Conditions in Gaza continue to be in a dire state with many Palestinians left struggling to access basic services as the Strip’s infrastructure is in tatters. Israel’s military operation ‘Protective Edge’ last summer aggravated the already poor economic and humanitarian situation. As part of The Elders, an independent group of global leaders dedicated to peace and human rights, former US President Jimmy Carter has just returned from a mission to Israel and Palestine and explains: “Independent experts and UN officials confirmed our worst expectations. What we saw and heard only strengthened our determination to work for peace and the lifting of the blockade. “The situation in Gaza is intolerable. Eight months after a devastating war, not one destroyed house has been rebuilt and people cannot live with the respect and dignity they deserve. Gaza’s 1.8 million people are besieged, isolated and desperate. They cannot enjoy any of the aspects of normal life, from trade and travel to health and education, that people in my country – and indeed in Israel – take for granted. We were told repeatedly by people from all sides of the political divide that, without any meaningful and rapid change in their circumstances, another war was inevitable. In fact, one Israeli mother we met at a kibbutz which border Gaza summed it up perfectly when she told us: ‘If they [the Gazans] have nothing to live for, then they will find something to die for.’” Recently raised concerns over a growing IS influence in the Strip is indicative of a mobilised and burned out society increasingly turning towards radical ideas as a last resort. In order to tackle violence and conflict, it needs collective, regional and international effort to develop Gaza and Palestine into a state where people find something to live for.
I have recently returned from a journey to the Syrian border in an effort to assess the humanitarian situation and requirements of Syrian refugees in Turkey as well as arrange and manage cross-border distribution of aid into Syria. In the following report and interview with the Arab News Network (ANN) I reflect on my journey and impressions:
The Syrian civil war is entering its fifth year, the humanitarian situation is atrocious and it seems there is little hope for the imminent resolution of this conflict – which has seen levels of truly extraordinary violence. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) over ten million people are in need of assistance with 7.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Syria and at least 3.2 million who have already fled the country. These figures are inevitably arbitrary and underestimated, but provide an indication of the scale of the humanitarian crisis we are dealing with. According to the latest UN figures for registered refugees Turkey hosts 1.6 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon 1.1 million, Jordan 600,000, Iraq 200,000. The pressure placed on these host countries’ economies has left them at breaking point. The civilian population bears the brunt of the burden.
Humanitarian actors, whose efforts should – at least – be guided by the four principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence, face an array of challenges when attempting to alleviate the suffering of civilians in the midst of ongoing conflict and violence. Along the Syrian-Turkish border, there are 100 IDP camps housing 160,000 people and since the beginning of the conflict both international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and local organisations have been involved in managing the provision of aid through cross-border operations from Turkey.
Those affected by the conflict in Syria face the burden of border closures by some of Syria’s neighbour countries, who are struggling to absorb the immense flow of people into their often already fragile economic, social and political systems as well as restrictions of people’s movement in besieged areas of Syria. It is estimated that currently around 220,000 people are affected by restriction of movement policies, and there is growing evidence that these have become a military tactic of belligerents in the conflict and militia groups who use the social pressure of the growing humanitarian crisis for personal gain.
For humanitarian organisations operating in and around Syria, one of the most pervasive challenges is lack of access. Strict visa regulations and the high-risk of travel in Syria make it extremely difficult for INGOs to operate, demonstrated by extensive media coverage of the active targeting and kidnapping of humanitarian workers. According to UN OCHA, 298 security incidents involving aid workers were recorded between January 2013 and August 2014 across the wider MENA region. However and perhaps contrary to the perception fostered by media sources, it is local staff that face the highest risk. Given the security threat, INGOs are required to work through local implementing partners, which pose obstacles to both needs assessments prior to, as well as monitoring activities during and after, the provision of aid.
A further and perhaps more striking constraint to humanitarian efforts are the advances of ISIS and the group’s control of huge swaths of land in both Syria and Iraq as large governmental and non-governmental donors impose undue restrictions on these areas. In accordance with the global anti-terror campaign, no aid flows into governorates controlled by the group amid the looming suspicion of funding ‘anti-Western’ militias. Despite growing donor reluctance and fatigue, ISIS expansion has brought humanitarian actors into direct conflict with armed opposition groups as in Deir-ez-Zor. Not only has fighting blocked access to the governorate, but it has prompted both sides to block humanitarian access (ISIS halts humanitarian access to opposition-controlled regions, whilst these opposition groups block humanitarian assistance to those in areas governed by ISIS).
