Sunday 8 October 2023

Israel-Gaza: again

First, the horror. Men, women and children, overwhelmingly civilians, who have been living their lives as best they can, now slaughtered, kidnapped, brutalised.


Second, the anger. Fury at the cruelty, the futility, of yet more killing, more destruction. 


Third, the despair. How much longer must this continue? Is there no one who can stop it?


You can have boundless sympathy, as I do, for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have lived in fear for decades, unable to enjoy anything resembling a normal life, unable ever to hope for a better future for their children.


You can believe, as I do, that successive Israeli governments have behaved with a reckless sense of overweening superiority towards the Palestinian people, convinced that their military prowess will protect them against any imaginable threat.


And you can struggle, as I did on 9/11, to suppress the unworthy, unspoken, nagging voice in your head. ‘What did they expect?’


So it’s important to be clear about where we must plant our flag as we confront the new war between Israel and Hamas. No amount of injustice, no history of oppression, can ever justify the indiscriminate killing of civilians. It was true when the Provisional IRA were blowing up pubs in Birmingham and Guildford, or a Remembrance Day event in Enniskillen; when Kurdish extremists or the Islamic State group were murdering dozens of civilians in Istanbul; and every time the Taliban or a Taliban-affiliated group blows up civilians in Pakistan.


And here is something else that is equally true. Israel’s siege of Gaza (aided and abetted by Egypt) has been unconscionable, utterly inhumane and contrary to international law. It has turned a tiny sliver of land bordering the Mediterranean into, as the cliché has it, an open-air prison. And we all know what happens when the pressure inside a pressure cooker becomes unsustainable.


The never-ending seizure and occupation of Palestinian land on the West Bank as Israeli settlements have expanded has been the final nail in the coffin of any hopes of a so-called ‘two-state’ solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The arrogance and – yes, let’s call it what it is – quasi-fascism displayed by some of the current Israeli government’s most extremist ministers has added yet more fuel to the fires of resentment that have burned for so long among the Palestinians.


And as if all that wasn’t enough, let’s not forget those unlovely regional super-powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, each with its own interests in the region and each perfectly prepared to countenance extreme brutality to further its aims.


Iran backs both Hamas and Hizbollah, which is a constant threat to Israel from across its northern border in Lebanon. Regional analysts are agreed that an operation on the scale of that which was launched by Hamas on Saturday morning could never have been undertaken without a green light from Tehran.


Why? Perhaps because Iran is desperate to prevent Israel and Saudi Arabia stitching up a deal, encouraged by the US, which would further isolate Iran and further strengthen Israel.


After the failure of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, Israel decided it would have to learn to live with a restive Palestinian population on its doorstep and under its control. It came to believe, idiotically, that an endless low-intensity conflict, kept at arm’s length from most of Israel’s population by draconian and humiliating security measures, wouldn’t be so bad. Outsiders who warned them that this was a strategy of the utmost foolishness were dismissed out of hand. ‘You don’t understand the Palestinians like we do. The only language they understand is force.’


So now the low-intensity conflict has become a high-intensity conflict. Don’t believe anyone who says this escalation came out of the blue. Everyone – with the exception of Israel’s myopic government – knew that sooner or later, the steady increase in Israeli military and settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank would produce a reaction. They just didn’t know where or when.


Two wrongs never make a right. Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people is unjustifiable. So is the Hamas response. And if there are any Hamas leaders with a sense of history, perhaps they should reflect on this: thirty years of political violence by the Provisional IRA did not end with a united Ireland. Decades of Kurdish political violence has not ended with an independent Kurdish state. The brutality of the Islamic State group in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere has not brought about an Islamic State.


But perhaps that’s not what matters most to Hamas’s leaders. Perhaps what matters most is ensuring that the world does not write off the Palestinian tragedy. The message from Gaza, perhaps, is as simple as that: ‘We are here. We exist. We have rights.’


So what can they hope to achieve, at the cost of hundreds of lives lost, both Palestinian and Israeli? 


Message received.







Friday 26 May 2023

Is Ukraine destined to become a frozen conflict?

 If I were a Ukrainian, I would be reading everything I could find on the history of frozen conflicts. 

Korea. Cyprus. China-Taiwan. Israel-Palestine. Western Sahara. Wars which ended without ending, which remain frozen in time. Conflicts unresolved, deaths unavenged, borders undrawn. 

Fifteen months after President Putin unleashed an invasion that was meant to last no more than a few days, it is not unreasonable to start asking how – and when – this brutal war will end. Which is where frozen conflicts come in, because not all wars end in victory or defeat.

North Korea invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. The North had clear military superiority and was confident of an easy victory. Three years later, and after the deaths of an estimated three million people, an armistice was signed. It had taken two years to negotiate and did not include a peace treaty. In theory, seventy years later, the two Koreas are still at war.

Turkey invaded Cyprus on 20 July 1974, claiming that it had to act in order to protect Turkish Cypriots and prevent the absorption of Cyprus by Greece. Nearly fifty years later, it still occupies about one-third of the island.

China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the end of the Second World War. More than seven decades later, it still insists that it retains the right to use force to reunify the two Chinas.

Israel declared its establishment as a Jewish state in 1948. Its Arab neighbours declared war, and 75 years later, only two of them, Egypt and Jordan, have signed peace treaties. Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria remain closed, and the legal status of Jerusalem and the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights remains unresolved.

Western Sahara has been largely occupied by Morocco since Spain relinquished control in 1975. A ceasefire between Moroccan forces and the pro-independence Polisario movement has been in place since 1991, monitored by a UN peacekeeping force. No peace agreement has been signed, and the US is the only country that recognises Moroccan sovereignty over the territory.

So is this how the war in Ukraine will end? With neither side having won or lost, with Russian forces still occupying swathes of the east of the country as well as Crimea? Not just for the next few months or years, but for decades?

No one can confidently predict that this is what the future holds for Ukraine. But nor can anyone deny that it is a possibility, perhaps even a strong possibility. After all, Russia knows better than most how to exploit smouldering conflicts that serve its purposes.

Conflicts like those in Transnistria, the pro-Moscow breakaway province of Moldova, or South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two Moscow-controlled territories in Georgia.

Would Putin be prepared to accept a frozen conflict in Ukraine? It might serve his purposes well. He would not have to give up his claim that Ukraine is historically part of Greater Russia, and he would retain his all-important access to the Black Sea.

But most important of all, he would hugely complicate Ukraine’s hopes of joining NATO and the EU, because neither group is keen to accept as new members countries that are partly under military occupation. (In 2004, the EU made an exception for Cyprus, but it’s an exception that is unlikely to be repeated.) 

For the Ukrainians, of course, the arguments are very different. But one day, perhaps sooner than we think, Kyiv’s Western allies will start asking with greater insistence: how do you see this ending? For how much longer will we have to spend billions of dollars on military assistance to ensure that you are not defeated?

With a US presidential election campaign already looming on the horizon, it’s a question that is bound to be asked ever more insistently. And the Ukrainians know that without US assistance, they will soon be in serious trouble.

So will they, one day, decide that an armistice is the least worst option? Not a negotiated peace, but a negotiated end to military conflict. In all the conflicts I have mentioned, there have been periodic spluttering attempts to move away from no-war to something more permanent. None has worked out.

For now, the view of Ukraine’s Western allies is that it is in our interests as well as Ukraine’s that the reckless Russian military adventure is seen to fail. But that cost-benefit analysis is not immutable.

I’m sure the Ukrainians know that as well as anyone. And I’m equally sure that they have already started reading up on frozen conflicts.