Thursday, July 13, 2006

Jordan and Hamas

Tension Returns Between Jordan and Hamas

Originally published in PINR 13 JULY 2006

Jordanian accusations that the Palestinian militant group Hamas has been planning terrorist attacks in the Hashemite kingdom have rekindled the ongoing tensions between the two. On April 18, 2006, literally hours before the first visit of the Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar, Amman disclosed that some members of Hamas were arrested in Jordan and that their terrorist plot was uncovered. Citing this, it called off the visit of Zahar who was on his maiden visit to the various Arab countries to drum up financial support for the near bankrupt Palestinian Authority.

Jordan disclosed that the large weapons cache that was discovered included Iranian-made Katyusha rockets and anti-tank missiles, explosives and machineguns, which Hamas activists allegedly stockpiled for use in attacks against Jordanian public institutions and officials. According to Jordanian officials, these weapons were smuggled into the country from across the border.

Amman blamed an unnamed Hamas leader based in Damascus, presumably Khalid Mashaal, as the mastermind behind this plot. The government, however, was careful not to blame the governments of Syria and Iran openly. This was soon followed by a televised confession by three men who admitted to being trained in Syria and sent to Jordan to carry out terrorist attacks.

Amman was quick to reject an offer by Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to send Zahar to personally sort out the problem. Instead, it demanded a security team from Hamas that was "capable of disclosing additional information and other hidden weapons...[that] threaten [Jordanian] national security."

In the immediate context, the row underscores internal divisions within the Palestinian leadership. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appears to be siding with the Jordanian version of events. He described the development as "dangerous and surprising" and, during a visit to Jordan in early May, he conceded that the incident "has serious repercussions for the security and stability of the kingdom." A few days later, in an interview to al-Jazeera, he remarked: "The information I got from Jordan was not just staggering, but also dangerous."

The reaction of Hamas was rather different. Already facing mounting international pressure over its refusal to recognize Israel and the Oslo Accords, the Hamas-led Palestinian government could not afford to open another front. Dismissively, it labeled the Jordanian accusation as "falsehood and mendacity." In a statement issued in Gaza, it said that these "arguments are excuses for Jordan's last minute withdrawal from receiving Zahar following the attack in Tel Aviv and the Israeli-American threats on the Palestinian government."

Hamas maintains that it had never targeted any other country, Arab or non-Arab, especially Jordan, but had always limited its battle to "the Zionist enemy." It called the whole affair a Jordanian plot to "isolate the elected Palestinian government and force it to change its positions in accordance with the Zionist and American conditions."

Partly to defuse the tension, in May Abbas sent a security team to Amman headed by intelligence chief Major General Tareq Abu Rajab, a Fatah loyalist, to examine the issue. Indeed, a few days after he returned to Gaza, an attempt was made on his life. He was seriously injured when a bomb placed at the entrance of the elevator in his office exploded. Even though it is difficult to establish a link between the two, Abu Rabaj has been known as a staunch adversary of Hamas.

Growing Tension
While some Arab commentators have raised doubts about the timing of the accusation and the veracity of the public confessions, the whole episode underscores the deep divisions between Jordan and Hamas. In recent years, especially after the ascendance of King Abdullah in 1999, Jordan began viewing Hamas as a threat to the Hashemite kingdom.

This was in contrast to the position of his father, King Hussein, who perceived the militant group as a potential ally in checkmating Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Never truly giving up on the idea of regaining control of the West Bank that he had lost during the June 1967 war, Hussein always sought to secure the loyalty of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Hussein's efforts to seek and secure a special role for Jordan in Jerusalem under the Israel-Jordan peace treaty signed in 1994 were a reflection of his prolonged longing for the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

His desire to use Hamas against the Arafat-led Palestinian Authority received a boost in September 1997 when Israeli agents sought to assassinate Mashaal, who was then the Hamas spokesperson in Jordan. Not only did he survive the attack, but the Israeli agents were captured. Capitalizing on the situation -- since the operation was ordered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- King Hussein demanded the release of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, was serving a life term in Israel after being charged with terrorism.

