Monday, 9 January 2012

Easy peasy

Some people like easy things, so they do easy things. I, on the other hand, have a habit of picking hard things. It's not that I dislike procrastinating and taking things easy - I do that all the time.  But when it comes to something like a school research project, I immediately think of all the convoluted things I could research and write about. Why? Because in my twelve years in the public school system, I have come to the conclusion that school projects can be exceptionally dull.

One of my mottos for life is "if it's not fun, make it fun." I apply this to music most of the time, when I have to play something I consider to be grotesquely bad. But my motto is a part of my personality, and as such I apply it to everything, including school projects. I have to make it interesting for me and everyone else - that's the challenge. It may make my school life harder, but what's the point in me learning something if it's not at least vaguely interesting for myself?

I picked the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as my topic because it's one of the most complicated issues in the world. There is so much to research, including news articles old and new. In fact, one of the reasons why I'm interested in Mid East politics is because it's never static. Something changes for the good or worse every week, which makes it even more confusing to Westerners at large. But through all the confusion, this conflict is something people have very strong biases about. According to a Gallup poll in 2011, 63% of Americans sympathize with Israel, while only 17% sympathize with the Palestinians. Only 20% responded with "both/neither/no opinion". In comparison,  only 38% of Americans sympathized with the Israelis in 1999, while 54% went with the "both/neither/no opinion". In an age where the media constantly dismiss our ability to pay attention to anything, this comparison is astoundingly alarming at the least. I would dare to state that people in general, including Americans, do not fully comprehend this conflict, and that statistically-unfounded guess is at odds with the great biases those same people seem to have on this issue.

This was the opinion I had of the general state of the world when I started this blog. My goal was to present this convoluted conflict in an interesting yet detailed manner, with a minimal amount of bias possible. I admit that there are probably matters I have over-generalized in my posts, and there are hundreds of thousands of important facts and other info that I have failed to include in this blog in regards to the understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was the great challenge - explaining the issues clear enough to anyone in the general public with a limited number of blog posts under a set criteria. Of course, that meant that I had to discard much of my research and leave out many important pieces of information. But which ones do I leave out, or rather, what do I not leave out? It was difficult and flawed, but I think I did relatively well on the whole.

I came out of all this research and blogging with a clearer understanding of the conflict and my own thoughts on it. It was an interesting and worthwhile project, at the least.

Technology has come far, even in these few years I have been living in this world. It is now possible to do things that a technologically-clumsy guy like me wouldn't have been able to do 5 years ago. But with this advance in technology comes a danger: misinformation.

With the rise of the World Wide Web, it has become so much easier to access everything, whether it's sports news or music or comics. However, there is so much misinformation online that research can sometimes be dangerous, especially for those without good research skills.

But even for those with research skills, it is a challenge to see through all the bias around us. Something even harder is to develop our own individual opinions by judging facts rather than being shaped by biases.

Here are the top 10 pictures from a Google Images search on "israeli palestinian conflict."
Scrapbook Photos

All of them are very powerful images. But I would say that more than half of them aren't in the least favourable to the Israelis. Is that simply because Israelis are the oppressors? To some, perhaps. But this is an issue that is far too complicated for Google to suggest to us. Don't get me wrong, Google probably won't even dream of presenting a bias regarding such a diplomatic hot potato. But the bias is clearly there, intentional or not, and it is everyone's job to see through it ourselves. But of course, there are always those who fail to do so.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Listening is the Beginning

As a musician, listening to others is essential for me. If I don't listen to the people around me when playing in an orchestra, I can't be sensitive to what others are playing and I'll end up drowning them out when they're the ones who are playing all the interesting bits. Without listening, it would be impossible to create music together as a group.  But does that only apply to music?

Though we sometimes may not realize it, listening to other people is essential to having good relationships with them. Dialogue cannot be defined as dialogue if one merely talks the whole way through. It is a combination of talking and listening that dialogue is born. 

