia and the United Kingdom). To convey my message clearly, I adopt the classical political geography of “South” and “North” with the intention of neither confirming these narrow categories nor of universalizing my personal experiences but in order to work towards an honest sociology of knowledge through such peculiar experiences.
In particular, I discuss what I think are some of the emerging behavioral and ethical tendencies in today’s research economy and its main methodologies. On the one hand, the reluctance in the “Southern” environments in recognizing their own tendency to embrace predominant ways of producing knowledge. On the other, the reluctance of “Northern” research entities to acknowledge their own positionality within the global scenario – that is, accepting the fact of conducting research as outsiders and, above all, the sociological harm of pretending localism. The result of these two tendencies is, from my perspective, a globalized impoverished attention to factual awareness, which depends on the personal involvement of researchers in the context they study and the cultivation of the capability to build and rebuild a continual relationship with the subjects and the places studied beyond the duration of fieldwork research.
The “Southern” tendency to perceive the practice of producing research as antithetical or substantially different to the North consistently builds on the universal romanticization of the research produced in the Global South, cutting across the North and the South. Indeed, while the research and academic institutions that I worked for in the Global South tended to believe that their fieldwork quality standards were inherently higher, the fact of being at the mercy of external – and unstable – sources of funding often endangered their existence and alternative ways of working. In these circumstances, fieldwork mostly took place in relatively small timeframes and, likewise, theories needed to be quickly wrapped up, making it difficult to identify any effective counter-culture of knowledge production. Studies on publishing locally and perishing globally have importantly highlighted the material constraints of localizing research. While “Southern” knowledge is barely known and mentioned by North-produced researchers (although it often marks significantly several fields of studies), it is also important to add that, in my own experiences across the Arab world, large segments of upper and middle classes tend to receive their postgraduate education and establish their scholarship in Northern institutions, thereby being trained according to Northern criteria while trying to preserve their reputation of being local researchers. In similar ways, Southern institutions often delegate fieldwork to research assistants who struggle to receive intellectual acknowledgment. (The same acknowledgment that many “Southern” research institutions have been looking for in the international arena, still dominated by Global North’s epistemologies and funding sources). In this regard, I have seen no co-authorships offered to research assistants, who undergo processes of alienation similar to those recently discussed in the context of the institutions of the Global North. Likewise, I have witnessed similarly exploitative relationships which seek to build knowledge upon the anonymity and the belittling of an underpaid workforce, whatever the latter’s passport is.
Despite acknowledging the partially ethnic character of some of these power dynamics – such as European academics versus local researchers in the Arab Levant, mostly when the former lack the necessary linguistic skills and in-depth knowledge of the research settings – I would like to emphasize some nuances. While the global archetype of neoliberal academia certainly does not stem from Southern institutions, largely due to colonial legacies, in my experience I have identified hierarchical and alienating structures of research-making across different cultural patterns of knowledge production.
Dauntingly, ethical research and decolonial methodologies are becoming tokenistic worldwide, turning into a further disenfranchisement of diversely vulnerable researched subjects, such as refugees. In this scenario, the Global North currently promotes itself as a pioneer advocate of ethical research – a phenomenon which has led to a proliferation of publications on the topic, rather than finally aiming for a radical transformation of research and for the uprooting of the vulnerabilities of the researched.
With no intention to bury unequal historical relationships, the intrinsic “non-ethicness” of such structural deficiencies needs to be observed across Norths and Souths. To ethnographers, if quality fieldwork means collecting relevant data, it also needs to mean collecting what matters at a local level and in an appropriate way. Contextual relevance and cultural appropriateness inevitably require generous timeframes. Doing less but long-term research and paying under-explored forms of respect to the researched may be the way to go.
Moreover, a pressing question may center on the tyranny of grants and funding, which is said to dictate the design of today’s projects. To what extent is this the cause of such an unacknowledged sociology of failure in academic research? The present tendency is to design methods that involve an extremely large number of interviews and what I would call the “participatory approach fever”. The result of a misinterpretation of what “participation” should mean is subcontracting scientific evidence to researched subjects overburdened with theoretical expectations and over-theorizations, a tendency which seldom turns out to provide sound empirical evidence. In this vein, Northern-led research not only tends to romanticize the South, which would not be new in postcolonial scholarship, but increasingly invites the South to actively participate in its own romanticization. Affected by “participatory approach fever”, many scholars in the Global North feel urged to depict their work as local, while also missing the fact that sharing their own conscious positionality vis-à-vis the researched would instead be an invaluable point of departure in the effort to avoid ethical and scientific failure. Indeed, such a self-acknowledgment would finally contribute to nuancing the multiple cultures in which research design, data collection, writing, and knowledge production are embedded – cultures that are hardly definable within the categories of “North” and “South”.
In light of these considerations, I ask myself how ethnographic studies can survive without being sociologically relevant and, at times, even culturally appropriate. Subcontracting the production of knowledge either to local researchers or to the researched themselves is certainly not a one-size-fits-all answer. Yet it looks unfeasible for many researchers across the globe to dispose of proper time and funding to conduct research over a longer timeframe and develop a localized understanding of the contexts they wish to study. I identified a similar issue when I realized that some researchers who have a poor command of the local language shy away from hiring an interpreter due to a lack of material means or because they are in an environment that frowns upon social science researchers who lack contextual skills. While peacefully sharing one’s own limits and assets would potentiate empirical analysis overall, everyone wants to be the “voice of the Global South”. Instead, no one wants to be the Global North, impeding a honest sociology of knowledge. Thus, how do we decolonize sociological and anthropological knowledge and, at the same time, the sociology of knowledge, if the drivers of epistemological coloniality, across Norths and Souths, have managed to make themselves invisible?
My name is Andrea Glioti, I’m the journalist who intervened at Dr. Tim Anderson’s talk at Sydney UNI “Why I went to Syria” on March 6 (2014), an event promoting a blatant apology of the Syrian regime under the pretext of “counter-information”. A professor of political economy, Tim Anderson (https://www.facebook.com/timand2037?fref=ts) has been part of a delegation led by the Wikileaks Party and the Asadist activist group “Hands Off Syria”, which paid its homage to the Syrian regime during a visit of solidarity in December 2013. This is a response to some of the absurdities I heard about the Syrian conflict and, apart from the single case of Anderson, it addresses several points continuously raised by the so-called “anti-imperialist left”. It would be actually fair to rename this ideological stubbornness on Syria as a Stalinist-Soviet approach, if we were between the 1950s the 1960s, Anderson and his likes would be probably denying the Hungarian and Czech revolts ever took place. If we were in the Spanish Civil War, they would probably defend the Soviet decision to crush the anarchists. As long as a government sits in the anti-American camp (no matter the hypocrisy of Syrian foreign policies in this regard), it doesn’t really matter if it tortures leftists in its own prisons. Dr Anderson and his likes claim to hold the truth on what’s going on in Syria, this truth could be sum up in a Western-backed plot denying any sort of agency to the Syrians who took the streets in 2011. In their eyes, they’re only puppets, they would have never risen up after more 40 years of authoritarianism , they needed the Zionist-Salafi-American trust to give them a green light.
I’m an Arabic speaking Middle Eastern politics graduate, who has been covering Syria from inside the country for 10 months between 2011 and 2013 and I spent the rest of the time between Turkey and Lebanon, mainly in the border regions, where most of the Syrian refugees are located. I’ve worked with a wide range of media including “corporate” and “leftist” magazines (The New Internationalist, the German TAZ, the Swiss-German WOZ fall in the second category), being a freelancer, therefore I don’t even fit into the category of mainstream corporate media. Having said this, the sources Dr Anderson relied upon during his presentation could hardly be considered “independent” sources of information, despite his efforts to present them as such: Russia Today, in the words of Putin, reflects the views of the Kremlin, just like the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reflects the views of the pro-Syrian (regime) 8 March coalition. Among the sources quoted there was also Mother Agnès de la Croix, a Palestinian-Lebanese nun closely related to the Asad regime (http://pulsemedia.org/2012/08/21/dead-journalists-and-sister-agnes-mariam/) and the French far-right (http://vicinoriente.wordpress.com/2012/05/20/la-monaca-di-assad/). Anderson’s talk was covered by the Iranian Press TV: if the station’s anti-US biases were combined with a minimum degree of professionalism, then my intervention wouldn’t have been censored, after I raised several critical points Anderson intentionally ignored.
Notwithstanding the political biases of Western and Gulf media [the focus on Syria in contrast with how Bahrain has been overlooked and the role played by certain American media in advocating war on Iraq in 2003, despite the lack of any evidence on its chemical arsenal, just to quote two examples], the solution is not to take at face value the version of events provided by pro-Syrian regime sources to come up with a credible alternative narrative. Journalism is about verifying facts, a strong ground-driven knowledge of the context you’re talking about, a reliable network of local contacts and, ideally, some fluency in the local language (Arabic): all these aspects were totally absent in Dr Anderson’s conference.
While retaining the right to be skeptical about the Western media’s coverage of Syria, everyone should bear in mind that the main reason of the conflicting news reports coming from this country is the restrictive context journalists are forced to operate in: while based in Damascus in 2011, I had to pretend being a student to avoid being monitored 24/h by security forces, my Brazilian colleague Germano Assad has been detained in confinement for five days under the only accusation of being a journalist. I have been denied access to Syria in 2012 and told I was not welcome there anymore on the grounds of the interviews I conducted with local political dissidents. I’m sure this was the reason, because of the content of the questions posed to my colleague Assad under interrogation. This is just an idea of what you have to endure as a Western journalist, if you’re not there on an official parade organized through government press visas. It goes without saying that Syrian journalists “enjoy” a much worse treatment: one of my personal acquaintances had to leave Syria recently, after having been tortured and put on trial for “working without a license” and “spreading lies”. Let us not forget WHY it is so difficult to work in Syria and inform about the ongoing events.
Going back to Anderson’s talk, first of all, you don’t claim to show support for one “nation”, if you only sat for pastries with Asad, that’s not showing solidarity with the “Syrian people”, that’s an official delegation voicing its support for a Government.
During my stay in Syria I had the chance to walk around without any escort, both in Damascus in 2011 and in the province of Hasakah in 2013: this clearly makes the difference from an official visit to Damascus (actually, to a certain extent, it makes the difference even in comparison to some other journalists, who have only been escorted into Syria by rebel brigades). As a matter of fact, Anderson didn’t meet with anyone from the opposition, neither from the armed factions nor from the civil peaceful movements (and there are lots of peaceful activists still active in Syria… http://www.syriauntold.com/en) .
There was a lot of talk on US imperialism and Zionism: could Anderson provide any actual evidence that the US have been willing to overthrow Asad? All the red lines have been crossed (including the use of chemical weapons), three years have passed and I haven’t seen any intervention. If they really wanted, they could have done it much earlier. This picture of Asad as a staunch anti-American also stands in contradiction with the rapprochement between Washington and Damascus in 2010, marked by the appointment of ambassador Robert Ford. The position of the US on the Syrian events has been largely stumbling, due also to the fact that they didn’t receive any green light from the Israelis. Did Anderson bother to listen to Rami Makhluf- Bashar al-Asad’s cousin and one of the most influential business figures in Syria- when the revolt started in 2011? He said clearly that the Israeli security was dependent on the permanence of the Asad regime.
