Conflict update: April 18 2017


If you’re worried about the state of human rights around the world, I’ve got great news–this afternoon, America was on it:

The Trump administration is seeking to highlight its commitment to human rights around the world, and so its envoy to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, is presiding over what it calls the first “thematic debate” on human rights in the Security Council on Tuesday afternoon.

“Council members are encouraged to express their views on the nexus between human rights and international peace and security,” reads a memo circulated to the members this month. Rights abuses, the memo says, can often be the first signs of a full-on conflict erupting.

This was, of course, not the first time human rights have been discussed to no effect at the UN Security Council, but it probably is the council’s first “thematic debate,” whatever the fuck that means. Human rights groups were skeptical–for some reason, they seemed to think that a UN Security Council meeting on human rights, presided over by a country that bombs mosques, bombs apartment buildings, bombed civilians even on this very day, and allies with countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, wouldn’t amount to shit. Well, the joke’s on them, because as it turns out…they were, uh, pretty much right on the money.


Britain is having a new election in June! What fun! Yes, I know, they just had an election two years ago, and Prime Minister Theresa May has said multiple times that she wouldn’t call snap elections before Britain had exited the European Union, but since when are we dinging politicians for lying? If early polling is to be believed, we’re not doing it this time either. May has a major political opening staring her in the face–serious Brexit negotiations won’t start until later this year, and she and her Conservative Party have huge polling leads over Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party–and she’s going to take advantage of it to increase her parliamentary cushion for the Brexit process. This is a smart, calculated move–so calculated that her opposition might even want to make an issue out of how bloody cynical the whole thing is.

Technically, May does not have the power to call for early elections–prime ministers used to have virtually unlimited authority in that regard, but parliament voted to restrict it in 2010 in order to keep precisely this kind of purely political vote from being called. If just a third of the House of Commons rejects her plans, she’ll have to resort to legislative trickery by having her own party vote against her government in a vote of no confidence. But it’s probably not going to come to that, as both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have said they’ll vote to approve the early election. It’s not clear why they’re going along with this, but I suppose if either party really knew what it was doing then the Conservatives wouldn’t be on the verge of pummeling them both in a couple of months.

The actual risk for May is that, if British voters are really feeling buyer’s remorse over the Brexit referendum, they could opt to hand May a parliament that’s much less amenable to her plans for a so-called “hard Brexit” (apologies if there are any impressionable children reading this smut).  Continue reading

Abbas and Fatah keep on keeping on

Shortly after the year 2016 went live, I wrote about how one of the growing fears related to the Middle East was that the Palestinian Authority might fall apart. This is not because anybody has any great love for the Palestinian Authority–seriously, does anybody?–but because of the potential for chaos that could follow the PA’s collapse. And seeing as how the PA’s stability probably hangs on the continued existence of its 81 year old president, Mahmoud Abbas, it’s understandable why people, even in the Israeli government, are concerned.

The normal way a body like the PA would try to prepare for its aging leader’s inevitable passing would be by establishing some kind of succession plan, even if it’s only an informal one. And yet, Abbas’s dominant Fatah party just held its seventh congress, after not having held a conference for seven years, and…didn’t really shore anything up: Continue reading

Today in words and their meanings

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a video on YouTube. A video that may shock, anger, and possibly horrify you. Here it is, and please don’t say I didn’t warn you:

Oh wait, no, that was a campaign ad from last February. Still, horrifying.

This was last week’s video:

Netanyahu’s attempt to conflate “opposition to illegal Israeli settlements” with “ethnic cleansing,” a lie that crops up periodically among settlement defenders, is one of the more outrageous attempts at propaganda you’re likely to see. Now, look, maybe given the chance Palestinians in the West Bank would forcibly expel Jews living in a new Palestinian state, though they’ve said they would not do that. But the actual issue at hand is Palestinian opposition to Israeli settlements, which isn’t even close to the same thing. The United States has no problem with Canadian citizens living in its borders, provided they follow the applicable immigration laws to do so, but I bet we’d have a huge problem if Canada asserted political control over swathes of U.S. territory on the grounds that they were now “Canadian settlements.”

The analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough. The issue isn’t Jewish settlers living in the West Bank, it’s Jewish settlers living in the West Bank but doing so in physically separate settlements under Israeli governance. These settlements are illegal under international law, and the fact is that they are indeed a huge obstacle to a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, in large part because they are explicitly arranged to gobble up the most valuable West Bank land and to effectively prevent the establishment of a sustainable Palestinian state. It’s certainly true that “no one would seriously claim that the nearly two million Arabs living inside Israel – that they’re an obstacle to peace” (though Netanyahu does use them to fear monger when it’s politically convenient), because, well, those two million Arabs are living within Israel under Israeli laws and the control of the Israeli government. There’s no comparison between them and Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

If Netanyahu wants to test his ethnic cleansing claims, there’s a simple way to do it: put the settlements and settlers under Palestinian authority and see what happens. Of course, you’d have to get the settlers to stay in place once the hand over was complete, and, realistically, they almost certainly wouldn’t: Continue reading

Welcome to 2016: are generators pretty inexpensive these days?

(fifth and hopefully last in a series; see parts one, two, three, and four)

Today’s 2016 crisis isn’t as acute as yesterdays crises, and it’s a bit of a long-shot, but it’s potentially pretty big: if you’re a fan of the Palestinian Authority, you may need to start preparing yourself for a future in which it no longer exists. Don’t take it from me; take it from the guy who’s done more than just about anybody else to hasten the PA’s collapse:

Israel must prepare for the possibility that the Palestinian Authority will collapse, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a meeting of the diplomatic-security cabinet Monday.

“We must prevent the Palestinian Authority from collapsing if possible, but at the same time, we must prepare in case it happens,” he said, according to two senior officials briefed on the meeting.

Or, if you prefer, take it from John Kerry, a month ago:

Secretary of State John F. Kerry warned Israel on Saturday against allowing — or even promoting, as some have urged — the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, saying that it would leave the Israelis with unbearable financial and strategic costs and undermine the security of the Jewish state now and in the future.

In a strongly worded speech at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum, Kerry asked whether Israelis were “ready to accept the heightened risk [of] chaos, lawlessness and desperation” that would result. Not only would Israel have to take over the provision of all basic services and welfare for the population, Kerry said, but the end of the current modicum of Palestinian self-rule also would cut off international assistance to the West Bank.

Or the IDF, from the month before that:

The IDF has recommended the government take a series of steps to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and its security forces, which the defense establishment perceives as a moderating influence, as a way to help prevent further deterioration of the security situation in the West Bank and Israel.

Recommendations included enabling PA security forces to acquire more firearms and armored vehicles and releasing Palestinian prisoners with light security offenses.

Additional suggestions include increasing the number of Israeli work visas for West Bank Palestinians, to bolster the Palestinian economy and to moderate the ongoing terrorism against Israelis.

According to assessments, the IDF has been concerned about the potential future disintegration of the PA for the last two months, a scenario that could occur if violence spikes and spreads anarchy across the West Bank.

The PA has been in constant danger of collapsing for a while now (and every new outbreak of West Bank violence only makes its position more precarious), but there is a real turning point that’s looming ever larger on the horizon: the day when PA President Mahmoud Abbas finally departs this mortal world. Continue reading

Barack and Benjamin split up DVD collection, agree on alimony

Two guys who are just trying to ride out the storm (via The Times of Israel)

Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu got together to cement the terms of their breakup today, although they stressed that they “still care deeply for one another” and “will always remain the closest of friends.” Or, in DC-speak, they “stressed their areas of common ground”:

“It’s no secret that the prime minister and I have had a strong disagreement on this narrow issue,” said Mr. Obama, seated beside Mr. Netanyahu in the Oval Office at the start of the meeting, their first in more than a year. “But we don’t have a disagreement on the need to making sure Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, and we don’t have a disagreement about us blunting destabilizing activities in Iran that may be taking place,” he added. “And so, we’re going to be looking to make sure we find common ground there.”

Mr. Netanyahu, who has choreographed his visit to Washington in part to mend fences with the Obama administration and Democrats who were alienated by his aggressive tactics in lobbying against the nuclear deal, did not mention the accord during a short appearance, in which the two leaders did not take any questions from reporters. But he had warm words for the president, and said he shared Mr. Obama’s goal of eventually resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians with a two-state solution.

