News in Brief: Arabs have to rely on Britain and Israel for their history
- Robert Fisk’s World: Arabs have to rely on Britain and Israel for their history
There is no Public Record Office in the Arab World, no National Archive
Saturday, 1 November 2008
In Damascus, a massive statue of the late President Hafez al-Assad sits on a mighty iron chair outside the 22,000sq m Assad Library, a giant book open in his right hand.
Behind him lie the archives of his dictatorship. But not a single state paper is open to the people of Syria. There are no archives from the foreign ministry or the interior ministry or the defence ministry. There is no 30-year rule – for none is necessary. The rule is for ever. There is no Public Record Office in the Arab world, no scholars waiting outside the National Archives.
It is the same in Cairo, in Riyadh, in Beirut and in Tripoli. Dictatorships and caliphates do not give away their secrets. The only country in the Middle East where you can burrow through the files is called Israel – and good for the Israelis. But the result is obvious. While Israeli scholars have been able to deconstruct the traditional story of little Israel – proving that there were no Arab radio stations calling for the Palestinians to leave their land, that the Arabs were indeed ethnically cleansed from their towns and villages by Irgun and the Hagana – there is no Arab scholar who can balance the books by drawing on the archives of his own history. They must go to the National Archives in London to read General Cunningham's dispatches from 1948 Palestine, or quote from Israeli books. The record stops there. Aside from the self-serving biographies of Arab dictators and generals, that's it. Even Walid Khalidi's huge tome on the destroyed
villages of Palestine relies heavily on the work of Israeli historian Benny Morris.
Slowly, though, a little bag of history is being filled across the region. If we can't read the private papers of the leaders of the lamentable Arab Liberation Army of 1948, we can still hear the personal testimony of the Palestinian survivors. Rosemarie Esber, for example, has put her degrees from London and Johns Hopkins universities to good use by interviewing – in Jordan and Lebanon -- 126 Palestinian men and women who lost their homes and lands in 1948 and 1949. Her soon to be published work (Under the Cover of War) helps to balance documentation and diaries by one side with verbal recollection on the other. The book does not spare the Arabs – least of all the Arab atrocities or the Iraqi volunteers who turned up to fight for Palestine but didn't even know their geography – yet the suffering of those who fled is all too evident.
Here, for example, is Abu Mohamed from the village of Saqiya, east of Tel Aviv, describing what happened on 25 April, 1948: "Jews entered the village and started shooting women, men, and old people. They arrested girls, and we still don't know what happened to them. They came from the settlement that was near the village... They used Bren guns. Then armoured vehicles entered the centre of the village. Fourteen were killed that day... Two women could not run so they were killed in the village... The villagers ran together in the direction of al-Lid (Lod, the site of Ben Gurion airport in modern-today Israel). After that families started to leave separately... We left everything in the village... We thought it would be a short trip and we would come back."
In Lebanon, too, there is a flourishing market in books based on diaries and personal archives. Among the most intriguing is A Face in the Crowd: The Secret Papers of Emir Farid Chehab, 1942-1972, the private documents of Lebanon's post-Second World War intelligence boss. Apart from proving that Lebanese-Syrian relations could be as awful in the 1940s as they could be in the 1990s, he was an assiduous spy, nurturing his agents in Jordan in 1956 to find out why the young King Hussein had fired the British commander of the Arab Legion, Glubb Pasha. "Glubb was a spendthrift, tightly controlled the army's finances and secret expenses, and refused to share relevant information with Arab commanders and officers," a still unknown informant writes to Chehab on 11 March, 1956. "His interference (extended to) ... control over various ministries' telephone lines... A telephone employee in Amman admitted to me that even the Palace's and Prime Ministry's
communication networks were under the army's surveillance. A secret communiqué addressed by Glubb to all British heads of army units was recently discovered; it said that in case of an Israeli attack they should retreat and not resist. The free officers took this communiqué up to the King."
So goodbye Glubb Pasha. But did this also, perhaps, have something to do with the equally secret Operation Cordage, first highlighted by Keith Kyle in his excellent book on Suez and even more rigorously investigated by Eric Grove of Salford University. "Cordage" was Britain's plan for defending its Jordanian ally from Israeli attack if Israel assaulted Egypt. The plan, according to Grove, included "an air campaign carried out by (RAF) Venoms based at Amman and Mafraq in Jordan to knock out the Israeli Air Force in 72 hours... A fighter wing of swept-wing aircraft (Sabres or Hunters) would be provided from Germany to operate from Cyprus..." A parachute brigade group would be flown to Jordan to defend British air bases and then – along with Glubb's Arab Legion – to defend Amman against the Israelis. It was at the end of February 1956 that Hussein dismissed Glubb; which, as Grove diplomatically puts it, "created problems". So how much did Glubb know
about Operation Musketeer?