If you brand the Asad regime as an anti-Zionist vanguard, then you probably disregard some historical facts: no offensive was launched against Israel since the October war in 1973; Hafez al-Asad’s Syria was willing to reach a peace agreement with the Israelis in 2000, on condition of the return of the occupied Golan Heights and a renewed access to the Sea of Galilee, hence a pragmatic approach concerned about national sovereignty rather than the Palestinian cause; Palestinians were slaughtered by far-right Lebanese Christian militias in cooperation with Syrian troops in the massacre of Tel Zaatar during the Lebanese civil war; the PLO has been at odds with the Syrian regime for a long time, since the latter was not willing to jeopardize its national interests for the sake of the Palestinian cause (See what the socialists have to say about this http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2000/06/assa-j16.html). I would also suggest Anderson and his likes read more on the so-called Red Line agreement between Israel and Syria during the Lebanese civil war, a deal brokered by Kissinger to share regions of influence (http://www.merip.org/mer/mer236/syria-lebanon-brotherhood-transformed#_5_).
The Israeli officials maintained an extremely low profile position on Syria during the events and why on earth should they have pushed for the removal of Asad, if he kept the Syrian-Israeli border quiet for forty years? They look more worried about a new unknown diverse galaxy of rebel groups controlling the border, whereas they know exactly what to expect from Asad. Have a look at what Noam Chomsky had to say about the Israeli stance on Syria (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MQeGHoiPj4&feature=youtu.be Is he too part of the corporate media?): he clearly points at the fact that, if the Israelis wanted to support the opposition, they could have just opened another front on the Golan. Such a move would have weakened the Syrian army by opening a new front in the South: a much less costly option to support the armed opposition than an open scale offensive on Damascus. But nothing like this happened and Anderson still define it as a regime from the “Resistance” axis.
Until now, the Syrian regime is enforcing a devastating siege on the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, because part of its inhabitants joined the rows of the opposition. I have been collecting evidence of the first anti-regime demonstrations in Yarmuk on my blog since June 2011 (in Italian https://mabisir.wordpress.com/2011/06/28/2-blogging-five-months-of-revolution-inside-syria-5-6-june-2011-golan-to-yarmuk-palestinians-joining-the-syrian-uprising/), when Palestinian protesters were shot at for chanting against the exploitation of the Naksa day at the hands of Ahmad Jibril’s PFLP-GC: in that case, the demonstrators voiced their indignation, after several residents of the camp were literally “thrown” in front of the Israeli rifles at the border in order to divert the attention from the Syrian uprising. Khaled Bakrawi, a Palestinian activist from Yarmuk, was killed under torture in the Syrian prisons in September 2013: he took part in the Naksa march and was outspoken about the way the Syrian regime had exploited the fervor of the Palestinian youth, despite having been himself wounded by the Israelis at the border (http://budourhassan.wordpress.com/2013/09/15/death-under-torture-in-syria-the-horrors-ignored-by-pacifists/).
I personally know several Palestinian leftist dissidents unknown to the media who had to leave Syria or ended up in its jails, but I cannot name them, as it might affect their upcoming trials or their return to Syria in the future. One of the most famous ones, Salameh Kaileh, a marxist Palestinian (http://links.org.au/node/2841), had to flee to Jordan after having been arrested and detained in 2012. Was he an Islamist too? Perhaps a Zionist?
Has Anderson ever read how the Palestinian anarchist Budour Hassan has totally debunked the claims of those who portrait Damascus as a champion of the Palestinian cause (http://budourhassan.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/analysis-the-myth-of-palestinian-neutrality-in-syria/)? What about the experience of Omar ‘Aziz, a Syrian anarchist who returned to his country upon the outbreak of the uprising to help organizing the first local revolutionary committees in Barzeh, which are considered “some of the most promising and lasting examples of non-hierarchical self organization” (http://tahriricn.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/syria-the-life-and-work-of-anarchist-omar-aziz-and-his-impact-on-self-organization-in-the-syrian-revolution/)? He died because of a heart attack in February 2013, after having been detained for three months in the Adra prison. During his talk, Anderson mentioned a visit to Adra, blaming the “radical Islamists” for the constant shelling, but I doubt he ever asked about whom is detained in the local prison, didn’t he?
A comparison with Afghanistan and its pre-Taliban empowerment of rural classes was made in the introduction and Anderson repeatedly labeled the Syrian regime a “socially inclusive” Government. This means he didn’t even bother to check the map of the areas controlled by the opposition: basically a wide portion of the countryside is in the hands of the rebels. Why? Because the uprising was more popular among the rural outcasts, namely those who have been impoverished by Bashar al-Asad’s shift towards neoliberalism and those who have been always marginalized under the Ba’th, like the Kurds living in the Northern countryside (See another Syrian socialist perspective on the “inclusiveness” of the regime’s economic policies http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article3380). Although it wouldn’t be objective to argue that the social gap in Syria was as wide as the Egyptian one, for example, the Syrian case is remote from “social inclusiveness”, it looks more like an economy controlled by a gang of affiliates and tycoons like Rami Makhluf, who are the antithesis of social justice.
Anderson depicted the uprising in Aleppo as led by religious fundamentalists, but he didn’t mention at all that a vast segment of the urban classes who sided with the regime are actually part of the Syrian bourgeoisie, epitomized by Aleppo’s traders. Did the so-called “anti-imperialist left” embrace a moral struggle to defend the urban upper classes against peasants, on the basis of the length of the beards of some of these peasants, who are homogeneously branded as “Islamists”? In July 2011, I visited a group of metalworkers in their workshop in Qadam (Southern Damascus), they were all taking part to the protests, one of them was a Syrian in his twenties with a degree in computer science he was never able to use: his father passed away and he had to seal shawarma machines to cover the expenses of his young brother living with him. This young graduate was also a hip hop singer from the group Refugees of Rap and we recorded a track together called “The Age of Silence” (Zaman as-Samt) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umQ3xGj4E2Y), which deals with the drive behind the protests. Is the “anti-imperialist left” supposed to empathize with the demands of this kind of marginalized urban youth or to side with the ruling classes?
Was the regime “socially inclusive” towards 2 to 4 million Kurds, who are mostly secular minded? Not at all. In 2013, I’ve spent five months in the province of Hasakah, a region affected by chronic poverty, despite its natural resources. The history written by the Ba’th is made up of racist Arab settlement policies confiscating wide shares of Kurdish lands in Hasakah (the so-called al-Hizam al-Arabi, the Arab Belt policy). The regime has also abided by a census conducted in 1962, who stripped off the Syrian citizenship thousands of Syrian Kurds. Even though the Kurdish regions are rich of oil, all the refineries were built in Homs and Banyas to impede the economic empowerment of rural peripheries.
During Anderson’s talk, I heard him praising “elections” and “pluralism” under the Ba’th and I confront this with the story of one of my close acquaintances in Hasakah, whose nails have been removed under torture on the grounds of its affiliation to the Yekiti Kurdi Parti. Is this the pluralism he’s talking about? Or is this pluralism about the Minister of Reconciliation Ali Haidar, the secretary general of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), that Anderson mentioned in the ridiculous attempt to provide evidence that other political forces are tolerated inside the Ba’thist government? Is Anderson aware that from 2005 until 2012, despite the dissident history of Antoun Saadeh’s party, its Damascene branch has been part of the National Progressive Front established by the Ba’th to create an umbrella of loyal parties behind the facade of pluralism? Is he aware that Ali Haidar has recently endorsed the candidacy of Bashar al-Asad for the upcoming presidential elections? I personally know some SSNP members, who quit the party, after they realized to which extent it had become involved in the recruitment of pro-government militias (shabbiha) in 2011.
As I said during my intervention at the talk, I attended several demonstrations both in Damascus and in the suburbs of the capital in 2011: I heard no sectarian slogans, saw children and women taking part to the uprising and witnessed live fire opened on demonstrators by security forces. Peaceful protesters were even beaten up in front of my eyes as soon as July 2011 in the Old City (in Italian https://mabisir.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/6-blogging-five-months-of-revolution-inside-syria-in-italiano-proteste-nel-centro-di-damasco-se-rimaniamo-fino-a-domattina-saremo-mezzo-milione-27-luglio-2011/), in the center of Damascus. My colleague Germano Assad has been prevented by government supporters from filming this demonstration, he had to escape after they started shouting at him: “This is not Syria!”. This is just an example of the state of denial some regime supporters live in, when it comes to recognizing the occurrence of peaceful protests: one of the attendants of Anderson’s talk, a Syrian who claimed to have lived in the Old City, insisted he never saw any protest in that part of Damascus. The aim is to deny protests ever took place, then to deny massacres occurred (as this was what Anderson’s conference was all about): it reminds me of the attitude of Holocaust’s deniers, or that of those Lebanese Phalangists who assert their party never slaughtered Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila. No matter the extent of evidence and accounts you gather, they will keep denying. In the end, their angle of view is identical to the one adopted by the Syrian State television: I remember very well the cameramen of al-Ikhbariyya filming the empty streets of Barzeh (Damascus) patrolled by security forces, while they were perfectly aware that a demonstration was going on a few blocks away.
I used to know personally one of the peaceful protesters who were chased by regime supporters in that occasion in the Old City: he died in 2013, after taking up weapons to fight the regime in Aleppo. Should we consider him as a terrorist as well? On which moral ground are we denying protesters the right to take up arms? One of the points raised during Anderson’s talk was that protesters were indeed armed since the beginning of the revolt. This was definitely the case in some regions, like Idlib, where demonstrators from Jisr ash-Shughur took up weapons to defend themselves as early as June 2011: I wrote about it and I criticized the way some Western media denied the presence of armed elements (http://www.majalla.com/eng/2012/04/article55230561), but I don’t understand why Syrians should be condemned for having resorted to violence against a brutal security apparatus.
The main argument used by Anderson to advocate support for the Syrian regime was the stereotypical juxtaposition between an allegedly secular government and a radical Islamist opposition. When I stressed the genuine roots of the Syrian uprising, the only answer Anderson could provide was: “Well, I don’t deny there have been mistakes committed by the police (what a nice euphemism for forty years of “mistakes”), but could you name one secular/non Islamist brigade in the opposition?” The premise of such response is that, as long as they’re Islamists, it’s perfectly fine to kill them. Islamists have been on the Middle Eastern “stage” for almost one century, they’re still there despite what happened in Hama, but Anderson (and numerous other Islamophobic “analysts”) still perceive them as a cancer implanted by Western agendas to be uprooted with violence. I wonder whether Anderson has ever argued the same about Hamas and Hezbollah on their resistance against Israel, weren’t they to be condemned on the grounds of being Islamist forces? If the West was to keep looking at Hezbollah through the lens of its original plan for the establishment of an Islamic republic in Lebanon and the abductions of foreign civilians carried out in the ’80s by the party’s first embryos, no one would have imagined to see the Shi’a militia accepting its current role in the Lebanese electoral system. The same goes for the recent prospects for US negotiations with the Talibans in Afghanistan, which were completely unforeseeable after 9-11. Then, why are we to rule out the possibility that some of the jihadist groups fighting in Syria today might change their position and accept to engage in parliamentarian politics later on?
What about the Iraqi resistance under American occupation? Has Anderson paid attention to the fact that most of the insurgents were actually jihadists and many of them are currently fighting against the Syrian regime? Are they to be considered “fallen heroes of anti-imperialists” suddenly turned into “NATO-backed mercenaries”, even though nothing changed in their ideological background?