There is a youth orchestra based in Spain called the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. It's "interesting" at the least - in the fact that the orchestra consists of musicians from a variety of Middle Eastern backgrounds, such as Egyptian, Lebanese, Iranian, Syrian - and of course, Israeli and Palestinian. It was founded by Argentine-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian-American theorist Edward Said in 1999 as a workshop. Its aim was for young musicians from Israel and other Middle Eastern countries to focus on musical development as well as development with the sharing of knowledge and comprehension between people from cultures traditionally have been rivals.

An excerpt of the West-Eastern Divan playing the Adagio from Gustav Mahler's 10th Symphony:

Between the exhaustive rehearsals, the members hold forums on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, focusing on dialogue and reflection, but never with negative intent. In short, this ensemble of less than a hundred is the perfect model of what human society is capable of.

The West-Eastern Divan has performed in countries around the world, including Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Imagine, Israelis playing Beethoven alongside Palestinians for Palestinians in the West Bank!

The conductor himself is an fascinating figure. Conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim is an Argentinian-born Israeli who lived in the United States for a number of years, now based in Berlin, with honourary citizenships from Spain and - get this - the Palestinian Authority. Nevermind Argentina and Spain - Barenboim is the first person ever to hold both Israeli and Palestinian passports. He is also one of the few musicians in the world who has a minor planet named after him, but that's beside the point.

Barenboim has been a controversial figure in Mid East politics - conducting the music of Richard Wagner in Jerusalem for example. Wagner's music had been unofficially tabooed in Israel since the Holocaust, as Wagner was an anti-Semite and his music was used predominantly in Nazi Germany for propaganda (he was also a personal role model for Adolf Hitler, who mentions Wagner in his so-called autobiography Mein Kampf). However, Barenboim argues that the music itself is what matters to him.

Here's an interview with Barenboim on Al Jazeera:

A number of media outlets have called the West-Eastern Divan an "orchestra for peace", to which Barenboim has responded: "You can't make peace with an orchestra." In an interview with the Guardian, he states: "The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn't. It's not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I'm not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I'm] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to - and unfortunately I am alone in this now that Edward died a few years ago - ...create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives."
As a member of the orchestra puts it, the orchestra "is a human laboratory that can express to the whole world how to cope with the other."

This is my answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No, I don't mean putting every Israeli and Palestinian in a gigantic orchestra - that sounds too similar to Parliament Hill. Listening is my answer. Listening to all sides, with mutual respect and dignity, with the goal of being open-minded and understanding the other points of view. Listening constructs dialogue; dialogue generates interest; interest yields knowledge; knowledge invokes understanding; understanding leads to peace. If there is no dialogue, if there is no listening - there is no hope of peace.

We have the solutions - we've had them for years! The two-state solution is a completely viable solution to this conflict. Israel can go back to its pre-1967 borders and the Palestinians can take the rest of the land. Jerusalem can be established under international jurisdiction, as a shared capital of the two states, or as an open city. Israel can put a halt to the building of settlements on disputed territory. Israel can start talks with Hamas about removing its blockade of the Gaza Strip in exchange for a peace treaty. The right of return can be discussed through town hall meetings involving both Israelis and Palestinians. But all of these prospects involve dialogue - and to achieve that, all sides MUST listen to each other. We must destroy this culture of ignorance we have lived in for all these years, and move forward with open ears and open minds.

