Category Archives: Dialogue

Israel-Palestine: Throwing Clay Stones at Clouds

So Israel and Palestine are at it. Again. I know this because Facebook told me. Perusing through various hashtags (#standwithIsrael, #prayforPalestine, and various other combinations of “slacktivism“) I came across an article regarding Ahmed al-Jabari, a senior commander of Hamas’ military wing. According to the article, Ahmed al-Jabari received a “draft of a permanent truce agreement with Israel [and Hamas], when his car was blasted by the Israeli strike that killed him, Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin told Haaretz.”

That’s not weird. /sarcasm

It turns out that the strike on al-Jabari was the beginning of an Israeli offensive – dubbed Operation Pillar of Cloud – to respond to the escalation of rocket attacks being fired from Gaza into Israel over the last year. Let me repeat that more clearly. Israel killed a Hamas senior official with the potential of brokering a long-term peace treaty, had a draft of said treaty hours before the strike in his hand, and who actually had power to stop rockets being fired into Israel. They did this to…stop Hamas and various other Gazan factions from firing rockets into Israel. Let that logic roll around in the ol’ noodle.

Gershon Baskin – a co-chair of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information and chief negotiator of the secret back channel negotiations for Gilad Shalit‘s release – wrote a NYTimes Op-Ed piece regarding the assassination:

I believe that Israel made a grave and irresponsible strategic error by deciding to kill Mr. Jabari…Passing messages between the two sides, I was able to learn firsthand that Mr. Jabari wasn’t just interested in a long-term cease-fire; he was also the person responsible for enforcing previous cease-fire understandings brokered by the Egyptian intelligence agency…On the morning that he was killed, Mr. Jabari received a draft proposal for an extended cease-fire with Israel, including mechanisms that would verify intentions and ensure compliance. This draft was agreed upon by me and Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, Mr. Hamad, when we met last week in Egypt…

In the draft, which I understand Mr. Jabari saw hours before he was killed, it was proposed that Israeli intelligence information transmitted through the Egyptians would be delivered to Mr. Jabari so that he could take action aimed at preventing an attack against Israel. Mr. Jabari and his forces would have had an opportunity to prove that they were serious when they told Egyptian intelligence officials that they were not interested in escalation. If Mr. Jabari had agreed to the draft, then we could have prevented this new round of violence; if he had refused, then Israel would have likely attacked in much the same way as it is now…

Instead, Mr. Jabari is dead — and with him died the possibility of a long-term cease-fire. Israel may have also compromised the ability of Egyptian intelligence officials to mediate a short-term cease-fire and placed Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt at risk.

This was not inevitable, and cooler heads could have prevailed. Mr. Jabari’s assassination removes one of the more practical actors on the Hamas side.

If that nugget does not blow your mind, here is something “better”: Ahmed al-Jabari – paranoid about his own security – rarely carried a cell phone with him or any other electronic device that was tracable and rarely made public appearances. So how was he found? According to George Joffé, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, Israel used a combination of technology and informers in order zero-in on al-Jabari’s location. He also opines that it must have been months in the planning, which seems to be the case, especially with the heavy aerial assault that followed, which destroyed strategically important targets. Therefore, if months of planning, following, and intelligence gathering were being consolidated, surely al-Jabari’s secret dealings were also exposed? If they were (which seems to be the case as non-military, non-secret parties were privy to the dealings), wouldn’t Israel have welcomed such negotiations and agreements to take root?

Sadly, the timing, planning, and precision of his assassination, which subsequently launched a full scale escalation by Israel, seems to hint at a different agenda. An agenda that doesn’t fall solely at the footsteps of Israel for it also falls at the footsteps of some strange bedfellows.

