Israeli-Palestinian paradoxes under the shadow of the virus

By Claude Salhani

Despite the imminent threat to the security and well-being of both Israelis and Palestinians — and indeed the safety of the planet — they still found the time and energy to exchange rocks and gunfire in the occupied territories.

In response to the spread of the coronavirus most countries went on an unprecedented lockdown with governments ordering millions of their citizens to remain indoors.

Warmongers on both sides of the Middle East dispute will find a bizarre sort of comfort in a report from the West Bank of Palestinians throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers who responded with gunfire, assuring that the never-ending cycle of violence between the two sides continues despite the far greater threat to people in both Israel and the Palestinian territories.

In short, the likes of Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the extremist Zionist groups can rest assured that the 72-year conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East is guaranteed to continue for years.

The coronavirus making its way around the globe does not differentiate between one religion and another or one nationality and another. It’s at times like these when the world needs to put aside its differences and look at what unites us.

Discouraging as the situation may seem, with the coronavirus pandemic claiming more lives in two weeks and affecting more people than all terrorist acts in the past 10 years, scientists are working to find a vaccine and an antidote to the virus and we can remain confident that a solution will eventually be found.

However, regarding the Middle East conflict, political scientists will grapple with the Israeli-Palestinian problem for decades.

Palestinian authorities reported 66 cases of coronavirus infection, though the actual numbers will probably never be known. Israel reported 3,400 cases of coronavirus infection.

Globally, the virus has affected more than 300,000 people and killed more than 18,000. Back in the occupied territories, Palestinians throw rocks at Israelis who retaliate with gunfire.

In what may be a paradox, as Palestinians clashed with Israeli soldiers in one part of the territory, Palestinian workers were given temporary shelter by Israelis a few kilometres away.

The closure of Israel’s borders with the Palestinian territories because of the coronavirus outbreak forced Israel’s building industry to seek temporary housing for many of its nearly 70,000 Palestinian day labourers.

Usually, some 100,000 workers travel across the border twice a day. Some have security clearance from Israeli authorities allowing them to cross more quickly than the average worker, who can spend more than 3 hours at the border checkpoint. The prized possession for any Palestinian day labourer is an Israeli work permit because workers earn more for equivalent work in Israel than in Palestinian cities.

Had the Israelis been unable to provide the housing for the Palestinians, it could have caused a construction shutdown. Ironically, many Palestinian workers are building Israeli homes in areas the Palestinians claim are illegal settlements.

“Palestinian workers are the (backbone) of Israeli construction. Without them, we don’t work. The industry would stop,” Shay Pauzner, an official with the Israeli Builders’ Association, told Reuters.

Reuters reported that Pauzner said his union of approximately 4,000 construction firms coordinated with the Israel Hotel Association to find rooms for 12,000 Palestinians in some 40 hotels across the country after the border closure was announced. They found vacant apartments for another 28,000, some of the flats still in the final stages of being built.

Don’t get your hopes up, though. Despite this rare example of cooperation between the two sides, Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land are not about to get together to sing “Kumbaya” around a campfire any time soon.

There remains a grain of hope that, eventually, a “vaccine” to cure the animosity in the region will be found.

Is Erdogan out to undo the Treaty of Lausanne?

by Claude Salhani

To say that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is power hungry would be a gross understatement.

It’s been nearly two decades since Erdogan rose to power, initially as prime minister in 2002 and then as president after amending the country’s constitution to give the mostly ceremonious role of the Turkish presidency executive powers. That is not counting his years as mayor of Istanbul, from where he propelled himself onto the national stage and was elected to the country’s top job.

However, for someone as ambitious as Erdogan, the presidency may not be enough. His ego demands more, much more. Some say he would like to be considered leader of the Arab world in the absence of any charismatic Arab leader. If leading the Arabs is unlikely to become a reality, he is likely to set his sights on leading the Muslim world.

There is little doubt Erdogan aspires to becoming the man who returns Turkey to its glory of yesteryear. He wants to reach the top of the charts of Turkey’s politicians. From where he sits today, Erdogan has only one politician whose star shines brighter than his and that is Mustafa Kemal, aka Ataturk.

The problem for Erdogan is that Ataturk is more than a national hero. He is revered almost as a saint. A strange analogy for a man who introduced “laicite” to Turkey, that is the separation of religion and state.

Surpassing Ataturk’s accomplishments is no simple task. Erdogan is aware that to reach such a position he would need to accomplish deeds that even the great Ataturk could not. Still, Erdogan is confident that he has two aces up his sleeve. The first is religion.

