Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How the 2008/09 Gaza "war" should've happened

Operation Cast Lead
It’s Saturday, December 27, 2008. Dozens of families gather together in Gaza City to celebrate the graduation of hundreds of prospective police cadets. Suddenly, the ceremony is interrupted by several explosions. Chaos ensues as men, women, and children are strewn about the now-destroyed police academy. As medics rush to the scene to provide immediate medical care to hundreds of wounded Palestinians, Israel continues to bombard “strategic” Hamas locations, most of which are located in the Gaza Strip’s most densely-populated cities.

While rumors circulated of a pending Israeli ground invasion, the body count for December 27th, 2008 surpassed 220 – the highest one-day death toll between Israelis and Palestinians in decades. Horrified by Israel’s barbaric attack, the United Nations Security Council convenes an emergency meeting on December 28th, 2008. Soon, talks of a “no-fly zone” over Israel dominate the public discourse.

While the Security Council convenes, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hosts a press conference where she pulls no punches in revealing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for the genocidal maniac that he is. During the televised speech, Rice states, “We have every reason to fear that left unchecked, Olmert would commit unspeakable atrocities.” She doesn’t stop there. In an unprecedented show of solidarity with the Palestinians, Rice warns, “Further delay will only put more civilians at risk. So let me be very clear on the position of the United States: We will support an international coalition as it takes all necessary measures to enforce the no-fly zone and protect Palestinian civilians…and we will use our unique capabilities to prevent further bloodshed.”

Condoleezza Rice’s strong stance against Israel’s Operation Cast Lead did not come as a surprise to many throughout the international community. Lacking airplanes, tanks, artillery, and other forms of advanced weaponry, the Palestinians in Gaza stood no chance against Israel’s military might. Somebody had to protect them.

As soon as Rice finished her press conference, more horrifying news emerged from the Gaza Strip. Ehud Olmert had bombed every inch of the Gaza-Egypt border, destroying Gaza’s last-remaining connection to the outside world. Worse, as the Islamic University in Gaza City was reduced to rubble, hundreds of Israeli infantry and armored forces gathered on Israel’s border with Gaza. Olmert did not just want to pummel the Gaza Strip from the sky; he clearly wanted send a message to all Palestinians that Israel’s will cannot be resisted.

Realizing that they were running out of time as the body count continued to grow, the UN Security Council voted to impose a “no-fly zone” over the Gaza Strip on December 29th, 2008, and appointed a coalition to enforce the international body’s decision. In accordance with UN Resolution 1948, France, Britain, and the United States assumed leadership over the coalition and immediately began shooting Israeli planes out of the sky.

As American, British, and French fighter jets incapacitated Israel’s air force, representatives from Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the civil authorities convened a meeting in Khan Younis. There, they debated the pros and cons of the UN Security Council’s interference in the conflict. Some felt that there was a distinction between foreign intervention, which they were all emphatically against, and the UN Security Council’s imposition of a no-fly zone. Others, however, saw no distinction between the two, and argued that any form of foreign military support would have disastrous consequences.

Despite having reached a consensus at the conclusion of the meeting – that no foreign troops would be allowed to enter the Gaza Strip under any circumstances – one question still lingered: why, after having virtually ignored the Palestinians’ plight for decades, did the UN Security Council care so much about the Palestinians now?

On January 3rd, 2009, Israel abandoned its air attack and initiated a brutal ground invasion. 11 people, including a young girl, were killed when Israeli forces destroyed a mosque in Beit Lahiya. Despite the UN Security Council’s demand that Israel immediately cease all military operations in the territory, Israel pressed forward. On January 10th, 2009, after the death toll had surpassed 800 and after the goals of the US-led coalition became less and less clear, NATO assumed control over the operation.

No sooner had NATO made the decision to intervene did Israel put the nail in its own coffin. On January 11th, 2009, video footage proved that Israel was using illegal phosphorous munitions against unarmed Palestinian civilians. Furious over Israel’s malicious disregard for international law and Palestinian life, NATO forces bombed Israel’s Ashdod and Eilat naval bases. Shortly thereafter, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave a televised speech declaring that NATO’s attack on Israel represented the international community’s betrayal of the Jewish people.

Unfazed by Olmert’s ad hominem attacks, NATO threatened to bomb more military facilities if Israel did not immediately withdraw its troops from the Gaza Strip, lift the siege on the territory, and compensate those Palestinians that lost loved ones and were displaced internally as a result of the conflict. Realizing that his options were limited, Olmert acquiesced and ended Operation Cast Lead. The siege on the Gaza Strip was lifted immediately, and the UN Security Council oversaw the Gaza Strip’s reconstruction.