Furthermore, Anderson made no reference whatsoever to what has been written on the ties between Damascus and a wide range of Islamist Sunni militant groups previously active in Lebanon and Iraq, now fighting on the side of the Syrian opposition, including Fatah al-Islam (http://wikileaks.org/gifiles/docs/214642_analysis-for-edit-syria-throws-fatah-al-islam-under-the-bus-.html) and Ghuraba’ ash-Sham (http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/radicals-are-assads-best-friends). It was also completely omitted the fact that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the militia responsible of the worst atrocities committed in Syria in the name of jihadism, has actually spent more time fighting other rebel factions than the regime and its headquarters are rarely targeted by air raids. There has been plenty of accusations from different political and military factions with regards to the ties between Damascus and ISIS ( https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=508278592619820&set=a.473931262721220.1073741828.473917376055942&type=1&theater, https://twitter.com/JadBantha/status/421263028978343936/photo/1, http://hawarnews.com/index.php/component/content/article/43-2013-02-24-21-16-12/7835-2013-11-13-12-04-59, http://claysbeach.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/bashar-al-jihad-is-isis-child-of-regime.html), whose rise perfectly suits the Syrian State media’s relentless efforts to portray the uprising as an Islamist one since its early phases. During my stay in Syria in 2013, I gathered local witness accounts on Ahmad Muhammad “Abu Rami”, the former Syrian military intelligence chief in Rmaylan (North-Eastern Syria), who allegedly joined the rows of the al-qa’idist Jabhat an-Nusra in November 2012. I also spoke with a former Syrian security official in Ras al-‘Ayn, who confirmed me how easily certain rebel brigades were infiltrated by figures known for their ties with the regime.
In addition to this, Anderson failed to mention how the regime granted amnesty to some of the top-leaders of the Islamist opposition back in May 2011 (including for example the Islamic Army’s Zahran ‘Allush), a few months after the outbreak of the uprising, in a move which could hardly be seen as “coincidental”, as it contributed to the sectarian drift of the revolt.
This is not meant to say that the Syrian regime and the Islamist hardliners share the same agenda and the latter ones do not aim at overthrowing the government; it also remains challenging to evaluate the truthfulness of certain reports, even when they’re built on intelligence sources, but we should bear in mind that they are often as credible as the reports putting the blame exclusively on the Gulf for the rise of radical Sunni groups. What is unquestionable, in my opinion, is the completely misleading portrait of Damascus as a champion in the struggle against Islamism in the light of its historical connections with Islamist networks.
These historical connections include the Syrian support for Hamas, Hizbullah, the Amal Movement (a group established with the explicit purpose to crush Lebanese communists), the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and several other Islamist groups. If the Syrian regime was a promoter of secularism in the region, then it should have restricted its support to secular anti-Zionist militant groups. If the Syrian regime were secular, then it shouldn’t allow Lebanese and Iraqi Shi’a militants to fight on its side against Sunnis, or did Islamism suddenly become an exclusively Sunni phenomenon? If the Syrian regime were secular, it wouldn’t have supported the ethnic “cleansing” (tathir, in the words recorded on video of one of the perpetrators, https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/nownews/pro-regime-militant-speaks-of-cleansing-banias) of Sunnis in Bayda and Baniyas in May 2013. If the Syrian regime were secular, the Constitution wouldn’t prevent a Christian from becoming the president of the republic until now just like it wouldn’t state that “Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) is a fundamental source of legislation.” (http://www.al-bab.com/arab/docs/syria/syria_draft_constitution_2012.htm). If the Syrian regime were secular, Alawis wouldn’t dominate the intelligence branches to the extent that their coastal dialect is mocked in every single joke on the security forces.
Having said that, I honestly don’t understand the point of defending a regime on the ground of its alleged secularism, if we take a look at how history is rich of examples of authoritarian secular rule such as the Reign of Terror in post-revolutionary France, Kemalist Turkey and the Soviet Union.
Another aspect of the rise of Islamist factions in the opposition Anderson and his likes fail to grasp is where “money and guns” come from or, to put it clearly, they know where they come from, but they consider this an outcome of the Islamist ideology of all the insurgents. They seem to ignore the reality of those fighters who had to turn to an outward version of Islamism to catalyse financial and military support: this was the case of the Farouq Brigades from Homs, that quickly became the equivalent of a franchise capable of attracting Qatari funds and, for this reason, it started to attract a wide range of groups under its name (http://www.arab-reform.net/sites/default/files/empowering%20the%20democratic%20resistance.pdf). This didn’t mean there was an Islamist unified vision among all the groups gathered under the Farouq brand, whose Islamist outlook might well have been as pragmatic as the Salafi-looking beard grown by the Farouq’s young commander Abdul-Razzaq Tlass, upon his rise to fame. During Anderson’s talk, when I mentioned the Farouq Brigades as an example of a non-Islamist group, I probably failed to make clear that this was not meant to claim that they are secular, but that their Islamist facade has been pragmatically motivated rather than related to an uncompromising commitment to the establishment of an Islamic state. It is the same pragmatism which led Hezbollah to accept funds from Qatar – a State with whom the party could hardly share any political and religious identity – for the reconstruction of war-ravaged Lebanon following the Israeli aggression in 2006. It is the same pragmatism which saw Hamas, on the other hand, receiving Iranian funds, regardless of their political and religious affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.
As the Syrian conflict kept growing in intensity, securing funds became a crucial factor behind the mushrooming of Islamist hardline factions, in comparison with the initial “low cost” peaceful phase almost void of sectarian drifts. In 2013, I spoke with a Syrian journalist who visited the Eastern Ghuta (Damascus) between March and April and he reported to me how Free Syrian Army soldiers had a daily limit of around 30 bullets (the figure might be higher, but the point was that their ammunition was limited), whereas the Islamic Front could count on unlimited ammunition. This obviously led to an increased number of fighters joining the ranks of the Islamist factions. In June 2013, I travelled towards al-Hul (Southern al-Hasakah) on a truck driven by a Kurdish rebel fighting on the side of ISIS and Ahrar ash-Sham: he kept joking about his beard and how he had to grow it to be accepted among jihadists, while promising to go back drinking arak as soon as the war was over. The umpteenth confirmation of how pragmatism was often a priority at the expense of the ideological drive.
As a matter of fact, there are few groups with a distinct leftist stance within the rows of the opposition: one of these exceptions are the recently formed Factions of the People’s Liberation (Fasa’il Taharrur ash-Sha’b https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=sR5wcCzLyzo), set up in Duma in March 2014. These groups saw the light in the explicit attempt to counter both the regime and the most obscurantist forces of the opposition, but their capabilities are clearly limited due to lack of funds.
Anderson thinks he can wave the banner of anti-imperialism from the pulpit of his lectures in Australia, but he doesn’t seem to care about the fate of those real Syrian anti-imperialists, who are perishing on the ground without receiving a single cent from the Gulf monarchies. It would have been enough to use the funds wasted on the Wikileaks delegation’s trip to Damascus to relief the budget of the Factions of the People’s Liberation, if the aim was to support popular resistance, but Anderson’s farce is more about “copy pasting” Hugo Chavez’s quotes on Asad to feel the revolutionary vibes on Facebook.
Another paradox of Anderson’s unconditional support for secularism against Islamism is that he resorts to the good-for-all-purposes scaremonger of Christian persecutions to back the Asad regime, so that when I mentioned the Farouq Brigades, I got reminded the way “they expelled Christians from their neighbourhoods in Homs”. First of all, to argue that Christians were evicted on the basis of their faith and not as a result of the conflict is an assumption even contested by Catholic sources (www.catholicculture.org/news/headlines/index.cfm?storyid=13804). Secondly, Anderson and other “minorities-obsessed” scholars take for granted that Christians are always persecuted because of their religion, while dismissing the possibility for some of them to have been targeted as collaborators of the regime or because of their affluence (for example, the wealth of some urbanized Syriacs was behind their kidnappings in Hasakah and Qamishli in 2013): the implicit premise to this discourse is that Christians are all innocent, they never took sides (not a single word is spent on the loyalist stance of most Syrian clerical institutions throughout the uprising) and they are suddenly in need of Western assistance to escape Islamic zealots. When the idea that Middle Eastern Christians are in need of protection was part of the French Mandate’s search for legitimacy, it was despised by “anti-imperialists” as colonialist propaganda, whereas now it is at the core of the concerns they happen to share with pro-Asad Western fascist and Catholic circles (with whom they also share sources like Mother Agnès de la Croix). As the French scholar Thomas Pierret wrote on his Facebook page, after the hypocritical indignation aroused by the displacement of Armenians from Kassab at the hands of Syrian rebels among the same people who turn a blind eye on the regime’s daily use of barrel bombs on the neighbourhoods of Aleppo controlled by the opposition, “whoever cares more for an Armenian from Kassab than for a Sunni from eastern Aleppo is a racist”.
During his visit to Syria, Anderson claims he had the chance to witness the coexistence between Christians and Muslims under the shelter of the regime, thus envisaging a future of religious persecutions, if the opposition will ever take over the country. First of all, this is a distortion of Syrian history, where there is absolutely nothing proving a higher rate of anti-Christian violence before the Ba’thist coup in 1963. Anderson went on specifying that most of the rebels are actually foreigners, an allegation common among Asadists returning from government-sponsored tours of Syria, where they never met with one single opposition fighter, just like Anderson did. I personally met with combatants from a wide range of anti-government factions in Lebanon, Turkey and Syria, and the overwhelming majority of them were Syrians, including the hardliners from Ahrar ash-Sham , Ghuraba’ ash-Sham and Ansar ash-Shari’a. Most foreigners fight within the rows of ISIS and they advocate a brutal form of Islamic autocracy Syrians are unfamiliar with: when the militants of this group vandalized a church in Raqqa, its Syrian residents took the streets to protest against religious intolerance, but they didn’t certainly call for the return of the regime. Of course, all of this was not mentioned in Anderson’s talk, where the message needed to remain “foreign Islamists make up most of the opposition and they pose a threat to the Ba’thist religious tolerance.” This was actually the same message conveyed by a Syrian woman who stood up to intervene during Anderson’s talk, when she accused the opposition of organizing protests from inside the mosques, thus suggesting the movement was already an Islamist one since its outbreak. As usual, it went completely ignored the fact that mosques were used by all protesters, regardless of their political and religious beliefs, because of the ban on unauthorized public gatherings. Over these years I spent covering the Syrian uprising, I never met someone who obtained a government license to organize a rally against the regime.
During the conference, there was also room for some racist remarks on the Bedouin roots of the Gulf sponsors of the opposition, as Anderson reported, laughing at the comments of a Syrian government official on their status of camel riders/shepherds (I cannot recall the exact words, but it was definitely a stereotypical racist joke on Arab Gulf tribes). As if it wasn’t enough to resort to Islamophobia under the guise of secularism and religious tolerance, Anderson turned to blanketing the (Sunni) Arab tribes as a bunch of rural barbarians, probably ignoring the fact that millions of Syrians are clan members with kinship links in Gulf countries.
Lastly, Anderson attempted to prove Syria never witnessed an uprising by asserting that “no revolution has ever targeted schools and hospitals and prevented kids from education.” Such assertion implies the absurd claim that the government forces have never targeted schools and hospitals. In addition to this, Anderson ignores all the initiatives launched in opposition-held areas to support education, civil society and local projects, despite the continuous bloodshed (http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/04/education-aleppo-syria-war.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=23ea4fcada-January_9_20141_8_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-23ea4fcada-93102377). In 2013, I visited several times the city of Ras al-Ayn (North-Eastern Syria), when it was still under joint Arab-Kurdish control without any presence of the regime: no one told me of kids prevented from going to school and the hospitals and the small clinics were actually struggling to function, thanks to the voluntary efforts of the doctors affiliated to the rebel militias. Unfortunately, most of these armed groups were prioritizing the arms trade over the availability of medicines and I wrote about this issue (https://mabisir.wordpress.com/2013/05/16/free-syrian-army-neglects-health-sector-in-ras-al-ayn-sere-kanye/), but I was also aware that the same hospitals could not be used to heal wounded protesters when they were controlled by the regime. The reality is much more complicated, if you verify it on the ground, but what you get from Anderson is just that the rebels are medieval bogeymen targeting schools and hospitals.
