The Invented Palestinians

Five years after a previous visit to Israel and the West Bank and Gaza (or the OPT—Occupied Palestinian Territory—as the UN and the Palestinians call it), I am once again residing in the charming American Colony Hotel. As on my two most recent previous visits (in 2005 and 2006) I am advising the Palestine Monetary Authority that I helped set up in the mid 1990s on strengthening its capacities as a central bank and preparing to issue its own currency should the political and economic situation ever justify doing so.

The American Colony Hotel, now decked out for Christmas (see pictures), has a long history here—over 150 years—and has hosted many interesting guests. There are the politically important visitors such as Winston Churchill, Mikhail Gorbachev, Senator George Mitchell, George Shultz, James Wolfensohn, Kofi Annan, and T. E. Lawrence. There are the artistically important visitors such as Graham Green, Leon Uris, Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck and Marc Chagall. There are some big names in the media business such as Ted Turner and Barbara Walters and in music such as Sting and Juan Baez (my personal favorite). The list of movie starts is long, including Sir Ben Kingsley, Lauren Becall, Peter Ustinov, Ingrid Bergman, Omar Sharif, Richard Gere, Uma Thurman and Vanessa Redgrave. But the one that tickles me the most is Peter O’Toole, who visited here many decades after the visit of T.E. Lawrence who he portrayed in Lawrence of Arabia.

The Hotel is in East Jerusalem, that part of the city that is in the West Bank, OPT, or Palestine as you wish, that was occupied by the Israelis in the Six Day War of 1967. Following that war, famous visitors were generally making a political statement in favor of peace. The American Colony was considered neutral territory. I have written a lot in the past about the Israeli-Palestinian situation and if you are interested I urge you to reread earlier blogs (posted here for the first time): “The View from the West Bank – a history of the conflict”, “Jerusalem in august 2006”, “Leaving Israel August 11 2006”.

While here this past week, American politicians demonstrated again a lack of balance and/or understanding in addressing the truly difficult situation here. In the case of Newt Gingrich, who brushed aside the desire of Palestinians (Arabs or whatever you want to call the people driven out of their homes by Zionists sixty years ago and the Israeli Defense Forces almost 45 years ago) to return home, it is surely blatant dishonestly and vote pandering, as he knows better. The Israeli Press is ablaze with debate about Newt’s comments (as it always is about something), and Israel’s political relationship with the U.S. more generally.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit and comments about women are still reverberating.

Balancing America’s commitment to the military defense of Israel with promoting the peace in the region that we rightly see as essential to Israel’s well being, has grown particularly difficult of late. President Obama stated the obvious several times during his administration (Israeli settlements being build in the West Bank are illegal, and the border between Israel and a new Palestinian state should be based on the borders of Israel approved by the UN long ago) then rolled over dead in the face of Israeli President Netanyahu’s (who we know from French President Sarkozy is a liar) shouts of outrage.

I had not appreciated before that when some Israelis quote Hamas and some other Palestinians as refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist (which sounds rather like the desire for another holocaust) they are referring to the Palestinian demand for their “right to return” to their homes, the other insoluble issue preventing a resolution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Two articles on the front page of Monday’s The Jerusalem Post illustrate the issue. The banner article was titled: “Cabinet approves plan to fight illegal infiltration; Netanyahu: We will close businesses, so that the enterprise known as the State of Israel does not close – PM to consider repatriating workers when he visits Africa.” What is this all about? Statements by Israel’s Justice Minister, Yaakov Neeman, in the article just below the one quoted above help clarify that question.

Reacting to criticisms from visiting American participants in the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) leadership mission to Israel of pending legislation containing loyalty oaths, the Minister scolded the American’s with raised voice saying: “There is no discrimination in any of the legislation…. We will have a majority of non-Jews if not. This is a Jewish state. If you don’t like it, you can move to another country.” He followed this with: “All Jews need to come home to Israel. I want them here. A Jew who doesn’t live here in Israel is not doing the most important thing.”

The Minister and many Israeli’s want a democratic Jewish state. That required them to drive out those living here who were not Jewish and preventing them and other non-Jews from returning (about 20% of Israelis are Arab). The refusal of Hamas and some other Palestinian’s to accept the legitimacy of the Israeli state is not anti-Semitism, it is an expression of their demand for their “right to return” home. It is anti-Zionist.

