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Finkelstein on the Israeli-Palestinian situation: it’s not complicated 26, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Media in the ME, Western-Muslim Relations.
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The soft spoken Norman Finkelstein took the stage some 15 minutes late: not so bad for a visiting lecturer. For the next two and a half hours he gave a professional and persuasive lecture entitled ‘Israel and Palestine: the roots of the problem and the prospects for peace.’ He was, of course, preaching to the converted. This event was the last of a five stop UK tour which began in Manchester and ended last night at the George Square theatre in Edinburgh. It was organised by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) and had the typical adornments of such events: the pro-Palestinian pamphlets, the selection of hippies, and the communists – literally – outside in the cold.

He began with the almost iconoclastic phrase that the Israeli-Palestinian situation was not, in any way shape or form, complex. It is not – he continued – controversial; too difficult to understand or comprehend; it does not defy analysis; and it is, above all else, quite simple. This was the theme throughout the lecture, and it was well argued.

He cites the four issues of the conflict, which are often said to be the most intractable:

1) the question of the legal borders of Israel and Palestine

2) the question of the legality of the Israeli settlements

3) the questions of East Jerusalem

4) the question of the Palestinian refugees

These are the four questions which are the kernel of the problem, he maintains, which are consistently portrayed as being so complex as to be nigh-on insoluble. However, they are not at all that controversial and this confusion is sowed specifically to muddy the issues, he continued.

Finkelstein explained that in July 2004 the highest judicial body in the world, The International Court of Justice (ICJ) gave an advisory opinion as to the legality of the wall that the Israelis were (and are) constructing. In order to render this opinion, the court had to consider preliminary questions which correspond to the first three questions above.

On the question of Israeli borders the ICJ was unequivocal. Since, according to international law, land may not be acquired by force, and since Israel acquired land in Gaza and the West Bank this way, it is, ipso facto, illegal. There is, therefore, in effect, no dispute regarding the disputed territories: international law is clear and straight forward – the land does not belong to the Israelis. Therefore, following on from this judgement, Israeli settlers are settled on land that was obtained illegally, and are thus in flagrant violation of international law.

On the question of East Jerusalem the court is similarly unambiguous. It was acquired during the 1967 war and thus, again, because land may not be seized by force according to international law, this is Palestinian land and Israelis have no title to it.

However, the crucial aspect is how many judges voted on or for the above arguments? The final tally was a resounding 14:1. This is where Finkelstein gets his ‘there is no confusion or complexity’ notion from: it has already been overwhelmingly decided upon by the ICJ. Even the one vote against the motion from the American judge was not a rejection but a more neutral lack of acceptance, and furthermore, he did accept the notion that the wall that the Israelis are building was illegal because they had acquired the land illegally and thus, on that specific question, the vote was 15:0.

The second theme that he addressed was around the issue of terrorism semantics. A crucial difference, it is often claimed, is that the various Arab terrorist groups strive to maximize civilian fatalities, where as the Israelis, whilst killing three or four times as many people, at least do not have this as an avowed aim. Finkelstein defines terrorism as ‘the targeting of civilians to further a political end’ and retorts that if the Israeli army launch artillery into a town or spray a crowd with bullets then the “inevitable and foreseeable consequence” of this is the deaths of civilians and therefore, these actions are ipso facto purposeful and intentional. Israeli actions are thus the intended targeting of civilians. The stated Israeli aim of many such actions (eg. the shelling of a village) is to put pressure on the leaders to do x and y, which is wholly political. Thus, Israel are pursuing a political end by the specific targeted killing of civilians, which is terrorism.

In order to answer the fourth ‘intractable’ question, he used his own situation as an analogy to good effect. When he was denied tenure at his former university, he firmly believed that had he gone through the court system, he would have won eventually. However, he was told that this would take around six years and would cost an exorbitant amount of money. He said that whilst he will always believe that he does have the right to tenure at the university, just as the Palestinians have the right to return, in terms of practicality, for him it was just not feasible to pursue it, just as he believes, the Palestinian right of return is not feasible.

He also eloquently argued against several other perceived injustices surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Returning to his central theme, he pointed out that every year the UN security council vote on a resolution on a peaceful settlement of the conflict. The vote is typically utterly one sided. E.g. 1981: 151:3, 1997: 155:2, 2002: 160:4, 2007: 161:7. Although the numbers of dissenters appears to have been rising in recent years, it must be forgotten that one is always the US and the other Israel, whilst the others are states such Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu, the Federal States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands.

Another interesting point that he made was about the comparison of the conflict with others in the past. Whist to some there seems to be an apt comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa, such notions, if they make it to mainstream media are drowned out in a sea of vitriol and outrage. This was the case when former American President Jimmy Carter released a book titled ‘Palestine: Peace not Apartheid’ to considerable opprobrium .Those defending Israel from this comparison, inevitably end up discussing the holocaust and using it to garner sympathy and obfuscate generally. However, the list of people who do think that such a comparison is warranted is lengthy and impressive, including Jimmy Carter, Haaretz the leading Israeli newspaper, Israel’s former attorney general, education minister and even Ariel Sharon.

Finkelstein concluded by saying that all is not lost. Much or even most public opinion is against Israel in this situation and that while the Israeli lobby may be strong; those fighting for the Palestinians have truth on their side.

Overall, Finkelstein was impressive, but there are, without doubt, several points to be raised with Finkelstein’s argument. The ICJ is a famously toothless body, rendering opinions for those that want to hear them. There is no coercion there whatsoever. Israel can ignore their injunctions and motions continually. They will have to be made to adhere to such motions by some other source. Also, in his section comparing Palestinian and Israeli terrorism, he defined terrorism in a self-serving manner, referring to it as ‘targeting of civilians for a political end.’ Whole books (and not small ones) have been written discussing the difficulties of defining terrorism. However, the vast majority these definitions include some notion of a sub-state actor in the definition. This would, thus, exculpate Israel from committing terrorism in a semantic way. I am not sure if simply glossing over this is the way to deal with this particular argument. Israel will simply refer back to the semantics which are in their favour. However, if – somehow – a concerted effort could be made to change the definition to one that included actions of states against civilians for political ends, then this would be enormously fruitful.

One report but with differing reports of it 22, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Western-Muslim Relations.
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The World Economic Forum have just released a major new report on the state of Western-Islamic relations. It was complied by a veritable cornucopia of experts in the field and runs to some 156 well-spaced pages of sensible, articulate, and accurate observations and conclusions on the current state of affairs.

Th BBC covered the release of the report with the headline “Islam-West rift widens, poll says”. Contrast this with the headline ran by the Arab News: “Muslim-West conflict can be avoided: Report”. Both headlines are correct: that is to say that what they suggest is indeed to be found in the report and neither article, in the end, comes across as biased one way or the other. However, the crucial thing is the overall impression that each news agency wants to impress upon its readers: one of pessimism; one of hope.

Why the difference? Neither the BBC nor the Arab News are known for being overly hawkish or dovish. The answer may lie within the report itself. One part of the report deals with what people in the West and the Muslim world think about each other. On the specific question of how they view closer ties and interactions between the two worlds, it is Europeans who are most uneasy with this notion. Contrarily, it is the US, Israel and the Islamic countries polled whom believe that closer ties would more beneficial to both sides.

It seems, therefore, that the BBC and the Arab News are simply conforming to their culture-wide stereotypical beliefs as described by the report. It will be interesting to see more reaction in the coming days from the media to see if they carry on the trend, in many ways, vindicating and confirming the report’s conclusions.