The Turkish government is another actor that places further restrictions on aid flows from its territory into areas in Syria that are controlled by the Syrian Government – Assad is a longstanding political rival of Erdoğan – and the Kurds. Turkish-Kurdish relations have remained tense because the Kurdish party, the PKK, continues to struggle to build a Kurdish nation, partly on Turkish soil. Given these numerous political obstacles, the number of governorates in which humanitarian agencies can operate and distribute equipment has now shrunk considerably. It is remarkable that part of the area considered accessible and ‘easy’ to operate in is currently under the jurisdiction of al-Nusra Front, which remains on top of the US list of terror organisations. Doing business with al-Nusra would have been a lot less acceptable before ISIS came to prominence and seemingly altered the scale of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
The Syrian conflict is a prime example that demonstrates the changing nature of conflict from interstate to intrastate war, which has led to increased challenges for humanitarian actors not to act in breach of humanitarian protection principles. In the case of Syria, non-governmental organisations face multiple restrictions both through donor countries and other territories that function as operations bases. In the context of nation states and national sovereignty, the capacity of humanitarianism is often reduced to a minimum and the space in which INGOs can operate whilst sticking by their principles is marginal. As lines between civilians and combatants increasingly blur, it becomes difficult to legitimise aid allocations and guarantee that equipment and currency does not merely end up in the pockets of militants, but aids those in need of protection.
In their counter-terrorism efforts, both the US and EU are still often acting upon the principle not to negotiate with ‘others’ whom are perceived as somewhat non-reconcilable and ‘beneath diplomacy’. The issue of migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea is a good example of the potential consequences of this policy. Since mid-2014, power over Libya is divided between the internationally backed government in Tobruk and authorities that govern the Western part of Libya, based in the capital Tripoli. The West has since been unable and perhaps unwilling to establish any contact or relationship with the actors in power in Western Libya. As part of the EU’s attempt to crack down on the networks of smugglers who are made responsible for the disastrous shipwrecks, opportunities to liaise and coordinate with the authorities in Libya could perhaps be immensely helpful as they are in charge of internal security and coastguard operations. The effects of a short-sighted policy of non-communication, based on principles rather than realities, have begun to bear fruit.
Khalifa al-Ghawi – who NCF’s Secretary General William Morris met on his recent travels to Libya – has been appointed Prime Minister of the General National Congress (GNC), the ruling body in Western Libya, after his predecessor Omar al-Hassi was dismissed in late March. Amongst the reasons for al Hassi’s removal were allegations that he misled Parliament in financial matters. The GNC Department of Public Information published a statement by the Audit Bureau that refuted al-Hassi’s claims that the Central Bank of Libya has more than LYD 100 billion in cash to deal with the financial crisis in the country.
The former deputy Prime Minister Khalifa al-Ghawi, an engineer from Misrata, has replaced al-Hassi. In a discussion with the NCF, Suleiman al-Fortia, the member of the Libyan National Transitional Council representing Misrata explained that in light of the recent violence and war in Libya, governmental bodies have become almost obsolete. He went on to say: ‘Al-Ghawi filled an institutional void. He is very humble and never expected that he would ever be in a position like this. I am unsure how much we can expect from him and Parliament as he does not have much experience and political institutions in general are losing more and more power. It is good that al-Ghawi is from Misrata, the home of fighters and people in power in the Western Libya. He may be able to strike a good balance.’
Fortia went on to appeal for enhanced action from the international community: ‘Libya is left in shamble if the international community does not step in soon. We cannot expect any political solution from the elected governments as they are left weak and powerless. The last six or seven months of violence are enough and should been enough time for the international communities to define who is stopping the dialogue in Libya and who can be part of a peaceful solution. Bernardino Leon, the head of UNSMIL, should be more serious and not delay the dialogue sessions. What Libya needs is economic assistance and a strong central government for the whole of Libya. A new government should be selected not elected by the United Nations so it does not care about personal sentiments such as race or religion. Libya is much more homogenous than places like Iraq and Yemen which should make it easier to establish one government that can represent all.’
Journalist and reportage illustrator George Butler travelled to Afghanistan in late 2014 – in the midst of British and international troop withdrawal after a thirteen-year long presence. George drew everyday life in villages and cities across the country, offering a compelling insight into a country living with conflict. In 2013, the Next Century Foundation (NCF) and the International Communications Forum (ICF) awarded George with an International Media Award for his drawings of the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon. The International Media Awards, which began in 2004, is an annual award ceremony held in London that acknowledges journalists who work in and on the Middle East and North Africa.
‘Day to day life seems to continue at the Faizabad market as any market might. People pour out of the mosque on the other side of the street in this north eastern Afghan city. One man sells a partridge in a wicker cage, another any bathroom product you could ever imagine. There is also the mobile phone credit man and the fruit seller’s cheeky son.’