Whereas Ataturk sought to remove religion from politics, Erdogan is trying to manipulate politics with religion. While his attempts to return Islam as religion of state in Turkey goes counter to everything Ataturk and the Kemalists stood for, Erdogan believes he can use Islam as a weapon to win greater support. Indeed, the more he consolidates power the more he seems to rely on his Islamist base.

Second is the question of land, land that the Ottoman Empire lost to its neighbours through the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. The treaty was to outline the boundaries of the modern Turkish state after the demise of the Ottoman Empire.

Under that agreement Turkey was to return to its neighbours lands that the Ottomans had taken, often under the excuse that ethnic Turks were in peril and that they went in to protect the minorities. What the Turks omitted to mention is that, once in the territory, they carried out ethnic cleansing, moving populations, destroying homes and businesses and even tearing up cemeteries.

Does Erdogan wish to revisit the Treaty of Lausanne? There are some who say that is exactly what he hopes to accomplish. That, in his mind, there can be no greater accomplishment than to expand Turkey.

The Treaty of Lausanne set out to establish the permanent borders between post-Ottoman Turkey and its neighbours. De-establishing the framework of treaties takes time and cannot be achieved overnight, unless Turkey is prepared to go to war, as it did in Cyprus in 1973.

Erdogan began to lay the groundwork for this sometime ago. In December 2017 he suggested that “some details” in the Treaty of Lausanne were “unclear” and that they may need to be revisited. He had maps shown on Turkish television with the current borders extending beyond where they should be into Greece, Bulgaria, Armenia, Iraq and Syria. Certainly, a detail that would not elude the governments in Athens, Sophia, Yerevan, Baghdad and Damascus.

Reclaiming contested territories demands tact, patience and, most of all, diplomacy.

Another worrying sign of Erdogan’s expansionist policy is the way Turkey has acted in Syria. Erdogan saw an opportunity to send troops into Syrian territory and jumped at the chance, knowing that once Turkish forces were in Syrian territory it would become very difficult to extract them amid the chaos of war.

Syria’s nightmare is far from over

By Claude Salhani

Nine years of a devastating civil war have taken Syria decades backward. Regretfully, there is still no hope on the horizon. Rather, the region is bracing for one of the worst humanitarian crises yet.

Encouraged by recent military successes, Syrian government troops are supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Lebanese Hezbollah and Russian ground and air units, courtesy of a new friendship between Moscow and Damascus.

Together they have defeated — although not completely — opposition groups ranging from extremist Islamists from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to groups composed of regular people, among them Syrian patriots struggling to bring a somewhat acceptable version of democracy to the war-torn country.

Encouraged by their successes in the fight with the opposition, some supported by the United States and Western Europe, the Syrian government launched another major offensive that human rights observers and refugee relief agencies said would create the largest refugee crisis of the war.

Approximately 1 million people are expected to become refugees because of the latest offensive. They will join 6 million or 7 million other people displaced by fighting in the past nine years.

While coping with such a large movement of population and the logistics that accompany such a migration, there is an immediate component to consider, which, alas, leaders involved in the execution of such atrocities rarely consider: the devastation and the destabilisation of the millions of lives they affect.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was so right when he stated, “a single death is a tragedy, whereas a million deaths is a statistic.”

Among issues to consider are having to deal with the immediate crisis, the logistics of funnelling large numbers of civilians through a war zone. There are the problems associated with having to house and feed the refugees and having to provide medical assistance to the casualties of war. There is providing security for refugees from armed fighters looking for foes or deserters.

Another immediate problem goes well beyond the flow of Syrian refugees and concerns the security of Europe. Naturally out of the million refugees streaming north towards Turkey, several hundred thousands are likely to try to find their way to Western Europe.

Hoping to use the refugee crisis to his political advantage, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan allowed thousands of refugees passage through Turkish territory to the border with Greece and thus the European Union.

Thousands of refugees surged into Turkey’s north-western border region and battles erupted between the refugees and Greek police, who used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. In villages near the border, townspeople took it upon themselves to prevent the refugees from settling in their towns.

The Greek Navy fired warning shots at refugees trying to reach Europe by sea aboard small rubber dinghies. In Athens, the Greek prime minister said the agreement the European Union had with Turkey concerning refugees seeking to cross Turkish territory was no longer valid.

The strain the refugees place on host countries is huge. The presence of such large numbers of foreigners vying to gain access to various European countries has divided the Europeans.

