Sunday, June 24, 2007


Here is my response to recent events in occupied Palestine. It’s quite long .. but not nearly as long as the Palestinian tragedy.

Fatah was established as a revolutionary liberation movement, the party of the Palestinian masses wherever they were, the movement which energised the Palestine Liberation Organisation and took it out of the hands of the Arab regimes. Arafat, Abu Jihad and other leaders resisted and negotiated, and withstood even the 1982 seige of Beirut, until the rulers of the world were obliged to recognise the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The PLO included various small Marxist factions, but its centre was Fatah. The word means ‘opening’ or ‘victory’, and is a back-to-front acronym of harakeh at-tahrir al-watani al-filastini, or the Palestinian National Liberation Movement.

The PLO and Fatah were nearly synonymous, and were everywhere under attack. In 1970 organised Palestinian resistance was driven out of Jordan. In 1982 it was driven out of Lebanon, and out of the eastern Arab world entirely, to exile in Tunisia. The leadership was separated from those living under occupation and from the refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and of course from the Palestinian minority inside Israel, but still the PLO, and Fatah, remained the hope and the rallying point of all Palestinians. The first Intifada came from the occupied grassroots, but Palestinians looked to the PLO, and Arafat’s Fatah, to translate the Intifada’s victories into political and diplomatic gains.

Then came the disastrous Oslo agreements and the farce of the ‘peace process,’ all process and no product, and clearly never aimed at peace but at Palestinian surrender (in Arabic, not ‘salaam’ but ‘istislaam’). The supposed basis of the process was a two-state solution, and ‘land for peace’ based on UN Resolution 242. That is, Israel deigns to give 22% of Palestine back to its people, in return for which these people would stop threatening the nuclear-armed Jewish state with their catapults. In reality, the Oslo deal meant that the now-threatening PLO would be superceded by a Palestinian Authority, a bureaucracy for bits of the West Bank and Gaza which would police the restive natives on Israel’s behalf but which would have no real sovereignty. Arafat was not nearly as good at politics as he was at symbolism. The best PLO leaders had been assassinated, and the fat class around Arafat was hungry. Mistaking the machinery of a semi-state for their national rights, and desperate, many Palestinians on the inside reluctantly supported Oslo. The Palestinians on the outside, half of the Palestinian nation, were no longer represented.

Settlement building on land belonging to the virtual Palestinian state didn’t stop for one day during the Oslo ‘peace process’ years. Nor did assassinations or mass arrests. Intensified closures and checkpoints meant that from the start of Oslo to the outbreak of the second Intifada the Palestinian economy halved its size. Meanwhile, international ‘aid’ money was channelled to the Fatah-staffed Palestinian Authority, and corruption blossomed. Fatah had become like any other Arab regime (or just, any other regime). It perceived its function to be crowd control and the protection of the rulers’ property. Hamas, which had originally been encouraged by Israel as a counterweight to Fatah, now began to take on the role of a genuine liberation movement, free of corruption and of any illusions concerning the bantustan state.

At Camp David Clinton and Barak failed to intimidate Arafat into signing an agreement which would describe a series of beseiged cantons on less than 22% of Palestine as a state. Sharon’s stroll through the Aqsa compound was only the catalyst for the second Intifada. For the first weeks the rebellion involved stone-throwing and slogan-chanting youths. Scores were murdered every day by occupation forces while the American media wondered why Palestinian mothers didn’t care to stop their children dying. Then, unsurprisingly, the Intifada was militarised. In fighting and in providing food, healthcare and education to the beseiged Palestinians Hamas proved itself to be far more organised and committed than Fatah.

The Intifada was effectively defeated by overwhelming military force, destruction of remaining infrastructure, including farmland, Western political support for the occupation, the timorous silence of Arab puppet regimes, and international indifference as the media focus shifted first to New York, then to Afghanistan and Iraq. Arafat retrieved some of his earlier charisma by his final refusal to capitulate and the subsequent Israeli refusal to allow him out of his compound in Ramallah. After his suspicious death elections were held for a new president. The most popular and capable Fatah leader was Marwan Barghouti, who intended to stand from his Israeli prison cell. But Israel and the US made it clear that they would only talk to Mahmoud Abbas, so Fatah fell in line and pressured Barghouti not to stand. There was no Hamas candidate. The Palestinians duly voted for Abbas, who dropped all pretensions to resistance. He waited in vain for Israel to enter into serious negotiations. Israel did withdraw its few settlers from the heart of Gaza, and presented this to the world as a liberation of the strip. In fact the siege of Gaza, from land, sea, and air, only tightened, and military attacks on the civilian population increased in frequency and ferocity.

