Archive for March, 2011

March 30, 2011

Palestinian Land Day – A Day for Arabs AND Jews?

by Gedalyah Reback

In Lod yesterday, Israeli Arabs and liberal Israelis demonstrated in commemoration of Land Day – an Israeli Arab and Palestinian day to protest the seizure of private Arab land by the Israeli state. But it has taken on more significance this year. That is not because of the protetss sweeping the Arab world, but regardingthis week’s passing of the citizenship law sponsored by Yisrael Beitenu. What was unique about the demonstration was the presence of effigies – images – of a certain politician. In particular, Avigdor Lieberman, whose face was set alight on the posters carrying his punim.

Two years ago, J Street released an ad immediately after the Israeli elections that condemned Avigdor Lieberman as a staunch nationalist and a racist. His statements have not been so far removed from those of his coalition partners – even members of the opposition! But his actions and the actions of his party have backed up this view. His party has sponsored a bill that has just passed, allowing citizenship to be revoked from anyone found guilty of treason or espionage.

At the same time, Lieberman has personally advocated his own version of a two-state solution that recommends trading Arab towns in Israel for Jewish towns in the West Bank. In the context of other statements he has made, this seems to be born more out of distaste for Arabs than strategic thought. In fact, it contradicts historic, traditional Israeli strategic thinking. Since the West Bank juts into Israel in such a way that Israel’s north and southern regions are only connected by a thin strip of land, there has always been worry invading Arab armies would aim for that thin strip in order to cut israel into two during a war. It was in fact Iraqi strategy during the War of Independence (when Iraqi troops were stationed in Nablus, the northern West Bank.


Arab Areas in Israel by Proportion

Land Day though is significant. It has become an annual day of protest, but it is relatively young. The Israeli state has been expropriating land since the state’s inception, particularly in the north. Land Day though goes back to 1976, when a specific attempt to implement eminent domain led to mass protests.

Up until that point, the Arab minority of Israel remained relatively passive to current events. In fact, Arabs in Nazareth are known to have thrown flowers at Israeli troops heading to the Golan front during the Yom Kippur War.

In my very humble opinion, private property is more of a factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than experts let on – or realize. It plays on both sides of the aisle – Jewish and Arab. Despite what you might think about settlers, the reality is settlers often purchase land either from the Israeli government or from private Palestinian owners.

When claiming government land, the state uses the same legal precedents as did the Jordanians (when they controlled the west Bank 1948-1967), the British (who controlled it from 1917-1948) and the Ottoman Empire (out of commission by the end of World War I. It usually means that the land has not been cultivated or built on in at least three years, making the land hefker – owner-less.

Palestinians do sell private land. This is why the Palestinian Authority authorizes the death penalty for anyone selling land to Jews (there would be no law if it did not actually happen). Landsellers have been known to be lynched in Palestinian areas, particularly Gaza. Every time settlers are evicted from their homes, the perception they have actually stolen the land is reinforced, when in fact each case is different.

The Israeli government, particularly the Supreme Court, has ordered settlers leave homes they’ve claimed to have purchased, leading to police-implemented evictions for court-cases which are “pending.” Take for example the “House of Peace” in Hebron in 2008.

Palestinians in East Jerusalem today often have their non-permit built homes evicted or bulldozed. But at the same time, Jewish residents who actually do purchase homes usually need extra security to protect them from angry residents. Even though the two groups seem to be in conflict, what they have in common is that they are both trying to preserve private property.

There is a perception that the Jewish and Arab residents of Israel and the West Bank need to be divorced from each other in order to implement the Two-State Solution. But by trying to implement this peace plan, the Israeli government, Palestinian Authority and the international community are encouraging the violation of private property rights of both Jews and Arabs, intensifying the conflict by inflaming the anger of people who truly have been personally wronged.

But that’s just my opinion.

March 28, 2011

The Druze between Israel and Syria

by Gedalyah Reback

In Israel, Druze are overrepresented in the Israeli Defense Forces and the Knesset relative to their population. In Lebanon, Druze had their own militia during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and have their own political party today. In Syria, Druze rebels were instrumental in fighting the French during Syria’s 1925 uprising.

The basic idea is that they are loyal. Druze are stereotyped to be extremely loyal to whatever government they live under, hence the large amount of Druze in Israeli combat units and presence of Druze politicians in ultra-nationalist parties as extreme as Yisrael Beitenu. But this is just a stereotype. Druze are not monolithic, and in any case support for one’s country could mean supporting the government for one person while replacing it with something better for another.

Deputy Galilee and Negev Development Minister Ayoub Kara, himself a Druze and a member of Likud, threatened Assad that Israel might intervene if the Druze of Syria are attacked. But what likelihood any one community could face Assad’s wrath would probably be nill – Assad does not want to give anyone an excuse to make a scenario like Kara’s a reality.

What appeal the protests have for the Syrian Druze though is ambiguous. Israeli media seems to be one of the key gateways to gauging Druze opinion. In the Golan Heights, what Syrians that have stayed there since the area was conquered by Israel in the Six Day War are virtually, 100% Druze. So far Druze in the Golan Heights seem to be confident that 1) Assad will survive these riots and 2) Druze will support him. It’s apparently true: the major Facebook group supporting the revolt is asking Druze to join the uprising (since they seem not to have done so already).


Ayoub Kara: Member of the Knesset and apparently ready to rock

What Ayoub Kara seems to be hinting at is an alliance: Israel with the Druze. It is an interesting idea, especially coming from a Druze himself: Israel being a patron to people in another country. I would guess he wants Israel to expand its influence in Syria, and supporting a community with no allies would be the natural place to start. But I cannot help thinking this is a fantasy with Druze being as loyal to their countries as they are.

But it is also worth saying since Israel has no other natural ally – there is no second Jewish state to form a natural alliance with – supporting other long-oppressed minorities in the Middle East against Sunni or Shiite rivals would make strategic sense. But is there a need for the Druze of Syria? That’s a question for Ayoub Kara. I don’t have an answer.

March 27, 2011

Syria’s Protests: Civil War? Peace with Israel?

by Gedalyah Reback

Syria
Captial: Damascus
Population: ~22,000,000; 70% Sunni Arab, large minorities of Kurds, Christians, Druze and Alawite Muslims
President: Bashar al-Assad
Former President: Hafez al-Assad

__________

The revolutions that started in North Africa are creeping into Israel’s domain. The Levant – the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean Ocean that is home to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan – is reacting differently to the wave of uprisings than have countries like Egypt and Tunisia.

What separates this area from those two countries is something subtle – diversity. Jordan’s politics are plagued by the division between ethnic bedouin tribes and descendants of Palestinian refugees and immigrants. Lebanon’s divisions are accentuated by the domination of Shiite Hezbollah, plus Christian and Druze communities. Israel wonders what directions things could go with its own Druze, Bedouin and Palestinian sectors. Palestinians are divided politically and have struggled to find a reason to protest – the involvement of the Israeli army, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas has complicated Palestinians’ thinking regarding against they should direct their protests.

But the protests in the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan are mildly jarring. The uprising in Syria is most serious. This will have serious implications for Israel – even more than the revolution in Egypt.

1982

The last time anything approaching these type of protests was in 1982, in Hama. The current Syrian president’s father massacred 10,000 people by shelling the town. Since then, the country has not had any significant opposition.

But 1982 was very different. The struggle between the state and the Islamists was sectarian. This year’s protests are about social freedoms and opposition to authoritarian government – the general theme of the Arab uprisings. Authoritarianism was the central theme then as well, but it carried with it sectarian implications.

The Syrian regime is dominated by one ethno-religious group in particular, the Alawites. This offshoot of Shiite Islam has classically been considered beyond the pale by most Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and outright heresy among today’s many fundamentalist groups.

Alawites had long been oppressed by the Sunni majority in Syria. When in 1970, a young air force officer named Hafez al-Assad toppled the Syrian government, he saturated his regime with Alawite officials, essentially guaranteeing a loyal support system of fellow Alawites eager to avoid letting militant Sunnis oppress their community. In 1973 Assad tried to impose a new constitution on the country with one essential change – the president would no longer have to be Muslim. This and other aspects of the constitution caused major protests.

The Muslim Brotherhood launched a campaign of terrorism against the government in 1976. Its tactics against the regime included assassinating major Alawite politicians and Alawite recruits to the Syrian army. This added to the urgency for the Syrian government.

The Alawites and Shiites

The constitution protests motivated Assad to reach out to the most popular figure in Shiite Islam at the time: Musa al-Sadr. Originally Iranian, he is related to Muqtada al-Sadr of Iraq (the anti-American cleric behind much of the sectarian violence since the American invasion). Musa al-Sadr had moved to Lebanon and founded the Shiite party Amal, whose militia preceded the rise of Hezbollah. He recognized the group as members of his sect. The regime in Iran, including Ayatollah Khomeini, have continued to support that understanding. Despite the clash between Sunnis and Shiites in today’s antagonistic Muslim world, this status is enough to keep political opponents at bay. When Syria reached out to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, it both broke its isolation in the Arab world and reinforced its attachment to Shiite Islam.

American Strategy: Break the Alliance

Over the past several years, American strategists have talked openly of pulling the Syrian government away from its alliance with Iran. The idea has been to make a peace deal with Israel conditional on Syria severing diplomatic relations with the Iranians, whereby they would receive the Golan Heights and the United States would end sanctions against Damascus.

This approach is incredibly naive. The Syrian government is too well-entrenched with the Iranian government to ever sever that alliance. Just as much as Iran has seen Syria as a gateway to the Arab world whenever it is isolated, Syria has used its relationship with Iran as leverage to keep that bridge open – ending its own isolation in the Arab world.

The religion issue makes that alliance all the more important. Breaking ties with Tehran would endanger the regime. Iran would openly denounce any attempt to associate Alawites with Shiite Islam, ending the protection provided by al-Sadr in 1974. Just as severe, Damascus would lose its alliance with Hezbollah in Lebanon, reducing Syrian influence there. Breaking the Syrian-Iranian alliance means breaking the Alawite-Shiite alliance, and that’s a major endeavor for the Assads who fear what would happen to their community.

Latakia and the regime Splitting

Alawites historically have centered along the Syrian coast near the city and within the province of Latakia. I have heard the idea in the past from professors that if the regime lost its grip on power, it could relocate to this city and consolidate its power there. That could effectively split Syria, into at least two pieces, and instigate a civil war between the much better armed, Alawite-led Syrian army and whatever rebels were fighting it.

This scenario seems more feasible considering it is what just happened in Libya, but there is of yet no indication there would be mass splits in the Syrian army and mass defections of units or government ministers.

All of this is background to however events in Syria develop.

In Relation to Israel

It seems this will undermine the confidence of any American advisor or politician who wants Israel and Syria to sign a treaty. If the regime is not popular and especially if it is weaker, there will be less pressure on Israel to trade back the Golan Heights. That is, at least for now.

But I would suggest another point: If the regime in Syria falls, a peace treaty could become more likely if there is a strategic calculation on the part of Israel it could make peace with a new government in Syria that is enjoying popularity and would otherwise be more aggressive toward Israel. That is not guaranteed, but a possibility.

That contrasts with the impossibility that Israel would sign a treaty with a weakened Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. If he remains in power, he will either have crushed a rebellion in a way similar to his father and become more isolated (allowing Israel to avoid American pressure to reenter negotiations), or he will have a weaker grip on power and Israel’s entire political establishment will feel uncomfortable making an agreement with a weak government.

March 27, 2011

Middle East Realignment: Syria and the Potential for Civil War

by Gedalyah Reback

Syria
Captial: Damascus
Population: ~22,000,000; 70% Sunni Arab, large minorities of Kurds, Christians, Druze and Alawite Muslims
__________

The revolutions that started in North Africa are creeping into Israel’s domain. The Levant – the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean Ocean that is home to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan – is reacting differently to the wave of uprisings than have countries like Egypt and Tunisia.

What separates this area from those two countries is something subtle – diversity. Jordan’s politics are plagued by the division between ethnic bedouin tribes and descendants of Palestinian refugees and immigrants. Lebanon’s divisions are accentuated by the domination of Shiite Hezbollah, plus Christian and Druze communities. Israel wonders what directions things could go with its own Druze, Bedouin and Palestinian sectors. Palestinians are divided politically and have struggled to find a reason to protest – the involvement of the Israeli army, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas has complicated Palestinians’ thinking regarding against they should direct their protests.

But the protests in the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan are mildly jarring. The uprising in Syria is most serious. The last time anything approaching these type of protests was in 1982, in Hama. The current Syrian president’s father massacred 10,000 people by shelling the town. Since then, the country has not had any significant opposition.

But 1982 was very different – a climax to a six-year-long insurgency by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Additionally, the struggle between the state and the Islamists was sectarian. The Syrian regime is dominated by one ethnoreligious group in particular, the Alawites. This offshoot of Shiite Islam has classically been considered beyond the pale by most Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and outright heresy among today’s many fundamentalist groups.

Alawites had long been oppressed by the Sunni majority in Syria, which made the rise of Hafez al-Assad a dramatic turn of fortunes. He saturated his regime with Alawite officials, essentially guaranteeing a loyal support system of fellow Alawites eager to avoid letting militant Sunnis take control of the government. The Muslim Brotherhood’s tactics against the regime included assassinating major Alawite politicians and Alawite recruits to the Syrian army. This added to the urgency for the Syrian government: deciding to devastate Hama despite heavy civilian casualties was much easier when considering the danger the Alawite community could face if the Muslim Brotherhood took over the country.

The Alawites and Shiites

The Alawite identity of the Syrian elite still plays significantly in the way it makes decisions.

Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power in 1970 clashed openly with the Syrian constitution that required the president to be a Muslim. But a 1974 declaration by the late Shiite authority living in Lebanon, Musa al-Sadr, recognized the group as members of his sect. The regime in Iran, including Ayatollah Khomeini, have continued to support that understanding. Despite the clash between Sunnis and Shiites in today’s antagonistic Muslim world, this status is enough to keep political opponents at bay.

When Syria reached out to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, it both broke its isolation in the Arab world and reinforced its attachment to Shiite Islam.

American Strategy: Break the Alliance

Over the past several years, American strategists have talked openly of pulling the Syrian government away from its alliance with Iran. The idea has been to make a peace deal with Israel conditional on Syria severing diplomatic relations with the Iranians, whereby they would receive the Golan Heights and the United States would end sanctions against Damascus.

This approach is incredibly naive. The Syrian government is too well-entrenched with the Iranian government to ever sever that alliance. Just as much as Iran has seen Syria as a gateway to the Arab world whenever it is isolated, Syria has used its relationship with Iran as leverage to keep that bridge open – ending its own isolation in the Arab world.

The religion issue makes that alliance all the more important. Breaking ties with Tehran would endanger the regime. Iran would openly denounce any attempt to associate Alawites with Shiite Islam, ending the protection provided by al-Sadr in 1974. Just as severe, Damascus would lose its alliance with Hezbollah in Lebanon, reducing Syrian influence there.

Latakia and the regime Splitting

Alawites historically have centered along the Syrian coast near the city and within the province of Latakia. I have heard the idea in the past from professors that if the regime lost its grip on power, it could relocate to this city and consolidate its power there. That could effectively split Syria, into at least two pieces, and instigate a civil war between the much better armed, Alawite-led Syrian army and whatever rebels were fighting it.

This scenario seems more feasible considering it is what just happened in Libya, but there is of yet no indication there would be mass splits in the Syrian army and mass defections of units or government ministers.

All of this is background to however events in Syria develop.

In Relation to Israel

It seems this will undermine the confidence of any American advisor or politician who wants Israel and Syria to sign a treaty. If the regime is not popular and especially if it is weaker, there will be less pressure on Israel to trade back the Golan Heights. That is, at least for now.

But I would suggest another point: If the regime in Syria falls, a peace treaty could become more likely if there is a strategic calculation on the part of Israel it could make peace with a new government in Syria that is enjoying popularity and would otherwise be more aggressive toward Israel. That is not guaranteed, but a possibility.

That contrasts with the impossibility that Israel would sign a treaty with a weakened Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. If he remains in power, he will either have crushed a rebellion in a way similar to his father and become more isolated (allowing Israel to avoid American pressure to reenter negotiations), or he will have a weaker grip on power and Israel’s entire political establishment will feel uncomfortable making an agreement with a weak government.

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