To secure the release of its agents, in October 1997 Israel freed Yassin who soon returned to Gaza and emerged as an alternative power center to Arafat, Fatah and the Palestinian National Authority. Until his assassination in March 2004 by Israel, Yassin remained a major threat to Arafat and his ability to dominate the Palestinian resistance.

Jordan-Hamas Divorce
King Abdullah, however, viewed the situation differently. Unlike his father, he has no emotional bondage to the West Bank and was more interested in consolidating the cohesion of Jordan, or the erstwhile Transjordan. He perceived the Palestinian Authority and Arafat as an ally and not a rival. He was, therefore, less prepared to tolerate Hamas' activities inside Jordan, especially when the organization had been carrying out suicide attacks inside Israel with the purpose of sabotaging the peace process.

On August 31, 1999, in a swift and surprise move, a number of Hamas offices in Jordan were closed down and a number of functionaries arrested. They were initially charged with misdemeanors, such as affiliation with an illegal organization and possession of light arms. Later they were charged with a host of much more serious charges, some punishable by death, including maintaining a military training camp, illegal fundraising, weapons storage, armed activities against Israel and the use of forged official stamps.

In an unprecedented development, Jordan also issued arrest warrants against four Hamas leaders, including Mashaal, who were in Iran at the time. When they returned a few days later, they were arrested. In an eventual compromise worked out by Qatar, in November 1999 the Hamas leaders, who were citizens of Jordan, were voluntarily deported to Doha.

Meanwhile, Hamas was declared to be an "illegal and non-Jordanian" organization whose presence would not be tolerated; additionally, Jordanian citizens were banned from becoming members of Hamas.

In the summer of 2001, after some prolonged drama at the Amman airport, former Hamas spokesperson Ibrahim Ghawshah was allowed to return to Jordan when he renounced his membership in Hamas. The fate of others, however, was different. In recent years, Egypt was prepared to host and negotiate with Mashaal as part of its strategy to secure a temporary halt in suicide attacks against Israel. Jordan, however, has been unrelenting.

The present accusations by Jordan against Hamas are merely a repeat of this historical narrative. The majority of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin and this demographic reality is weighing heavily on the Hashemite kingdom, which is determined to make a clean break with the West Bank and the Palestinians. The victory of Hamas and its unrelenting views vis-à-vis the peace process could ignite the existing tension inside the kingdom and further radicalize the Muslim Brotherhood, which enjoys the support of the Palestinians in the refugee camps.

Hamas was an ally when Jordan sought to compete with Arafat. The times, however, have changed. Seeking domestic stability and long-term survival, King Abdullah sees Hamas as an adversary especially if its hard-line polices were to radicalize the region further and start another cycle of violence. Any sympathy for Hamas in Jordan, especially among the Palestinian segment of the population, is a sure recipe for trouble. This, perhaps, explains the ongoing tension between Jordan and Hamas over the uncovered arms cache. The Hashemite Jordanian apprehensions over Hamas and its negative influences within Jordan are real and cannot be dismissed easily.

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Friday, July 7, 2006

ICRC: Secular symbols

ICRC 'crystallizes' late in the game

The International Committee of the Red Cross' decision after years of negotiations to allow Israel's Red Star of David to join the club is a welcome move, but one that should have come much sooner and without partisanship.

Originally published in ISN Security Watch (07/07/06)

The International Committee of the Red Cross' (ICRC) much-belated June decision to admit Israel’s Magen David Adom (Red Star of David) as a full member alongside the Palestinian Red Crescent society has raised so me fundamental questions about the ICRC, its relevance and its mission.

It was only after years of negotiations that a compromise in the form of a rRed cCrystal that could be used by national bodies came about to allow the rRed Star of David full ICRC membership.

While the move is a welcome one, the ICRC's prolonged refusal to admit an organization that had been functioning since 1930 seems to have had more to do with religious conservatism and political calculations than ethical considerations.

Established in 1863, the ICRC claims to be “an impartial, neutral, and independent organization whose exclusively humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and internal violence and to provide them with assistance.”