There are those who say the refugees need to be allowed entry on humanitarian grounds and those — particularly on the political right — who are strongly opposed to having more refugees enter their country. They often blame the immigrants for a suspected increase in street crime, although detailed studies have demonstrated that immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes than non-immigrants.

In some instances, there have been clashes between far-right groups and security forces.

Another consideration is the long-term damage that will affect Syria for the next three or four generations. The loss of the well-educated class and the artistic and cultural circles will leave a mark on the country.

After nine years of intense fighting, the Syrian people deserve a break from the harsh dictatorship they are subjected to. Shame falls first and foremost on the leader of that country who values his staying in power far more than the millions who have seen their homes destroyed, their friends and families killed and maimed, arrested and executed, all for the satisfaction of one man.

Shame and fault must also rest on the shoulders and conscience of the international community, particularly countries that have the clout and the power to intervene — the United States, Great Britain and France.

The Syrian people deserve better than this.

Disconnected politicians across the region are ll-equipped to deal with the virus crisis

By Claude Salhani

There is an international pandemic with the spread of the coronavirus and few countries have owned up to the severity of the problem and the challenges the outbreak creates. Yet, there were officials who engaged in useless polemics and political posturing that dented the public’s trust in the ability of some politicians to cope with the crisis.

From the inane phrases uttered by the president of the United States, who stated in front of television cameras that he knew more about this virus than some expert doctors after declaring to supporters at one of his campaign rallies, that the coronavirus was “a hoax.”

A few days later the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States surpassed the 1,000 mark.

Halfway around the world, there is the Iranian regime, shaken by lack of trust from the people for how it made things worse because of lack of transparency and blatant ineptitude. Shaken but obviously not stirred enough to snap out of the authoritarian dreamworld in which it thrives. Short-sighted reactions to the spread of the virus can be as infectious as the virus itself.

Syria, another authoritarian-governed country, is behaving in a manner not very different than Iran. The Syrian regime is, despite reports of scores of people contracting the virus and contagion being brought by Iranian militias fighting its war, stubbornly denied any coronavirus cases.

Not to be ignored is the risk posed for and by the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees transiting through Turkey on their way to Europe. Their movement could have been one thing that is pushing countries in Western Europe to try to keep their borders shut to refugees.

The leaders of Syria and Iran — and any other country that refuses to face the reality of the threat posed by this virus — should be well aware that such an attitude augments the threat of the disease. Such thinking builds on the ignorance of leaders who only make things worse.

At crucial times such as these, authorities around the world, be they medical, political, religious or otherwise, must suspend their differences for the sake of their peoples’ well-being. Sectarianism is not only outdated, it is blind to the reality of the cross-border threat.

This virus, like any other virus, does not differentiate between Iranians and Iraqis nor does it differentiate between Sunnis and Shias. Tehran’s inept management of the crisis harmed all people of the region.

Scientists studying the virus stress that people with underlying health conditions are most at risk. Yet, in the Middle East and North Africa, it is not only the elderly and the sick who are at risk. With few exceptions, inadequate systems make the region more vulnerable than others. In some Middle Eastern countries, the health-care infrastructure is very patchy at best.

More vulnerability is inflicted on the region by bellicose policies of neo-imperial powers. It is high time Iranians and Turks, for instance, curbed their expansionist ambitions and let their neighbours concentrate on much-needed development and rehabilitation of their socio-economic systems instead of having to cope with armed aggression and subversive politics.

The virus outbreak is another reminder that war has only compounded the region’s inadequacies and only prolonged its inability to meet its so many critical challenges.

Seeing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refrain from shaking the hands of European officials in Brussels gave one hope that the Turkish leader can perhaps be inspired to see other priorities besides war.

However, seeing his bodyguards struggle to check people standing beside him for virus symptoms was a sobering reality check. Then, the Russians’ humiliating video of him waiting for Russian President Vladimir Putin until the latter deigned to receive him should wake Erdogan up to the fact that war does not guarantee him greater stature or eternal rule.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly.

Coronavirus sweeps through the Middle East, fails to stop killing

by Claude Salhani

As fighting continues in various parts of the Middle East, the appearance of coronavirus heralds more deaths among communities are already living with the tragedy of war.

For many in the Middle East, it is almost as though death has become a way of life. Iraqis, for example, lived under US occupation from 2003-10. Prior to that was the 8-year Iran-Iraq war that claimed half a million lives. Most Iraqis under the age of 25 have known nothing but war so a virus, deadly as it may be, is hardly something to frighten the children of generations of conflict.