Growing up isn't easy, but sometimes it's necessary.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Light bulbs and headaches

Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, once said "If I find 10000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward." A hopeful quote at the least, but we as human beings never fail to be skeptical. We've tried many ways to end homelessness. Has it worked? No. What about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? They've tried for years and years. Has it worked? No. But before we despair, as we are so wont to do, let's consider the possibilities. What plausible solution do we have, and what exactly is in the way of peace in the Middle East?
File:Israel and Palestine Peace.svg
Currently, the most commonly debated solution to the conflict is the "two-state solution". It is as its name implies: to establish two independent states in the land formerly known as Palestine. One Israeli state, and one Palestinian state. It's by no means a novel proposal; in fact, it has been around for years. In 1947, a UN committee proposed it in what became Resolution 181, recommending the creation of Jewish and Arab states with Jerusalem administrated by the UN. The Israelis accepted it, while the Arabs opposed it, saying they had a right to the whole of Palestine. They had a point; the number of Arabs in the land vastly outnumbered the number of Jews at the time, and they claimed that the partition plan violated the rights of the majority.

Since then, the Palestinian Liberation Organization has come to accept the possibility of the two-state solution. But certain roadblocks remain constant.

1. Pre-1967 borders
       One of the Palestinian Authority's (PA) conditions for the two-state solution is that Israel goes back to its territorial lines before 1967, when Israel took control of land belonging to its Arab enemies in the Six Day War. The rest of old-day Palestine, which according to PA President Mahmoud Abbas is merely 22% of historical Palestine, would become a new Palestinian state. The Americans under the Obama administration supports this proposal, which has been met with firm opposition from the Israelis. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continually said that Israel shall not return to its "indefensible" 1967 borders and has called for a different proposal.

2. Building of settlements in occupied Palestinian territory
       Israel's occupation of Palestinian land in 1967 is to this day not recognized by the international community as justified. However, this has not stopped the Israelis in building settlements on the disputed land, especially in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Currently, almost 500000 Israelis live in these settlements alongside Palestinians. The number of settlements in the West Bank surpass 120, covering over 40% of the territory. The Palestinian Authority has called for the Israelis to stop the building of settlements if they wish to restart peace talks, which has been repeatedly ignored by the Israelis. The Americans have shown reluctance to call the settlements illegal, which, according to the PA themselves, led to the recent Palestinian request for a full-member seat at the United Nations. Israel responded to this act by announcing additional settlements.

3. Status of Jerusalem
       Jerusalem is the one thing that neither side wants to give up to the other. Israel wants it as its capital city, while the Palestinians considers East Jerusalem as occupied territory and wants to make it a part of the future State of Palestine (Temple Mount would be under their jurisdiction). Most Western nations support the idea of establishing an international regime for the city, possibly under the UN. There is talk of making it an "open city", allowing anyone to visit without fear of harm. There are also those who, like the European Union and UN chief Ban Ki-Moon, support the establishment of Jerusalem as the shared capital of Israel and the State of Palestine. As such, the issue remains contentious.

4. Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip
       During the factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, replacing all Fatah government officials with its own. Because the Western-backed Fatah party fled, Israel and Egypt sealed their borders along Gaza, citing reasons of security. Gaza was inaccessible by land, air, and sea, with goods also restricted, leaving the people of Gaza effectively trapped. The blockade started to ease after an incident in 2010 in which an aid flotilla heading to Gaza was raided by Israeli forces, leaving nine Turkish activists dead. It garnered international outrage and led to rifts in Israeli-Turkish relations, pressuring Israel to ease the blockade. However, a strict goods blockade still remains in place, stopping humanitarian aid from reaching Gaza. British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to Gaza as a "prison camp", to which Israel responded by saying "the situation in Gaza is the direct result of Hamas' rule and priorities." This blockade has been the subject of many an argument, with Israelis who say it's for their protection, while the Palestinians and several human rights groups say it's inhumane.

5. Right of return for Palestinian refugees
       There are over 3.5 million Palestinian refugees in the Middle East alone, as a result of the displacement that followed the many Arab-Israeli conflicts over the years. Palestinians say they have a moral right to return to their former homes, a claim that is supported by various UN resolutions. UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948 states: "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practical date." However, Israelfears that the return of Palestinian refugees would wipe out the Jewish majority in the region, which is the only safeguard Israel has in its efforts to remain a sole Jewish state.They have called for the refugees to be assimilated into their present homes, a notion that has been rejected violently. A poll done by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion states 89.5% of Palestinians refuse to waive the right of return in exchange for financial compensation. In the words of one BBC article: “to accept the historic claims of the other side is implicitly to undermine your own historic claim."

