Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2007, pages 7-9

Special Report

Walls That Shut Out Peace

By Rachelle Marshall

An Iraqi man walks past a three-mile-long concrete wall surrounding Baghdad’s Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya April 24. U.S. authorities planned to similarly encircle five Baghdad neighborhoods (AFP Photo/Ali Yussef).

NATIONS THROUGHOUT history have built walls to keep out potential enemies, only to have them prove useless. Israel and the United States today build walls to restrict the movement of people whose land they occupy. Like earlier walls, they too are likely to crumble.

Israel has locked the people of Gaza behind gates that are seldom allowed to open. Palestinians in the West Bank are surrounded by 26-foot-high barriers that cut them off from their neighbors and their farmland. In the center of Baghdad a giant wall surrounds the compound called the Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and its thousands of employees are located. Elsewhere in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, street barriers cause hours-long traffic jams. The city of Fallujah is entirely surrounded by a wall so that residents must wait for clearance by soldiers every time they go in or out of the city.

In mid-April American soldiers in Baghdad began building a 12-foot-high, 3-mile-long wall to enclose the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya and separate its residents from their Shi’i neighbors. According to an official Army statement, “The wall is one of the centerpieces of a new strategy by coalition and Iraqi forces to break the cycle of sectarian violence.”

The military already had closed off several parts of the city with concrete barriers, calling them “gated communities”—as if they were upscale neighborhoods in Houston or Beverly Hills. The Adhamiya enclosure brought resentment of such measures to a head, and angry Sunnis and Shi’i united in protest. A spokesman for Shi’i cleric Moktada al-Sadr called it “a way to lay siege to the Iraqi people and separate them into cantons.”

Residents of Adhamiya, who were never consulted about the wall, compared it to Israel’s separation barrier. “This will make the whole area a prison,” said a resident. “This is collective punishment on the residents of Adhamiya. They are going to punish all of us because of a few terrorists.” On April 22 Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki responded to the protests by announcing, “I oppose the building of the wall, and its construction will stop.”

The military’s negative response to Al-Maliki’s declaration undermined Bush’s claim to have restored sovereignty to the Iraqis. How liberated the Iraqis are was illustrated by a photo in the April 7 New York Times showing a group of American soldiers crowded inside an Iraqi home around a man seated in a plastic chair. They were scanning his retinas for their data base while his wife and child looked on from a corner.

If Iraq were truly a sovereign nation, al-Maliki and the residents of Baghdad would have the last word on the Adhamiya wall. Instead, a U.S. military spokesman said the Army would remain “in a dialogue” with the Iraqi government, but did not agree to stop construction. Iraq’s top army commander, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, was more direct. “We will continue to construct the security barrier in the Adhamiya neighborhood,” he said.

Many Iraqis viewed the 12-foot wall as a desperate move by U.S. authorities to prove that its troop “surge” is working, when in fact it has failed. An average of 100 Iraqis a day were killed during March and April. On April 18, two days after 32 students at Virginia Tech were shot to death, 171 Iraqi civilians died in a series of car bombings. The new strategy involving additional U.S. forces has also resulted in the death of more American soldiers. At least 104 Americans were killed in April, one of the war’s deadliest months, as resistance forces responded to stepped-up military actions.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s repeated assertion that Iran and Syria are stirring sectarian violence in Iraq by sending in foreign fighters and arms was belied by a report from the U.S. Military Police in early April that said 18,000 civilians are now being held by U.S. military in Iraq as “threats to coalition forces.” The detainees are “from widely divergent political, religious and ethnic backgrounds,” a military spokesman said. Only 250 of the prisoners are foreign nationals.

Fierce battles between U.S. forces and both Shi’i and Sunni militias this spring were further evidence that the resistance in Iraq is mostly homegrown. Iraqis from all religious and ethnic groups are saying they want us out of their country. On April 9 hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including both Sunnis and Shi’i, marched through the city of Najaf shouting, “Yes! Yes! Iraq. No! No! America.” A representative of Moktada al-Sadr said, “We are all carrying the national flag, which is a symbol of unity. And we are united in calling for the withdrawal of the Americans.”