“Political parties and corruption are an epidemic that is much more dangerous than the coronavirus,” a university student in Diwaniya told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Iraqis have been protesting against government incompetence, poor public services and foreign political meddling, mainly from Iran. When the coronavirus reached Iraq, it added another item to the list of protesters’ grievances.

“The real virus is Iraqi politicians,” an 18-year-old protester and medical student from Baghdad told AFP. “We are immune to almost everything else.”

The same can be said of Iran, which suffered similar losses in the war, including soldiers who fell victim to Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons. Syria’s refugees of its 9-year civil war — numbering 5 million-6 million out of a total population of about 18 million — are too preoccupied by the harsh realities of surviving the life of a refugee than to worry about what, for many, may pass as an abstract concept.

Just as it may seem not easy to scare Iraqis over a virus, the same would apply to refugees without shelter and countries amid civil war. Lives are lost too often in parts of the Middle East compared with the more developed countries in Europe, North America and parts of Asia. In less developed countries the presence of the virus is underestimated, underreported and resources are limited to properly fight the threat.

The Iranian government says it has the situation under control when, in fact, it does not. The solution from Tehran is to misrepresent facts and blame the United States — the Great Satan — killing two birds with one stone. Three, if you count the victims of the virus.

Western television networks recorded an Iranian doctor speaking from a hospital emergency room in Tehran stressing that Iran lacked the proper resources needed to properly and effectively fight the disease.

In Iraq, anti-government demonstrators, who lost faith in the government and have mobilised since October, have picked up where the government dropped the ball, giving out leaflets and free medical masks, which have more than doubled in price in local markets.

The World Health Organisation said Iraq, with fewer than ten doctors for every 10,000 residents, is poorly prepared for an epidemic.

Inside medical centres, blood-stained sinks in washrooms and ill-equipped amenities have become a common sight. Hasan Khallati, a member of the parliament’s health committee, insisted to AFP that Iraq’s “hospitals and health-care facilities are fully equipped to deal with the outbreak” of COVID-19.

Available data tell a different story.

Iraq reported its first coronavirus case in an Iranian national studying at a religious seminary in the southern shrine city of Najaf. The number of diagnosed infections has since jumped to 19, all traced to Iran, where at least 54 people are reported to have died from the virus.

The virus is likely to slow traffic from Iran into Iraq but Iraq remains Iran’s largest export market and a popular destination for Iranian pilgrims visiting the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Many Iraqis cross the border for business, tourism, medical treatment and religious studies

“We think there are cases the government has not yet declared,” a medical student told AFP at a protest camp in the southern city of Diwaniya. “They need to be transparent with the people.”

The concept of transparency, however, does not seem to appear anywhere in the Iranian or Iraqi governments’ rule books.

Trump’s Twitter diplomacy is no substitute for real diplomacy

By Claude Salhani

Given the number of falsehoods uttered by US President Donald Trump it is difficult to believe what he says and tweets and to separate facts from fiction.

Trump, unfortunately, chooses to see only one side to every dispute — his. He professes to know more about every topic than the professionals trained to do the job.

This has been a constant with Trump in nearly all matters, including volatile ones such as the work by the intelligence community and delving into the complexities of the Middle East.

In the Middle East, Trump has demonstrated his ability to promote failure while falsely preaching success. The president’s so-called Middle East peace plan, intended to put an end to the more than 70-year Palestinian-Israeli conflict, was stillborn as Trump and members of his administration assigned to the peace project failed to consult the Palestinians and, in their political naivety, thought they could succeed in a few months where others, far more qualified at resolving conflicts, failed time and again.

Coming after the United States closed the Palestine Liberation Organisation office in Washington, the recognition of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights as belonging to Israel and moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump’s plan showed the Palestinians that there was no room for their position in an eventual resumption of the peace talks.

Trump’s failure in the Israeli-Palestinian issue adds up to more shortcomings of US policies in the region.

The United States has been politically on the retreat in the Middle East as it reversed from decades of pushing diplomacy while discreetly relying on the might of the US military.

Since Trump found his way into the Oval Office, the United States’ foreign policy has been conducted much like the rest of the hot issues handled by this administration: by Twitter diplomacy, with the president making important decisions on his own, often without consulting his advisers and staff.

At best the United States has been spinning its wheels when it comes to the status of the US military in the region. At worst, the United States has lost much of the prestige it once commanded. The Trump administration has angered long-time allies and opened the door to long-time nemesis and Cold War foe Russia.