In conclusion, if some of you had the patience to read through all of this, my personal advice is to remain sceptic of those scholars who abuse their academic positions to spread out ideological propaganda on issues they are completely unfamiliar with. If I happen to spend two weeks during a phase of political turmoil in Cuba, a country Anderson is probably more knowledgeable than me about on the basis of his experience, I would remain aware of my ignorance on Cuba and wary about claiming to hold the truth on the unfolding events. I would expect Anderson and his likes to do the same. Thanks.
I also welcome every Syrian who lived through the uprising to express his/her indignation at Anderson’s denial of his/her efforts to depose the current regime.
An analysis I wrote for WOZ , criticizing the partition of Syria advocated by some analysts. The German version is not available yet on their website, I’ll fix the link as soon as it will be published. (Image taken from socioecohistory.wordpress.com)
Fragmentation will serve no one’s interests in Syria
By Andrea Glioti
Amuda (Hasakeh, Syria)- June 7, 2013
An increasing number of analysts see partition as the only solution to the ongoing conflict in Syria. It is undeniable that the regime has started paving the way for its plan B: the establishment of an Alawi State stretching from the coast to Homs, due to the territories lost in favor of the opposition. However, this is an emergency plan rather than a priority and the regime is still firmly in control of the country’s economic capitals (Damascus and Aleppo). Fragmentation would also imply a major central Sunni State, a Kurdish State in the North-Eastern Jazira plain and a Druze State in the South, but none of these sects would be satisfied by the establishment of these new entities, either for economic reasons or territorial boundaries. Instead of serving as a reconciliation plan, such a division would only serve foreign interests and deepen sectarian tensions.
The only feasible solution is a decentralized State, balancing the representation of all Syrian sects, without marking a Sunni revenge over the other components.
The regime has already started to lay the foundations of the Alawi State. The month of May was featured by an escalation of sectarian violence along the Alawi-majority coast (massacres of Baniyas and Bayda) in a clear attempt to ‘cleanse’ Sunni villages. On June 5, the fall of the strategic town of Qusayr (Western Homs Governorate) in the hands of the regime has reopened the corridor to the Lebanese border and paved the way for the next offensive on Homs: this city is crucial to the survival of Asad’s last shelter, as it would link the Syrian coast to the Lebanese Biqaa valley controlled by Hezbollah, thus circumventing the Sunni-majority Northern Lebanon. This would ensure a continuous flow of weapons and fighters to launch further attacks on the rebels’ bases in the countryside of Damascus.
Having said this, the Alawi State remains an emergency plan, because of its scarce energy resources and the worrisome perspective of being stripped off the country’s economic capitals. Oil and gas fields are in fact concentrated in Deyr az-Zor and Hasakeh and the oil flow to the coast has been officially halted by rebel groups; the country’s biggest dam is located on the Euphrates river, in the Eastern province of Raqqa, which is completely controlled by the opposition. In the so far unlikely hypothesis of a central Syria dominated by the opposition, the only bargaining chip of the Alawi State would be its access to the sea.
Furthermore, there is no guarantee that all Alawis would be willing to live in Assad’s fiefdom: even if they don’t side with the opposition, two main Alawi tribes, al-Haddadiyah and al-Khiyatiyah, are loyal to Bashar’s exiled uncle Rifaat al-Asad. The history of Alawis saw them ‘jumping’ from rural outcasts to the backbone of the Baathist Syrian intelligence, but will the limited resources of a tiny coastal State be able to absorb thousands of former security officials?
From the Iranian perspective, as noted by the former air force officer Abdul-Nasser al-’Aid in an op-ed published by the Pan Arab daily Al-Hayat, supporting an Alawi State would imply a much heavier military and economic burden than mobilizing Shi’a power networks within Syria or Lebanon. In addition to this, al-’Aid suggests that the ‘Alawi elites are likely to leave the country once Damascus will fall in the hands of the opposition, thus casting again the shadow of poorness on the Alawi villages.
From the point of view of the opposition, the hypothesis of a Sunni State with no access to the sea is equally discouraging. The recently approved Government decree ruling the creation of three new provinces- Manbij in the countryside of Aleppo, Badiya in the desert East of Homs and Qamishli in the Kurdish lands of the Jazira- suggests also a narrower extension of the regions the regime is willing to give up to the Sunni rebels: Aleppo won’t be abandoned that easily and the new province of Qamishli is likely to include more than a half of Hasakeh’s oil fields currently controlled by the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party)-affiliated YPG militia. The Kurdish leadership has stated clearly that the- mostly Sunni Arabs have no right over these oil reserves
Even if the Kurdish shadow State dominated by the PYD received temporarily from the regime numerous oil wells, in order to trigger an ethnic divide within the opposition and deter Turkish interference, it would be foolish for Damascus to abandon its energy reserves. If Kurds opt for separatism, the regime would easily mobilize Arab tribes against them, as it still counts on thousands of loyal settlers brought here in the ’60s to change forcibly the demographic balance.
Besides this, the Kurdish State envisaged by the Government decree would be much smaller than West Kurdistan, thus failing to meet Kurdish demands and replicating the Iraqi scenario of Arab-Kurdish contended regions. Finally, the PYD’s political program is shaped on self-administration without geographical borders, encompassing the institutions of every Syrian Kurdish community and ruling out the need of an independent State.
The Druze State in the South seems a more likely option, being part of a plan drafted by a major regional power like Israel to protect the Golan border from the Islamist brigades within the Syrian opposition. The border has remained quiet for the last forty years and some Druzes have historically cultivated good ties with Israel: Galilean Druzes still serve in the Israeli army, for example. However, the Syrian Druze stronghold Jabal al-Duruz is still totally under the regime’s control and fragmentation is explicitly rejected by the Druze tribal leader Sultan Basha al-Atrash. Under any circumstances, the feasibility of a Druze State is challenged by the Sunni enclave of Daraa, which is located exactly between Jabal al-Duruz and the Golan Heights.
In conclusion, the fragmentation of Syria might serve the Israeli interests by weakening one of its regional rivals, but for sure it doesn’t benefit any of the Syrian communities. Dividing the country along sectarian lines would not be possible without forced population exchanges, supposing that this would help reducing violence: those proposing a solution similar to the partition of Pakistan and India appear completely unaware of the Syrian peculiarities, which cannot be simply overcome by the creation of two or four sectarian States.
The only viable solution is decentralization, according to a model similar to the PYD’s program: self-management of each community according to demographic figures , on condition that the borders of local and central powers are precisely defined.
First of all, the Sunni-majority opposition should start accepting decentralization, differently from what it has done so far with the Kurds, and support a fair representation of all minorities within the State apparatus. Any sort of ‘Sunni revival’ is likely to ignite separatist trends. The Baathist regime is unlikely to accept decentralization: its vision is centered on preserving absolute power either on a national or local scale. It will be up to the opposition to exert pressures on Damascus to preserve Syria’s diverse religious and ethnic fabric.
 However, it is debatable whether the PYD had the right to set up Kurdish institutions even in the Kurdish-majority neighborhoods located in cities where Kurds are not the majority like Aleppo.
(di Estella Carpi*). The last work of American journalist Nicholas Blanford takes the form of an autobiography about his own life as a reporter, having the privilege of being constantly immersed in the insider world of whom he explores.
Blanford begins his book with a historical excursus of Hezbollah’s roots and Imam Musa al Sadr’s legacies in the ongoing Shi’a ethics: such as the conception of armaments as adornments of men. Men who want vengeance and revolt against tyranny.
Throughout the ‘80s and the ‘90s, the growing conviction that the only way to establish justice is to organize a revolution and use weapons, as Musa al Sadr suggested, is also confirmed by Lebanese scholar Mona Fawaz, that has observed how Hezbollah instead does not speak anymore of mahrumun – term initially assigned by Musa al Sadr, “the deprived” – rather mustad‘afun, term contained in the Holy Koran, meaning “the weakened”, which opens the door to change more easily than the former term.
Hezbollah, in fact, fosters the Shiite refusal of victimization and the status of passive oppressed, long date label of the Shiite community that is alleged to reflect their internalized existential status, culturally expressed through the annual ceremony of ‘Ashura, which commemorates Imam Hussein’s death.
The author highlights the position of Hezbollah as a Trojan horse carrying Iran’s influence into the majority Sunni Arab Middle East, who used to name the Shi’a “metwali”, as not grown in an urban environment unlike Sunnis in Lebanon’s history.
Blanford seems to look for political objectivity, in the full hope of its feasibility, by representing facts in their faithful chronological order, factual reality and endemic ways of living them. The several ethnographic snapshots of the detailed military operations, including flashbacks that focus on the evolution of particular war strategies and weapons used by both sides, leak an American-style taste for spectacularization of war scenarios or sensationalism of some scenes whose the author is the narrator (i.e. when he finally discovers one of Hezbollah’s bunkers after a seven month search).
For instance, Blanford reports the 16th October 1983 incursion of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) into the ‘Ashura ceremony in Nabatiye, contending that the trucks made the “mistake” of driving into the throng and inducing the celebrant Shi’a to throw stones. The Israelis are described as “frightened” in that episode. He seems to be committed to proving his will of embracing both sides’ interpretation in the name of objective historical truth.
To the same extent, however, he highlights where Israeli interests have resided behind all aggressive attacks against Lebanon, such as the annexation of Arnoun in 1998 to the Israeli occupied zone, with the alleged purpose of protecting the IDF and the South Lebanese Army (SLA) from Hezbollah’s attacks against the Beaufort castle.
With respect to Augustus Norton’s representation in the chronicles of the struggles between the two Lebanese Shi’a parties Harakat Amal and Hezbollah, Blanford reminds that South Lebanon people, especially Christians, actually had no other choice than trading with the Israelis. He therefore discards the “natural” friendship and harmony between the two sides that are instead perceivable in Norton’s work.
Yet, Blanford puts in the foreground the local differentiation of the Islamic Resistance as experienced and deployed by Palestinians and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and, on the other hand, promoted and lived by the Shi’a, once spiritually led by Musa al Sadr, and, later, by Fadlallah, carrying ideological innovations.
As evidence of this local differentiation of the Islamic Resistance, Amal used to view the PLO as occupants and, thus, used to be compliant with the IDF during the Lebanese “war of the camps” (1985-1989). On the contrary, Fadlallah absorbed the Palestinian cause into the Shi’a struggle for social justice and equality, in the full respect of all communities.
While narrating the gradual emergence of a common Shi’a political sphere, Blanford unravels the roots of such Shi’a cosmopolitanism between Iraq (where Fadlallah was born and every Shiite influent leader studied), Iran (homeland of Musa al Sadr and cradle of Shi’ism), and Lebanon (“action” scenario of every Shi’a spiritual leader).
In some pages, to my mind, Blanford’s desirability of historical accuracy gets lost in a sort of self-focusing, which paradoxically unearths his de-empathization with the reported events, giving up an emotional inner perspective. He makes an exception when he gets deep into the 2006 war, in which all his dismay is perceivable among the pages that are dedicated to his experience between the displaced and the families of the martyrs.