Israeli Jews are divided on this issue. Palestinians are divided as well. Those in the West Bank and living in Jordan as Jordanian citizens lead relatively prosperous lives and are prepared to give up their past claims on their homes and move on. These Palestinians are generally well-educated and hard-working. For them some token return of a few hundred thousand of the almost 5 million Palestinians driven out of their homes would be enough. But those 1.4 million still living in refuge camps after all these years (largely in Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria) have little to gain from, nor interest in, moving on. This split in the Palestinian ranks largely reflects the Hamas – Fatah divide.

Why then hasn’t the U.S. and the Quartet (U.S., EU, UN, and Russia) focused more on better treatment and integration of refuges in their host countries, largely Lebanon, following the good example of Jordan? And why has Israel so often frustrated the economic development of the West Bank and especially Gaza where most of the refugees still living in camps can be found. There in lies a very complicated story of conflicting interests among Israeli Jews, and among Lebanese political groups. The Lebanese do not allow Palestinians to work or become citizens for fear they will upset the delicate, existing balance between Christian, Sunni Muslim and Shea Muslim political groups and interests. The political conflict in Israel between those wanting a greater Israel and turning a blind eye if not actually encouraging illegal settlements in the West Bank and the peaceniks who favor a “two state solution,” is complicated by monopolistic business interests who continually use their economic and political influence to stifle (if not crush) economic competition from often very adept Palestinian enterprises. Thus no proposal for peace with the West Bank and Gaza can gain wide-spread support in Israel or in Palestine.

The Governor of the Palestine Monetary Authority told me at dinner last night that he feared that the resent wave of so-called “price tag” attacks on Palestinians and mosques in the West Bank and on the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) by right-wing Ultra Orthodox Jewish settlers risked turning what is now a territorial dispute into a religious dispute (Muslims vs Jews). For decades Ultra conservative Jews would park their campers in target areas of the West Bank and stay. When they were harassed by Palestinians for being on Palestinian property, the about to become settlers would seek protection from the IDF, which has occupied the West Bank since the Six Day War. Some months later they would demand adequate water and waste disposal, and then electricity and a few years later they would demand permission to build homes their on the grounds that they had already been living there for some time.

Many Israelis have lost patience with these settlers and periodically the IDF remove them from their illegal settlements. The settlers have dubbed their current attacks on the IDF as the “price tag” for being evicted from their illegal settlements. But right-wing Israeli governments have tolerated the continued advances of these settlements for years. The mystery is that the U.S. seems to tolerate it too. Netanyahu’s sharp rebuke of President Obama’s criticism of the settlements last year and Obama’s quick back down is a case in point. For the moment, the Israeli government seems to be creaking down. According to the Jerusalem Post: “IDF feels that to tackle ‘price-tag’ phenomenon, the gov’t needs to toughen legislation, increase policing, send a clear message.”

The United States has already faded as a major influence on events here. Speaking the truth would be the best way to serve the best interests of our friends in Israel, Palestine, and region. It would help if Newt Gingrich and other politicians stopped pandering to the Jewish and religious right voters in America who ally with them with unprincipled and inaccurate characterizations of the situation here in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. “Look who is talking about ‘invented’ peoples”

Leaving Israel, August 11, 2006

This is the re-posting of an earlier note:

Hi from Home

Sorry for two notes so close together, but travel conditions today warrant an update after British authorities arrested 24 terrorists who planned to blow up 10 planes over the Atlantic yesterday. I left Israel this morning on Lufthansa with the Governor of the PMA heading for Washington DC. We assumed that we were on the same flights all the way. Thus in Frankfurt I followed him to his gate. After one hour of extra security procedures we arrived at the gate to discover that we were on different flights and I was in the wrong terminal. Thus I passed through another security check point in the correct area and boarded my flight. To my disappointment the plane lacked the sleeper seats I was expecting. I am afraid that I grumbled about it to the steward. Half an hour later my name was called along with 5 other first class passengers and informed that we were being moved to another flight using a 747 with proper seats. The steward whispered that it was because of my complaint. This, however, meant that we had to go through the original security check point yet again. This time they took away my toothpaste and other similar items from my PC bag. They were not impressed when I told them that all of these items had passed through there three hours earlier. Go figure. Anyway, I am home safe (except for the security warning about demonstrations in Washington against US support of Israel’s war against Lebanon).