What really created "problems", of course, was Britain's own secret plan to attack Egypt, along with France and Israel after which Operation Musketeer – the Suez aggression – took over from Operation Cordage, and Britain's potential Israeli enemies suddenly became their secret allies. But of course, all this comes from British files. Alas, it will be many years before we know what is in the book that the iron Assad is reading outside his library in Damascus.
Syrians stage mass anti-US rally
Thousands of people have marched through Damascus in protest at an alleged US raid on a village that Syria says killed eight people.
Many at the government-backed demonstration carried banners, shouted anti-US slogans and waved pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Riot police surrounded the US embassy in Damascus, which American officials closed blaming security fears.
The Syrian government has demanded that Washington apologise for the incident.
The US state department and the White House have refused to confirm the alleged attack.
Christmas is axed in OxfordRowan Walker The Observer, Sunday November 2 2008
Council leaders in Oxford have decided to ban the word Christmas from this year's festive celebrations to make them more 'inclusive'. But the decision to rename the series of events the 'Winter Light Festival' has been criticised by religious leaders and locals said it was 'ludicrous'.
Sabir Hussain Mirza, chairman of the Muslim Council of Oxford, said: 'This is the one occasion which everyone looks forward to in the year. Christians, Muslims and other religions all look forward to Christmas. I'm angry and very, very disappointed. Christmas is special and we shouldn't ignore it.
'Christian people should be offended and 99 per cent of people will be against this. Christmas is part of being British.'
Rabbi Eli Bracknell, who teaches at the Jewish Educational Centre, said: 'It's important to maintain a traditional British Christmas. Anything that waters down traditional culture and Christianity in the UK is not positive for the British identity.'
The idea came from the charity Oxford Inspires, which was set up to promote culture in the area. Tei Williams, a press officer for the charity, said: 'In Oxfordshire we have Winter Light which is a whole festival spanning two months. Within that will be Christmas carol services.'
Deputy leader of the council Ed Turner added: 'There's going to be a Christmas tree, and even if the lights are called something else to me they will be Christmas lights.'
Deadly bomb blasts rock north-east India
Coordinated terror attacks in Assam hit crowded market and kill at least 56 people, wounding many more
A series of coordinated blasts ripped through India's troubled north-eastern Assam state today, killing more than 60 people and leaving more than 300 injured – and causing locals to riot in the streets.
The dozen bombs went off in crowded markets in the state during the late morning within the span of 15 minutes, leaving smouldering remains of cars and motorcycles in Guwahati, Assam's state capital. Three other towns in the state, which is famous for its tea plantations, were also hit.
Officials said that 61 people were killed in the blasts with 25 people dead in Guwahati. Eleven were killed in the Kokrajhar district and 12 more died in the town of Barpeta. Another 70 are believed to be in a "critical condition".
In a serious breach of security, the largest blast occurred a few hundred yards from the Assam main administrative building in Guwahati, home to the offices of the state's chief minister Tarun Gogoi.
Television channels showed some people lying on the streets, their clothes soaked in blood. Pictures showed the charred remains of cars and motorcycles that littered the blackened roads.
Bystanders dragged the wounded and dead to cars that took them to hospitals, while police officers covered the burned remains of the dead with white sheets, leaving them in the street. "You cannot even recognise the cars or the people. The phones are jammed. We never thought anyone could do such acts here," one lawyer told CNN-IBN television news.
An immediate curfew was announced on Guwahati as some locals, who blamed officials for lax security, rioted, attacking police vehicles and public buses. Police shut down roads leading in and out of the riot zones and said they had begun to comb the streets for any unexploded bombs.
Dozens of militant separatist groups are active in India's northeast, an isolated region wedged between Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Myanmar with only a thin corridor connecting it to the rest of India.
Terrorists try to infiltrate UK's top labs
The security services have intercepted up to 100 suspects posing as postgraduate students who aim to acquire weapons material and expertise
Dozens of suspected terrorists have attempted to infiltrate Britain's top laboratories in order to develop weapons of mass destruction, such as biological and nuclear devices, during the past year.
The security services, MI5 and MI6, have intercepted up to 100 potential terrorists posing as postgraduate students who they believe tried accessing laboratories to gain the materials and expertise needed to create chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, the government has confirmed.