During the same week U.S. and Iraqi soldiers raided a Sunni mosque in Fadhil, where they killed two men at prayer, including the younger brother of Sheikh Yehiya Jasim, the imam. Local Sunnis fought back, the soldiers called in air strikes, and by the end of the day 36 people, including many women and children, were dead. Sheikh Jasim expressed the anger of many of the town’s residents when he said, “I thank the Iraqi and American governments in the name of the people of Fadhil for this bloody democracy.”

In mid-April six members of al-Sadr’s bloc resigned from al-Maliki’s cabinet in protest against the prime minister’s refusal to demand a U.S. withdrawal date. “We have reached a point where there are no means of understanding between the Americans and the demands of the Iraqi people,” said Ghufran Saaidi, a cabinet member who resigned. Sunni ministers have also threatened to resign, saying the government had failed to provide services to Sunni areas.

As more Iraqis call for Americans to leave, the Bush administration is increasing pressure on the Iraq government to adopt what it calls “needed reforms.” Central to these is the so-called revenue-sharing law that would require the Iraqi government to share oil revenues equally between Sunni and Shi’i provinces. The fair-sounding measure would in fact provide a bonanza for foreign oil companies. According to Antonia Juhasz, an analyst with Oil Change International, the law would allow foreign oil companies to siphon off “much (if not most)” of Iraq’s future oil revenues.

In an op-ed column in the March 13 New York Times, Juhasz wrote that if the law passes, “the Iraqi National Oil Company would have exclusive control of just 17 of Iraq’s 80 known oil fields, leaving two-thirds of known—and all of its as yet undiscovered—fields open to foreign control.” Oil companies could sign long-term contracts now, while Iraq is weak, but not have to begin work for at least two years. They would not have to invest any profits in Iraq, share new technologies, or even hire Iraqi workers. The law would make Iraq the only Gulf state without a nationalized oil system. The Bush administration has offered one reason after another to justify keeping the Army in Iraq. The true reason may lie beneath the surface, in Iraq’s undeveloped oil fields.

Israel Undermining Its Own Myths

The lies used by the Bush administration to propel the United States into war in Iraq have long been exposed. The myths surrounding Israel and the Palestinians has proved harder to penetrate. Nevertheless, the Israelis’ self-created image of a beleaguered people under constant threat from hostile Arabs came into question in March, when 21 Arab nations again offered Israel full diplomatic relations and permanent peace in return for Israel’s withdrawal to its 1967 borders and the return of Palestinian refugees. Israel flatly rejected the offer when it was made five years ago.

This time the Israelis were more equivocal, saying they had “numerous reservations” and calling for further talks. Its Foreign Office said Israel was “sincerely interested in pursuing a dialogue with those Arab states that desire peace.” Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres proposed that Israeli and Arab leaders “sit together and work on it.” The Arabs recognized procrastination when they heard it. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal responded that “This does not express a positive stand of a country that wants peace.”

That Israel desires peace with its neighbors in exchange for security is another myth that was exposed by the Arab offer. The Israelis undoubtedly would welcome normal relations with the Arabs and an end to Palestinian resistance, but only on their own terms: Israel’s continued control of the West Bank. This is why former Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat only a cantonized portion of the West Bank at Camp David in 2000, and why Sharon refused to enter any peace negotiations at all with the Palestinians.

President Mahmoud Abbas, like Arafat, agreed to renounce violence and recognize Israel, but has done no better than Arafat in getting Israel to the negotiating table. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has insisted he will only discuss “day-to-day” issues, but Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Olmert and Abbas will discuss a possible two-state solution when the two men meet in early May. By then, however, Olmert may no longer be in office. An official report released on April 30 harshly criticized his “severe failures” in last summer’s war against Hezbollah (see box) and brought demands from within his own party that he resign. Olmert faces charges of corruption dating from his tenure as finance minister.