Unlike Kuwait, or for that matter Israel, Palestine had to continually prove to the ‘international community’ that it was grown up enough to deserve the basic rights guaranteed by international law. It had to prove this by holding more elections (though not, of course, elections which all Palestinians could participate in). So parliamentary elctions were held in January 2006. Hamas surprised everybody, including itself, by taking 74 out of 132 seats.

Having demanded democracy, America and Israel, with the European Union limping behind, now set about punishing the Palestinians for voting the wrong way. It’s worth very briefly examining the claimed reasons for isolating the democratic choice of the occupied Palestinians, and their hypocrisy.

Firstly, Hamas doesn’t recognise Israel. True, Hamas believes that Arafat made a strategic blunder by officially recognising Israel before Israel allowed the Palestinians minimal rights. In this Hamas is only being logical. Hamas certainly knows that Israel exists, and even if Hamas drank enough whisky to forget Israel’s existence (which isn’t likely) Israel would still be there, with its Merkava tanks, its checkpoints and its nuclear bombs. In any case, Israel doesn’t recognise Palestine. Its failure to recognise Palestine has immediate and practical ramifications, like the occupation and the ethnic cleansing.

Secondly, Hamas doesn’t recognise the two-state solution. But again, neither does Israel. And Israel is the occupier. By obeying UN resolutions, without the need for any negotiation, Israel could vacate the land for the Palestinian state. And Hamas has repeatedly stated that an Israeli withdrawal from the lands occupied in 1967 would result in a long-term ‘hudna’ or ceasefire, and that the conflict would then become cultural. This position is very similar to the IRA position when it was welcomed into the Northern Irish peace process: the IRA kept its dream of a future unified Ireland, but agreed to renounce violence and to work politically with its former enemies on the ground.

Thirdly, Hamas has attacked civilians. This is surely the most hypocritical of ‘reasons’ for isolating the movement. Since September 2000, Palestinians have killed 1023 Israelis, about 700 of whom have been civilians (many of these were armed settlers). In the same period, Israelis have killed 4160 Palestinians (not including those who died as an indirect result of the occupation, for instance critically ill people who died in ambulances held up for hours at checkpoints). The Palestinians do not have an army, but counting armed men as legitimate military targets, at least 2819 of the dead have been unarmed civilians. 118 Israeli children have been killed. 943 Palestinian children have been killed. The numbers alone show that Israel is far more guilty of killing civilians. And I would say that the violence of the occupied struggling to liberate themselves is more justifiable than the oppressive violence of the occupier, but the empire disagrees. It gives Israel financial, military and political support, and demonises Hamas. Clearly, the ‘killing civilians’ argument is just propaganda. Either that, or Palestinians are not considered to be real human beings, so culling them is not like killing real people. Or both.

Even if we could establish that the Palestinian side has been more violent than the Israeli side – which we can’t – Hamas, unlike Israel, has shown itself capable of sustaining ceasefires. And anyway, many of the Israeli victims have been killed by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is linked to Fatah.

Fourthly, Hamas aims to establish an Islamic state. True, in theory. But it hasn’t tried to impose ‘Islamic’ codes of behaviour on those who don’t want to practise them. It knows that it was elected for its resistance agenda and its freedom from corruption, not for Islamic reasons. It is in fact a bulwark against the more offensive Salafi nihilist groups which are now appearing among Palestinians in their desperation, the groups who have firebombed liquor shops and who hold the BBC journalist hostage. And Saudi Arabia is America’s greatest Arab ally despite being a ferocious fundamentalist state. And of course Israel is not a state for its citizens, still less for the people under its control, but a Jewish state.

So after the elections, the seige. Or rather, the international seige added to the Israeli seige. Palestine’s economy has been deliberately and systematically destroyed, so it is completely dependent on money from outside. This stopped coming in. Even money granted by Iran and others couldn’t come in because no bank would dare to transfer it to the Palestinians and thus be put on America’s list of terror-funding organisations. Israel withheld tax monies which it had collected from the Palestinians themselves. Salaries were not paid. For the first time in all the years of horror, malnutrition became widespread.