He describes Hezbollah as a special guerrilla force, although not yet as a fully-fledged conventional army. In this section, Blanford also mentions the reiteration of forced evacuations to which these miserable people have been doomed throughout the years, as though their suffering were written in an inescapable destiny.
One of the stories that rarely finds room in historical analyses on South Lebanon, is the narrated sense of unremitting anxiety and isolation that pervaded the South Lebanese Army in the border zone – where they used to cooperate with Israel – once they became aware that their defeat was looming due to Hezbollah’s strength and steadfastness.
In the domestic political scenario, Blanford brilliantly smashes the myth of a polarization between Hezbollah and Hariri and between the current March 8 and 14 coalitions, as well as of an antagonism of interests between Syria and Israel, showing therefore the schizophrenic state behaviors of all parts involved.
The Syrian regime is instead represented as a big Leviathan, never confronting Israel, never accepting Lebanon’s independence and practically supervising all negotiations between these two countries, like in the case of the Shebaa Farms at the Lebanese southern border and their territorial dispute. While denouncing the machiavellic moves of all states implied in Hezbollah’s affairs and plans, the author succeeds in representing the things from within just from a macro-political perspective, since he reports, most of the time, the official discourses and private conversations that he had with the members of the Party of God.
What would have been interesting to find in this insightful piece of work is a – even just hinted – view of common local residents, in order to find out how they make meaning of these events. This was not probably the goal that Blanford meant to achieve, in the attempt to blur the lines between the military and the civilian in Hezbollah’s realm. Struggling between journalistic style, autobiography and essay-style objectivity, a reporter that has been living in Lebanon for decades, nonetheless, would have been expected to abdicate his self-seeking, particularly in the second section of the book.
(“No to confessionalism”. Picture taken by Estella Carpi, Downtown, Beirut, 7th January 2013)
I have just got through yesterday’s article “The Cold Front” on NowLebanon: one of the worst aetiological interpretations of the 2006 war (between Israel and Lebanon) I’ve ever come across.
Abdul-Hussain, the article’s author based in Washington, thinks he can brilliantly explain how the July war has broken out: Hezbollah is the only one that has interests in opening fire first. Israel has not. Not even for a preemptive war.
Going beyond these quite arguable assumptions on the 2006 war, the author, in a bid to denounce the artificial construction of the Zionist enemy, ends up creating a new construction by merely replacing the previous one: the chronic confessionalisation of war commitments and inputs. In the case of Hezbollah, therefore, he denies the engagement of the party in the Palestinian issue by portraying the latter as a sunni cause that Shiites would have no interest for. The author does recognise the big hoax that the Axis of Resistance implies about protecting Palestinians. It is in fact enough to spend some time in the Palestinian camps throughout Lebanon and in the shiite areas stricken by the 2006 war, to find out that the idea of Islamic Resistance should be unpacked into several conceptions and experiences, highly diversified among Lebanese Shiites and Palestinians in Lebanon.
I also agree with his need for unearthing the hypocrisy behind the supposed protection of the Palestinians – bombed by the Asad regime and even fought by Hezbollah in Lebanese history (and we could also mention a lacking homogenised rhetoric around the “value” of Resistance in the everyday narratives of people from the two groups).
I categorically refuse, however, to adopt the confessional lens to justify Hezbollah’s actual disengagement in the Palestinian cause, in that “there is nothing shiite about Palestine”, as the author contends.
In a similar vein, Abdul-Hussain seems to justify the absence, the neglect and the shameful corruption of the Siniora’s government throughout the days of the July war, by identifying such a (failed) state behaviour with Hezbollah’s anti-sunni propaganda among “its people”. And it is exactly in the form of a “from anti-Israel to anti-sunni struggle” that Hezbollah’s evolutive behaviour is interpreted by Abdul-Hussain.
All these are clear signs that old epistemological confessionalisation is still hard to die. Why on earth, in order to dismantle regional myths about political balances, should we need to resort to confessional explanations?
P.S. My sources about the corruption of the Lebanese government and its total military “laissez-faire” – apart from hundreds of local people’s accounts – are the unofficial declarations of the governmental ministers and of the ex PM Fouad Siniora contained in the Wikileaks cables (July-September 2006).
The Lebanese live on the edge. They expect war all the time, whether it spills over from Syria, or is provoked by a strike on Iran, or is predicated by hot tempers reaching a boiling point and Sunnis and Shiites take their fight to the streets. One front, however, looks colder than usual. For the first time in decades, Lebanon’s southern border is quiet, and neither Hezbollah nor Israel are interested in escalation.
UNSC Resolution 1701, which ended the war and now governs the peace, is flimsy on paper, but has proven durable on the ground, giving the region its second-longest stretch of calm with since the creation of Israel. Tel Aviv, therefore, has no interest in launching war against Hezbollah, preemptive or otherwise.
So for war to breakout, Hezbollah will have to open fire first, and many believe that because Hezbollah’s decisions are inspired by its patrons in Tehran, it will only go to war when it is instructed to. But even for a regional proxy like Hezbollah, all politics is local.
In Lebanon, the Shiites support Hezbollah, but not unconditionally. The 2006 war jeopardized Hezbollah’s standing among the Shiites who saw their villages razed. Iran came to Hezbollah’s rescue by shipping bags of cash that were doled out to hard-hit families and individuals.
During the 14 weeks that followed the end of the war, Hezbollah tried to contain Shiite anger by dispersing cash. But Shiite frustration proved insurmountable even with Iran’s petrodollars.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah thus understood that while most of his supporters were blindly following for benefits, the majority of Shiites were not particularly dedicated to liberating Palestine, historically a Sunni issue that Iran’s Ruhollah Khomeini tried to exploit in order to spread his revolution to Sunni Arab countries.
Yet despite Khomeini’s efforts, there is nothing Shiite about Palestine; no Shiite imams or their families ever set foot or are buried there, unlike in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. Even the third-holiest site in Islam, Jerusalem’s Omar’s Mosque, carries a name the Shiites abhor and never give to their children.
Without links to Palestine and with the 2006 inferno, the Shiites found it counterintuitive to keep fighting Israel, a lesson that was not lost on Hezbollah.
During the 2006 war, an embattled Nasrallah became all-encompassing in his speeches, especially as Shiites took refuge in non-Shiite neighborhoods. His allies praised Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, calling his government a “resistance cabinet” for its diplomatic role in shaping 1701.
But after the war, the Shiites had a change of heart, and Hezbollah had to follow.
In December, Hezbollah started a sit-in in downtown Beirut demanding Siniora’s resignation, blaming him for the ills that had befallen the Shiites during the war and condemning what they called the corrupt and deliberately slow relief and reconstruction efforts. Hezbollah was looking for a scapegoat, and the Sunnis fit the bill in a way that resonated with the majority of the Shiites.
Until then, Lebanon’s Sunnis had accused Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad of killing their leader Rafiq Hariri in 2005. But with the rise of Shiite anti-Sunnism, Hezbollah displaced the Assad regime as the Sunni’s number one enemy.
Hezbollah’s transformation from ‘anti-Israel’ to ‘anti-Sunni’ was complete, with the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011.
Even though Nasrallah argued that his support for Assad was because of the latter’s alignment with the ‘resistance axis,’ Nasrallah never explained why the Shiite militia in Syria was called the Abu Al-Fadl Al-Abbas brigade, a reference to Imam Hussain’s half-brother who was killed with him in Karbala in 680. If Hezbollah was fighting in Syria for resistance reasons, then why not call its fighting force after someone who had died fighting Israel, not the Sunnis?
Meanwhile from a logistics perspective, the Syrian conflict has strained Hezbollah resources to the extent that it makes sense for Nasrallah to favor extending the freeze on his southern border.
But Hezbollah’s transformation does not mean it has given up on fighting Israel, only it won’t be fighting Israel the ‘Palestine usurper,’ but Israel the partner in America’s ‘World Oppressors Inc,’ which Iran and Hezbollah have been dedicated to fighting since 1979.
As such, Hezbollah’s conflict with Israel is being transformed from direct confrontation to clandestine operations. The Borgas bombing and Hezbollah’s foiled attempts in Cyprus, among other less-publicized attempts, are only the beginning.
Hezbollah’s international network is not as formidable as its militia. But if history is any guide, the party learns fast. It might soon cultivate assets and form cells, around the world, to be used for attacks in due time.
Should such attacks invite Israeli reprisal across the border, like those against Palestinians in the 1960s and 70s, then engaging Israel in direct war could become justified in the eyes of the party’s Shiite base.
But no such scenario seems in the making. The Lebanese-Israeli border will remain cold, at least for now.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain.
In the wake of what Bassam Haddad has brilliantly called IAN (Israel’s Asad Nostalgia).
Two articles I wrote for ResetDOC. The first one is about UNRWA, its marginalization and its betrayed mission within the framework of the forgotten right to return. The second one on the debate on naturalization and right to return and how the first option should not come at the expenses of this untouchable right (as this is the discourse implied by those willing to ‘shrink’ UNRWA’s definition of Palestinian refugees). On the other hand, the protection of the right to return should not jeopardize the living conditions of Palestinians in Arab host countries (and this is the definitely the case of Lebanon and Jordan).
In the face of a new exodus from Syria, the assistance of Palestinian refugees is in the hands of a neglected UN agency, sidelined by the marginalization of the only UN-sanctioned route to improve their conditions: the right to return to Palestine. The Palestinian Authority (PA) and Western powers prepared the ground for this scenario through the Oslo Accords (1993).
Out of more than nine million Palestinian refugees worldwide, around five million are registered under the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the PA. According to the UNRWA’s definition of a Palestinian refugee, besides the original residents of Palestine between 1 June 1946 and 15 May 1948, all the descendants of Palestinian refugee males are entitled to receive its services. Palestinians refugees still dream of returning to their homeland and this right is sanctioned by UNGAR 194 (III).
At odds with these aspirations, during an interview with an Israeli TV channel last November, the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the official representative of all Palestinians for the international community (i.e., the West), Mahmud ‘Abbas Abu Mazen, denied his right to live in Safed, the native village he had to leave after the establishment of Israel in 1948. The declarations of ‘Abbas predictably sparked off indignation among Palestinians, since the descendants of those who fled the ’48 territories refuse categorically any resettlement in the PA. “The right of return doesn’t mean being resettled in Gaza or the West Bank,” affirms Yahya, a young refugee from Beirut’s Burj al-Barajneh camp, originally from Acre, “it’s not only a struggle for ourselves, we are also defending the right of return of our sons.”
Palestinian activists and academics understand Abu Mazen’s position in line with the Oslo Accords, which resulted in the marginalization of refugees and cuts on the UNRWA budget. The current outlook is particularly bleak, taking in consideration the massive inflow of Palestinian refugees coming from war-ravaged Syria into Lebanon. Until February 19,2013, 30.000 Palestinians crossed the Lebanese border from Syria; speaking at a meeting of the Syrian Humanitarian Forum in Geneva, the UNRWA General Commissioner, Filippo Grandi, denounced that half of the 500.000 Palestinians living in Syria had to flee their homes. The crisis is intertwined with the marginalization of Palestinian refugees, as a consequence of ‘Abbas’ appeals to the UN to direct Palestinians from Syria to the PA and the renunciation to their right of return to the ’48 territories Israel has allegedly required to accept this. The head of the PA seems to have temporarily rejected this plan, but there is already enough evidence of his willingness to negotiate on the right of return.