The fall-out from Olmert’s war on Gaza was nothing short of monumental. Unable to recover from the ordeal, Olmert’s government collapsed immediately, and the new government was forced to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 242 under the threat of economic sanctions. Israel’s decades-long illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip ended, and illegal settlements were dismantled under the watchful eye of UNIFIP (United Nations Interim Force In Palestine). The apartheid wall was removed and a new constitution guaranteeing the equal rights of all people living on the historic land of Palestine was drafted and ratified.

Unfortunately, the international community’s actual reaction to Israel’s Operation Cast Lead massacre was nothing short of spineless. Had the United States, Britain, and France even attempted to stop Israel from murdering more than 1,400 people, mostly civilians, dozens, and maybe even hundreds, of lives could have been saved. Instead, by interfering directly in Libya’s uprising against Gaddafi under the (arguably legitimate) premise that Libya’s civilians needed protection, the United Nations Security Council and NATO revealed the double-standards that continue to define the politics of international relations. In today’s world, a person is only worth as much as her national identity. As a result, the world's superpowers enjoy sole discretion over how valuable a person's life is, and arbitrarily decide who is worth "saving" and who should be allowed to die.

(This post first appeared on kabobfest.com and can be found here)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Which home?

Nahr al-Bared camp
The following post was written by Jenine, creator of Out of Academia. To provide a little context, between May and September 2007, a fierce battle between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army took place inside of Nahr el Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon. The 15-week conflict leveled Nahr el Bared and left over 400 people dead. Although Nahr el Bared's reconstruction has been a top priority for UNRWA, there is a still a lot of work to be done. Thanks for the contribution, Jenine.

I walked off the plane and they immediately recognized me from the kuffiyeh wrapped around my neck. “I knew you were ours,” my 3amo Ghassan said as he embraced me.

Standing with dozens of other people at the exit of the international flights terminal in Beirut, I saw my father’s family - my family - for the first time since we picked up and moved to Chicago when I was seven.

Since then, my grandmother and my grandfather have both passed away. They day that we left, my grandmother wept, screaming, "I will never see Marwan [my father] again." She didn’t, and I never got to know my grandparents. Since then, my aunt was killed during the 2006 war by an Israeli rocket that also demolished my grandfather’s house. Her sisters told me that, up until the day my aunt was killed, she would make breakfast for my father every morning in his absence.

I know I had missed a lot, but I was standing there now.

I more than expected to feel out of place. I texted my best friend in America while I sat on the tarmac at the Beirut airport, waiting for everyone to get off the plane before me. “I am nervous as hell.” She responded, "You’ll be fine, this is your family, this is where you came from." I was not nervous about seeing my family for the first time in years. I was nervous because I knew that in about an hour, I was going to Badawi refugee camp, to my Uncle Fouzi’s house, to a place that I had abandoned.

I know that I was seven when I left and that I didn’t have a choice of whether to stay or to leave, but, as most refugees living in the diaspora, living away from home, know…there is always something heavy weighing us down. A heavy shadow drifting behind us of a place we left even if we can’t remember it, even if we’ve never been there.

I can remember it though. I remember the smell of fresh baked khubaz on Friday mornings, my grandmother sitting on a stool kneading dough in front of her taboun (wood burning stove) on the roof of my grandparents' home in Naher el Bared refugee camp. I remember getting lost as a child in the camps, running around, seeing the Sea, pausing, and then telling someone I’m from dar Wehbeh so they could take me home. There weren't any neighbors left to take me home 13 years later, just the Mediterranean taunting me with its waves.

Things were different now. My cousin describes Naher el Bared as a “football field.” Instead of hundreds of homes and a market which used to rival that of Tripoli, half of the camp has been flattened. Nahr al-Bared was now a militarized zone, check points located at every entrance and exit, and tanks with armed Lebanese soldiers. My passport was taken away from me every time I entered, and I was given a strict 24-hour time frame in which I had to formally check-out of the camp in the morning.

People who could not afford to rebuild their homes live in various “barracksat.” These barracks are freight shipping containers, metal and blue, with holes in the sides for windows. Half of these "shelters" don’t have indoor plumbing.

Jenine with the children
I visited the UNRWA school where dozens of kids, just like me, play outside surrounded by concrete and freight containers. They have posters on the walls about not smoking and not picking up any leftover grenades or rocket shells. The teacher who has been there for years sees me, grabs me, and holds me for what seems like hours. “You know I was at your parent’s wedding, I danced all night,” she said to me between kisses on the cheek. I spent the day at the school painting flowers and hearts on faces. A young girl pulled me to the side, she couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old. She told me that she wanted to read me a poem, but she didn’t want to do it in front of the rest of the children. She took me behind a divider wall and recited by heart a nationalistic poem about Palestine. She was from my father’s village in Falestine, and she is convinced that we are going to return. I left shortly after that, and I cried silently on the walk back home to my family’s house.