I would like to share with you the experience last week of one of my fellow advisors at the Palestine Monetary Authority (PMA). He was leaving Gaza, where the PMA has a branch, to return to Ramallah where I was working when he and his driver come under fire from an Israeli tank. This occurred at the Palestinian side check point of the border crossing from Gaza into Israel (the only way to get to the other part of Palestine in the West Bank). The gun fire lasted three hours during which he spoke by phone from the floor of his car to the Governor of the PMA and the U.S. Embassy. He is a fellow American and was born and raised in Virginia. You will be shocked, as he and I were, at what the American Embassy said to him. The woman on the phone said that his name, Akram Baker, sounded Arabic and asked if he was of Palestinian decent. He said yes. She asked what he was doing in Gaza and informed him that the Israeli government does not want American’s of Palestinian decent in Gaza and that the U.S. government would not help him. Israel basically keeps Palestinians living in Gaza prisoners within Gaza and makes it very difficult for Palestinians to enter and leave Gaza. The PMA Governor contacted the Palestinian President Abbas who got the Israelis to call off their tank. We seem to have a new second class American citizen.

The day before this incident one of the PMA employees in Gaza and her daughter were killed by an overhead Israeli helicopter. Akram asked me how I would define terrorism and answered his own question by saying the UN defines it as terrorizing (intimidating, frightening, even murdering) civilians in order to promote some political or ideological goal. Doesn’t that describe, Akram asked, Israel’s continued use of collective guilt and pressure against Palestinians to pressure their government to control terrorists in their own midst. For example, placing dozens and dozens of check points throughout the West Bank to make it difficult for Palestinians to travel around their own homeland (I had to go through two permanent check points every morning and again every afternoon between East Jerusalem and Ramallah—all in the West Bank—plus the occasional impromptu ones). Or closing the border to Palestinian day workers in Israel whenever a suicide bomber blows himself up in Israel? Or by arresting Palestinians legally and fairly elected to the Palestine National Authority (PNA) Parliament for simply being members of the Hamas political party because some terrorists affiliated with some members of Hamas held an Israeli solder. Or by destroying vast parts of Lebanon’s infrastructure and killing over a thousand of its men, women, and children to punish them (Christians included) for not being tougher against Hezbollah fighters in their midst (before the current war, a majority of Lebanese opposed Hezbollah and now a majority support them). Or, killing the PMA employee and her daughter as they walked down the street because they “tolerated” Palestinian terrorists in their midst who held an Israeli solder hostage.

For Palestinians, Akram said, Israeli solders are terrorists. That is why Palestinian children sometimes throw stones at the Israeli solders as they drive through their neighborhoods. It is the only weapon they have. A few become suicide bombers.

But what is Israel to do to defend itself when so many of its neighbors do not accept its right to exist. Become a better neighbor perhaps? But what does it mean that many Arabs do not accept Israel’s “right to exist?” This is a sanitized reference to the desire of many Palestinians to drive Israelis back off the land they took from Palestinians in 1948 and 1967. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Palestinian terrorists are the small minority that cannot get over that historical fact and move on. Most Palestinians—everyone I have ever met—have moved on and would just like the Israelis to withdraw from the territories the UN demands them return (West Bank and Gaza) so that they can get on with their lives. In fact, like almost all political movements anywhere, Hamas really simply wants to govern like any other political party and has separated itself from its militant wing (sounds like the IRA of old). It is in Israel’s interest to make normal political participation more rewarding for Hamas than terrorism—to let Hamas or any other elected government succeed or fail on their merits and to hold them accountable for their performance. Israel and the rest of us should do all possible to help the Palestinian government succeed. A successful Palestine would be a safer neighbor for Israel. Instead, Israel has stopped transferring the taxes it collects for the Palestine government on imports through Israel, proliferated walls and checkpoints throughout the West Bank and made proper administration by the Palestinian government impossible. Now the failure of the PNA will be blamed on the U.S. and Israel. When will they ever learn,… when will they ever learn.

Jerusalem in August 2006

This note was written in August 2006 following the earlier (October 2005) posting of a brief history of the Israeli Palestinian conflict: “The View from the West Bank – a history of the conflict”

Hi from Jerusalem (East Jerusalem for those of you in the know),

After leading the IMF technical assistance teams that helped establish the Palestine Monetary Authority in 1995 and 96, I returned a year ago to prepare a blue print for the steps needed for the PMA to introduce its own currency some time in the (ever more) distant future. People in the West Bank and Gaze largely use the Israeli shekel and to a lesser extent the Jordanian dinar for payments and contracts. Keeping the notes in good condition and clearing checks in shekel requires arrangements with Israeli banks. These banks recently notified the PMA that they intend to end these arrangements soon. I have returned to help the PMA figure out what to do.