Any resettlement of ‘48 Palestinian refugees within the UNRWA’s territories, thus including also the PA, implies a crucial role for the agency. However, the UNRWA appears financially neglected, subject to Western political agendas and actively involved in the marginalization of the right of return.
Over the last two decades, the agency saw its budget drastically reduced. UNRWA’s website states that “at the end of April 2012 the agency’s cash deficit stood at USD 69.4 million and the average annual spending per refugee has fallen from about $200 in 1975 to around $110 today.” While facing a crisis started in the first half of 2012, the UNRWA could not afford to pay the rents of those Palestinians, who fled Syria to settle in the Lebanese refugee camps: only on February 25, a 2.5 million euros agreement has been reached between the EU and UNRWA to shelter in Lebanon Palestinian refugees from Syria (“The contribution to Lebanon is part of a total amount of 7.5 million to UNRWA to assist the most vulnerable Palestine refugees in Syria and those refugees who have fled Syria to Lebanon.”).
In a wider picture, the lack of funds is ascribed to the marginalization of the right of return ensued from Oslo. “The right of return has been already put on the backburner by Oslo,” maintains the American activist of Palestinian descendants, Jacqueline Husary, “the focus has always been on creating a State.”After the Accords, as pointed out by the Oxford professor and former PLO representative, Karma Nabulsi, in her Civitas Report (2006), Palestinians ‘inside [Gaza and the West Bank] received considerable international funding, whilst the political and civic aspirations of those living outside […] were ignored, […] at best they were classified as objects of humanitarian relief.’
Quite predictably, Palestinian authorities hold a completely different view on the relations between the peace process and the condition of refugees. “A peaceful settlement with Israel would empower the Palestinian State to negotiate a solution on refugees,” affirms the UN Palestinian ambassador, Ibrahim Khraishi, “the last talks between Olmert and Abbas [N/A: 2008] proceeded on the right path to agree on compensations and allow the return of some refugees.” On the contrary, this was a partial renouncement to the right of return and Olmert actually wrote in his memoirs that the proposal to take into Israel an annual quota of 1.000 refugees for five years was actually rejected by ‘Abbas.
Moreover, it goes hardly unnoticed that Oslo and the UNRWA share the same Western sponsors: according to the agency’s website, until the last year, Europe and the US contributed to 42% of UNRWA core program budget. In January 2010, the Canadian treasury, which accounts for 11% of UNRWA’s funding, decided to withhold its support to the agency: it was announced that donations would have been reallocated to projects administered by the PA in ‘alignment with Canadian values regarding democracy, equality and safeguarding Israel’s security.’ Such a move has been understood by conservative pro-Israeli organizations as motivated with the disagreement on UNRWA’s employment of Hamas supporters. The last attack on UNRWA came from the US Congress in May 2012, when a distinction between 1948 refugees and their descendants has been proposed to “shrink” UNRWA’s definition of Palestine refugees.
Although ensuring the return has never been the agency’s mission – it was the goal of the currently inactive UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) – UNRWA was supposed to cooperate with UNCCP and even its foundational resolution (UNGAR 302 (IV)) confirmed the right of return sanctioned in UNGAR 194 (III). According to its mandate, the agency was originally created as a “temporary” solution to the plight of Palestinians, but its activities are motivated 60 years later with the pending ‘just resolution to the question of the Palestine refugees.’ “What is a just resolution?” asks sardonically the Palestinian researcher Mahmud al-‘Ali, who works for the Lebanon-based NGO (‘Aidun), “it means that, to gain support, UNRWA started supporting the peace process and the focus on the development of the Palestinian Authority.”
The hard daily lives of Palestinian refugees remain stuck between the impossibility to return to their homeland and the difficulties presented by naturalization: all Arab countries oppose it for political reasons and the West is criticized for understanding any new citizenship as a renouncement to the right of return. Naturalization (tajnis) is considered by many Arabs as a preamble to settlement (tawtin), meaning the loss of any claim on the original homeland, even though denying citizenship is often equal to blatant discrimination.
The dichotomy entrenched between naturalization and right of return is extremely relevant to the aftermaths of the Syrian uprising, which is forcing Palestinians outside one of the few countries where they were treated fairly. The runaways found themselves with limited options: most of them stopped in Lebanon, some are still waiting for Jordan to open its borders to Palestinians, others prefer to remain in Syria rather than being discriminated in these two countries.
In Lebanon, Palestinians are not yet allowed to work in at least 25 different professions. Despite law amendments easing access to certain professions in 2010, Palestinians are paid 20% less than Lebanese for the same job. The Lebanese Government has been criticized for not implementing the amendments and, by law, Palestinians are still not allowed to register properties.
In Jordan, the disengagement from the West Bank in 1988 was accompanied by revoking the Jordanian citizenship of 1.5 million Palestinians living there. Since then, the Hashemite Kingdom kept on stripping other categories of Palestinians of their Jordanian nationality. “There are some 1.25 million Palestinians in Jordan without citizenship rights, that is they lack the basic protections enjoyed by citizens in access to education, health services, voting, movements, ownership,” confirms prof. Jamil Hilal, a sociologist at Ramallah’s Birzeit University.
In Syria, Palestinians used to enjoy equal rights to nationals, apart from nationality and political rights, according to Law 260 of 1957, although Palestinian do also face restrictions on property rights. According to a study conducted in 1999 by the Palestinian NGOBadil, ‘Syria […] serves as an example, which confirms that secure civil and social rights in the host countries can protect refugees from falling victim, for fear of discrimination, to the dangers of re-settlement and loss of their national identity.’ Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have all signed the League of Arab States’ Casablanca Protocol in 1965, which obliges Arab countries to grant Palestinian refugees rights to employment, residency and freedom of movement, while maintaining their Palestinian identity by not naturalizing them. However, Amman and Beirut didn’t live up to their commitments.
In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees aspire to fair treatment, but they remain wary of resettlement and naturalization, as these options have been often interpreted by the West and Israel as a renouncement to their right of return. This regardless of the official UNRWA definition, which qualifies a Palestinian refugee on the basis of his/her lineage and regardless of his/her nationality. “A refugee nowadays chooses to remain in the worst living conditions to preserve his sacred right of return,” affirms Rami Suleiman, a Palestinian activist from Damascus, “this situation would change, provided that the international community starts considering us Palestinians, regardless of our nationality.” With regards to this issue, Mahmud ‘Aidun, a Palestinian researcher from the Lebanon-based NGO (‘Aidun), quotes past examples of UN-sponsored quick resettlement without any consideration of Palestinian peculiarities. “After the fall of Saddam, UNHCR turned immediately to the resettlement of Palestinian refugees leaving Iraq in third countries like Brazil, after it realized the return was not accepted by the Israelis,” recalls al-‘Ali. There is no doubt that these Palestinians found better living conditions in Brazil, but in the eyes of al-‘Ali they practically lost their right of return.
Most Arab Governments stopped naturalizing Palestinians in 1952, despite a $200 million offer from the UN Refugee Rehabilitation Fund to find ‘homes and jobs for the refugees’, since they rejected any project that could be interpreted as promoting resettlement. “If we can achieve a status like the one enjoyed by Palestinians in Syria, without any need of being naturalized, it would be enough,” says Yahya, a young Palestinian refugee in Beirut’s Burj al-Barajneh camp.
But even now, as the craved refuge in Syria is vanishing, Palestinian officials in Lebanon seem keen on belittling the grievances of the newcomers and reassuring Lebanese authorities about the absence of any resettlement purpose. “The figures of Palestinians coming from Syria are not so high yet,” told me the Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon, Ashraf Dabbur, on November 26, “and we need to take in consideration that, God willing, they will remain for a limited period.” Dabbur stressed also his gratitude for the Lebanese Government for helping Palestinians arriving from Syria, even if they were facing tribulations to extend their residency permits, while living in overcrowded refugee camps. While the ambassador was speaking, the Yarmuk Palestinian neighborhood in Damascus was under heavy shelling: on February 19, UNRWA’s General Commissioner Filippo Grandi denounced that only 20.000 of its 150.000 Palestinian residents are still there. Palestinian and Lebanese authorities cling to the idea of a community bound to return, the focus is not on improving its conditions, but on ensuring ‘that it doesn’t feel at home’.
In Lebanon, the real political and sectarian reasons behind the refusal of the naturalization of Sunni Palestinians have been masked behind an ethic adherence to the right of return. “The denial of political and social rights is justified under the slogan of persevering the right of return to Palestine,” notes prof. Hilal, “such claims hide practice of exploitation- Palestinians provided cheap labor for decades in Lebanon and other places of refuge- political petty mindedness and discrimination.”
In Jordan, Palestinians are denied political and civil rights under the guise of preserving their right of return and support their struggle for self-determination. Among the excuses given by the Jordanian kingdom for stripping Palestinians of their Jordanian citizenship, there is the aim to keep Palestinians in Palestine, to stop the indiscriminate expansion of Israeli settlements. The ‘alternative homeland’ vision of the Israeli right-wing, that is the belief that Palestinians should move to Jordan, is thus used as a pretext to violate their human rights. Naturalizing over one million stateless Palestinians in a country of around 6.500.000 inhabitants, which is home to almost two million Palestinian refugees, has clear political repercussions. Jordan. Needless to say, political calculations should not come at the expense of human rights.
Even if Lebanon added some reservations on the articles related to freedom of movement and employment.
UNRWA has never been allowed to work in Iraq, as the country is not a signatory of the 1951 Geneva Convention on to the protection of refugees. This is the reason why Iraqi Palestinians have been registered under UNHCR after 2003
The Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) has been created back in 2005 by 171 Palestinian non-governmental organisations, that were aiming at achieving self-determination through non-violent punitive measures against the state of Israel for its legal violations on a domestic and international level.
The BDS issue has recently come again to the fore among some university students in Australia – where I’m currently based – since the University of New South Wales will apparently host soon on its campus the chocolate shop chain “Max Brenner”. This chocolate store is known to be owned by the Israeli conglomerate Strauss Group, which provides “material assistance” for the Israeli Defence Forces, and specifically for the Golani and Givati brigades. The IDF carry out crimes on a vast scale against the Palestinian population and repeatedly bypass International Law. The 2008-09 Cast Lead Operation in the Gaza Strip is the most blatant example.
I have just come across this well structured discourse that Professor Judith Butler held at Brooklyn College last February. I thank Butler for clarifying the BDS principles, its way of acting, and the fact that the main goal of this movement is not at all to foster anti-Jewish hate speech; rather, to become unnecessary in the sphere of a peaceful coexistence. The BDS movement merely aims at demolishing the structural conditions of inequality, containment and dispossession, in the common interest of both peoples.
I invite you all to read it here below at full to refresh the huge importance of this cause.
Editors Note: Despite a campaign to silence them, philosophers Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti spoke at Brooklyn College on Thursday night. In an exclusive, The Nation presents the text of Butler’s remarks.
Usually one starts by saying that one is glad to be here, but I cannot say that it has been a pleasure anticipating this event. What a Megillah! I am, of course, glad that the event was not cancelled, and I understand that it took a great deal of courage and a steadfast embrace of principle for this event to happen at all. I would like personally to thank all those who took this opportunity to reaffirm the fundamental principles of academic freedom, including the following organizations: the Modern Language Association, the National Lawyers Guild, the New York ACLU, the American Association of University Professors, the Professional Staff Congress (the union for faculty and staff in the CUNY system), the New York Times editorial team, the offices of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Brooklyn College President Karen Gould whose principled stand on academic freedom has been exemplary.