But when it comes to admitting non-Christian emblems, it seems to have tended toward the partisan and parochial. The single exception was the Red Crescent - which it admitted in 1929. Ostensibly to oppose the "proliferation" of symbols, the ICRC seems to have disregarded the religious sentiments of millions of others.

Though the Red Cross symbol never was intended as a religious one, the refusal of the humanitarian organization to admit other religious motifs has served to betray that intention - a betrayal underscored by its delay in admitting the Red Star of David.

There are a number of reasons why the ICRC needs to abandon its explicitly Christian symbol and adopt the newly devised Red Crystalred crystal as its name and symbol.

The use of the cross, irrespective of the original motives and intentions, does not represent the truly global nature of organization. To be credible and non-partisan, the Committee will first and foremost need to present itself in non-religious terms. Its refusal to admit the Israeli organization was nothing to do with the credibility of Magen David Adom but it was more to do with the inherent but unstated religious prejudice. If an Islamic motif can be included, why not the symbols of other religions and faiths?

Second, the problem with Magen David Adom symbolizes the dilemma facing minorities. Israel’s Arab minority hashave great difficulty in accepting this explicitly Jewish symbol, especially within the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The same can be said about non-Muslims in the Middle East as well as the non-Christian population in Europe. Cross, cCrescent, or sStar, these symbols of the national humanitarian groups do not represent the minorities. These humanitarian organizations could not be considered ‘national’ within the context of the societies, which are increasingly becoming multi-cultural and multi-religious. How can the British Red Cross, for example, represent the millions of non-Christians living in that country?

Third, the reservations of the ICRC to accept the symbols of other cultures went to obscenity when it refused to accept alternatives for countries like China, India, and Japan where the Christian cCross represents only a miniscule population. Either these countries had to accept the cross or be excluded from the ICRC. The arguments of proliferation of symbols had to be mitigated by the diversity of the population. The desire of the ICRC to "standardize" its symbols went against the basic grain of tolerance and diversity. If the world’s religions are diverse, why should the ICRC look for a single symbol, especially with a strong Christian connotation?

Lastly, the essence of modern Europe lays in its refusal to allow religious beliefs to dominate public life. As the controversy over Danish cartoons highlighted, for the vast majority of the Europeans, religious sentiments are valid as long as they remain private and individual. The French desire to proscribe explicit religious symbols in schools and the reservations of the Prince Charles to be known as the defender of ‘the’ faith when Britain has other equally valid faiths, symbolize the church-state dilemma and strive for secularism. When these states are no longer tolerating public display of religious symbols, how can their national humanitarian organizations be excluded from this liberal trend.

Irrespective of the original motives, the ICRC has devised a new symbol that is non-religious, non-exclusivist, and non-partisan, but still represents the basic values for which the organization has stood for over a century. Ideally, this could be the symbol for all the national organizations, especially where there are people following different religions. States which abhor official sanctity to religious might find Crystal representing their true character.

Until such a time, either the ICRC must embrace the secular, liberal, and non-religious crystal as its symbol or become embroiled in controversies that serve only to undermine its credibility as a humanitarian organization. The irony is that the very attempt to avoid the use and reliance upon religious symbols has made them all the more significant an issue - an issue that first began with a religious symbol itself, the Christian cross.

The ICRC itself has recognized the irony, understanding, though perhaps a little late in the game, that the emblems are "sometimes wrongly perceived as having religious, cultural, or political connotations" that have "affected respect for the emblems" and "diminished the protection the emblems offer to victims and to humanitarian and medical personnel."

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Arab League fails again

Arab League Fails Again
The fact that the Security Council has had to step in to ensure Lebanon's independence signals the failure, yet again, of the Arab League.
Originally published in ISN Security Watch (05/07/06)

The near-unanimous adoption in May of UN Security Council Resolution 1680 demanding that Syria recognize the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Lebanon more than anything further demonstrated the impotence and marginalization of the Arab League.

Formed in March 1945 by seven Arab states, with Egypt hosting the permanent headquarters, the Arab League's charter vows to, among other things, "guarantee the future of all Arab countries" and ensure their inviolability and territorial integrity - a commitment it has been unable to fulfill, resulting in calls from some quarters for the group to be disbanded.

