Researching the Middle East: conflicts, threats, possibilities

Blog post by John Strawson, Co-Director of the Centre on Human Rights in Conflict

Jerusalem June 19

Working on the Middle East is never dull. Having arrived in Israel this week there is the continuing hunt for three Israeli teenagers kidnapped in the West Bank and this of course is overshadowed in the region by the dramatic events in Iraq where Da’ash (ISIS) led insurgents have seized whole parts of the country and threaten Baghdad. Da’ash of course  established itself during the Syrian civil war. Recent developments have

In turn transformed relationships between the West and Iran as both sides now face a common enemy. Meanwhile in Benghazi US Special Forces have abducted Abu Kattala the alleged ringleader of the lethal attack on the US mission in 2012.  These events are merely the news headlines but the significance of each underlines the complexities of researching the region. In my view it reinforces the need for the researcher be to be immersed in the Middle East – its history, politics and languages – but also just walking the streets and picking up on contemporary music, chat and feel. It also generally underlines the importance of area studies, which is alarmingly, a fast disappearing discipline in Britain.

The media regularly trashes the history of the region. Articles on Iraq over the last few days (as examples see: Rouhat in the International New York Times, Masalha in Ha’aretz) claim that the borders of the modern Middle East were created by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, a view which is quite false. They were in fact designated after the First World War beginning with the Cairo Conference. Ironically the areas in Iraq and Syria controlled by Da’ash look very much like the area allocated by Sykes and Picot to the French!

So it is against this background that I have come to grapple with the every-present Palestinian-Israeli conflict and to try to make an assessment of the prospects. Twenty years ago (May 1994), Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Cairo Agreement (the second major text of the Oslo process), which effected Israeli withdrawal from most of Gaza and the Jericho area and set up the Palestinian Authority.  As a result Yasser Arafat, the Chair of the PLO was able to return to Palestine after 27 years. The PA was set up (headed by Arafat) and the Oslo process got underway. The peace process has now faded, the Israeli occupation continues and the number of Israeli settlers on the West Bank has risen from about 120,000 to about 350,000. Despite Israeli encroachments on Palestinian land the United Nations General Assembly has recognized Palestine as a state. The PA, which began operating in June 1994 with a faxed decree from Arafat, (from Tunis) still exists although is now based in Ramallah. So while peace has not progressed the institutions of the Oslo agreements have persisted.

Iraq and Iran

The situation in Iraq now stalks the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in particular the West’s rapprochement with Iran. For Israel over the past 35 years Iran has been seen as the major strategic threat. In 1994 Avram Burg (then a leader of the Labor Party) explained to me in the Knesset that Shi’a Islam as whole was a particular problem for Israel as it was more extreme than Sunni Islam. Long before concerns over the Iranian nuclear program, Iran figured high on the Israeli radar. Indeed successive Israeli governments were consistently puzzled over US obsessions with Iraq after 1991. The subsequent 2003 war was seen as a waste of resources that could only increase Iranian influence in Baghdad. The Israeli conflict with Iranian backed Hezbollah, which began during Israel’s occupation of Lebanon, was a prelude. The Shi’a militia and political party claimed that when the Israelis unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 (after two decades) it was under their fire. Since then Israel and Hezbollah have fought the vicious war in 2006 and unease across the border continues. Syria as an ally of Iran has also to be seen in the context of the strategic threat. Thus in this narrative Iran has proxies on Israel’s borders. Israeli analysts first thought that the 2011 rising against Assad was a helpful development. But as the conflict developed Sunni Islamists became dominant in the opposition and it is these forces that are now linking up with Sunni dissatisfaction in Iraq. For the USA and the UK the greatest danger is the success of Da’ash-led forces. As a result Iranian offers of help to al Maliki’s government coincides with Western interests. The new contacts between the West and Iran while undoubtedly along the lines of “my enemies enemy is my friend” in fact continue a trend in Western-Israeli relations since September 11 2001. The Bush administration missed a major opportunity to renew relations at the time, but the election of President Rouhani last year created a fresh opportunity.

For Israel the situation the concern is that this will weaken the West’s resolve over the Iranian nuclear program. As a result relations are strained with Israel and the US. Israel now feels isolated and whatever US influence there has been since the Obama Administration took office is now at its lowest point. This creates a situation in which Israeli unilateral steps are likely. The response to the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens (now over a week ago) gives perhaps some indication of what is to come. The large Israeli military action in the West Bank has been entirely focused on Hamas. Whether Hamas itself was responsible is not known although it appears that a cell associated with Hamas activists was. It is quite probable that such a group was unhappy with the Hamas leadership’s decision to form a coalition government with Fatah of President Abbas.  The coalition was seen by Israel as bringing terrorists within the Palestinian government – although only technocrats are in the cabinet. Part of the Israeli response to the kidnapping has to be seen as an attempt to divide the new government – a government, which the US and the West has said it will deal with. However, this is likely to be the beginning of a new phase of Israeli policy. The future holds possible annexations of part of the West Bank – the zone to the west of the wall, which would compromise some 12% of the West Bank. There are even suggestions by some in the Israeli Cabinet – and this would be supported by the in-coming President Rivlin that the whole of the West Bank should be annexed. Whatever the outcome the Iranian factor will continue to influence events.

Civil Society

While strategic questions dominate both the Israeli and Palestinian Governments what is interesting is that civil society organizations aimed at fostering peace are very active on each side. At the Jerusalem Hotel on the Nablus Road in East Jerusalem I was fascinated by a seminar being held by an activist from the Israeli veterans organization, Break the Silence. It was held in the restaurant for about 10 American tourists. Afterwards I chatted to one of the organizers and established that the group was in fact staying in Ramallah and this one of many such trips a year. Few would suspect that American tourists would be staying in Ramallah but this is indeed the case – and brought by American peace activists. This was a multi-faith initiative. Given the normal stock in trade view of US-Israel relations this was a highly significant example of what can be done. Across Israel and Palestine people-to people activities are taking place sometimes in the framework of established organizations and sometimes informally. The question is how can these voices from the ground make themselves heard by the governments which claim to represent them?



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