The principle of academic freedom is designed to make sure that powers outside the university, including government and corporations, are not able to control the curriculum or intervene in extra-mural speech. It not only bars such interventions, but it also protects those platforms in which we might be able to reflect together on the most difficult problems. You can judge for yourself whether or not my reasons for lending my support to this movement are good ones. That is, after all, what academic debate is about. It is also what democratic debate is about, which suggests that open debate about difficult topics functions as a meeting point between democracy and the academy. Instead of asking right away whether we are for or against this movement, perhaps we can pause just long enough to find out what exactly this is, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and why it is so difficult to speak about this.
I am not asking anyone to join a movement this evening. I am not even a leader of this movement or part of any of its governing committee, even though the New York Times tried to anoint me the other day—I appreciated their subsequent retraction, and I apologize to my Palestinian colleagues for their error. The movement, in fact, has been organized and led by Palestinians seeking rights of political self-determination, including Omar Barghouti, who was invited first by the Students for Justice in Palestine, after which I was invited to join him. At the time I thought it would be very much like other events I have attended, a conversation with a few dozen student activists in the basement of a student center. So, as you can see, I am surprised and ill-prepared for what has happened.
Omar will speak in a moment about what the BDS movement is, its successes and its aspirations. But I would like briefly to continue with the question, what precisely are we doing here this evening? I presume that you came to hear what there is to be said, and so to test your preconceptions against what some people have to say, to see whether your objections can be met and your questions answered. In other words, you come here to exercise critical judgment, and if the arguments you hear are not convincing, you will be able to cite them, to develop your opposing view and to communicate that as you wish. In this way, your being here this evening confirms your right to form and communicate an autonomous judgment, to demonstrate why you think something is true or not, and you should be free to do this without coercion and fear. These are your rights of free expression, but they are, perhaps even more importantly, your rights to education, which involves the freedom to hear, to read and to consider any number of viewpoints as part of an ongoing public deliberation on this issue. Your presence here, even your support for the event, does not assume agreement among us. There is no unanimity of opinion here; indeed, achieving unanimity is not the goal.
The arguments made against this very meeting took several forms, and they were not always easy for me to parse. One argument was that BDS is a form of hate speech, and it spawned a set of variations: it is hate speech directed against either the State of Israel or Israeli Jews, or all Jewish people. If BDS is hate speech, then it is surely not protected speech, and it would surely not be appropriate for any institution of higher learning to sponsor or make room for such speech. Yet another objection, sometimes uttered by the same people who made the first, is that BDS does qualify as a viewpoint, but as such, ought to be presented only in a context in which the opposing viewpoint can be heard as well. There was yet a qualification to this last position, namely, that no one can have a conversation on this issue in the US that does not include a certain Harvard professor, but that spectacular argument was so self-inflationary and self-indicting, that I could only respond with astonishment.
So in the first case, it is not a viewpoint (and so not protected as extra-mural speech), but in the second instance, it is a viewpoint, presumably singular, but cannot be allowed to be heard without an immediate refutation. The contradiction is clear, but when people engage in a quick succession of contradictory claims such as these, it is usually because they are looking for whatever artillery they have at their disposal to stop something from happening. They don’t much care about consistency or plausibility. They fear that if the speech is sponsored by an institution such as Brooklyn College, it will not only be heard, but become hearable, admitted into the audible world. The fear is that viewpoint will become legitimate, which means only that someone can publicly hold such a view and that it becomes eligible for contestation. A legitimate view is not necessarily right, but it is not ruled out in advance as hate speech or injurious conduct. Those who did not want any of these words to become sayable and audible imagined that the world they know and value will come to an end if such words are uttered, as if the words themselves will rise off the page or fly out of the mouth as weapons that will injure, maim or even kill, leading to irreversibly catastrophic consequences. This is why some people claimed that if this event were held, the two-state solution would be imperiled—they attributed great efficacy to these words. And yet others said it would lead to the coming of a second Holocaust—an unimaginable remark to which I will nevettheless return. One might say that all of these claims were obvious hyperbole and should be dismissed as such. But it is important to understand that they are wielded for the purpose of intimidation, animating the spectre of traumatic identification with the Nazi oppressor: if you let these people speak, you yourself will be responsible for heinous crimes or for the destruction of a state, or the Jewish people. If you listen to the words, you will become complicit in war crimes.
And yet all of us here have to distinguish between the right to listen to a point of view and the right to concur or dissent from that point of view; otherwise, public discourse is destroyed by censorship. I wonder, what is the fantasy of speech nursed by the censor? There must be enormous fear behind the drive to censorship, but also enormous aggression, as if we were all in a war where speech has suddenly become artillery. Is there another way to approach language and speech as we think about this issue? Is it possible that some other use of words might forestall violence, bring about a general ethos of non-violence, and so enact, and open onto, the conditions for a public discourse that welcomes and shelters disagreement, even disarray?
The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement is, in fact, a non-violent movement; it seeks to use established legal means to achieve its goals; and it is, interestingly enough, the largest Palestinian civic movement at this time. That means that the largest Palestinian civic movement is a non-violent one that justifies its actions through recourse to international law. Further, I want to underscore that this is also a movement whose stated core principles include the opposition to every form of racism, including both state-sponsored racism and anti-Semitism. Of course, we can debate what anti-Semitism is, in what social and political forms it is found. I myself am sure that the election of self-identified national socialists to the Greek parliament is a clear sign of anti-Semitism; I am sure that the recirculation of Nazi insignia and rhetoric by the National Party of Germany is a clear sign of anti-Semitism. I am also sure that the rhetoric and actions of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are often explicitly anti-Semitic, and that some forms of Palestinian opposition to Israel do rely on anti-Semitic slogans, falsehoods and threats. All of these forms of anti-Semitism are to be unconditionally opposed. And I would add, they have to be opposed in the same way and with the same tenacity that any form of racism has to be opposed, including state racism.
But still, it is left to us to ask, why would a non-violent movement to achieve basic political rights for Palestinians be understood as anti-Semitic? Surely, there is nothing about the basic rights themselves that constitute a problem. They include equal rights of citizenship for current inhabitants; the end to the occupation, and the rights of unlawfully displaced persons to return to their lands and gain restitution for their losses. We will surely speak about each of these three principles this evening. But for now, I want to ask, why would a collective struggle to use economic and cultural forms of power to compel the enforcement of international laws be considered anti-Semitic? It would be odd to say that they are anti-Semitic to honor internationally recognized rights to equality, to be free of occupation and to have unlawfully appropriated land and property restored. I know that this last principle makes many people uneasy, but there are several ways of conceptualizing how the right of return might be exercised lawfully such that it does not entail further dispossession (and we will return to this issue).
For those who say that exercising internationally recognized rights is anti-Semitic, or becomes anti-Semitic in this context, they must mean either that a) its motivation is anti-Semitic or b) its effects are anti-Semitic. I take it that no one is actually saying that the rights themselves are anti-Semitic, since they have been invoked by many populations in the last decades, including Jewish people dispossessed and displaced in the aftermath of the second world war. Is there really any reason we should not assume that Jews, just like any other people, would prefer to live in a world where such internationally recognized rights are honored? It will not do to say that international law is the enemy of the Jewish people, since the Jewish people surely did not as a whole oppose the Nuremburg trials, or the development of human rights law. In fact, there have always been Jews working alongside non-Jews—not only to establish the courts and codes of international law, but in the struggle to dismantle colonial regimes, opposing any and all legal and military powers that seek systematically to undermine the conditions of political self-determination for any population.
Only if we accept the proposition that the state of Israel is the exclusive and legitimate representative of the Jewish people would a movement calling for divestment, sanctions and boycott against that state be understood as directed against the Jewish people as a whole. Israel would then be understood as co-extensive with the Jewish people. There are two major problems with this view. First, the state of Israel does not represent all Jews, and not all Jews understand themselves as represented by the state of Israel. Secondly, the state of Israel should be representing allof its population equally, regardless of whether or not they are Jewish, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.
So the first critical and normative claim that follows is that the state of Israel should be representing the diversity of its own population. Indeed, nearly 25 percent of Israel’s population is not Jewish, and most of those are Palestinian, although some of them are Bedouins and Druze. If Israel is to be considered a democracy, the non-Jewish population deserves equal rights under the law, as do the Mizrachim (Arab Jews) who represent over 30 percent of the population. Presently, there are at least twenty laws that privilege Jews over Arabs within the Israeli legal system. The 1950 Law of Return grants automatic citizenship rights to Jews from anywhere in the world upon request, while denying that same right to Palestinians who were forcibly dispossessed of their homes in 1948 or subsequently as the result of illegal settlements and redrawn borders. Human Rights Watch has compiled an extensive study of Israel’s policy of “separate, not equal” schools for Palestinian children. Moreover, as many as 100 Palestinian villages in Israel are still not recognized by the Israeli government, lacking basic services (water, electricity, sanitation, roads, etc.) from the government. Palestinians are barred from military service, and yet access to housing and education still largely depends on military status. Families are divided by the separation wall between the West Bank and Israel, with few forms of legal recourse to rights of visitation and reunification. The Knesset debates the “transfer” of the Palestinian population to the West Bank, and the new loyalty oath requires that anyone who wishes to become a citizen pledge allegiance to Israel as Jewish and democratic, thus eliding once again the non-Jewish population and binding the full population to a specific and controversial, if not contradictory, version of democracy.
The second point, to repeat, is that the Jewish people extend beyond the state of Israel and the ideology of political Zionism. The two cannot be equated. Honestly, what can really be said about “the Jewish people” as a whole? Is it not a lamentable sterotype to make large generalizations about all Jews, and to presume they all share the same political commitments? They—or, rather, we—occupy a vast spectrum of political views, some of which are unconditionally supportive of the state of Israel, some of which are conditionally supportive, some are skeptical, some are exceedingly critical, and an increasing number, if we are to believe the polls in this country, are indifferent. In my view, we have to remain critical of anyone who posits a single norm that decides rights of entry into the social or cultural category determining as well who will be excluded. Most categories of identity are fraught with conflicts and ambiguities; the effort to suppress the complexity of the category of “Jewish” is thus a political move that seeks to yoke a cultural identity to a specific Zionist position. If the Jew who struggles for justice for Palestine is considered to be anti-Semitic, if any number of internationals who have joined thus struggle from various parts of the world are also considered anti-Semitic and if Palestinians seeking rights of political self-determination are so accused as well, then it would appear that no oppositional move that can take place without risking the accusation of anti-Semitism. That accusation becomes a way of discrediting a bid for self-determination, at which point we have to ask what political purpose the radical mis-use of that accusation has assumed in the stifling of a movement for political self-determination.
When Zionism becomes co-extensive with Jewishness, Jewishness is pitted against the diversity that defines democracy, and if I may say so, betrays one of the most important ethical dimensions of the diasporic Jewish tradition, namely, the obligation of co-habitation with those different from ourselves. Indeed, such a conflation denies the Jewish role in broad alliances in the historical struggle for social and political justice in unions, political demands for free speech, in socialist communities, in the resistance movement in World War II, in peace activism, the Civil Rights movement and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It also demeans the important struggles in which Jews and Palestinians work together to stop the wall, to rebuild homes, to document indefinite detention, to oppose military harassment at the borders and to oppose the occupation and to imagine the plausible scenarios for the Palestinian right to return.