Peace talks will in any case be a charade as long as Israel continues to build more settlements in the West Bank and the infrastructure to support them. According to the March-April Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, Israel is surrounding Jerusalem with a ring of barriers and settlements designed to permanently sever Palestinian East Jerusalem from the West Bank. Settlements on both sides of the separation wall are being expanded, and the government is planning a new settlement near Qalandiya that will house 60,000 people. A new (Jewish-only) tunnel linked to the main West Bank highway will allow settlers direct access to Tel Aviv and the coast.

Israel also is undermining chances for peace by continuing its manhunts, arrests, and assassinations of suspected militants—a category that includes Palestinians who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. After Israeli soldiers killed nine Palestinians in a single weekend on April 21-22, Hamas fighters in Gaza finally responded by firing rockets into Israel. Islamic Jihad sporadically fires rockets into Israel in response to the army’s actions in the West Bank, but Hamas has refrained from such attacks ever since Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah declared a cease-fire last November. Haniyah said Hamas would try to preserve the truce but called the rocket attack “a natural response to Israeli aggression and violations of the cease-fire.”

The West Bank’s landscape of spreading Israeli settlements, high-speed highways, and constant signs of new construction makes a mockery of hopes for a two-state solution. Less visible than the settlements but as great an obstacle to future coexistence is Israel’s grinding oppression of the Palestinian people. Olmert’s repeated promises to Rice that he would ease conditions for the Palestinians were forgotten as soon as she left Jerusalem.

The international economic boycott of the Palestinian government, Israel’s confiscation of Palestinian land for settlements, its withholding of hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenues, and the blocked passage of workers and goods have all but wiped out an economy that once supported three million people. In the March issue of the Israeli newsletterThe Other Israel, Adel Shadeed reports that in every Palestinian village there are small children who don’t go to school but wander the streets trying to sell such things as matches or crackers to earn a few shekels for their parents. Thousands of Palestinians, Shadeed writes, “pass whole long days without any food, pass the cold mountain winter without heating, lighting candles in order to save electricity...The number of poor and hungry is ever growing.”

Israel’s excuse for policies that originated long before the first suicide bombing is that it is preventing terrorist attacks. “We are working on the diplomatic front to show that Hamas is directly involved in terrorism,” Olmert’s spokeswoman Miri Eisin said after Hamas’ rocket attacks on April 24. Earlier in the month she had said Syria could not be a partner for peace negotiations because it is “openly backing terror all around the Middle East.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was condemned by the Bush administration for talking to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad during her trip to the area, protested that she had no disagreement with Bush on the Middle East. “Every place we went we had a constant message,” she said, “the safety and security of Israel, [and] fighting terrorism.”

Statements such as Pelosi’s must make people in the Middle East wonder how Americans define terrorism. A report by Hugh Macleod in the April 4 San Francisco Chronicle described efforts by Hezbollah to repair the vast damage done to Lebanon by Israeli bombing last summer. Qatar, Iran and other Middle East governments are providing money and technical assistance to rebuild the more than 90,000 buildings and dozens of bridges that were either destroyed or severely damaged by Israeli bombing. Iranian engineers have repaired schools, hospitals, churches and mosques, and rehabilitated the ruined electricity systems in southern Lebanon and Beirut.

According to MacLeod, the United States has promised Lebanon $230 million in humanitarian aid, but is shunning as a terrorist organization the Hezbollah firm that is doing much of the reconstruction work, and has frozen its assets in the United States. Bilal Naim, a Hezbollah official connected to the firm, asked, “What can the U.S. say to the world when they support the people who destroy homes and label those who rebuild them terrorists?”

Accusations of terrorism from Washington would sound even more discordant to the 350,000 Somalis who fled their homes this spring as a result of the U.S.-backed invasion of their country. Ethiopian troops and U.S. Special Forces entered Somalia last December after Washington claimed the Somali Islamists who had taken control of Mogadishu were harboring al-Qaeda members. None were found, but indiscriminate and relentless shelling by Ethiopian and government forces has prompted human rights groups to accuse the invaders of intentionally targeting civilians.