When Hamas was first elected it offered Fatah a place in a unity government but Fatah, on American and Israeli orders, refused. In fact, the dominant Abbas-Dahlan faction actively lobbied for the seige of Palestine. America’s ‘Abrams plan’ channelled arms from America and Israel via Jordan and Egypt to Fatah militias, and encouraged chaos by blocking every move towards Palestinian reconciliation. For good measure Israel arrested 40 Hamas MPs, including ministers, with not a squeak from the democracy-loving West. Following early bursts of civil war in Gaza, the Mecca agreement set up a unity government. Once again Abbas and Dahlan followed orders, and undermined the agreement. The independent Interior Minister resigned when Fatah refused to accept his formation of a security force. Gaza descended into chaos.

In the end Hamas responded to the endless provocations by taking over Gaza. It may have won despite itself. It certainly wasn’t difficult for the much better organised and motivated cadres to rout a divided and corrupt Fatah, however much international backing it had. Capturing the Preventative Security building, where the Authority had tortured Hamas men on Israel’s behalf, must have been a sweet victory. But it’s clear that the present situation is no victory for anyone except, in the very short term, Israel.

I’ve laid the blame for the fighting at Fatah’s door, but more generally all Palestinian forces are guilty, and the gangland culture that has grown in the territories. This last isn’t the Palestinians’ ‘fault.’ If national struggles are indefinitely extended, the struggling population is brutalised. Look at Iraq. Or Algeria. Or Chechnya. Many young militiamen in Palestine were children when the second Intifada began. They grew up seeing their fathers, brothers and schoolmates being shot or beaten or dragged away to imprisonment. They heard sonic booms and the whine of missiles instead of the icecream van. Many Arabs are describing the fighting as ‘madness,’ and I think it is, literally. The battles are being fought by pople suffering psychological trauma. A further aspect is the closed, overcrowded nature of the Gaza Strip, the largest prison on earth, the refugee camp of longest duration. If you crowd too many mice into a cage, they start to eat each other.

The probable future can be read from the Abbas and world response: political Palestine split between Fatahland on the West Bank and Hamastan in Gaza. Now that Abbas has appointed an unelected government under a prime minister whose list won a staggering two per cent of votes in the elections, America, Israel, Europe and the Arabs have reestablished contacts and financial aid. The West Bank will be rewarded, but not of course with a realistic political solution. And Gaza, once again, will be educated. Another lesson, or the same lesson, will be drummed out.

But the Palestinians will not be educated out of resistance. If Hamas falls, it will be replaced in Gaza by al-Qa’ida types who will be disastrous for Israel as well as for the Palestinians. Abbas can buy people off for a while, but he has no real credibility, and the West Bank will not accept separation from Gaza.

Fatah is no longer one organisation but a collection of factions, warlords and interests. If Abbas continues to slander Hamas while they seek negotiation, they should appeal to Barghouti and to the honest grassroots under the Fatah umbrella. There is no other option for the two movements than reconciliation.

Meanwhile, commentators cry that the two-state solution is off the agenda. But it already was. The West Bank Palestinians are irreversibly divided into enclaves, bounded by Jews-only roads, with limited access to water and agricultural land. The Jordan valley is off limits to them. The wall cuts deep into their territory. The real choice is between apartheid – the current reality – and the one state solution. All the rest is theatre.

But to get to the one state, the Palestinians need an articulate voice. It’s time for a new PLO to unify and represent all Palestinians, secular and Islamist, from the 48 lands and the 67 lands, and from the diaspora. The Arab client regimes, Europe and America are against them. It is a huge task, but it is more necessary than ever before.

And all of us should support them. Palestine is at the epicentre of world conflict. A just solution to the Palestine problem is necessary for all of us, including Israeli Jews.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


The first I heard of it was the Monday evening when a friend called to say that his son’s birthday party had been postponed due to the hurricane warning. Hurricane warning? Five minutes later my brother-in-law called about it too. You’ll forgive me for not taking it too seriously. For a start, we’re not in a hurricane zone. There has never before been a cyclone (as Indian Ocean hurricanes are called) in the Arabian Sea. There have been a few tropical storms, but they fail to make headway into the dry and dusty Gulf. Secondly, Oman had cried wolf a month previously when an Indian holy man predicted a storm and a tidal wave which would destroy the Qurm area. He said disaster would strike on a Wednesday, and a hysteria - which made the expatriate population chuckle - rapidly spread, so that children were kept home from school and more than a few workers failed to go to work. Nothing happened, of course. Except that the Indian holy man was imprisoned for starting the panic.