It follows warnings from MI5 to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that al-Qaeda's terror network is actively seeking to recruit scientists and university students with access to laboratories containing deadly viruses and weapons technology.
Extensive background checks from the security services, using a new vetting scheme, have led to the rejection of overseas students who were believed to be intent on developing weapons of mass destruction. A Foreign Office spokesman said the students had been denied clearance to study in the UK under powers 'to stop the spread of knowledge and skills that could be used in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery'.
He added: 'There is empirical evidence of a problem with postgraduate students becoming weapons proliferators.' The overseas students, a number of whom are thought to be from 'countries of concern' such as Iran and Pakistan, were intercepted under the Academic Technology Approval Scheme, introduced by universities and the security services last November.
The findings raise questions over how many terrorist suspects may have already infiltrated the UK's laboratory network. Rihab Taha, dubbed 'Dr Germ', who worked on Saddam Hussein's biological weapons programme, studied for her PhD in plant toxins at East Anglia University's School of Biological Sciences in Norwich.
In addition, a number of well-educated Iraqi scientists - funded by Baghdad - infiltrated several British microbiology laboratories in the run-up to the Gulf war of 1990-91. Britain has about 800 laboratories in hospitals, universities and private firms where staff have access to lethal viruses such as Ebola, polio and avian flu or could acquire the technology and expertise to develop deadly weapons. Whitehall sources remain concerned about the number of countries intent on acquiring the materials and knowledge to develop a nuclear or biological warfare capability.
Suicide bomber attacks Afghan ministry
Israel's multilateral option
As Israel braces itself for elections, two very different proposals on how to pursue peace with the Arab world have been obscured
Chris Phillips guardian.co.uk, Wednesday October 29 2008 09.00 GMT
The inability of Tzipi Livni to form a coalition government in Israel and her subsequent calling of elections has sadly obscured two unexpected peace proposals that emerged in her final weeks of horse-trading. The first was an examination by the foreign ministry into a possible non-aggression pact with Lebanon. The second comes after Labour leader Ehud Barak proposed a revival of Saudi Arabia's 2002 peace plan which offers Israel universal recognition in the Arab world were it to fully withdraw to its pre-1967 borders.
The forthcoming election battle between Kadima, Labour and Likud will no doubt lead to a simplification of foreign policy issues into a case for engagement or disengagement with the Palestinians and Israel's Arab neighbours. However, these two plans deserve closer analysis given they represent a key choice that Livni will face if she succeeds in defeating Binyamin Netanyahu for the premiership in February: whether to persist with Israel's traditional bilateralism in dealing with the Arab World, or adopt a more multilateral approach.
With the exception of the 1991 Madrid conference, which then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir only reluctantly attended after serious economic pressure from the USA, the Israeli government has always preferred to handle Arab states individually. From the Camp David Accords with Egypt in the late 1970s to rounds of bilateral talks with Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians in the 1990s after the aberration of Madrid, Israel has actively pursued a divide-and-rule strategy. Thus it has avoided facing a united Arab front and been able to gain maximum concessions from its neighbours. Even Bush's ill-fated Road Map, and the subsequent Annapolis summit, which did include representation from some Arab states, had a bilateral flavour. Rather than deal with all its unresolved conflicts with Syria, Lebanon and, theoretically, the rest of the Arab world, Israel was willing to only focus on the single issue of Palestinian statehood.
The new Lebanon proposal is a continuation of the bilateral approach. It advocates a ceasefire agreement in which the Lebanese government would rein-in Hizbullah in exchange for an end to airspace violations and negotiations over remaining occupied territory. Though Eran Etzion, the head of the Israeli foreign ministry's planning section, acknowledges this plan could only be effective following a similar agreement with Syria, he still argues that "Israel can try to advance on a separate political track with Lebanon" in the meantime. The presumed logic for this would be to progress as far as possible down the road with Lebanon while Syria was also conducting talks with Israel so that Lebanon might be persuaded to continue talks even if the Syrian track fell apart. More cynically, some could view the proposal as an alternative form of divide-and-rule, whereby the Israelis hope to further split the Lebanese by setting moderates against Hizbullah who have,
unsurprisingly, already rejected the idea.
Whether part of a Syrian deal or not, the Lebanon proposal typifies the current division within the Israeli peace camp: those who favour a "Syria/Lebanon first" approach to peace, and those who advocate pushing the Palestinian track. Both groups advocate bilateralism.