“We’re with each other in more ways than one, and I want to thank you for this opportunity to strengthen our friendship, which is strong, strengthen our alliance, which is strong,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

And that’s exactly what they did. Specifically, they focused on the common ground wherein Netanyahu wants more American military aid, and Obama thinks it’s good domestic politics to give it to him: Continue reading

Your periodic Third Intifada watch

It’s time, again, to ask whether things are heading toward a third general Palestinian uprising in the West Bank:

Israeli police have limited access to the Old City of Jerusalem after two Israelis were killed and three injured by Palestinians in separate stabbing incidents. The restrictions allow only Israeli citizens, tourists, and residents into the Old City, effectively banning Palestinians from East Jerusalem from entering the area. As they have during past periods of unrest, authorities have also banned praying at the al-Aqsa mosque compound, on what Jews call the Temple Mount. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also announced new security measures including the “administrative detention”— jailing without trial—of rioters and terrorism suspects and reintroduced the controversial policy of demolishing terrorists’ homes, all of which is likely to further stoke Palestinian anger.

Tensions surrounding the Haram al-Sharif and in East Jerusalem more broadly have been escalating for several weeks now, but they really kicked into another gear during Rosh Hashannah and the confluence of Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha in mid-September. In only a couple of the many recent violent outbursts, an Israeli settler couple was gunned down by Palestinians last week, and a 13-year-old Palestinian boy was killed by the IDF on Monday. Around 500 Palestinians have reportedly been injured in clashes with Israeli security forces since Saturday.

On Tuesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that the Palestinians want to avoid escalation with Israel, while Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be trying to forcefully respond to Palestinian attacks (via the standard Israeli policy of demolishing attackers’ homes, which is arguably a war crime but I digress) without pushing things so far that he totally undermines Abbas (I mean, any more than he already has over the past six years) which could remove the only thing keeping West Bank unrest from boiling over into that full-on uprising that he would presumably like to avoid. Limiting access to East Jerusalem, thereby cutting most Palestinians off from Al-Aqsa, is a risky move in itself, in that it plays in to the widespread Palestinian sentiment that Israel is planning to change the tenuous status quo at the contested holy site.

All of this is happening in the aftermath of Abbas’s September 30 speech to the UN General Assembly, in which he said this: Continue reading

What if Gaza ends where it began?

Gaza continues to be immolated. Israeli airstrikes killed another 8 people overnight, which means nearly 2100 people there have been killed since the fighting began, and it’s becoming clear that the IDF is systematically targeting what little economic infrastructure Gaza has actually developed. Hamas executed 18 alleged spies yesterday, and one of their rockets killed a child in a southern Israeli kibbutz. It seems to me there’s been a palpable loss of interest in what’s happening in Gaza in the few days since the last temporary ceasefire was broken, but admittedly it’s only been a few days, and the intensity of the fighting also seems to be lower so far. Still, this can’t continue indefinitely.

Egypt is calling for an open-ended ceasefire while talks go on, while Hamas is trying to pressure Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to join the International Criminal Court, which would undoubtedly bring both Hamas and Israel under investigation for war crimes. Hamas is already a global outcast, so they’ve got a lot less to lose under such an investigation than the Israelis do. Meanwhile, proposals for a lasting Gaza peace deal are being floated by Egypt (Hamas rejected this one) and US and European members of the UN Security Council. Both plans seem to be pretty similar on the major points: Gaza’s borders, including its maritime border, will be opened under international observation, Israel will provide for rebuilding Gaza, and in return the Palestinian Authority will replace Hamas as Gaza’s controlling political authority. The UNSC version would have the advantage of putting a Security Council resolution behind the proposal, which would allow Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas to present the deal to their own governments as something of a fait accompli.

The thing is, if these proposals are really laying out what a final agreement will look like, and Israel’s main win is going to be a PA takeover of Gaza, then Israel has some explaining to do, since they could have gotten the same win by doing nothing at all. The Palestinian unity government that was sworn into office in June, the one that adopted the PA position toward talks with Israel in full, would have accomplished the goal of putting Gaza under PA control (after some political wrangling, to be sure) without all the loss of life and property we’ve seen in the interim. Netanyahu denounced that unity government for incorporating Hamas, despite the fact that the terms on which it was formed represented a capitulation by Hamas, not a victory for them. Now, if Netanyahu accepts a peace deal that essentially looks like status quo ante bellum, then he’s got to explain why Operation Protective Edge was about anything more than an opportunistic move to kill a couple of thousand Gazans for the heck of it.

To be sure, it’s not at all clear that this hypothetical UNSC deal will come to fruition. Hamas may now reject the idea of a PA-led unity government, after Abbas basically cooperated with Netanyahu to tamp down any unrest in West Bank while Gaza was being pummeled. Israel may ultimately demand more Palestinian concessions than the very compromised Abbas can deliver. But if the Gaza crisis ends where it began, then somebody will have to explain why 2000+ Palestinians had to die to get nowhere.