But there it was on the Omani TV station. Warnings to stock up on drinking water and then to stay indoors. Anyone within two kilometres of the sea should find a safe place further inland. On Tuesday morning I saw satellite images of Cyclone Gonu on the internet. It was huge, a swirl spreading its arms between the Iranian and Omani coastlines, with a defined eye. It had been upgraded to a category five cyclone. That’s as strong as a cyclone can get. Hurricane Katrina was a category five. A category five makes trees, rocks and cars dance in the heavens. A category five knocks down buildings. I bought a lot of candles and water, and taped up the windows. When I’d taped the windows, I shielded them with wardrobes and upended beds.

Cloud built up over Tuesday, with spits of rain and gusts of wind. On Tuesday evening the weather forecast said the storm was moving towards southern Iran, away from us, and weakening. Now it didn’t seem such a terrifying prospect it became exciting, a break from the high-forties, sun-blasted routine of an Omani summer. Shortly after midnight I went walking. Remarkably for June I didn’t sweat. Lightning flashed to the south and east, over the sea. A steady rain started.

Torrential rain woke me at four. Now the internet said Gonu had changed course again, and was coming directly at Muscat. Sur was being badly battered. When red light dawned we let the children run about outside in the rain, before it got worse and we’d have to keep them in the house. The storm intensified throughout the day. Before noon the wadi must have overbrimmed because the floods came. It always floods when it rains here, the earth being baked and unabsorbent, the city on an edge between rock mountains and the sea, but this time the floods stretched as far as we could see. Water poured through the windows in two rooms, soaking carpets and furniture, making us work with mop and mesaaha. Water started dripping though the ceiling, and here I went up to our Lebanese neighbour whose balcony was flooded. He couldn’t open the door to it so we unscrewed a window frame and got out that way to break the blocked drain pipe with a hammer and bail out with buckets. From up there I saw the building was an island, and many of our neighbours were submerged to the second storey.

In the end Gonu was a category one cyclone, and its centre had veered out to sea, sparing us a direct hit. It just brushed us with its fingertips, a whirling dervish of a storm absorbed in the centre around which it turned. I’ve seen worse rain in Britain, or Pakistan. The wind was never more than strong.

On Thursday morning we went for a drive to inspect the damage, which was astounding. The roundabout near our house had been partly carried away, partly drowned in mud. Roads were missing chunks. Trees and telephone poles were down. Cars were smashed and turned on their backs. A river rushed down the carriageway towards the coast. The closer to the sea, the more savage the effects, and particularly on the poor. Labourers’ houses had collapsed. Hundreds sat in the streets trying to dry out.

Our electricity came back the morning after the storm but at our friends’ house in north al-Hail it remained off. We were sweating without air conditioning so went to sit on the roof, and military helicopters circled loud overhead. It all felt a little like Baghdad. Just one day of it. Without the explosions or the fear of your neighbour.

The water was off. Supply pipes had been broken by the storm, plus sewage had been mixed up with it. The army and others came round to hand out drinking water and water to fill the bath with, for washing and flushing the toilet.

On Sunday I drove my brother-in-law, who’d wisely come to stay with us, back to his flat in al-Ghubra. It was much worse than anything we’d seen. Cars piled on top of each other three or four deep, mud and felled trees and wires, rubble and gaping holes in the roads, not in locations we’d have to point out to each other, but everywhere. The death toll for Oman then stood at 50, a modest day’s bodycount for Baghdad. The final toll must be far higher.

The crisis reinforced basic characteristics of the country. The poor – the Indians – suffered most. The rich least of all. That’s normal: remember New Orleans after Katrina. What isn’t normal is that there was a genuine sense of brotherhood in extremis. Neighbours looked after each other. Everyone kept calm. Everyone smiled. That’s the abnormality of Oman, this gentle, safe country, one of the last refuges of a traditional community-based Islam.

Any lessons? I don’t know much about the climate, but it seems very likely that this first-ever Arabian Sea cyclone, like the droughts in Australia and the United States, like the more severe hurricanes in the Caribbean, was caused by global warming. It seems likely, therefore, that it will happen again. The ramifications for Oman will be dramatic. A good step would be an Omani reacquaintance with the natural environment. Wadis will reclaim their paths. Building roads and houses in the wadis regardless won’t work. And unsustainable beachfront projects like The Wave (see my posting called Unsustainable Development) must be suddenly looking .. unsustainable. Which could be a good thing.

Much of Sur and Quryat are still underwater, a week on. The water by now, especially in these temperatures, is filthy. And Qurm, I almost forgot. There was a mini tidal wave, and the business district was trashed. On a Wednesday, as predicted. Has the Indian holy man been released from prison? He just got his timing a bit skewed, after all.