Where has my childhood gone? The streets I ran through barefoot, the crowded market, my jiddo’s house, my jiddo’s store? Does it make me less of a Palestinian to consider a refugee camp the closest thing to home? Why does my chest feel so heavy? Why have I been sick since I got to Naher el Bared?

On my return back to Badawi, my 3amo Abed told me that kids are dying in Naher el Bared from cancer, and that most of them have asthma. He also played a Fateh mixtape the whole way back. I witnessed a fight between members of my family that night over tea. Someone said something about how Naher el Bared shouldn’t have harbored Islamists, which triggered my 3amo. He stormed out of the room screaming, “I hope that what happened to Naher el Bared happens in Badawi and 3ein il Helwe and in all the camps.”

What has happened to my family? What's happened to our unity, our national identity? Are we really wishing death upon our own families now, on other Palestinians? Aren’t we all in the same camp?

I left after being in Lebanon for 17 days. I haven’t been back since. A day hasn’t gone by where I don’t think about every moment I spent there, about my cousins, about our family outings, the laughter, the tabee5, the tanks, the rifles, the soldiers. I left with a lot less unanswered questions…a lot more lost. I guess I was hoping I could find something there to point me in the direction of home. What I did find was that it would take me exactly two years to write this because I chose to run from it. I found that home is a word we romanticize, home is a thing we often take out of context...I found the courage to face the reality of what I saw in Naher el Bared, a sense of renewed purpose and the resilience of the human will to survive.

Most importantly, I think I found the tiny bits and pieces that make up home...and I'm still trying to put them together.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The politics of intervention

Libyan fighter jet shot down
On Friday, March 18th, the UN Security Council passed a resolution supporting international military intervention against Muammar Gaddafi. What initially began as a push to enforce a "no-fly zone" over Libya resulted in  the creation of a multinational coalition led by Britain, France, and the United States. Within the first few two days of the campaign, codenamed Operation Odyssey Dawn in the United States, over 110 cruise missiles were fired from American naval vessels in the Mediterranean Sea, and British submarines fired numerous tomahawk missiles at Libyan air defense systems. Although coalition forces claimed that their attacks stricly targeted Gaddafi's compounds and military bases, there appears to be a dispute as to whether or not coalition efforts resulted in the death of civilians.

Nevertheless, Libya's revolutionary forces apparently appealed for more attacks against Gaddafi's soldiers on Sunday, encouraged by the weekend's onslaught that sent Gaddafi's troops into total disarray. Prior to this weekend, rebels were left without an answer to Gaddafi's tanks, which were moving quickly on Benghazi, the de facto revolutionary capital. While there is no doubt that coalition forces' air support has crippled Gaddafi's capacity to fight the Resistance, the question remains: what are the costs of foreign intervention in Libya's liberation struggle? So far, revolutionary leaders have made it clear that they welcome coalition air support, but unequivocally reject the presence of foreign troops on Libyan soil. Citing America's ongoing occupation of Iraq, Libyan revolutionaries have attempted to navigate the thin-line that exists between international support for the revolution and foreign appropriation of the uprising.

After weeks of indecision, superfluous debate, and intransigence, it should strike us as odd that the UN Security Council has decided to play such a prominent role in Libya's revolution. Since protests against Gaddafi's regime began on February 15th, Gaddafi has vowed to wage a brutal war against the uprising. Gaddafi's violent suppression of mostly peaceful protests led to an armed revolution that initially enjoyed widespread success. The tide turned, however, after it became clear that rebels' weapons were not nearly sophisticated enough to counter Gaddafi's military might. Rather than arming the rebellion with artillery and anti-tank weapons, however, the UN Security Council decided to engage Gaddafi directly. Although US officials deny that the goal of their attacks is to overthrow Gaddafi, by bombing his compounds and military bases, coalition forces have made it clear that Gaddafi is not safe in Libya.

To be sure, revolutionary forces in Libya do not need a "no-fly zone" or foreign air support to topple Gaddafi. Rebels are more than capable of defeating Gaddafi on their own, and simply need more material support to help level the playing field. Why did the UN Security Council choose direct intervention over furnishing Libya's rebellion with artillery and anti-tank weaponry? Is Obama seeking to compensate for his cowardly silence on the brutal repression of protesters in Bahrain and Yemen? Or is the UN Security Council concerned with the future of Libya's oil reserves?