Shlomi Eldar, a Gaza news correspondent for the Tel Aviv-based Maariv newspaper, argues al-Jabari’s assassination foreshadows the political discourse of radical groups. He contextualizes Hamas’ political evolution when it took over Gaza by saying:

“Once upon a time, there were the Gaza Hamas and the Damascus Hamas. In the lead at the time was the Damascus Hamas, while the Gaza Hamas was subordinate to the former. The hierarchy was quite clear and the leaders had faces and names. The spiritual, religious Hamas leadership had its headquarters in Gaza. Sheik Ahmed Yassin set the tone then. Everyone knew his place, and each one knew what he had to do. However, Yassin was killed, the Damascus Hamas disintegrated and a leadership vacuum was created, but not for long. In walked Ahmed Jabari. Under his command, the Hamas military wing took over, pushing aside the political wing, something that could not have happened under Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

The chaos in Hamas and the lack of leadership capable of making tough decisions have led to a crisis in the organization. Under these circumstances, in the absence of control, anarchy reigns. It’s every man for himself and each does as he sees fit. Every armed militant is a hero. Every operative launching a Qassam rocket is a king. The Islamic Jihad raises its head and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) follow suit. These are relatively small organizations; however, the damage they cause is not in proportion to their size.”

Eldar goes on to articulate Hamas’ difficulty in keeping the smaller political groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) in check and dealing with its own political vacuum and restructuring, which made it difficult for Hamas to impose to establish order in Gaza. This came to a head when the Secretary-General of the PRC was assassinated in March 2012, when Hamas’ muted reaction was seen as weakness to the PRC and Islamic Jihad’s “uncompromising ideal for armed struggle against Israel.” Eldar concludes that if Hamas do not re-radicalize, they risk being sidelined to the more radical groups or simply never being able to control Gaza, but:

“Under the current circumstances, disarming the militants and restoring law and order are far more difficult tasks than they were several years ago. And as matters now stand, there does not seem to be anyone in Hamas who can or wants to take such a brave step. There is no strong enough figure in Hamas these days endowed with genuine leadership skills and enjoying the unprecedentedly wide support required to make such a move. There is no one in Hamas today who is ready to pay the price of what is bound to be branded by the other organizations in Gaza as no less than infidelity and betrayal.”

Enter conflict analysis theory. In his book, The Functions of Social Conflict, Lewis Coser argues that in times of weak internal solidarity, despotism rises in order to meet the demand of war or external threat. By facing an external enemy, internal cohesion increases and through the reinforcement of ideals and norms and the purging of deviant ideals and members, control is established over the group. With these axioms in mind, I take Eldar’s conclusions a bit further and argue that certain political factions within Hamas desired to reestablish themselves as the very banner of Palestinian resistance (especially under an Islamic flag). In order to do so, they hung al-Jabari out to dry to purge any remnants of looking soft, gained a martyr in the process, and used al-Jabari’s death as a symbol that Israel has no intention of negotiating by killing Hamas’ chief negotiator between Israel and Gaza.

In other words, Hamas leaked that information intentionally to Israel, and Israel bit. But why would Israel comply in striking such a target and starting a major offensive? It’s argued that it’s an election year in Israel, and Netanyahu wants to show that he will not be idle as Hamas fires rockets into Israel’s south. He had been criticised for being a lame duck, but it seems for political points he has chosen to launch an offensive. However, it still doesn’t explain al-Jabari as a target even if Israel wanted to launch an offensive. His killing has no impact other than putting a halt to a peace treaty, and knowing that may put everything into perspective. Quite frankly, the evidence seems to support that factions at the top of Israel do not want to see this conflict to end for similar reasons as Hamas. They can maintain their stranglehold on power by scaring up votes when their national security is at risk. And so, Israel selectively targets those who are willing to broker a treaty (al-Jabari’s case) or cause harm and pain that will reinforce their enemy to continue to hate them, thus maintaining the cycle.

Hours after al-Jabari was killed, his deputy, Marwan Issa, was appointed as a successor; Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ Prime Minister, has come out and established himself as radical hawk; Fatah has voiced solidarity with Hamas, despite their history (Coser being correct again); it opens up the door for Iran to be courted once again, as Iran has become more closely tied to Islamic Jihad than Hamas in the last year; and Hamas launched a counter-offensive dubbed Operation Stones of Baked Clay, which is a reference to the Surah (105:4), “And He sent against them Flights of Birds, Striking them with stones of baked clay.” All of these things are seemingly advantageous to Hamas’ political future, but simply reinforces and entrenches the conflict for the next generation to inherit. In the end, there’s nothing to be accomplished by throwing clay at clouds…

…and clay washes away when it rains.