A Western official told The New York Times that the United States is certain to resist any effort to bring Ethiopia before the International Criminal Court. According to the Times, Ethiopia is a close Amercan ally and “is regarded as a bulwark against Islamic militants in the Horn of Africa.” Such statements leave no doubt that the Bush administration’s determination to control that part of the world has given allies a license to commit any atrocity in the name of fighting terrorists. Like the concrete walls in Iraq and Palestine, Bush’s “war on terrorism” is a barrier to peace as well as truth. 


Rachelle Marshall is a free-lance editor living in Stanford, CA. A member of the Jewish International Peace Union, she writes frequently on the Middle East.

SIDEBAR

An Israeli Leader Is Again In Trouble Over Lebanon

Zionist delegates to the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 submitted a claim to all of Palestine and southern Lebanon up to the Litani River as part of a Greater Israel. Israel’s military interventions in Lebanon during the past 30 years suggest the Israelis have never entirely relinquished that claim.

In June 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon to drive out the Palestine Liberation Organization. Two months later members of an Israeli-controlled Phalangist militia entered the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut and slaughtered more than 1,000 men, women and children. The victims had been left defenseless when the Palestinian defenders of Beirut agreed to leave the country if the families they left behind were protected. Philip Habib, the U.S. emissary in Lebanon, gave them such a guarantee. Despite Habib’s pledge, on Sept. 14 Defense Minister Ariel Sharon sent Israeli troops into Beirut, where the next day they allowed the militias to storm the camps.

The Phalangist commander Elie Hobeika joined Israeli officers at a command post overlooking the camps while the massacre took place. Israeli soldiers sealed off the camps to prevent inhabitants from fleeing, and provided logistical support to the militiamen. Israeli bulldozers carried the bodies to a mass grave.The killing continued until Sept. 18, when American reporters and U.S. Embassy personnel arrived on the scene. In February 1983 an Israeli Commission of Inquiry found Sharon, and several other top Israeli officials, to be “indirectly responsible” for the massacre.

Sharon was relieved of his post as defense minister, but political memories are short in Israel and he was subsequently elected prime minister in 2001. Last summer, nearly 20 years after Sabra and Shatila, Sharon’s successor Ehud Olmert launched a war on Lebanon in an attempt to crush Hezbollah, an organization that did not exist before Israel’s 1982 invasion but was created in response to it.

Hezbollah not only survived Israel’s most recent assault on Lebanon but showered rockets on Israel that killed 159 Israelis, sent thousands into bomb shelters, and forced the government to accept a cease-fire. As a result, Olmert is almost certainto lose his job. On April 30 a government commission headed by retired justice Eliyahu Winograd accused him of going to war without adequate preparation, consulting only his close military advisers, and “setting over-ambitious and unobtainable goals.” The commission also faulted the army for being equipped to fight only “low-intensity asymmetrical conflicts”—presumably against unarmed protestors and stone-throwing boys—instead of enemy soldiers.

Summaries of the report did not include condemnation of Olmert and the army for killing 1,200 Lebanese civilians, a third of whom were children; for launching a million cluster bombs on southern Lebanon; or for creating with massive and indiscriminate bombing one of the greatest environmental, economic and humanitarian disasters in Lebanon’s history. The perpetrators of the war in Lebanon were blamed for not winning it.

According to Israeli military analyst Ze’ev Schiff, the key question raised by the Winograd commission is: “Can this government lead the nation in the next war...and win?” In his May 1 article for Haaretz, Schiff wrote that Israelis are constantly being told that another war with Hezbollah and Syria is inevitable. “Based on the Winograd report,” he concluded, “it appears that the current leadership is not suited to this. There must be a change in the leadership.”

Israelis are clearly not happy with Olmert, but more than a change of leadership they need a change of policy. Until Israel agrees to leave its neighbors alone and seek peace with the Palestinians, Israelis will always be on the threshhold of another war.—R.M.

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