Fear and loathing across the Middle East

A Palestinian demonstrator bangs a rock against the gates of the headquarters of Palestinian leader Mahmuod Abbas during a meeting with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 14 March 2005. Palestinians were angry that Annan did not go to see Israel’s West Bank Barrier. (Photo: EFE/Atef Safadi)

The Bush administration is eager to weave recent events in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon into a narrative that “democracy is on the march” across the region. Even some of Bush’s critics seem impressed lately. Underlying the turmoil, however, is a heavy dose of old-fashioned power politics and manipulation rather than the outburst of “people power” that the US media is revelling in. And where people power is strongest, it isn’t marching in the direction Bush wants.

UN Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen left Aleppo last weekend satisfied with the timetable he received from President Bashar Assad for a complete Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. In a clear attempt to intimidate the Syrians before Roed-Larsen’s arrival, The Washington Post, in an article based on briefings from US and UN officials, reported that “Roed-Larsen plans to inform Syria that the international community is united in insisting that Damascus comply with U.N. Resolution 1559 — and is prepared to impose wide punitive sanctions if it does not act quickly.”

No one should object if Syria is asked to leave Lebanon in accordance with the Taif accord — indeed an end to its heavy-handed intervention in Lebanon’s internal affairs is overdue. Syria should never have been so complacent as to allow the current situation to arise. Nor should anyone worry if UN resolutions calling for foreign troops to go home are implemented — as that has always been the unheeded demand of people in this region.

But the unbalanced approach towards Syria is unlikely to guarantee Lebanon’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence, though it may clear the way for more US interference in the region and strengthen the hand of an intransigent Israel. Roed-Larsen’s mission was not a principled demonstration of international resolve to implement lawful decisions, but another example of the double standards that are fuelling growing resentment and anger across the region.

In contrast with this sudden haste with respect to resolution 1559, it took 22 years for Security Council resolution 425 of 1978, which demanded Israel “withdraw forthwith its forces from all Lebanese territory” to be implemented. When Israel left most of southern Lebanon in 2000 it was entirely due to the fierce Lebanese resistance that defeated Israel on the battlefield. Neither have we seen any action from the UN or the other governments to pressure Israel to accept Syria’s repeated invitations to resume peace negotiations in which a global settlement including Lebanon would be up for discussion.

This week, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan also undertook a new foray to the region, starting with a visit to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem. Mr Annan reportedly expressed “admiration” for Sharon’s Gaza “disengagement” plan even as Sharon lectured him about all the reasons why Israel still refuses to start serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Unlike Roed-Larsen in Syria, Annan did not present Sharon with any ultimatums or demand a timetable for dismantling Israel’s illegal settlements and the separation wall in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions, the July 2004 ruling of the International Court of Justice or even the Road Map. However, according to Ha’aretz, “Annan told Sharon that the UN would not stand for a partial withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and is insisting all forces be evacuated as soon as possible.”

Palestinian policemen support the door at the entrance of the Muqata’a, the Palestinian government compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah, after demonstrators tried to push their way through during UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s visit for talks with the Palestinian leadership, on 14 March 2005. Palestinians gathered to denounce Israel’s controversial West Bank security barrier, with protestors trying to bash down the metal gates, as Annan arrived, angry at his refusal to tour the Wall that the ICJ declared was “illegal” in 2004. (Photo: Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)

It is not just Annan’s blatantly pro-Israel statements that are so damaging to peace prospects and the neutrality of the United Nations, but also the provocative symbolism of his visit. In 1980, Israel applied its “basic law” to Jerusalem, as part of its campaign to tighten its hold on the city. The Security Council in resolution 478 determined that the Israeli action was “null and void and must be rescinded forthwith” and decided “not to recognize the ‘basic law’ and such other actions by Israel that, as a result of this law, seek to alter the character and status of Jerusalem.” It called on “those States that have established diplomatic missions at Jerusalem to withdraw such missions from the Holy City.”

For decades, senior foreign diplomats refused to meet Israeli officials in Jerusalem in order not to imply any recognition of Israel’s claim that the occupied city is its capital. By meeting Israel’s Prime Minister in Jerusalem Annan is himself ostentatiously flouting international law and personally bestowing recognition on Israel’s illegal actions. And other than a brief courtesy call to Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Annan rejected all invitations to see for himself the destruction and suffering Israel’s wall is causing to Palestinians in the occupied territories, or to visit Jenin refugee camp where Israel committed war crimes in 2002. He did however return to Jerusalem to attend the opening of Israel’s new Holocaust museum.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, France and Germany made a worrying announcement that if Iran fails to submit to the demands they are making regarding its nuclear program, they will allow the issue to be transferred to the Security Council, as the United States wants, where there is a good chance that Iran could be subjected — like Syria — to threats of sanctions. This would only deepen the sense in the region that the UN has become a tool in the hands of the West to be used only to punish disobedient Arab and Muslim countries, while Israel is exempt from any action to enforce international law. European silence and American encouragement in the face of Israel’s escalating threats to attack Iran do not help avert a looming confrontation.

Since the war in Iraq and Bush’s re-election we have witnessed the collective surrender by large segments of European and Arab ruling elites, as many allow themselves to become tools of Bush administration policies or scramble desperately to protect themselves. Bush and his supporters are misinterpreting this trend as vindication for their ideas.

As existing regimes remain impotent in the face of Washington’s onslaught, more people in the region turn to radical groups as the only movements with grassroots appeal that give voice to people’s sense of injustice. Hizbullah’s stunning “march of the million” in Beirut is one sign of this phenomenon and Hamas’ recent landslide victory in Gaza’s municipal elections is another. When people in the region have expressed themselves — even in Iraq’s flawed election — they have overwhelmingly sided with the forces that Washington fears and loathes the most.

The prestigious Pew Research Center, which has been conducting detailed attitude surveys in dozens of countries for decades, prefaced a new report (Global Opinion: The Spread of Anti-Americanism, January 2005) with the sobering observation that, “anti-Americanism is deeper and broader now than at any time in modern history. It is most acute in the Muslim world, but it spans the globe — from Europe to Asia, from South America to Africa.” It added that, “[f]or Muslims, it has become almost an article of faith that the United States sides unfairly with Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians; 99% of Jordanians, 96% of Palestinians and 94% of Moroccans agree. So too do most Europeans.”

Even hawks like UK Prime Minister Tony Blair recognise that this naked double standard helps fuel much anti-Western feeling. But instead of serious action the response is becoming more superficial, patronizing and self-deluding. No one in power dares whisper about sanctions against Israel. Instead Blair hosted a high profile London conference supposedly in support of the Palestinian Authority on March 1. His Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, revealed the true agenda of the meeting, which Israel contemptuously boycotted, when he explained that its purpose was “above all for security reform and better support for the security work of the Palestinian Authority.”

Private Eye magazine, which bitingly caricatures Blair by depicting him as the sanctimonious vicar of an English village church, summed up the London conference most effectively in its March 4 issue. “The vicar’s outreach mission to Palestine is going terribly well,” it reported in a satirical dispatch, “[t]his week there is an unprecedented peace conference in St. Albion’s bringing together both sides in this long-running conflict except for one of the sides. Under the chairmanship of the vicar there is every chance that the one side will agree with itself and real progress will be made.”

Related Links

  • Protesters blast Kofi Annan for refusing to visit the Wall, Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign (15 March 2005)

    Ambassador Hasan Abu Nimah is former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada