Sunday, August 13, 2006

Putting the force in peace-keeping forces

Noa Levanon ’02 served for three years as a lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces’ Strategic Planning and International Cooperation Division, which is responsible for collaboration and coordination with foreign militaries and peace-keeping forces in Israel. She now works for Ynet Nnews, an English-language website and writes from Tel Aviv.

In my favorite Mel Brooks movie, a man fighting a group of armed guards tells his friend to “watch my back.” The friend, misunderstanding the phrase, watches as two guards attack the man from behind and promptly informs him, “Your back just got hit. Twice.” This scene was the first thought that came to mind upon reading about the UN’s anticipated role in implementing the proposed objectives of their most recent resolution.

While overjoyed at the prospect of a cessation of violence, I could not help but find the description of the proposed multinational force discordant with the desired reality. This is because the suggested force is merely an addition — albeit of 13,000 troops — of UN forces to the existing UN organization in the area: UNIFIL, or UN Interim Forces in Lebanon.

Regardless of an increase in force of 13,000 or even 30,000, UNIFIL forces in the area will simply not be a factor in effective peace-keeping unless they are given the power to enforce — implied: militarily force — the demands of the latest UN resolution. This power will be sorely lacking barring a major overhaul of the organization’s existing mandate.

UNIFIL was founded in 1978 and had its mandate renewed several times until the present day, in order to execute three primary objectives: “withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon, restoring international peace and security, and assisting the government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area” (UN official website). Unfortunately, UNIFIL’s mandate — as an observation force — did not give it the necessary tools to actually carry out, in entirety, any of these three objectives.

Prior to the current crisis, UNIFIL’s activities regarding maintenance of an Israel-Lebanon ceasefire were limited to patrols, observation from a fixed position and close contact with the parties. In other words, they had (and have) no actual jurisdiction to address problems or violence, other than merely observing them. Not surprisingly, UNIFIL failed to enforce any of the objectives, a fact clearly illustrated by continuous outbreaks of violence in the region.

At no point during its decades-long mandate, and despite a varying security situation, did UNIFIL actively intervene to prevent renewed conflicts. During violent times, UN personnel continued to conduct humanitarian assistance to the best of their ability, but, due to the lack of jurisdiction afforded to them by their mandate, did nothing to enforce a cessation of such violence.

This is most vividly noted by their inability to stop PLO attacks on Israel for the first few years following their inception or to prevent the subsequent 18 year war that ensued. Israel, for instance, withdrew from Lebanon after a government decision, and not as a result of any action of the UN force. UNIFIL is decidedly useless in curbing the behavior of militant groups in areas in which it is purportedly responsible and against the behavior of sovereign governments, if these parties decide to act in opposition to UN-desired behavior.

For example, a short while after Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, in January 2001, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan confirmed that UNIFIL “assisted, to the extent it could, the Lebanese authorities to the area vacated by Israel” but added that “UNIFIL cannot, of course, compel the Lebanese government to take the final step and deploy its personnel down to the Blue Line.” Additionally, by the secretary-general’s own admission, the organization had no control in areas where Lebanese forces had deployed.

By natural extension, under the current mandate, UN troops still cannot prevent renewed Hezbollah attacks and, subsequently, cannot, in practice, help ensure Lebanese state sovereignty in south Lebanon if the Lebanese government doesn’t decide, on its own, to take military charge of the area. The most they can do is serve as a UN watchdog and report to UN headquarters, hoping that the United Nations will, at best — based on their actions historically — reprimand the Lebanese government and encourage them to take care of their own sovereign territories.

Indeed, this phenomenon was most recently manifested in the current conflict. In his July 2006 report of UNIFIL, covering the period from January 21 to July 18 of the same year, Annan was quoted as saying that the events of July 12 had radically changed the context in which the mandate operated and that “in the current environment, circumstances conducive to United Nations do not exist.” In other words, in a time of crisis, the requisite circumstances for a UN force to function are absent. How then, is such a force supposed to actually keep peace? Clearly, it cannot.

As things stand, increased numbers of UNIFIL forces may be useful in fulfilling the humanitarian and rehabilitation aspects of the proposed UN resolution, but they certainly do not address the more important peace-keeping objectives of the document. Based on the current mandate, UNIFIL forces can do nothing more than observe a situation falling to pieces and report on it post-mortem.

So how will the proposed multinational force deal with the threat of renewed violence in the region? How would it deal with the goal of disarming militias (i.e. – Hezbollah)? Without a fundamental change in the nature of the UN force itself, the newest peace-keeping efforts will be nothing more than the same old story of observation and announcement: Israel, your north just got hit. Twice.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Confronting the enemy

Sarah Karam is a senior from Beirut, Lebanon.

After almost a month of violence, the restoration of a nation once known as the French Riviera of the Middle East seems almost artificial. The Lebanese have awoken from their dream of golden beaches, extravagant nightclubs and countless tourists to Beirut’s living nightmare. Lebanon is facing an immediate humanitarian crisis and the damages to her infrastructure will take years to repair. But if the Lebanese have any hope of physically restoring their country, they have to address their social devastation first. An increasing number of Lebanese do not recognize Hezbollah for what they are: an illegitimate, hostile militia responsible for the destruction of a country and the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians. Instead they laud Hezbollah as Lebanon’s protector and Nasrallah as their savior.

Many have asked me why the government has not taken a strong anti-Hezbollah line and how they have allowed terrorists to speak for a sovereign state. My initial reply was to make excuses for the Lebanese prime minister and the cabinet by pointing to the fragility of Lebanese society. A plurality of religious sects has lived together in nervous peace since the end of the Civil War in 1990; the one true uniting factor remaining a determination not to resume fighting. But the fighting has resumed whether they like it or not. All Lebanese are suffering because of the actions of a group of criminals supported and funded by Iran and Syria. Even the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, and many other politicians have cowardly sided with Hezbollah.

Rage towards Israel and relentless destruction from the skies is clouding the air of reason in Martyr’s Square. It is easy (and somewhat understandable) to curse Israel and America after witnessing a U.S.-made F-16 with a blue Star of David on the side blow up an apartment block, and being bombarded with constant TV images of children with missing limbs being pulled out of the rubble. But while the Lebanese people suffer and swear revenge on their southern neighbor, their true oppressor gazes on through thick spectacles and recites rhetoric against the “Zionist entity” from his bearded beak.

The violence needs to stop. But the more Israel invests in this war, the less likely that is. Olmert is damned if he halts military operations and damned if he doesn’t. Accepting a ceasefire before accomplishing the goal of seriously crippling Hezbollah will ensure Nasrallah and his sponsors declare victory over the “Zionist” entity’s war machine and undermine the entire operation, whereas steadily pounding Lebanon from the air and advancing on the ground will provoke intensifying anti-Israeli sentiment and more death on all sides.

The time has come for the furor surrounding the “Cedar Revolution” to be put to the test. Can the Lebanese see Hezbollah for what it really is? Their role as a “resistance” against the Israeli occupation has no bearing since the IDF’s pullout in 2000. Hezbollah and Nasrallah are aggressors. And not just against Israel but against all peace-loving Lebanese.

It should be made clear that just because I condemn Hezbollah, it does not mean that I condone Israel’s actions. Far too many civilians have been killed, especially children. It’s hard to figure out why a small bridge linking my grandmother’s Christian village to the rest of the country has been destroyed or the power station in Jiyyeh, causing an oil spill across the entire coastline. It is becoming increasingly easier to make the argument that one of the strategies of the IDF is to pressure the Lebanese government to act by collectively punishing a nation — completely unjustifiable. I believe that Israel, as a self-proclaimed moral nation, has a responsibility to help finance the rebuilding effort once/if Hezbollah is disarmed. After all, it is not Lebanon that is the target.

Many so-called “pro-Lebanese” reading this may label me as an Israeli sympathizer, anti-Muslim, etc. Call me whatever you want. But if Lebanon is to have any hope of rising from her misery, her people must confront Hezbollah and expel all militia groups, of whatever religion or political party, once and for all. Perhaps then the rehabilitation of Lebanon to a Middle Eastern oasis will not be a dream, but a reality.

A rebuttal: Intellectual honesty warranted in debate about Israel-Palestine conflict

Zaina Awad '09 is a Palestinian who lives in Jerusalem. She writes in response to Neta Levanon's last post, continuing the online debate begun earlier.

In her latest blog entry, Neta writes that a bi-directional analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was missing from my response to her first post, "In defense of a compassionate Israel." She is correct: Such analysis was missing from my post, but simply because I wrote in response to her entry which also showed no sign of any such analysis. Let us not forget that in her first article, Neta chose to blame everyone but the "compassionate" Israelis for the failure of the Middle East peace process.

I, too, believe that a bi-directional analysis of this conflict is necessary, but the first step towards that goal is surely some kind of intellectual honesty and accountability about our history. Palestine was never “a land without people for a people without land,” as has been claimed, and the way in which 900,000 of the 1.3 million Arabs who lived in Palestine before the creation of the Jewish state suddenly disappeared on Israel’s birthday in 1948 simply cannot afford Israel’s supporters the “cleaner conscience” that Neta apparently clings to in her writing.

In order for the creation of the state of Israel, a homeland for the Jews, to succeed, the land it was built on needed to be emptied of any non-Jew living there. Israel's first President, Chaim Weizmann, described this quest as "a miraculous clearing of the land, the miraculous simplification of Israel's task” — but these events were not so much miraculous as the result of a carefully executed plan (see David Hirst’s exhaustive research on this topic in The Gun and the Olive Branch). That plan was clearly articulated by Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, when he said that the goal of Zionism was to "spirit the penniless population [i.e., the Arabs of Palestine] across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country” (see T. Herzl’s Complete Diaries, Volume I, pg. 8). Herzl wanted to give Palestinians one of two options: They could either stay in their homes, unable to provide for their families because they were denied employment, or leave their homes and work in a different country.

Neta writes, "from the very onset of Jewish immigration to the region, prior even to 1900, the Jews acquired the land legally by purchasing it from Arab landowners." By 1929, Zionists owned only 6.6 percent of Palestinian land, part of which they did not purchase from the owners but came to them through land concessions from the British mandate administration (see William Polk’s research of British Mandate census reports in his book Backdrop to Tragedy). However, this quantity of land was wholly insufficient for the Zionist plan for a Jewish state. Neta states that the Palestinians should be blamed for the failure of the U.N. Partition Plan of 1948. What, then, are we to make of Plan Dalet, the Zionist blueprint for claiming through force and terror most or all of Palestine which began on April 1, 1948? Yigal Allon, an Israeli military leader at that time, described the strategy of Plan Dalet:

“I … gathered all of the Jewish Mukhtars … and asked them to whisper in the ears of some Arabs, that a great Jewish reinforcement has arrived in Galilee and that is it going to burn all of the villages of the Huleh. They should suggest to these Arabs, as their friends, to escape while there is still time. … The flight numbered myriads. The tactic reached its goal completely. … The wide areas were cleaned.” (See Hirst’s The Gun and the Olive Branch).

Neta also claims that “rumors” of Jewish massacres of Arabs were propagated not by Zionist entities but by the Arabs themselves. However, Erskine Childers, an Irish scholar who, in the 1950s and 1960s, conducted his own exhaustive investigation of radio monitor reports from BBC and the CIA, found no records of Arab nations calling for a Palestinian evacuation. In fact, he found the opposite, “repeated monitored record[s] of Arab appeals, even flat orders, to the civilians of Palestine to stay put” (see Christopher Hitchen’s reports on Childer’s research in his book Blaming the Victims).

The machinations of Plan Dalet began well before the British withdrawal and the date set by the U.N. for the creation of two separate states. The Deir Yassin massacre occurred on April 10, and other forced expulsions, were the reasons that Palestinians rejected the U.N. plan a few weeks later — a plan which completely ignored the demographic reality on the ground by giving 60 percent of the land to an immigrant group which constituted less than a third of the population.

Neta characterizes this attitude as the Palestinian “aversion to peace.” I give you this scenario: A stranger knocks down your door and kicks you out of your home. According to him, it is his home because his ancestors lived there thousands of years ago. But you hold the deed and the keys — you and your family live there. You take your case to the courts, and the judge rules that you have to give most of your home to that stranger. If you refused to settle for this, could anyone in their right mind accuse you of having an aversion to peace?

Neta also uses Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, a land it had occupied for 38 years and on which it built 13 illegal settlements, as evidence that Israel does want peace with the Palestinians. Israel did withdraw from Gaza, but it still maintains control over Gaza's borders and airspace. Israel has sealed Gaza off from the rest of the world; Gaza's residents cannot lead normal, prosperous lives under such conditions. Asking Gaza's residents to establish the grounds for a Palestinian state under such circumstances can be equated to tying up a man's arms and legs and ordering him to swim.

Furthermore, Neta's claim that there is no proof that Israel was responsible for the shelling of Gaza beach and the murder of seven members of the same family is nonsense. According to reports and interviews conducted by CNN, BBC, and the Guardian, a Pentagon military expert, after conducting research on the materials found at the scene as well as the injuries from which the victims died, stated that “the likelihood that the Ghalia family was killed by an explosive other than one of the shells fired by the Israeli army is remote." Israel's army may deny this, but forgive me for not being so naive as to believe them when they have committed and continue to commit such atrocities in the Palestinian territories.

Neta also wrote that she believes Palestinian schools do not teach their students about similar massacres committed by Palestinians. In my case, I did not get my information or opinions as the result of being brainwashed; in fact, I attended an international school in Jerusalem, not a Palestinian school. But I have lived here for 18 years, and I know what I and my family, who have lived here for centuries, have been through as a result of the creation of the state of Israel and the continued occupation of Palestinian territories.

When my father was a young teenager, a Zionist soldier ordered him to tell his family to leave Silwan, their village in Jerusalem. He told my father that the tanks were coming, warning him that if my family and the other villagers stayed in their homes, they would be killed. Even if Neta chooses not to believe me because of my suspect background or education, there are plenty of Israeli and Jewish scholars who have opened their eyes and spoken the truth (such as Avi Shlaim, Benny Morris, and Noam Chomsky). Where does Neta's information come from?

As I have already stated, I agree that a bi-directional analysis is necessary on the parts of both Israelis and Palestinians. Neta accused me of not condemning Hamas' and Hezbollah's actions. While doing so, she merely admits the atrocities committed by the state of Israel — I hear no strong condemnation on her part. She makes it sound as if such acts were an unavoidable but forgettable part of Israel's past. She wrote that Israelis are taught about the Deir Yassin massacre as "an example of a tragedy and an event not to be repeated." But the Deir Yassin massacre was not an isolated event in Israeli history. Such massacres have been committed repeatedly by Israel and Israel persists in murdering Palestinians to this very day.

I am not proud of Hamas' and Hezbollah's actions during this conflict. As I said in my last post, I feel no happiness when I hear of suicide bombings and the deaths of Israeli civilians. I strongly condemn such acts, because I know that two wrongs do not make a right. I believe they are irresponsible, inhumane, and not at all conducive to peace.

Nevertheless, my condemnation of these acts is not enough, because the very root of the problem still exists. Israeli illegal occupation of Palestinian land, a blatant violation of several United Nations resolutions and every applicable international law, still exists. History proves that Israeli aggression leads to Palestinian retaliation. I agree with Albert Einstein, who in the 1930s wrote, “I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state” (see R. Garaudy’s The Case of Israel: A Study of Political Zionism).

I am sure that Neta will respond to this post by again pointing a finger at me and blaming my attitude in this conflict for why peace still does not exist in the region. I have enough respect for her readers to hope that they will see these accusations for what they really are, an excuse for people like Neta to maintain her "cleaner conscience." If Neta remains unwilling even to try to see this conflict from a balanced perspective, she and I will just have to agree to disagree.

Monday, August 07, 2006

A rebuttal: In defense of Israel's strategy

Neta Levanon '08 is a Wilson School major who is spending the summer in Israel studying Islam and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She writes from Tel Aviv, in response to an earlier post by Zaina Awad '09.

The goal of my original blog entry was to examine the constant criticism of Israel and its actions. Israel is often heralded as the main obstacle to the peace process in the Middle East. However, looking at the historical progress of the peace process, the roadblock to peace has consistently been the violence that has been an integral part of interethnic relations in the region since before Israel’s conception.

In her response to my last blog, Zaina Awad elects to focus exclusively on Israel’s role in this violence. She mentions Deir Yassin, a massacre of over 200 Arab civilians on April 9, 1948. This incident is indeed a dark stain on Israel’s past, one that is taught in Israeli schools as an example of a tragedy and an event not to be repeated. Zaina fails to mention similar and frequent atrocities perpetrated by the Arab population in the area, like an incident in the very first year of the mandate period, when Arabs protesting British immigration policy set fire to an immigration hostel in Jaffa, a hostel filled with Jewish immigrants. Those who tried to escape being burned alive were shot. Or in another example, in 1929, during Arab riots throughout the mandate, Arabs massacred more than 60 Jews in Hebron and wounded more than 50; among their victims were women, many of whom were first raped, and children. None of these events were mentioned or criticized by Zaina as equally condemnable as the examples of Israeli violence that she cites, a fact that leads me to believe that these events are either not taught or not condemned in Palestinian schools.

Zaina takes the argument one step further, claiming that this violence on the part of Jewish organizations pre-1948 was the cause of the current refugee problem, and claiming that Israel was established on the “ruins of more than 500 Palestinian villages.” In reality, the flight of the Arab population began long before the events at Deir Yassin. Rumors, and I emphasize the word “rumors,” were circulated by Arab propagandists, detailing supposed Jewish atrocities in an attempt to cause widespread panic in the local Arab population. The goal of this propaganda was to encourage them to fight against the Jews, or vacate their homes so that the surrounding Arab nations could engage the Jews in a war, sweep them into the sea, and claim the entire mandate as Muslim territory. Zaina fails to mention this crucial bit of information, specifically the fact that neighboring Arab governments held a summit in which they urged the Arabs in the mandate to reject the two-state solution offered by the UN Partition Resolution of 1948, which would have established a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Thus while some Arabs certainly fled as a result of Jewish violence, the majority left their homes as a result of Arab propaganda, hoping to come back to a space “clean” of Jews.

Another important aspect of the establishment of the state of Israel that Zaina omits is the fact that, from the very onset of Jewish immigration to the region, prior even to 1900, the Jews acquired the land legally by purchasing it from Arab landowners. The majority of the Arab population in the mandate was peasants, who lived on land that they did not own. Thus, the land that was taken away from them was, in reality, sold to the Jews by their fellow Arabs. However, Zaina neglects this aspect of history, preferring to blame Israel for the fact that Palestinians still do not have their own state. This is the central point that Zaina fails to address in her entire piece: why is it that, if the Palestinian people truly (and merely) desire peace and coexistence with Israel in their own homeland, they still have not accomplished their goal?

Zaina attributes this failure to the “Israeli occupation” of territories acquired in the 1967 Six Day War. However, I would first like to point out that Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, belonged to Egypt and Jordan, respectively, during the years of the mandate period, yet still the Arab population rejected the two-state solution in 1948, almost 20 years before these so-called “occupied territories” were captured by Israel in a defensive war. What was the cause of their aversion to peace at that time?

Also noteworthy is that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the main leadership of the Palestinian people until the election of Hamas earlier this year, was established in 1964, a full three years before the “occupation” of these territories. Yet instead of committing themselves to a peaceful solution, the PLO aided the surrounding Arab nations in their attempt to, once again, defeat the Jewish state and claim all of Israel for themselves. This clearly indicates that the “occupied territories” are not the primary focus in the Palestinian struggle for a homeland.

In a final condemnation, Zaina discusses recent events, including current Israeli “atrocities” in both Lebanon and Gaza. Attempting to demonstrate Israeli aggression, she mentions Israeli attacks on Gaza, prior to the kidnapping of a soldier from Israeli sovereign territory. First of all, there is no proof whatsoever that Israel bombed the beach in Gaza that Zaina references, especially since Israel denied responsibility for the attack in contrast to its policy of taking responsibility for other attacks in Gaza that have killed civilians.

Zaina also neglects to mention the unceasing barrage of Gaza-launched Qassam rockets that provoked the attacks for which Israel did take responsibility. Instead, she discusses Qana as a site of an Israeli massacre. She fails to mention that this is a village from which Hezbollah fired rockets into Israeli territory (clearly documented in now broadcasted videos), deliberately targeting civilians as they have done from both this and other civilian locations. While the deaths of civilians in Qana is sincerely regrettable, and as such has been repeatedly apologized for by the Israeli government, Israel must choose to either not strike places like Qana and allow Hezbollah to continue its fatal barrages from these locations, or to hit the sources of fire and defend its own people.

Hezbollah is an organization purportedly speaking for the Palestinian people and struggling for the establishment of a Palestinian homeland. How is it, then, that Zaina does not at least equally criticize the actions of Hezbollah? If Zaina truly believes that violence is the main obstacle to peace, then why does she not censure groups like Hamas or the PLO itself, groups that have historically supported terrorism and violent struggle in the form of jihad as the primary tactic to achieve a homeland? These groups use civilians as human shields, forcing Israel to make the same choice as it had to make in Qana, and subsequently accusing Israel of “massacre” every time Israel retaliates. What about the suicide bombers who have claimed hundreds of innocent lives? Where is Zaina’s condemnation of their indiscriminate violence?

Zaina claims that if Israel truly wanted peace, it would not continue to “build settlements on illegally occupied Palestinian land” or “impose an apartheid regime on the Palestinian people,” citing these actions as evidence of Israel’s lack of compassion. But if Israel is not truly committed to the peace process and the two-state solution, why would it initiate a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza? Why would it increase its own security risk by evacuating an area from which many suicide bombers penetrate its borders? Why, despite increased violence from Gaza post-disengagement, would it continue to discuss the evacuation of the majority of the West Bank as the next step in its peace initiative? It wouldn’t.

If Israel did not truly desire peace, it would not take these strides in the direction of a two-state solution. It is the actions of the Palestinians, rather than those of Israel, that show a lack of desire for peace. In the aftermath of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the Qassam attacks from the area increased in intensity and frequency. Rather than taking the opportunity to establish the basic foundations of a state, such as reliable infrastructure and steady energy sources, the Palestinian leadership instead chose to focus on its opposition to Israel. Why does Zaina not cite this as an obstacle towards peace? Why are these actions and this violence not equally condemnable, if not more so, since the attacks from Gaza target only civilians living in southern Israel?

In analyzing regional violence, one cannot compare Israelis shooting non-lethal rubber bullets into a crowd of Palestinians demonstrating outside a military checkpoint (a major security risk, considering the fact that crowds can hide and have very easily hidden suicide bombers or individuals with other lethal weapons) to the purposefully lethal activity of the Palestinians, who explode bombs filled with nails in crowded restaurants full of civilians in order to inflict the maximum amount of damage possible. Would Zaina prefer that Israel demonstrate the kind of compassion that Palestinians show towards Israelis and adopt the tactics of their Palestinian counterparts? Numerous Palestinian suicide bombers have blown themselves up in crowds of young people in dance clubs, teenagers who present no threat to them, as the Palestinian protestors do to the soldiers in the military outposts.

I am not saying that Israel is blameless. I cannot deny, and I do not choose to, that the government of Israel has made some decisions that have resulted in tragedies for the Palestinian population. However, this in no way negates my claim that Israel is empirically compassionate, and by far the most compassionate nation in the region. Following every tragedy, Israel does not take pride in the damage done, but rather attempts to address the issue in front of the international community and build on the lessons learned in order to improve in the future. Individuals, not only among the Israeli population, but even in its government, constantly call upon the nation to morally better itself in its behavior towards Palestinians. There are several Jewish Israeli groups clamoring publicly for the creation of a Palestinian homeland and for the improvement of Palestinian rights. Where is the reciprocal clamor amongst Palestinians for groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah to recognize Israel’s right to exist? Or, even more basic, where are Palestinian groups publicly condemning suicide bombings as a resistance tactic? They are jarringly, painfully absent.

Such bi-directional analysis is missing, both from the rhetoric of Palestinian leadership and from Zaina’s response. It could be that this, far more than the supposed Israeli lack of compassion, is the reason that Palestinians have thus far failed to acquire their own state.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The journey out: In pictures

Sophomore Callie Lefevre was studying in Beirut earlier this summer. She was evacuated by International SOS, a private security consulting firm with whom the University contracted. (Read Princetonian Staff Writer Julia Osellame story about Lefevre's journey out of Lebanon.) Here, Lefevre shares several pictures she took of her experience.

"Me (left) and Emily Norris on the SOS bus Sunday afternoon, about to leave Beirut. See how many empty seats?"

"The view from the window of the bus as we're leaving."

"The Syrian border."

"The SOS leader redistributing our passports at the Syrian border."

"U.N. vans at the Damascus airport as we pull up."

"Me distracting myself by reading on the plane to Cyprus, it's about 5:30 am on Monday morning now."

"View from our hotel in Cyprus. Is that ridiculous?"

"Myself and Emily at the Cyprus airport, waiting to board our plane to London. Those bags are all we could take with us, our real suitcases are still in Beirut. From London we would fly back to the states."

"Finally reunited with my mom in the Newark airport."

A heartfelt thanks

Sherry Lefevre is the mother of Callie, a sophomore, who was studying in Beirut this summer. Callie was evacuated from Lebanon by International SOS, a private security consulting firm with whom the University contracted. The following letter was sent by Sherry to President Tilghman on July 19 in gratitude for the University's efforts to evacuate her daughter. (Princetonian Staff Writer Julia Osellame wrote about Callie's journey out of Lebanon. Read the story here.)

Dear Professor Tilghman,

I just want to express my gratitude to you for everything the University has done in the last 48 hours to ensure the safe evacuation from Lebanon of my daughter, Callie and Emily Norris. Beginning with the first news of hostilities, Dean Nancy Kanach and Professor Nancy Coffin acted in every way, with such vigilance, care and kindness, it would be hard to imagine more exceptional behavior in any circumstances.

You are probably aware that on July 16-17, Callie and Emily, who were both studying Arabic in the American University of Beirut summer CAMES program were evacuated by land to Syria and then flown to Cyprus under the auspices of International SOS. Within hours of the beginning of hostilities in Lebanon, Dean Nancy Kanach reached me by phone where I was on vacation, to express her concern and to ask that I remind Callie that SOS services were available to her. From that point on, Dean Kanach was in contact with Callie and me around the clock — through the weekend. She also alerted SOS of Callie and Emily’s circumstances and she received constant updates of the SOS evacuation plans. At the same time, Nancy Coffin, who had been both Callie and Emily’s first year Arabic teacher, reached Callie and Emily by email and maintained steady contact throughout, bolstering her students flagging spirits.

While the past week has been incredibly distressing, for all of us but especially the girls, it has also been so heartening to feel the steady swell of kindness, the steady application of good judgment, that has surrounded these very lucky Princeton students.


Sherry Lefevre

So much for compassion

Zaina Awad '09 is a Palestinian who lives in Jerusalem. She writes in response to Neta Levanon's earlier post, "In defense of a compassionate Israel."

Considering the massacre of the Lebanese village Qana and Israel's use of cruel, collective punishment as a means of "defending" herself, Neta Levanon's claim that Israel is the only consisently compassionate country in the Middle East is laughable. It seems that Neta is happily oblivious to Israel's long history of war crimes in the Middle East; she must have her eyes and ears closed while studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If she wishes to learn about this conflict, it is her responsibility to open her eyes and see Israel for what it really is. Israel is by no means compassionate.

In her post, Neta wrote that Israel has "rarely gone on the offensive, seeking rather to strengthen its own protection within its own borders." What are Israel's borders? Do they include the West Bank? East Jerusalem? The Golan Heights? The Shebaa Farms in Lebanon? Does she realize that Israel has been illegally occupying each of these territories since June 1967?

The State of Israel was not established on barren lands, it was established on the ruins of more than 500 Palestinian villages. Most of these Palestinian villages were vacated when Zionist terrorist organizations, such as the Haganah, terrorized Palestinians and committed massacres to force them out of their homes. Take the Deir Yassin massacre as an example, where in 1948 the Haganah threatened Deir Yassin's inhabitants and ordered them to leave before they were killed. They raided the village, murdered hundreds of its inhabitants and tortured them with such acts as forcing children to watch as militants raped and slaughtered their parents.

The people who created the State of Israel had absolutely no respect for the lives of others. Where was Prime Minister Golda Meir's respect and compassion for the Palestinians when she claimed that we did not exist? Where is Israel's compassion for the hundreds of innocent Arab women and children it holds in its jails? When Hezbollah kidnapped the two Israeli soldiers, it was willing to exchange them for these prisoners, yet Israel refused. Where was Israel's compassion then?

Neta also wrote that Israelis mourn every civilian and every soldier killed in this conflict. What she means is that Israelis mourn the death of every Israeli civilian and every Israeli soldier killed in this conflict. When four Israeli undercover unit officers assassinated the wrong Palestinian on November 18, 1996, the Israeli military court sentenced them to just one hour in jail and fined them just one agora (the equivalent of 1/3 of a U.S. cent) for their crime, according to the Christian Peacemaker Teams. Furthermore, Neta writes that Palestinians celebrate the deaths of their children and loved ones. I urge her to look into the eyes of a Palestinian mother who has lost her child to this conflict and see the pain, misery and frustration after years of suffering under Israeli occupation. When Israel shelled the Gaza shore the week before Hamas seized the two Israeli soldiers, did it look like the six-year-old girl who witnessed the brutal murder of her family was celebrating?

The Qana massacre last week is history repeating itself — this is the second time in ten years that Israel has laid waste to this village and the innocent civilians who live there. I can't tell you how many Lebanese civilians were killed because they are still counting the dead. Neta makes excuses for these deaths by writing that when "the Israeli Defense Forces plan to bomb a civilian area, they inform the populace that they plan to bomb at a certain time, so that the civilians can evacuate the area." It is true that Israel spread threatening messages that warned the Qana's residents to evacuate their homes. But what did it do next? It destroyed the roads, the bridges, and any exits from Qana so people could not escape. A similar humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Gaza. Gaza's people have no electricity, no water, no roads, no bridges, and no airport because Israel destroyed the city. Like the residents of Qana, Gaza's people cannot escape their doomed fate.

Not only does Neta excuse these crimes, but also goes on to insult the Palestinian people by accusing them of showing no compassion. Well Neta, here I am. I am a Palestinian. Just because I go to Princeton and speak English does not mean that I am any different from any other Palestinian. I grew up in Jerusalem. When I was eight, I watched an Israeli helicopter gunship hover outside my window and shoot rubber bullets into masses of young Palestinian teenagers demonstrating at the military checkpoint outside my home. When I was 14, I watched an IDF soldier abuse and humiliate my father for trying to cross a checkpoint in order to visit Jerusalem — the city my family has called home for centuries. During my senior year of high school, another IDF soldier shot at my feet because I defended a young boy he was dragging and hitting.

All my life, I have had my freedom of movement violated because of Israeli military checkpoints everywhere I go. Yet, despite all this, when I came home this summer knowing that things have not improved for my people, I still felt remorse when I heard of the deaths of Israeli civilians and soldiers. I do not celebrate when Israelis are killed, nor do I know anyone who does. Now things are different. These past few days, I have felt absolutely no sadness when hearing of Israeli casualties. I feel numb. Watching the dead bodies of women and children being pulled out of the rubble of their destroyed homes can do that to you.

Over the years, one thing that helped me believe in a peaceful resolution to this conflict is hope. The other day, I saw an old Palestinian man pat an Israeli soldier on the back and I knew that, if both people made an effort, things could get better for us. I have lost this hope. I have no faith in the two-state solution.

Neta wrote in her post that the Palestinian leadership should be blamed for the failure of this plan. I ask her, if Israel truly supported this plan, would it continue to build settlements on illegally occupied Palestinian land? Would it impose an apartheid regime on the Palestinian people, building walls between their villages and across their roads? Would it persist in killing Palestinian civilians, as it was doing in Gaza weeks before Hamas kidnapped the two soldiers? No.

Israeli actions speak louder than words, and their actions tell me that they do not want peace. I already know what Neta's response to this will be. She will tell me that Israel, like any other democratic nation, has the right to defend herself. My reply is that any self-respecting Palestinian or Lebanese has the right to defend himself also. Neta obviously has a lot of faith in the Israeli population, writing that I would be "hard-pressed to find an Israeli who wouldn’t agree with the concept of a two-state solution." During a Model United Nations conference I attended a couple of years ago, the Israeli students were asked what they believed the solution for this conflict should be. Their answer was "Nuke the Palestinians."

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a cycle of violence and it is clear that both sides have made mistakes. I agree with Condoleezza Rice's assertion that the only way to achieve peace is to find a solution for the root of the problem. The root of this conflict is the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land since 1967. Israel's supporters have long been accusing Hezbollah, Syria and Iran of violating United Nations resolutions, yet they hypocritically turn a blind eye when Israel does so. The occupation of Palestinian land is a blatant violation of several United Nations resolutions and every applicable international law, and Israel cannot be an exception to the rules.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

In defense of a compassionate Israel

Neta Levanon '08 is a Wilson School major who is spending the summer in Israel studying Islam and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She writes from Tel Aviv.

It constantly amazes me to hear stories of the so-called lack of compassion that Israelis show towards the Palestinians. The various convoluted analyses of the Middle East “situation” unfailingly baffle me, because to me the situation seems so simple: the Palestinians deserve their own state. You would be hard-pressed to find an Israeli who wouldn’t agree with the concept of a two-state solution. And thus, I’m surprised that more people have not asked why, in the 58 years since Israel became a nation, the Palestinians have been unable to create one of their own.

Those who argue that this failure is a result of the inaction of the Arab nations and the Palestinian leadership itself are quite right. The Palestinians would have had a country long ago had it not been for the advice of this group of leaders. It is a lack of compassion from these leaders that has thwarted the Palestinians’ goals. The current clash between Israel and Hezbollah is one more example in a long list of misrepresentations of the Palestinian cause. Hezbollah claims to be fighting to further the goals of the Palestinians, yet even Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two countries who have historically shown solidarity with the Palestinians and supported organizations like Hezbollah, have condemned their actions. This censure is a result of the fact that Hezbollah’s attacks have completely removed the Palestinian cause from the limelight; the focus is no longer on Palestinian groups like Hamas and Fatah. Additionally, Hezbollah once again forces Israel to defend itself instead of seeking to engage Israel through diplomatic channels, thus pushing the Palestinians even further away from attaining their own nation.

Hezbollah has consistently detracted from the Palestinian cause throughout its history. In 2000, Israel withdrew the last of its troops from Lebanon to internationally recognized borders. For the next four years, Hezbollah launched frequent rocket attacks against Israeli cities in the north, in the name of resistance for the Palestinians. In 2004, UN Resolution 1559 called for the disarmament of Hezbollah, but instead of complying with the resolution, Hezbollah continued to strengthen its ranks and launch attacks against Israel. Finally, Hezbollah violated Israeli sovereignty by coming across the border, attacking a border patrol, and kidnapping two Israeli soldiers, while simultaneously launching heavy rocket attacks against northern Israeli cities.

Thus, while it is true that Israel is now bombing Lebanon, the important distinction between the actions of Israel and those of Hezbollah is that Israel is responding to an attack, doing what it has so rarely done throughout its history: going on the offensive to lessen a threat to the lives of its people. No country would stand by in the face of such an attack without retaliation for the sake of self-defense. While the displacement of so many Lebanese citizens is regrettable, it should be noted that, just as civilians from southern Lebanon are fleeing north, Israeli civilians from the north are fleeing south. The displacement of all of these civilians, both Israeli and Lebanese, results directly from Hezbollah’s initiation of the conflict, purportedly to further the Palestinian cause.

Such distortions of the Palestinian cause have been the main obstacle in a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Various Israeli administrations have offered a number of solutions that would result in a Palestinian homeland, and they have all been turned down by the surrounding Arab governments and the Palestinian leadership. Israel has used diplomacy while its neighbors have used violence. Thus Israel, since its conception, has shown more compassion towards the Arab population, in particular the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, than it has ever been shown in return.

The discrepancy caused by such a lack of reciprocity is repeatedly illustrated throughout the history of the region. When an Israeli missile falls in Beirut or Gaza City, Israelis do not celebrate the increased Arab death toll, as the Arabs do when a missile kills Israeli civilians or a bus explodes. When the Israeli Defense Forces plan to bomb a civilian area, they inform the populace that they plan to bomb at a certain time, so that the civilians can evacuate the area. When Arab missiles fall on civilian locations in Israel, there is no similar warning that seeks to avoid civilian casualties. Israel targets terrorist cells and the hideouts of militants, while groups like Hamas and Hezbollah deliberately target civilians to add to the Israeli death toll. Israelis mourn the death of every soldier and every civilian. The Arab population celebrates the death of every “martyr” who adds another number to the Israeli death toll; in fact, Hamas and Hezbollah agents often fire missiles and conduct operations out of civilian areas, including hospitals, mosques, and schools, to take advantage of Israel’s humanity and morality. In short, they take advantage of Israel’s compassion while showing none of their own.

Yet in spite of this, some people still condemn Israelis as unmerciful, criticizing their manner of living life as usual while their country remains so “uncompassionate.” The pairing between 'life as usual' and a lack of mercy is faulty logic: Israel has been merciful since 1948. It has attempted to live life as usual only to be interrupted by wars almost entirely initiated by surrounding Arab nations, intifadas initiated by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and recurring missile attacks from its northern border. Throughout all of this, Israel has sought only to defend itself. It has rarely gone on the offensive, seeking rather to strengthen its own protections within its own borders. This is far more compassion than has ever been shown to Israel from the Arab and Palestinian communities, and it is a mark of the humanity of the Israeli population that they have remained compassionate for so long. So how do Israelis live life as usual, you ask? Perhaps it is because, unlike their Arab counterparts, they have the luxury of a cleaner conscience. They know that, for the past sixty years, if not more, they are the only ones in the region who have consistently shown compassion.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The voyage out

Jay Saxon '05, who was studying Arabic in Beirut this summer, was evacuated from Lebanon earlier this week. He writes from Budapest, Hungary.

Hello everyone,

I apologize for the delay in writing this, what should be my final update to you all after everything that has happened in the last two weeks. I am now back in my apartment in Budapest, where I will be for an undetermined amount of time, until I can move my plane ticket home. I have had a chance to process the last few days, and will do my best to describe what it was like for us on the voyage out. I use that word very intentionally, "voyage," because that is precisely what it was. I have gone into extensive detail, because many of you have emailed me saying that you appreciate that; accordingly, I will understand if you don't read all this. I'm selfish, in a way; this is my chronicle of what happened, but it is through all of you that I find reason to record it.

Despite our attempt to be constantly on our guard and ready, for days, to leave at a moment's notice, the call still caught us by surprise. It was about 12:45 last Tuesday afternoon, and I had just run upstairs to wash my hands. I had been with Nick, Rachel and Lindsay, eating a lunch of peanut butter and jelly ricecakes (all the bread we could find was old and stale, or moldy, or both) and making a giant mess, when Michael came running up the stairs and said "we're going, grab your bags, there's a bus waiting." We immediately panicked, because despite our best preparations, we were shocked.

I don't know if I've mentioned before that the State Department said we'd only be able to take one bag weighing no more than 15 kilograms (~30 pounds) if we were evacuated. Accordingly, my friends and I all re-packed our suitcases. I had one bag ready to go, just a backpack with my most valuable items and some clothes. Everything else I repacked in my big suitcases, labelled with my address, and left to be shipped back (when and if that becomes possible). I inventoried everything, so I'd know what was where, and it was surprisingly easy to make decisions. When you know you could be running for your life, it's very easy to look at something with disconnected eyes and determine in a heartbeat whether you need it or not. Accordingly, my emergency bag contained everything of value, whether sentimental or monetary — my computer, extra hard drive with my pictures from the last year, iPod (pretty hard to replace 9,000 songs), a few small souvenirs from Lebanon that I felt I'd earned the right to carry away, a handmade card from Cléo, and some clothes — and nothing that I didn't have to have.

When I ran down to the bus, I was wearing six shirts, and had my sandals strapped to my bag. If I got one bag, I was putting as much in it as possible. Most people from our program who could get out were going. The Brits all stayed behind, as the British embassy claimed they were taking them out soon thereafter, and sadly, the non-U.S. and non-British citizens were still waiting. There were, however, a few Americans who chose to stay. I know of 7 who are still there currently (or at least were a couple of days ago), and I hope they are safe.

The bus took us south, to the port of Beirut, which is right by downtown in the heart of the city. There were a surprising number of cars on the road, though certainly far less than would be typical on Lebanon's main coastal highway. We could see a warship far off the coast, and smoke still rose from the burning fuel tanks of Beirut International Airport. I'll admit to being a bit edgy on the drive down, as roads were still being bombed. Tensions were also very high — there was a lot of complaining, more sniping and unpleasantries than would have been typical between those on the bus. I could chalk it up to days of frayed nerves and the uncertainty of what lay ahead, but that would be too dismissive. Stressful situations bring out a person's true colors, and the colors of many of our fellow program participants appeared unfortunately murky.

We fully expected a cruise ship to be awaiting us, considering the number of emails we'd received relaying news reports from home that the U.S. had contracted the Orient Queen to pick up stranded citizens from Lebanon's shores. We were in for quite a surprise.

(I should mention, of the following two paragraphs, that the information is drawn from what we were told piecemeal by LAU's Dean of Students, who was coordinating our evacuation, and the crew members on the ship, who were mostly if not all Filipino, and some of whom spoke decent English. I don't know for certain if it's accurate, but it's the best I can do)

Awaiting us was a Norwegian freighter, specifically a car carrier, that had been diverted from its delivery of vans and earth-moving equipment to Saudi Arabia to rescue Norwegian citizens stuck in Lebanon. The boat was massive, certainly far more space than was necessary to evacuate roughly 175 Norwegians, and so the Norwegian government had apparently contacted several embassies, including ours, and instructed them to send high priority evacuees to the boat immediately, which explains why we were there.

Cruise liner this ship was not. I will preface this by saying I am extremely grateful to the Norwegian government for welcoming us as their guests, and am grateful we were able to get out of Lebanon so quickly. That said, the ride was miserable. The ship was enormous, but it was meant for freight. We heard that the ship had carried a herd of cattle before us, and while I don't know if that was true or not, I do know that there were roughly a billion flies on the ship, and that it smelled horrible. The biggest problem was that it was overcrowded — one crew member told us there were 1,175 us on board. There was a crew of 22, many of whom spoke no English, and there was nowhere for us to sit. There was a small indoor area, where the crew would normally rest, and it was already full of people lying in hallways, small children running everywhere, belongings bursting from every corner. The smell was that of a kindergarten classroom, combined with sweat, urine, and stale perfume; of course, there was no shortage of flies. Given the conditions inside, our group of students (having arrived last, before the ship left) opted for the top deck of the ship, which was relatively clean, and received a fresh breeze and ample sunlight. It didn't seem so bad, at the time. More on that qualification in a moment.

There were three bathrooms on the ship. As they emptied into small septic tanks, you couldn't flush toilet paper, and (as is typical in the Middle East and Africa) there was a small trashcan next to the toilet where one was supposed to deposit used toilet paper. This is fine for 22, but not for 1,200. Each bathroom had a two-foot tall stack of feces-covered toilet paper, in addition to as many flies as that would sustain, and it smelled like rotten death. In one of the bathrooms, someone had vomited all over the floor, and the smell permeated half of one of the two sections of indoor cabins. The floors of the hallways were muddy (not from water, mind you), and I spotted at least one water bottle in which someone had urinated and then thrown on the floor. You can now understand why we stayed outside.

The novelty of the trip wore off quickly. We left near sunset, and had wonderful views of the Lebanese coast as the ship pulled away, but shortly after departure, the feeling of "Are we there yet?" had already set in. About an hour out, two Israeli gunships began to tail us, and followed us for about two hours until they appeared to lose interest, and began to drift back towards Lebanese waters. They were replaced by a US ship, which was anticipated, as we'd been told we'd receive a military escort, but here we got more than we bargained for, as I will explain.

There was no food on the ship, or at least not much. Nine members of the Norwegian Red Cross, who had boarded the ship to assist with the evacuation, had already distributed MREs (U.S. Army issue — how did they get there?) to children on the ship, which was understandable, as the ride was supposed to last 5.5-7 hours, we were leaving at dinner time, and many people had already been on the ship several hours. There was water, so we didn't go thirsty, but after several hours, stomachs were growling, tempers were growing short, and we were all rather grouchy. After the US ship had followed us for a while, we suddenly stopped, right in the middle of the Mediterranean, and the US ship stopped as well. There was confusion briefly, immediately followed by a commotion on the starboard side. We had a bird's eye view, literally, from the top of the ship (I would estimate we were roughly seven stories up from the water), and could see a small rubber raft with an outboard motor pulling up alongside us, containing five or six men dressed in all black, all of whom surrounded a large package with some sort of canisters. People began to freak out, not having any idea what was going on. My first thought, honestly, was " U.S.S. Cole," the US warship that had been bombed by al Qaeda in Yemen, by suicide bombers on a boat just like this one. Yes, I was overreacting, but considering the past few days, I don't know what to say in my own defense, other than I sometimes tend towards pessimism.

When our ship's crane began to lower, we realized that this must be something benign, and it certainly was — as it turned out, it was the Navy Seals, bringing us dinner. They uploaded a net full of boxes of food — to be precise, hot chicken sandwiches, Country Time Lemonade, Planter's cashews, and Pringles. The feeling on the boat was something approximating ecstasy; it had been roughly 12 hours since many people had eaten. Unfortunately, for some it would be many more.

The Norwegians in charge of the boat took the food and gave the Americans only enough for about 70 people; there were a minimum of 100 Americans on the ship, and probably more. This was the food paid for by our tax dollars, brought by our military for us, out risking their lives to protect us and to ensure our safety and comfort, and we were denied that food. After we told the Norwegians that some people hadn't eaten, they flat refused to give us more food (despite several boxes remaining), and instead began to dole it out to children on the ship. These were the children that had already eaten about 4 hours before, and we sat there and watched as families sent their children up time and again to get sandwiches; from our perch way up high, we would see families amass three cans of nuts, two cans of Pringles, and five or six sandwiches, then horde them and refuse to share them with anyone else. A number of my friends, including Lindsay and Rachel, went without any food, while families of four had enough for twice that number. It was a dismal lesson in the darker side of human nature, and of how selfish people can be. It was really disgusting, particularly when these families would encourage their children to cheat others out of dinner. Granted, it was only a short boat ride, but it's really the principle of the thing. The behavior was appalling, that parents would actually encourage deceptive, lying behaviour in their children, and when they knew that others were hungry. I will note, without passing judgment, that those families doing this were the Lebanese families. I don't know what that says about Lebanese culture, and about its values, but it cannot bode well for their empathy towards fellow man, or for the resolution of the conflict at hand.

For sake of disclosure, yes, I did eat, and yes, I am slightly ashamed. If it's any consolation, the food was better than any steak dinner I have ever had.

It was shortly after "dinner" that we began to regret our choice of location. The top of the deck was cool and breezy during the heat of the day, but as night waned, it became cold and wet. I found myself bundled under a blanket with Lindsay, also covering myself with the kif (the head clothe that Arab men wear) I had bought, and the two of us were huddled with Michael and Rachel for warmth. We slept fitfully for a couple of hours, and woke up wet and shivering. I finally gave up and walked around the ship for a while, noticing the occasional sandwich sitting untouched by a sleeping patriarch, before the lights of Larnaca, the Cypriot port that beckoned us onward, began to twinkle far in the distance.

Eventually, everyone woke up and we pulled into port about two hours later, though it was then another hour before we could get off. There was some brief excitement, as relatives of those on board (including mine) told them by phone that Anderson Cooper was waiting for us on the dock below, but when we unloaded, he was nowhere to be found. I was grabbed by a Fox reporter, who asked the predictable stupid questions that I now realize every survivor of any kind of tragedy, great or small, must detest with a vehement passion, but I fought back the urge to vent with bilious candor and instead said we were fine, the voyage was a piece of cake, and that we were just glad to be out. When he asked me if I was scared, I didn't really know what to say, as "yes and no" isn't really a satisfying answer, so I simply dodged the question and got on the bus to go through customs. Thankfully, unlike George Bush running offstage, I found my escape door to be unlocked.

The rest of the night was a blur; the State Department had set up a mobile registration center, and was assisting Americans with hotel reservations, travel home, and other affairs. Michael, Lindsay, Rachel, Nick and I tried to check into a hotel, but (no surprise) the owner tried to jack the price up from what she'd told the State contact, so we gave up and went straight to the airport to arrange for flights out.

Lindsay left on the next plane to London (she is now safe at home), whereas Michael, Rachel and I rented a sporty red coupe and went to Michael's family's apartment in Zygi, Cyprus, a small (and by small, I mean barely extant) fishing village betwen Larnaca and Limassol. We spent the next two days driving around Cyprus, seeing the few sites there and trying to make sense of the previous week and a half. Michael had seemed non-chalant the entire time, but when he told us that the knot that had been in his stomach for the last six days was finally gone, I knew that he'd taken it about the same as the rest of us.

Cyprus was a strange experience. For those of you who have been to Gulf Shores, the Cypriot coast looks just like that — tacky — but more spectacular. Most of the good beaches are tourist ghettoes — massive, sprawling, overpriced resorts; cheesy restaurants, karaoke bars and strip clubs; and kitschy tourist shops selling the ubiquitous (I quote one of Michael's favorite phrases) "Cheap Shit You Don't Need At Really High Prices." To be fair, in less developed areas, the mountains, and the cliffs that fall into the sea, are amazing, albeit very arid and mostly devoid of tall trees, save for the inland mountains which are covered with pines at higher elevations.

It was very relaxing to drive around for two days, without anything to worry about but freeing our minds, but even on Cyprus we couldn't avoid conflict. I won't go into a long history lesson, but Turkey has occupied northern Cyprus since 1974, and claims that the north is the "Independent Sovereign Republic of Turkish Cyprus." As Michael commented, if they have to have a sign at the border proclaiming their sovereignty and their independence, then they are neither; facts reinforce his sentiments, as Turkey is the only country in the world to recognize the North's sovereignty.

Dividing the two "countries" is a UN buffer zone that is literally a war zone; it is full of bombed out buildings and debris, untouched from the end of the conflict 32 years ago. We walked to the Turkish side (you have to walk, you can only drive across in a few places in the country) and it was literally another world. I should mention, they won't stamp your passport, as Greece won't recognize it (sounds familiar), so they stamp a sheet of paper and tell you not to buy cigarettes or alcohol because you can't bring them back. As well, to cross from the south to the north is like stepping back in time; on the main walking street within the southern half of the old walled city of Nicosia, there are a McDonald's and a Starbucks three blocks from the dividing line; six blocks north, on the other side of the line, the buildings are falling apart, there are no Western establishments, and Turkish Cypriots who have no jobs mill in the streets. We didn't stay long, in part because of the heat, and in part because we were all three tired of conflict and bullshit, and wanted to get back to the comforts of all that which is Western. For lunch that day, we ate at McDonald's, and it was heaven.

Two days flew by, and we went to the airport on Friday night. It was a complete circus. When we arrived at 9:30, we couldn't even sit down, because there were families with children sprawled everywhere; finally, we cleared off one table (yet another country where people don't bus their own trays, and trash was everywhere) and traded pictures on our computers (it's good when everyone has the same brand of camera) before Michael left for Tel Aviv. Rachel and I then spent a miserable five hours napping fitfully and trying to wile away the hours by drinking bad gin with lukewarm tonic water and trading stories of college antics. Our flights left just after 4 in the morning, and we said goodbye to each other and to the land of our temporary asylum. When Rachel hugged me and said she knows she'll see me again, I have no doubt that she is right.

I am now back in Budapest, with enough clothing for three days, and trying to make sense of everything running rampant through my brain. I've been to dinner with friends here twice, and I already don't know what to say; I hope I will have found my voice by the time I get back to Alabama. That may be awhile, as the earliest flight home from here is August 9, so I may be stuck for a couple of weeks. I have no right to complain though, as I'm comfortable and safe, though hot, and thankful to have traded the flashes of artillery for the shimmering glow of the summer Danube.

As for when the conflict will end, I have no more insight than anyone watching the news. I do know that both sides are stubborn and arrogant, and that both are entrenched for the long haul. When the Israelis say they will not cease until Hizballah is disarmed, I do not doubt them. Neither do I doubt that Israel alone will ever accomplish that goal. The only solution I can see is for the Lebanese government to work with Israel to disarm Hizballah and secure the borders and territory of Lebanon. Because this will not happen, I don't think I can return to Beirut (which I swear I will do, one day) for a very long time. If the hatred continues much longer, there won't be much left there to see.

I am in the process of distilling my thoughts into a much more cogent piece of writing, hopefully that can be published somewhere; if and when I complete it, I will send it to you. Until then, there are a few links which I have found that I think are particularly relevant, interesting, or cogent, and I share them with you now:

  • The Independent of London has run a piece on the rhetoric used, of late, by the Bush administration, as regards the ideal of "the preservation of life" as opposed to the administration's policies on the Middle East. The article speaks for itself.
  • This article describes why we discouraged our friends from leaving through Syria. Inshallah (Arabic for, approximately, "God willing"), those remaining who must evacuate that way will make it safely. Let us pray they do.
  • For a particularly relevant and timely take on this situation by a psychologist, read this.
  • For a good all-around perspective, see this.
  • Finally, for those with Facebook who are interested in photos, my friends from Beirut are adding photos of our time there and tagging my name, so go to my profile and check my photos. Some are silly, from drunken revelry before the fighting, and many are from after the bombs started and during the evacuation.

That is all. I have done my best to include on this list every person that has sent me good tidings, but I have undoubtedly omitted many; again, please forward this to anyone you wish. For now, I am safe, though disconcerted, and free, though bound by worry and sadness. I thank you all, truly and sincerely, with all that I have, for your support and your kind words of encouragement, and especially for the 237 emails you have all sent me in the last 10 days. Usually people complain that email is a burden, but to me, you have all been a blessing — as I said, spiritual nourishment.

Inshallah, I will be able to thank you all again in person, and soon.

Very Sincerely,

Related: Jay Saxon first wrote for this blog on July 13. He wrote again on July 16 and on July 19, alerting readers that he had finally been evacuted. His original letter from Beirut is available on our main site.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Nearly two weeks later, what now?

Princetonian editor-in-chief Chan Sethi '07 wrote today to Dan Kurtzer, Wilson School professor and U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, seeking his views on the latest developments in the Mideast conflict, including whether ongoing military action will help Israel achieve its objectives and whether the United States should now intervene diplomatically. Professor Kurtzer writes from Israel.

Dear Chan,

The debate in Israel is intensifying as to whether military action alone -- as opposed to diplomacy -- can achieve Israel's objectives in this confrontation with Hizballah. Public support for the government's actions remains incredibly high, surpassing the 90 percent mark. However, commentators and pundits cannot agree on next steps.

The question at stake does not revolve around objectives, as there is broad agreement that Hizballah must be "defeated" so as to remove the Damoclean sword hanging over the heads of Israel's citizens in the north of the country. Rather, at issue is whether further action by the Israeli military can weaken Hizballah to the point of insignificance or whether diplomacy would be more efficient.

The proponents of military power argue that the Israeli army has, in the past ten days, degraded Hizballah's military strength by more than half. Hizballah's resupply routes -- overland from Syria, and by air and sea -- have been cut off, and Israel has destroyed a significant number of Hizballah's most potent longer-range rockets. The argument contends that intensified Israeli action in the air and in special operations on the ground in south Lebanon will effectively wipe out Hizballah's military capabilities for the period ahead.

The proponents of diplomacy, agreeing on the assessment of Israeli military success to date, argue that an organization like Hizballah cannot be defeated in the conventional meaning of the word. At some point, they contend, Hizballah fighters will lay down arms and merge into the population at large, believing that new weapons will become available later to resume the fight. The advocates of diplomacy say that the international community can be mobilized now to augment Lebanese government capabilities and help Lebanon take control of its southern border. By pushing Hizballah away from the border, a major strategic shift will have taken place.

I've talked to political and military officials on both sides of the debate and do not yet see a clear preference emerging among decision-makers. Thus far, Israeli casualties have not been so high as to become a driving force for diplomacy. On the other hand, the immobilization of the entire northern section of the country increasingly is weighing on peoples' minds.

Secretary of State Rice is due here next week, but the signalsfrom Washington do not suggest she will be bringing specific proposals. From this distance, it appears that Washington policy makers are supportive of continued Israeli military action and thus far unwilling to support a diplomatic process. If this proves to be the case, it will have a major impact on the debate here in Israel and could lead to the proponents of continued military activity gaining the upper hand.

In media appearances on CNN, BBC, Sky News and elsewhere, I have argued the case for diplomacy. In my view, Israel was justified in responding to an unprovoked attack by Hizballah, especially in the absence of any action by the Government of Lebanon to stop Hizballah from operating freely in the south. However, I have said there are limits to the effectiveness of military action in defeating a terrorist organization like Hizballah, and thus it would be wiser to pocket politically the gains achieved thus far, rather than risking them in further military moves.

Otherwise, life in the center of the country remains remarkably calm. Business continues, the parks are filled and restaurants are flourishing. I depart here Monday, spend a few days in Athens at a Middle East conference and than back home to Princeton.

From Israel, Dan Kurtzer

Related: Professor Kurtzer first wrote for this blog earlier this week, offering his views on the climate in Israel seven days into the crisis. In December of last year, he was named to the S. Daniel Abraham Chair in Middle East Policy Studies. On Feb. 16, he delivered a lecture at Princeton where he outlined his goals for U.S. policy in the Middle East.