The political situation in and around Israel has gone from bad to worse, to much worse. You may substitute Iraq for Israel in the previous sentence as well. When Palestinians democratically elected representatives of Hamas in enough numbers to take over the government of the West Bank and Gaze (the Palestine National Authority) from the ineffective and corrupt government of Al-Fatah (Arafat’s party), political life for Israel and the West became more complicated. The military wing of Hamas is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, as is Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group sponsored by Iran and Syria. Hezbollah also has democratically elected representatives in the Lebanese Parliament.

Israel is now at war with Hezbollah and more or less with Hamas. At least one well-known American commentator argued that Israel has a moral right to defend its borders and thus to attack Lebanon (its bombs have fallen on far more than its Hezbollah enemy). This totally and tragically misses the point. Israel is again acting against its own interests, which in the case of Hezbollah is to help build a strong Lebanese government and army that can disarm Hezbollah (as demanded by the UN) and enforce a peaceful and secure border with Israel.

I shudder at those who argue that (if you are strong enough) you just need to smash your enemies. Be tough. They don’t seem to live in the same world I do. Can the Shi’a Muslim Iraqis who now dominate the Iraqi government really wipe out all Sunni Muslim terrorists in Iraq or can the Sunni and Christian Lebanese and the Jewish Israeli’s really wipe out the Shi’a Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon? Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community and a harsh critic of Hezbollah stated Saturday that “We have to acknowledge that they [Hezbollah] have defeated the Israelis….” Being tough and launching war on Hezbollah/Lebanon has greatly weakened Israel (militarily, economically, and politically), just as the miscalculated U.S. attack on Iraq has weakened America (militarily, economically, and politically). These acts of war have weakened the security of both of our countries, not strengthened it.

Wars between tribes and religious factions can only be “won” diplomatically. The infamous Hatfields and McCoys ended their vicious cycle of feuding only when they mutually came to accept that they would never succeed in totally exterminating the other. There would always be a son, or a relative, or a friend of a son left somewhere to carry on the hatred and revenge. The famous feud ended only when a combination of carrots and sticks and harsh experience led both sides to accept a credible truce as the best that they could do. Read or watch again Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and weep.

A few weeks ago I watched a TV reality show called “The Nanny” (please done ask me why). In the show the well-meaning and conscientious parents of three little monsters were sinking into despair as their spoiled and confused kids walked all over them. The parents were not dumb, but they were failing as parents. My first reaction was that the Third Geneva Convention (on the Treatment of Prisoners of War) should be suspended for these awful brats. Where is George W when we could really use him? The British Nanny brought in to save this family, was wise indeed. She found as many ways to pull out and encourage the cooperation of the children (carrots) as she did to establish clearer and more consistent rules and punishments for violating them (sticks). In short, she found the right balance of incentives that encouraged these children to redirect their considerable energies into positive and pleasant behavior that became a joy to be around. It was brilliant. It is what societies need as well—values and rules under which everyone can get along. I am sure that you have seen perfectly behaved but regimented and dull children and laud, rude and out of control ones and said to yourself, please don’t make me have to be around either.

My boss in Baghdad emailed me last week: “Please don’t go to Jerusalem.  I don’t think that you will be safe there.  Come back to Baghdad.” She has quit a sense of humor. The security situation in Iraq has finally degenerated beyond my comfort level and I have not returned to Baghdad since December despite many requests to do so. I have been highly critical of that war, when we should be fighting Al-Quaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere (they didn’t exist in Iraq until we attacked it). And I have been even more critical of our ineffective follow-on efforts to establish a stable democracy there. However, there is one aspect of our conduct of that war I am proud of.

Every war has produced atrocities (torture, rape, murder, etc). It is a tragic and unavoidable part of war. We are again seeing examples of this ugly fact with the revelations of the killing of 24 Iraqis, mainly women and children, by American Marines in Haditha in the heat of war. The rape of an Iraqi girl and murder of her family by an American solder (Steven D. Green) in Mahmoudiya was purely criminal. Four of his U.S. Army buddies have also been arrested in connection with those crimes. Iraqis are not surprised that Americans have done these things (in very limited quantities). But they are surprised at the openness with which we expose and punish them. We can be very proud of that. It gives credence to our belief that we try to live by high principles.

Our principles of government revere openness and honesty—what more recently has come to be known as “transparency.” We can thank our free press for making that principle meaningful. While the most professional, well-trained, and well armed military in the history of mankind protects our freedom from attacks from abroad, the most professional and dedicated press in the world protects us from attacks on your freedom at home. Our practice of transparency is the ultimate check and balance on government (or corporate or labor) abuse. When combined with the high standards that guide our military leaders, transparency has helped contain the abuses of power that exist in every military, police force, and government. Three cheers for our free press.

I hope that all is well with you.