Under the presidency of Vladimir Putin, who has shown all the slyness of the KGB operative he once was, Russia wasted no opportunity to slip in while Trump tweeted US forces out of northern Syria.

Trump’s inadequate and confusing policies regarding Syria and the Levant allowed Russian and Turkish troops to move into northern Syria. This left the Kurds, a valuable and loyal US ally, open to retaliation by the Turks and Syrian government troops and put the Russian military on the shores of the Mediterranean, giving the Russian Navy year-round access to warm water and deep-water ports, something the Russians had been working towards since the days of the tsars. Trump’s laissez-faire attitude has muddied the troubled waters of the Eastern Mediterranean.

These developments raise questions regarding NATO’s playbook. For example, what would be expected from NATO if Russia were to attack Turkey, a NATO country? A prime clause of the NATO pact stipulates that an attack against one member is equal to an attack against all 29 NATO members.

To be sure, the Middle East has long been a basket of discontent with turmoil bubbling away but rarely has the area been so close to experiencing large-scale chaos.

This is hardly the end of the region’s problems. Given the US presidential elections in November, Trump will do whatever it takes to win votes and remain in the Oval Office for another four years. He is likely to pull US forces out of an area that requires their presence if it would win him votes.

It would not be a great surprise if given that the so-called peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which are unlikely to yield concrete results, Trump would declare victory and return all US troops home.

His previous actions have shown that Trump will choose his personal interests before those of the country. Such a move this time would have a devastating effect on the region.

Erdogan’s politics: Bullying at home and abroad

By Claude Salhani

Why is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan behaving like a bully? The short answer is because he believes he can get away with it.

He apparently thinks he has no real challenger at home or abroad and so he can push the envelope to his advantage and get away with it.

The bullying starts a home where Erdogan sees plots and coups everywhere. When it is not his US-based arch-rival Fethullah Gulen orchestrating coups against him, it is George Soros who is seeking to undermine his government.

“There are Soros-like people behind the curtains who seek to stir up things by provoking revolt in some countries,” he said February 19.

Even Turkish courts have got it wrong when they “dared” to free civil society figure Osman Kavala and other defendants in the trial of the 2013 Gezi protests. Those protests were a “despicable attack just like military coups,” Erdogan said. “They were not innocent riots.”

On Planet Erdogan, judges can send people to jail the same day courts acquit them, as they did in the case of Kavala and company.

Authoritarian minds do not see the world as it is. It is all centred on them and geared to obstructing the path of the righteous sultan.

Internationally, Ankara’s bullying goes full throttle, too. The three traditional guardrails that kept Turkish politics in check — the United States, the European Union and Russia — are occupied elsewhere.

US President Donald Trump is trying to get re-elected and tending to his personal and personnel problems. The European Union is kept busy by the follies of Brexit which kept it focused on the saga going on between London and Brussels.

The third major player in this equation, Russia, where President Vladimir Putin is into his own ego trip and engaged in Syria where Russians have become deeply involved in the country’s civil war.

In the Arab world, Erdogan apparently thinks there is no figure strong enough to oppose the man who believes he is the new sultan. Furthermore, his prescience counts on the help of the Muslim Brotherhood to secure his leadership of the Islamic world. At least, so he thinks.

So the bully bullies on.

After dispatching thousands of mercenaries and extremists from the Syrian battlefield to fight in Libya, he denounced European peace efforts as undue interference in the oil-rich North African country. He is so blinded by his own ego that he fails to realise his brazen interference in Libyan affairs.

Erdogan criticised the European Union’s decision to launch a maritime effort focused on enforcing the UN arms embargo around Libya, accusing European countries involved of “interfering.”

“I want to specifically mention that the EU does not have the right to make any decision concerning Libya,” Erdogan said. “The EU is trying to take charge of the situation and interfere.”

“You have no such authority,” Erdogan clamoured.

He is strangely posturing as if Libya was once again part of the Ottoman Empire with himself as grand vizier. He applauded the decision of his Libyan protege, Government of National Accord Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, to withdraw from Libyan peace talks in Geneva.

Erdogan does not hide his proclivities to war and military force, anywhere. In Syria, he betrays the same disposition in his showdown with Russia and his support to terror-inclined jihadists.

Countries in North Africa and the Middle East are showing signs of wariness about his behaviour.

It is time that the Russians, the Europeans and the Americans wake up to the mounting threat at the crossroads of the Middle East and Europe.

There are reports of a push back by countries of the region being coordinated by Egypt. Many other countries are also concerned by his bullying and with good reason.