Resolution 1680 was adopted on 17 May against the backdrop of growing US determination to isolate the Ba’athist regime, and the willingness of France, erstwhile Western patron of Damascus, to go along with it. While Russia abstained to ensure its leverage vis-à-vis its former client state, China had often abstained on sensitive UN decisions concerning the Middle East. Both Moscow and Beijing would prefer to take advantage of Syrian vulnerability to secure greater political concessions from Washington over any future vote on Iran.

But the real loser in the game is the Arab League.

The resolution explicitly calls on Syria to delineate its borders with Lebanon “especially in those areas where the border is uncertain or disputed.” This is not a major problem as most of the countries of the Middle East have serious border problems with their neighbors. At the height of imperialism, the European powers not only created new states in the Middle East but also disregarded ethno-national considerations. As a result, members of the same ethnic groups were scattered among different states (Kurds) or different groups were clubbed into one country (Iraq). As such, border disputes are a recurrent phenomenon in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

However, a far more devastating threat to the League came from the Security Council demand that Syria “establish full diplomatic relations and representation” with Beirut and recognize “Lebanon’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence.” Such a demand should not have had to come from a UN Security Council resolution, when both Syria and Lebanon are members of the same Arab fraternity.

Syria has never recognized Lebanese sovereignty, considering the latter to be a part of historic Syria that was artificially ceded from the motherland. It treated Lebanon merely as a province and its representative in Beirut was known as "governor" rather than as ambassador. The prolonged civil war partly enabled Syria to treat Lebanon as its serfdom rather than as a sovereign entity. Indeed, even when it maintained over 30,000 troops, ostensibly to uphold domestic order in Lebanon, Syria never had an ambassador.

It has exercised complete control over every aspect of Lebanese polity. The continuation of Emile Lahoud as president underscores this Syrian stronghold. Under pressure from Damascus in 2004, the Lebanese parliament amended the constitution and extended his term by three years. Internal dissent eventually culminated in the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Yet, even after the withdrawal of Syrian forces in the summer of last year, Lahoud is still president.

All of this has gone on uninterrupted by the Arab League.
The Lebanese case was not the only occasion when the Arab League failed to ensure the inviolability of national sovereignty and integrity. The League never managed to evolve a strategy against such blatant disregard for national independence. Unlike other regional organizations, it was unable to adopt a firm stand against the sanctity of national sovereignty. Article One of the Arab League charter clearly states that membership is open to all “independent Arab states.” But it has had no mechanism to ensure that independence. Not only has the League been unable to prevent conflict between its member states, but it also has failed to ensure the inviolability of their sovereignty.

The Organization of African Union (OAU), the forerunner of the African Union (AU), for example, explicitly vowed to its member states “to defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity and independence.” The League has no similar provision or tradition. Of course, Africa has not been free from inter-state wars, but no state has threatened to swallow another and gotten away with it. The critical issue is not territorial aggrandizement, rather the disappearance of the sovereignty of member states.

Whenever a small state has been threatened by its bigger Arab neighbor, the League has invariably failed to come to the rescue – a problem that began as far back as the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.

Vast areas that were allotted to an independent Arab state under the UN partition plan for Palestine came under the control of Transjordan (now Jordan). Despite protests from all other Arab states, they were subsequently annexed by Jordan and became the West Bank. The Arab League merely reconciled itself to the disappearance of the Palestinian state and pretended that these areas were being held in "trust" by the Hashemites.

In August 1990, when Saddam Hussein claimed Kuwait to be the 17th province of Iraq, the League once again showed its incompetence. A majority of members did condemn the invasion, occupation, and annexation of Kuwait and actively joined the US-led coalition. However, the League did not suspend Iraq for violating the independence of Kuwait. Egypt, on the other hand, was suspended from the League in 1979 for making peace with Israel.

In the current situation involving Lebanon, the League once again exhibits its limitations. In its desire to rally around a beleaguered member state, the League has trampled on Lebanese aspirations to be a normal independent state.