These are the tremendous obstacles that diplomats have for years. Yet, everything is even more convoluted when one puts Hamas into the context. Everything from acceptance of the mere possibility of a two-state solution to handing over Jerusalem to anyone else would be blasphemy in their eyes. Their control over the Gaza Strip remains firm, and its support among Palestinians grows. Its recent deal with Israel that set free over 1000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Israeli prisoner saw its popularity grow by 37% (according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research). However, how much support Hamas has is unclear, especially in light of its rival faction Fatah's recent success in getting accepted into UNESCO. In light what we do have, however, we can be certain that Hamas still has substantial support among Palestinians. 

Too much information? Indeed. This is but a mere glimmer of what diplomats must deal with. That is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - inducing headaches to diplomats worldwide since 1948.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Slaying the Dragon

It was the great English writer G. K. Chesterton who said: “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” As you can probably tell, he is not merely a great writer but also a very quotable one. 


Dragons are traditionally very fearsome and ill-tempered creatures, who wreck the lives of all that happen to be in their path. With scales harder than tempered steel, they are difficult to slay, unless you are, say, Prince Charming (and no, I'm not referring to that grotesque idiot from "Shrek"). But how can that great dragon of Mid East politics be slayed? Where is the real Prince Charming when the world needs him?

To be fair, people have previously tried to slay the great dragon on their own. In 1967, Israel launched a preemptive strike on Egypt in what was to be called the Six Day War. From it, Israel gained the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, an action which Arab countries responded to with a vow saying they shall have "no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, [and] no negotiations with it." The UN Security Council responded with Resolution 242, calling for Israel's withdrawal from those lands and lasting peace in the region. Evidently, Israel did not listen.

Conflict soon broke out once more, with the UN constantly trying to broker ceasefires with no end in sight. That is, until the signing of the Camp David Accords on March 26 1979. U.S. President Jimmy Carter had helped negotiate a framework for peace between Israel and Egypt, which resulted in the Sinai being returned to Egypt and the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries. However, not much was accomplished in regards to the issue of Palestine.

After years of continued conflict, the next sign of hope rose in 1993, when Israeli and PLO representatives met in Norway for secret negotiations. These talks led to the signing of the Declaration of Principles, otherwise known as the Oslo Accords. In it, the PLO officially recognized Israel's right to exist in peace and security, while Israel recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. The PLO renounced the use of terrorism, and committed itself to resolve conflicts peacefully. The accord gave Palestinians autonomy in Jericho (a city in the West Bank) and the Gaza Strip, under the newly-created Palestinian Authority (PA). 

But the violence soon stirred again, resulting in massacres of Muslim worshipers in Israel, terrorist attacks on Israelis, and the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Israeli who disproved of the PM's peace initiative.

In the summer of 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton invited Israeli PM Ehud Barak and PA President Yasser Arafat to attend a summit meeting at Camp David. It ended up in failure, with all parties blaming the others for the dismal results.

Since then, restarting the peace process has been the objective of Mid East mediators. But it's not so easy when the majority of Israelis and Palestinians don't believe in the prospect of permanent peace. According to a poll done by the Gallup Organization in 2010, only 25% of Israeli Jews believed in a peaceful future, while 66% did not. For Palestinians, 18% said they believed in a peaceful future, while 75% did not. How can they slay a dragon when they say it cannot be slain?

Fairy tales can be great moral lessons to all of us, regardless of age. However, one thing that fairy tales don't tell us is that Prince Charming was never real. There is no magical prince who can save the day everyday. However, is that a good enough reason to lose hope of a better future? Dragons can be killed - as long as we retain faith in ourselves.