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Damascus is Burning


Click here for more pictures of the Syrian Civil War. Warning: Graphic.

About a couple of months back, I had the opportunity to meet former CNN reporter Rudi Bakhtiar. She had returned from the Syrian-Turkish border region doing an investigation on the Syrian Civil War’s effect on Syrian children. She happened to be already speaking to my cousin when I had arrived, and when I came to introduce myself, my cousin casually mentioned my background in conflict analysis and resolution. She asked me what I thought about the civil war and what could be done about. I replied, “Nothing,” which seemed to startle the group that was presently speaking with her.

She responded, “Why?”

I answered, “It’s an election year.”

She smiled her million-dollar smile and she agreed, “Precisely.”

While the cute little exchange holds truth, it is only one factor that contributed (temporarily) to the U.S. government doing “little” to actively stop the conflict. Even with the elections out of the way, the United States is (and will be) quite hesitant in raising the Syrian government as a top foreign policy issue. Why? Because Syria isn’t Libya and, more importantly, al-Assad isn’t Ghaddafi.

That seems like a no-brainer, but it is significant in how the international community can approach in dealing with the situation. It only helps the international community to intervene with prejudice if you’re a touch like Dr. Evil. When Ghaddafi’s son,  threatened “rivers of blood would flow with ‘thousands’ of deaths if the uprising does not stop,” — along with Ghaddafi going on Libya’s state television and exclaiming he will hunt down the “rats and cockroaches” (referring to the Libyan rebels) “to purify Libya inch by inch, house by house…street by street, person by person, until the country is clean of the dirt and impurities,” — it evoked memories of Bosnia and Kosovo in the international community to what they perceived would be a certain genocide.

This is politically significant because the fallout from Bosnia and Kosovo changed the UN Charter to include a “Right to Protect” (R2P) clause. The clause states:

“[W]e are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a  case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

 The evening of Ghaddafi’s speech, the Arab League suspended Libya’s delegation and called for a no-fly zone to be put in place a few weeks later, which gave the ratification at the UN a significant boost a week later. So significant were these formal announcements of spilling blood that it even caused Russia and China from using their veto (both countries abstained). Russia and China didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history if another Bosnia were to have happened had they vetoed a no-fly zone. This is how Ghaddafi found himself in the firing line of Tomahawk missiles.

The Syrian case is quite different. Assad has a lot of friends. Most notably Iran and Russia. While Iran and Assad’s regime are religiously similar (though not the same), their friendship runs deeper. Most significantly is Syria’s support of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war followed by both countries’ involvement in Lebanon. This is why it should not come to anyone’s surprise that Iran provides not only weapons and supplies, but actual troops in the form of the Revolutionary Guard for Assad’s use. Russian-Syrian relations revolve around long-standing military cooperation and Russia’s only military base outside of the former Soviet bloc, the Tartus naval base located in Tartus, Syria. The latter most likely assures that a no-fly zone would be vetoed if it were to ever reach a vote at the UN. Besides friends, Assad mutes any sort of sabre-rattling from his speeches when it comes to the opposition. Even in the context of the Houla massacre, Assad uses political language to mitigate an international backlash.

A game changer is whether (or when) the Syrian government will use chemical weapons in its civil war. Syria sits on a large stockpile of chemical weapons that has many in the international community very concerned. President Obama has already declared that the use of chemical weapons is the “red line” Assad cannot cross with France and the UK following suit. The Assad government has announced that it will not use chemical weapons in its civil war, but recent events such as chemical weapons testing in August and a defected general having “high-level” discussions on the use of chemical weapons on the rebels prior to his defection have the world on high alert. If the Syrian army decides to use the weapons, it would certainly estrange Russia and China from supporting Assad, and would likely catalyze an R2P intervention.