Whatever the motivation, Libyans should be wary of the coalition forces, and must ensure that coalition soldiers stay out of Libya. The precedent being set in Libya is a precarious one; in this unpredictable age of revolution, western powers are struggling to maintain a strong foothold in the Arab world. Depending on how events play out in Libya, NATO forces may very well turn into regime-changing agents that use popular rebellions as an excuse to impose America's/Britain's/France's will on budding Arab democracies.

What happens if Gaddafi's regime doesn't totally collapse within the next week? For how long will coalition forces continue to bombard Gaddafi's outposts? What happens if more civilians are killed as a result of the coalition's efforts? Will the rebellion then turn its weapons against the NATO forces? If Gaddafi does fall, will the UN Security Council allow Libya's revolutionary bodies to have full control over Libya's political and territorial future? Or will the United States, Britain, and France use their military might to intimidate the rebels and undermine their unity?

There are no easy answers to these complicated questions. At this point, we can only hope that the uprising overthrows Gaddafi sooner rather than later, and gives coalition forces less of an excuse to linger. We must remember, though, that the United States, Britain, and France are not acting on behalf of Libya's genuine interests; if that were the case, then they would have provided rhetorical and material support to the uprising the moment it began. Instead, the UN Security Council has reasserted itself as the world's chief police force, and has guaranteed that Libya's future will be as much about Libya's freedom as it is serving American, British, and French interests.

"الشعب يريد اسقاط المدير"

On Friday, March 11th, hundreds of Palestinians protested outside of UNRWA's Lebanon Field Office Headquarters. The official catalyst behind the demonstration was the death of ten-year-old Mohammed Nabih Taha, a former resident of Ein al-Hilweh. Having suffered from severe respiratory difficulties throughout his life, Mohammed was given a hospital referral from one of UNRWA's clinics on March 7th, and was transferred to Saida Governmental Hospital's emergency room. There, he was given emergency resuscitative care, but was forced to relocate to Dallaa Hospital due to a lack of available respirators. While waiting in Dallaa's emergency room, Mohammed passed away.

Following Mohammed's death, his father carried his body back to one of UNRWA's Health Centers in Ein al-Hilweh. There, a confrontation between Mohammed's father and Health Center staff spilled out into the streets. Hundreds of people quickly surrounded the Health Center, which forced UNRWA to shut down both of its clinics in Ein al-Hilweh. Although UNRWA acted fully within its scope to save Mohammed's life, Palestinian refugees have no choice but to take their anger out on UNRWA when a tragedy happens; UNRWA is the lifeline for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, especially those that live inside the camps.

At around 9:30 am, dozens of buses arrived outside of UNRWA's headquarters. By 9:45, the buses had emptied and hundreds of refugees from a variety of refugee camps had congregated outside of UNRWA's main gate. Initially, they were chanting, "al-sha3b yurid isqat al-nitham," the same words to which millions of Egyptians marched in unison as they forced Mubarak out of power (in English, the chant translates to: the people want the collapse of the system). After a few minutes, however, the chant changed to, "al-sha3b yurid isqat al-mudeer," which translates to, "the people want the collapse of the director."

Contrary to some reports, protesters did not try and storm UNRWA's facilities. Rather, at one point during the demonstration, popular committee representatives were allowed onto the premises and they spoke with several UNRWA officials and security personnel. Although the protest was peaceful, the refugees that gathered on Friday were definitely upset, and their anger did not go unnoticed (Director Salvatore Lombardo's memorandum about the incident reflected the organization's deep sadness over Mohammed's death, and an understanding of UNRWA's responsibility to respond to protesters' feelings with empathy and compassion). An investigation has been launched into the circumstances surrounding Mohammed's death, and hopefully Mohammed's family will be able to find peace in the coming days and weeks.  

Below is a short video of the protest. I am trying to upload two more, but am having problems with my internet browser:  


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Don't do it, Rima!

I am proud to say that I have never endorsed, supported, or watched a beauty pageant in my entire life. To me, a beauty pageant is the quintessential expression of sexism. Dozens of women parading around in front of a group of mindless, over-sexed, and over-botoxed judges and on-lookers is not what I call a competition; it’s a shallow meat-market in which a woman is defined by her body and nothing else – no exceptions.

Nevertheless, when Dearborn, Michigan’s Rima Fakih won Donald Trump’s Miss USA competition in May of 2010, I couldn’t help but crack a smile. Although my hostility towards the very idea of a beauty pageant never waned, I strongly felt that Rima’s victory challenged Americans to question popular depictions of (physical) beauty and their own preconceived notions about Arabs, Muslims, and sexuality. Don’t misunderstand me. Rima is, of course, physically beautiful according to typical American standards; she would not have become Miss USA otherwise.