The point of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is to withdraw funds and support from major financial and cultural institutions that support the operations of the Israeli state and its military. The withdrawal of investments from companies that actively support the military or that build on occupied lands, the refusal to buy products that are made by companies on occupied lands, the withdrawal of funds from investment accounts that support any of these activities, a message that a growing number of people in the international community will not be complicit with the occupation. For this goal to be realized, it matters that there is a difference between those who carry Israeli passports and the state of Israel, since the boycott is directed only toward the latter. BDS focuses on state agencies and corporations that build machinery designed to destroy homes, that build military materiel that targets populations, that profit from the occupation, that are situated illegally on Palestinian lands, to name a few.
BDS does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of their national citizenship. I concede that not all versions of BDS have been consistent on this point in the past, but the present policy confirms this principle. I myself oppose any form of BDS that discriminates against individuals on the basis of their citizenship. Others may interpret the boycott differently, but I have no problem collaborating with Israeli scholars and artists as long as we do not participate in any Israeli institution or have Israeli state monies support our collaborative work. The reason, of course, is that the academic and cultural boycott seeks to put pressure on all those cultural institutions that have failed to oppose the occupation and struggle for equal rights and the rights of the dispossessed, all those cultural institutions that think it is not their place to criticize their government for these practices, all of them that understand themselves to be above or beyond this intractable political condition. In this sense, they do contribute to an unacceptable status quo. And those institutions should know why international artists and scholars refuse to come when they do, just as they also need to know the conditions under which people will come. When those cultural institutions (universities, art centers, festivals) were to take such a stand, that would be the beginning of the end of the boycott (let’s remember that the goal of any boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is to become obsolete and unnecessary; once conditions of equality and justice are achieved, the rationale for BDS falls away, and in this sense achieving the just conditions for the dissolution of the movement is its very aim).
In some ways, the argument between BDS and its opponents centers on the status of international law. Which international laws are to be honored, and how can they be enforced. International law cannot solve every political conflict, but political conflicts that fully disregard international law usually only get worse as a result. We know that the government of the state of Israel has voiced its skepticism about international law, repeatedly criticizing the United Nations as a biased institution, even bombing its offices in Gaza. Israel also became the first country to withhold cooperation from a UN review of its human rights practices scheduled last week in Geneva (New York Times, 1/29/13). I think it is fair to call this a boycott of the UN on the part of the state of Israel. Indeed, one hears criticism of the ineffectiveness of the UN on both sides, but is that a reason to give up on the global human rights process altogether? There are good reasons to criticize the human rights paradigm, to be sure, but for now, I am only seeking to make the case that BDS is not a destructive or hateful movement. It appeals to international law precisely under conditions in which the international community, the United Nations included, neighboring Arab states, human rights courts, the European Union, The United States and the UK, have all failed effectively to rectify the manifest injustices in Palestine. Boycott, divestment and the call for sanctions are popular demands that emerge precisely when the international community has failed to compel a state to abide by its own norms.
Let us consider, then, go back to the right of return, which constitutes the controversial third prong of the BDS platform. The law of return is extended to all of us who are Jewish who live in the diaspora, which means that were it not for my politics, I too would be eligible to become a citizen of that state. At the same time, Palestinians in need of the right of return are denied the same rights? If someone answers that “Jewish demographic advantage” must be maintained, one can query whether Jewish demographic advantage is policy that can ever be reconciled with democratic principles. If one responds to that with “the Jews will only be safe if they retain their majority status,” the response has to be that any state will surely engender an opposition movement when it seeks to maintain a permanent and disenfranchised minority within its borders, fails to offer reparation or return to a population driven from their lands and homes, keeps over four million people under occupation without rights of mobility, due process and political self-determination, and another 1.6 million under siege in Gaza, rationing of food, administering unemployment, blocking building materials to restore bombed homes and institutions, intensifying vulnerability to military bombardment resulting in widespread injury and death.
If we conclude that those who participate in such an opposition movement do so because they hate the Jews, we have surely failed to recognize that this is an opposition to oppression, to the multi-faceted dimensions of a militarized form of settler colonialism that has entailed subordination, occupation and dispossession. Any group would oppose that condition, and the state that maintains it, regardless of whether that state is identified as a Jewish state or any other kind. Resistance movements do not discriminate against oppressors, though sometimes the language of the movement can use discriminatory language, and that has to be opposed. However, it is surely cynical to claim that the only reason a group organizes to oppose its own oppression is that it bears an inexplicable prejudice or racist hatred against those who oppress them. We can see the torque of this argument and the absurd conclusions to which it leads: if the Palestinians did not hate the Jews, they would accept their oppression by the state of Israel! If they resist, it is a sign of anti-Semitism!
This kind of logic takes us to one of the traumatic and affective regions of this conflict. There are reasons why much of the global media and prevailing political discourses cannot accept that a legitimate opposition to inequality, occupation, and dispossession is very different from anti-Semitism. After all, we cannot rightly argue that if a state claiming to represent the Jewish people engages in these manifestly illegal activities, it is therefore justified on the grounds that the Jews have suffered atrociously and therefore have special needs to be exempt from international norms. Such illegal acts are never justified, no matter who is practicing them.
At the same time, one must object to some of the language used by Hamas to refer to the state of Israel, where very often the state of Israel is itself conflated with the Jews, and where the actions of the state reflect on the nature of the Jews. This is clearly anti-Semitism and must be opposed. But BDS is not the same as Hamas, and it is simply ignorant to argue that all Palestinian organizations are the same. In the same vein, those who wrote to me recently to say that BDS is the same as Hamas is the same as the Nazis are involved in fearful and aggressive forms of association that assume that any effort to make distinctions is naïve and foolish. And so we see how the conflations such as these lead to bitter and destructive consequences. What if we slowed down enough to think and to distinguish—what political possibilities might then open?
And it brings us to yet another outcry that we heard in advance of our discussion here this evening. That was BDS is the coming of a second holocaust. I believe we have to be very careful when anyone makes use of the Holocaust in this way and for this purpose, since if the term becomes a weapon by which we seek to stigmatize those with opposing political viewpoints, then we have first of all dishonored the slaughter of over 6 million Jewish people, and another 4 million gypsies, gay people, disabled, the communists and the physically and mentally ill. All of us, Jewish or not Jewish, must keep that historical memory intact and alive, and refuse forms of revisionism and political exploitation of that history. We may not exploit and re-ignite the traumatic dimension of Hitler’s atrocities for the purposes of accusing and silencing those with opposing political viewpoints, including legitimate criticisms of the state of Israel. Such a tactic not only demeans and instrumentalizes the memory of the Nazi genocide, but produces a general cynicism about both accusations of anti-Semitism and predictions of new genocidal possibilities. After all, if those terms are bandied about as so much artillery in a war, then they are used as blunt instruments for the purposes of censorship and self-legitimation, and they no longer name and describe the very hideous political realities to which they belong. The more such accusations and invocations are tactically deployed, the more skeptical and cynical the public becomes about their actual meaning and use. This is a violation of that history, an insult to the surviving generation, and a cynical and excited recirculation of traumatic material—a kind of sadistic spree, to put it bluntly—that seeks to defend and legitimate a very highly militarized and repressive state regime. Of the use of the Holocaust to legitimate Israeli military destructiveness, Primo Levi wrote in 1982, “I deny any validity to [the use of the Holocaust for] this defence.”
We have heard in recent days as well that BDS threatens the attempt to establish a two-state solution. Although many people who support BDS are in favor of a one-state solution, the BDS movement has not taken a stand on this explicitly, and includes signatories who differ from one another on this issue. In fact, the BDS committee, formed in 2005 with the support of over 170 organizations in Palestine, does not take any stand on the one state or two state solution. It describes itself as an “anti-normalization” politics that seeks to force a wide range of political institutions and states to stop compliance with the occupation, unequal treatment and dispossession. For the BDS National Committee, it is not the fundamental structure of the state of Israel that is called into question, but the occupation, its denial of basic human rights, its abrogation of international law (including its failure to honor the rights of refugees), and the brutality of its continuing conditions—harassment, humiliation, destruction and confiscation of property, bombardment, and killing. Indeed, one finds an array of opinions on one-state and two-state, especially now that one-state can turn into Greater Israel with separated Bantustans of Palestinian life. The two-state solution brings its own problems, given that the recent proposals tend to suspend the rights of refugees, accept curtailed borders and fail to show whether the establishment of an independent state will bring to an end the ongoing practices and institutions of occupation, or simply incorporate them into its structure. How can a state be built with so many settlements, all illegal, which are expected to bring the Israeli population in Palestine to nearly one million of its four million inhabitants. Many have argued that it is the rapidly increasing settler population in the West Bank, not BDS, that is forcing the one-state solution.
Some people accept divestment without sanctions, or divestment and sanctions without the boycott. There are an array of views. In my view, the reason to hold together all three terms is simply that it is not possible to restrict the problem of Palestinian subjugation to the occupation alone. It is significant in itself, since four million people are living without rights of mobility, sovereignty, control over their borders, trade and political self-determination, subjected to military raids, indefinite detention, extended imprisonment and harassment. However, if we fail to make the link between occupation, inequality and dispossession, we agree to forget the claims of 1948, bury the right to return. We overlook the structural link between the Israeli demand for demographic advantage and the multivalent forms of dispossession that affect Palestinians who have been forced to become diasporic, those who live with partial rights within the borders, and those who live under occupation in the West Bank or in the open air prison of Gaza (with high unemployment and rationed foods) or other refugee camps in the region.
Some people have said that they value co-existence over boycott, and wish to engage in smaller forms of binational cultural communities in which Israeli Jews and Palestinians live and work together. This is a view that holds to the promise that small organic communities have a way of expanding into ever widening circles of solidarity, modeling the conditions for peaceable co-existence. The only question is whether those small communities continue to accept the oppressive structure of the state, or whether in their small and effective way oppose the various dimensions of continuing subjugation and disenfranchisement. If they do the latter, they become solidarity struggles. So co-existence becomes solidarity when it joins the movement that seeks to undo the structural conditions of inequality, containment and dispossession. So perhaps the conditions of BDS solidarity are precisely what prefigure that form of living and working together that might one day become a just and peaceable form of co-existence.
One could be for the BDS movement as the only credible non-violent mode of resisting the injustices committed by the state of Israel without falling into the football lingo of being “pro” Palestine and “anti” Israel. This language is reductive, if not embarrassing. One might reasonably and passionately be concerned for all the inhabitants of that land, and simply maintain that the future for any peaceful, democratic solution for that region will become thinkable through the dismantling of the occupation, through enacting the equal rights of Palestinian minorities and finding just and plausible ways for the rights of refugees to be honored. If one holds out for these three aims in political life, then one is not simply living within the logic of the “pro” and the “anti”, but trying to fathom the conditions for a “we”, a plural existence grounded in equality. What does one do with one’s words but reach for a place beyond war, ask for a new constellation of political life in which the relations of colonial subjugation are brought to a halt. My wager, my hope, is that everyone’s chance to live with greater freedom from fear and aggression will be increased as those conditions of justice, freedom, and equality are realized. We can or, rather, must start with how we speak, and how we listen, with the right to education, and to dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together. Perhaps the word “justice” will assume new meanings as we speak it, such that we can venture that what will be just for the Jews will also be just for the Palestinians, and for all the other people living there, since justice, when just, fails to discriminate, and we savor that failure.
Check out Katha Pollitt’s take on the political firestorm around the BDS panel.
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Views on anthropological, social and political affairs in the Middle East
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Views on anthropological, social and political affairs in the Middle East
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