Another game changer would be whether the Syrian military can keep the weapons secure or if the Assad government is overthrown, what kind of government would take its place. If an unstable or radical government were to take over, the seizure of the weapons can prove to be particularly destabilizing without outside intervention. It is hard to imagine the U.S., Israel, or Russia for that matter not intervening and destroying the weapons in a military strike.

So what will happen or what can be done? It is difficult to say. Syria’s opposition is a far cry from uniformity in comparison to Libya’s opposition, which is an egregiously low standard in and of itself. The U.S. and various Arab nations have just put together a new opposition bloc that they hope can recognized and legitimized by all the different Syrian opposition groups. They have already been recognized by the Arab League, but it remains to be seen if they can get all parties to work with them. If they can secure a majority of oppositional political and paramilitary parties then perhaps they stand a chance at entering negotiations with the Syrian government. However, what unites them is at odds with a segment of the international community. The fundamental question revolves on whether Assad should step down from power. For Russia and Iran, this is a no. For the West and the Syrian opposition, this is a yes.

In the meantime, R2P remains dormant due to Russia, while lives continue to be lost as Syria’s Civil War continues its slow burn.

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The Leaderless Need Leaders, and Leaders Need the Leaderless

What started as the “Arab Spring” has transitioned and transformed – like seasons– to the “American Autumn”, and now perhaps something else entirely. Countless pundits, experts, and academics have opined on what it is, whether it is good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, or something unique or a continuation of the past. But every article, blog, TV plug, or radio interview seem unable to explain this global protest phenomenon with certainty and in its entirety. It may be because that participants in these movements are experimenting with new ways to organize, though they may not be aware of it themselves. But for these movements to be successful, they will need a little help from their friends (pun intended)—practitioners in the field of conflict.

What mainstream media did cover about these new social movements is the seemingly unorganized demonstration over a very palpable frustration. Such movements in the past, though having participants from a large number of “unaffiliated”, had activists that were part of formally structured and hierarchical organizations to provide a voice for the voiceless and organize their communities to become active, in which they would articulate demands through various communication mediums.

Social media and mobile telephony – unlike communication tools in the past like TV/Radio, cassette tapes, and, yes, the internet (we are that old) – in new social movements has for the most part freed the rigid categories of producer and consumer of media and information.  The past required formally structured organizations and/or groups with clear roles and strategies to get the information out for consumption to the public, but today anybody can be a producer and consumer of information. This loosens (though does not dismiss) the need for formal organizations to provide a voice for the voiceless.

The leaderless Occupy movements that are taking place around the world is this theory manifested. Individual active participants in the movement become the producer, interpreter, filter, and consumer of information, and exchange ideas – in an antiquated Athenian democracy sort of way – to come up with the demands they want to protest for. However, articulating and deciding how a proper economic system should function is a lot harder than demanding the ouster of a leader like their Arab counterparts.

Demanding a leader to step down is not nuanced, nor is it subject to statistics, figures, or theory. It is clear and emotional enough to bring many groups together. In fact, demanding a leader to step down requires less (not none) organizational or community development to drive it in comparison to more abstract concepts such as economic policy or system design. However, even in cases were the demands were clear, like the case in Tunisia and Egypt, the less formally organized students – in comparison to their elite or Islamist counterparts –lost out to the quick turnaround in elections that followed.

What this means for the conflict community is that now, more than ever, community and organizational development through techniques and/or skills in facilitation, dialogue, and problem solving in conflict practice are needed. The advantage of formal organizations is that the leaders formulate and articulate demands, but in leaderless movements that is just moot. With proper training in dialogue and conflict management, participants of leaderless movements can remain “leaderless”, while making adequate progress in formulating and articulating demands.

I do not suggest that remaining leaderless is better than being formally organized or vice versa, but perhaps they reinforce each other in a truly positive direction. In other words, the unaffiliated – usually the common denizen – have been unable to contribute, and has caused societies to simply take down one leader for a formally organized other. Therefore, the leaderless need leaders, and leaders need the leaderless.

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