However, she is clearly not your average white-bread beauty queen. Between her name, thick black hair, and olive skin, she couldn’t help but distinguish herself from the rest of the competition the moment she stepped on stage. As a result, I have to admit that, even though I have never met her, I’m proud of Rima and happy that she won. Her victory may have helped other Arab American women feel more confident (not that any woman needs a beauty contest to feel vindicated) or, at the very least, may have encouraged young women everywhere to disregard society’s stereotypes about how a “typical” woman – from any culture – should behave.

On February 22nd, I was perusing MLive.com, one of my go-to sites for all things Michigan, when I saw an article about Rima Fakih. To my horror, I learned that Rima decided to try her hand at another “competition”: USA Network’s “Tough Enough.” Yes, that’s right. Rima Fakih wants to become a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Diva.

I can think of few things that are more degrading than being a WWE Diva. Nevermind the trashy outfits and the soft-core porn performances that take place in front of thousands of drooling idiots. I just can’t imagine that any self-respecting person would choose to go and work for the likes of Vince McMahon, the scumbag that owns WWE.

With McMahon at the helm, WWE is a war-mongering racist corporation that unashamedly supports America’s occupation of Iraq and has a history of discrimination against Arabs and Muslims. Although there have been countless Arab and Muslim characters on WWE, there are two that clearly stand-out: the Iron Sheik (not to be confused with Will’s hip-hop stage name) and Muhammad Hassan, aka Mark Copani.

According to his biography, the Iron Sheik left behind a life of amateur wrestling in Tehran and made his WWE debut in 1979 (what a coincidence…). Known by his signature move called the “Camel Clutch,” the Iron Sheik won the WWE championship in 1983 and then moved on to tag-team wrestling in 1985 (go figure, his partner was Mocow native Nikolai Volkoff). The Iron Sheik also never missed an opportunity to be as obscene as possible, and tried his hardest to portray Iranians as ignorant and racist. For example, some of his more famous quotes are: “I’m a real Shia Muslim,” “He is a cheap Jew son of a bitch,” and “I born in Iran but made in America.” To be sure, the Iron Sheik’s complicity in the denigration of his Iranian identity makes him just as much responsible for WWE’s racist programming as Vince McMahon.

Raised in Syracuse, NY, Mark Copani’s father is Palestinian and his mother is Italian. He assumed the stage name Muhammad Hassan in December 2004 and was at the center of controversy following a July 2005 performance on UPN’s Smackdown. To make a long story short, Hassan knelt near the ring in “prayer” while five masked men attacked the Undertaker after he defeated Daivari, an Iranian American wrestler that poses as an Arab American. After choking the Undertaker unconscious, the masked men knelt down in “prayer” while Hassan lifted the Undertaker’s head up for the camera “in a scene that looked eerily like a beheading.”

Worse, the episode’s controversy wasn’t due to its clearly racist content. The show happened to air the same day as the July 7th bombings in London, which sent viewers into a frenzy over WWE’s “insensitivity.”

If WWE’s racist exploitation of Arabs and Muslims through characters like the Iron Sheik and Muhammad Hassan aren’t enough to dissuade Rima from becoming a WWE Diva, she should consider what happened to Stephanie McMahon, Vince’s daughter, when she appeared on WWE for the first time. When Stephanie entered the ring to the crowd’s chants of “Slut, Slut, Slut,” she singlehandedly revealed WWE for what it is: a sleazy, sexist, ignorant free-for-all that caters to America’s innermost patriarchal tendencies. And while one could argue that WWE should not be judged by its fans’ actions, we must remember Linda McMahon’s response to ABC’s Bill Weir when he asked her about the incident involving her daughter. According to the Huffington Post article, McMahon said that the incident was “simply a symptom of the show being a ‘soap opera,’” adding that, “It was acting. WWE is the longest running weekly episodic program in television, so sure, there are some storylines that are better than others.”

Rima, I understand that your publicist(s) may be putting pressure on you to take this WWE gig. I understand that, considering the poignant anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment that pervades American popular culture, you may have found it difficult to secure opportunities from other mainstream avenues. I also understand that you are trying to get paid, a not-so-easy thing these days, especially if you’re still living in Michigan.

Yet, I urge you to reconsider your decision to participate in USA Network’s “Tough Enough.” While I realize that one must make sacrifices in order to “make it big” in the world of show-business, glitz, and glamour, being a WWE Diva is one sacrifice that you need not make. In fact, it may be one of the biggest mistakes of your life.

(This post first appeared on kabobfest.com and can be found here)