Reports that Shimon Peres and now Ehud Barak have recently been promoting the multilateral 2002 Saudi peace plan are therefore quite surprising. Barak has been misquoted a little; he actually wants, "to introduce a comprehensive Israeli plan to counter the Saudi plan" rather than fully backing Riyadh's proposals. However, his renewed support for what he calls "regional peace", rather than a continued focus on the bilateral Syrian and Palestinian negotiations still represents a marked departure in Israeli diplomatic strategy.
However, the Arab world in is not what it was in 2002, and there is doubt over whether the Saudi plan could be made to work were the Israelis genuine in wanting it. One particular obstacle is the renewed cold war between Syria and Saudi Arabia – two states that would be vital players in any agreement. Even though Damascus endorsed the Saudi plan in 2007, tension is high between the two states. A proxy war is being fought between their militias in northern Lebanon and the Ba'ath regime strongly suspects Saudi-backed Islamists were the perpetrators of Damascus's recent bomb attack.
With Syrian president Bashar al-Asad's international stock seemingly on the rise, following support from Qatar, Turkey, France, he may question the merit of handing his Saudi rival the diplomatic victory of playing arbiter in any region-wide resolution. Moreover, Asad has already made clear that the key player in any negotiation will not be Saudi but rather the incoming US administration, which he hopes can provide Arab states with a substantial financial peace dividend, despite the current economic crisis.
It is with some irony, then, that if Livni (or Barak) triumphs in February, Israel might shift away from a bilateral approach at the very time when the most vocal critic of bilateralism, Syria, is seemingly changing its tune. The Syrian envoy to Washington admitted this week that disunity and lack of political coordination in negotiations with Israel was the "sad reality in the Arab world". As has been seen many times before, this disunity is allowing whoever becomes prime minister the luxury of choice in its approach to the Arab world.
Iraq rebukes US for commando raid as Syria appeals to UN
Iraq's government rebuked Washington yesterday for launching a military raid into neighbouring Syria from Iraqi soil, while Damascus retaliated by ordering a US school and cultural centre to be closed.
In a brief public comment more than 24 hours after the special forces strike, an Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said Baghdad rejected raids on its neighbours and did not want to be used as a launch pad.
Deadly quake strikes south-western Pakistan
Officials appeal for international aid after pre-dawn earthquake kills at least 135 in Baluchistan province
A powerful earthquake has killed at least 135 people and destroyed hundreds of homes in south-western Pakistan, officials said.
The death toll was expected to rise from the quake, which measured at magnitude 6.4, as reports arrived from remote areas of the affected province of Baluchistan, which borders Afghanistan.
The worst-hit area appeared to be Ziarat, where hundreds of mostly mud and timber houses were destroyed in five villages, according to the local mayor, Dilawar Kakar. Some homes were buried in a landslide triggered by the quake.
"There is great destruction. Not a single house is intact. This time the [death toll] we have got is 135. It may be more," Kakar told Express News television.
He said hundreds of people were injured and about 15,000 made homeless. Ziarat, a scenic valley, is one of Baluchistan's tourist spots.
Arabs are anticipating a Democratic victory on November 4 with enthusiasm tempered by scepticism, writes Ian Black
Like millions of people all over the world, Arabs are awaiting the outcome of the US presidential election with excitement and anticipation to see if the new man in the Oval Office turns out to be any more favourable to their interests than George Bush has been.
Polls conducted from May to August in six predominantly Muslim countries showed interest in who wins ranging from high in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon to very low in the Palestinian territories and Pakistan. Those who did express a preference preferred Barack Obama to John McCain by margins of at least two to one.
Reports of the slogan "Obama, inshallah", or God willing, appearing in the Gaza Strip - and even some organised telephone campaigning for the Illinois Democrat - look like vivid but untypical examples of active mobilisation on his behalf.
Still, even a brief survey of comments from across the region underlines the sense of qualified hope that, should he win, Obama will turn out to be different - even if the only certainty is that he could not be worse than Bush. Feelings of indifference and cynicism about the result are harder to register.
McCain recently provided a painful reminder that Arab expectations of America begin from a very low base when he defended his opponent against the charge that he was not "an Arab" but "a decent man" - as if the two categories were somehow mutually exclusive.
By Aamir Latif, IOL Correspondent
Mon. Oct. 27, 2008
ISLAMABAD — Pakistani experts expect too little from a mini-jirga of Pakistani and Afghan tribal leaders, which opened on Monday, October 27, on the volatile situation across the joint borders, citing the absence of the real players, Taliban and the US.
"I don’t expect any favorable outcome of this Jirga," Rahimullah Yousafzai, an expert on Afghan affairs, told Islamonline.net.
The two-day mini-jirga opened in Islamabad to discuss ways to end surging violence on the joint border and the possibility of talks with Taliban.
The meeting brought together 50 leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan, 25 from each side, including government officials, representatives of political parties and members of the ethnic Pashtun tribes that straddle the Afghan-Pakistan border.
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It is a follow-up to a grand assembly of tribal leaders in Kabul last year in which delegates called for the end of bloodshed in both countries.
The jirga, a traditional council, is a consultative system the proudly independent Pashtun tribes have used for more than 1,000 years to settle affairs and disputes peacefully or rally behind a cause.
But experts see little hope from the meeting.
"It will turn out to be a futile exercise in line with previous jirgas because Taliban, who are the actual stakeholder, stay away from the whole process," maintains Yousafzai.
He believes the same applies on the absence of American representation.
"What if they (jirga members) decide something and the US veto that?"
Imtiaz Hussein, a defense and security analyst, agrees.
"This could have devised a collective way for talking to opponents to bring peace in the region, but the absence of actual stakeholders is really frustrating," he told IOL.
"Not only the leaders of Afghan Taliban, but Pakistan Taliban leaders are also not part of this jirga. How can you expect a solution, when the main stakeholders are not included?"
On the first day of the mini-jirga, participants discussed the thorny issue of holding talks with militant groups in both countries, but without reaching consensus.
"So far, there is nothing substantial or new," one participant told IOL on condition of anonymity.
"The Afghan side sticks to its guns that Taliban must recognize the current constitution, and the (Hamid) Karzai government, and must surrender arms before talks. A few participants from Pakistan also support the proposal," he explained.
"However, some of them (from Pakistan) oppose the idea and insist that there should be no conditions for the talks because Taliban will never surrender arms," added the participant.
Yousafzai, the veteran expert on the Afghan affairs, blames the failure to reach an agreement on the lack of sincerity.
"These so-called jirgas are nothing more than eyewash."
Yousafzai explains that the US and the Karzai government know that Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001 when ousted by US-led troops, will not accept pre-conditions.
"It’s just that the US wants to show the world that it is serious in resolving the issue, but in reality, it is not.
"The basic intention of the US and the Afghan government is to disintegrate Taliban."
The Pakistani expert argues that the outcome of the jirga is quite predictable.
"The jirga will devise a strategy to hold talks with Taliban, but it will state that talks would be held only with those who surrender arms.
"But no one is going to surrender arms, and therefore there will be no talks, just as simple as that."
Under-fire Iranian President is ill with exhaustion, says ally
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, has fallen ill due to exhaustion brought on by his heavy workload, a close associate has told the Iranian state news agency. The announcement comes as doubts have surfaced over whether Mr Ahmadinejad, who faces strong criticism, will seek re-election next year.
Mohammad Ismail Kowsari, a member of parliament and ally of the President, said that Mr Ahmadinejad was feeling under the weather because of the strain of his position, according to the news agency, Irna. "The President will eventually get well and continue his job," said Mr Kowsari, who accompanied Mr Ahmadinejad last month to the UN General Assembly. "Every human being can face exhaustion under such a workload."
Mr Ahmadinejad, who rarely misses meetings and public appearances, cancelled a speech at a conference on Wednesday and did not appear at a cabinet meeting that day. But the President, who turns 53 today, did attend a religious ceremony on Saturday in Tehran, though he looked tired.
US forces kill eight in helicopter raid on Syria
American helicopters flying from Iraq landed inside Syria yesterday and dropped special forces who killed eight people, the Damascus government said last night, as Washington admitted it had targeted "foreign fighters."
Syria warned that it held the US "wholly responsible for this act of aggression and all its repercussions".
It described the dead as Syrian civilians, five of them members of the same family. Syrian state television reported that the attack was against a farm near Abu Kamal, five miles from the Iraqi border. Doctors in nearby al-Sukkariya said another seven people were taken to hospital with bullet wounds.
The incident threatened to unleash a new wave of anti-American feeling in Syria and across the Middle East at a time when President Bashar al-Assad, already being courted by Europe, is looking forward to improved relations with Washington after the November 4 presidential election. News of the attack led bulletins across the Arab world last night - suggesting it will have wide resonance.
Syria summoned the US charge d'affaires in Damascus to explain the incident. It also called on the Iraqi government to prevent its airspace being used in this way in future.