George describes: ‘Life in Kabul over the last 30 years has not been easy by any stretch of an outsider’s imagination. At the end of 2014, international combat troops were set to have drawn down from Afghanistan. However, in reality there is still an international military presence. With regular explosions targeted at the prominent places in the Kabul the local and Military Police spend much more of their time at checkpoints. It is a particularly vulnerable time for them. It is not though the aggressive unfriendly place you might imagine from the news.’
‘I had been given permission by the Chief of Police of Kabul’s District 10 to draw at one of their checkpoints. These have become commonplace due to the heightened security risk. With this in the back of my mind I drew quickly and this was all I finished before deciding it was time to leave. Westerners and the police force were high up on the list of targets and the two together would have at some stage attracted unwanted attention.’
George’s drawings are exhibited in the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester from 21st February until 6th September 2015.
The Taliban have published a biography of their leader, Mullah Omar, who has spent a decade in hiding, stating that he is alive and remains in touch with the current events and political developments in Afghanistan. Mullah Omar has not appeared in public since the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
But, why did Mullah Omar feel the need to address the rumours about his serious illness or death?
The release of Omar’s accounts could either be a sign of the Taliban’s regained strength following the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country or – perhaps more likely – a reaction to defections from within and an attempt to reunite the increasingly scattered and demoralised group. With the growing influence of Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan many disgruntled commanders are believed to have withdrawn support and pledged allegiance with IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. So with the re-emergence of Mullah Omar, the Taliban hope to reinstate their power and boost fighters’ morale.
19th MARCH 2015: The violent murder of the 27-year old Farkhunda Malikzada led hundreds of people in Afghanistan to go out on the streets, protest for women’s rights and call on the authorities to enforce law and justice. Farkhunda was beaten to death by a crowd of people in front of a mosque witnessed by local police officers, who did nothing to stop the crime. The mullah accused her of burning pages from Quran. Police investigations later revealed that these allegations of Quran desecration were false and she had merely criticised the mullah’s practice of selling charms at the Shah-Do Shamshira Mosque, a religious shrine in Kabul. Afghan diaspora communities in the United States and Europe expressed their solidarity demanding ‘Humanity before Religion’. Their message is clear – punishment must come from courts and an independent jurisdiction, instead of from religion and tradition.
Zohra Mahmoud Ghazi, herself an Afghan woman living in London, expresses her anger over Fakhunda’s vicious death and her admiration for the many brave women that raised their voices and joined in protest: ‘The burial of Farkhunda was carried out solely by women – an unprecedented practise in Afghanistan showing their anger and revolt against both the perpetrators and the general gender inequality. What I found most disappointing, although the two main leaders [President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah] were in the United States at the time of the incident, that we still have not seen either of them facing the Afghan public at the street level and sharing the public’s pain.
‘The President has ordered a commission to investigate the killing and that is good. However, I would like to see him and Abdullah Abdullah joining the protesters on the street and show their solidarity with the people and genuine understanding of the hurt that many feel about what has happened. The killing has awoken many raw feelings within Afghan women. The government needs to clearly position themselves on the side of the people who call for women’s rights, humanity and a fair justice system. It is important that these voices are heard and their anger is translated into change on a political level.
‘As many Afghans living abroad, I have the luxury to say a lot more than I would be able to if I was still in Afghanistan. However, I believe that it is important not to forget the terrible incident. Fakhunda’s pain should not be in vain. March 19th should become a day of commemoration, an Afghan women’s day, when people remember not only her death, but also the hardships of women in Afghanistan in general and ways of strengthening their voices and implementing their rights. I want something to change after the killing and the outrage it caused both in Afghanistan and abroad. It should not be brushed under the carpet, but used as a wake up call for action. Strong societies depend on gender equality and women’s empowerment.’
Since March 23rd 2015, violence has escalated between the Shi’ite Houthi movement and its allies, and the anti-Houthi coalition led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and backed by Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar and the UAE. In September of last year, Houthi rebels, originating from and based in the northern Sa’ada governorate, were involved in battles with pro-government forces in the provinces of Amran and al-Jawf. They advanced southwards towards the capital Sana’a and with little resistance from the army and were able take control of key government buildings, including the Ministry of Defence, the central bank, the airport and the state television building in September. In early February 2015, the Houthis dissolved Parliament and replaced the Government with a presidential council. President Hadi meanwhile fled to the southern city of Aden. Unable to stand up to the Houthi rebels, President Hadi called on Saudi Arabia for support, who along with a coalition of other Gulf and Western states began their aerial campaign on 26th March. Saudi Arabia has mobilised 150,000 troops and said it is prepared to launch a ground invasion if necessary.
The Houthi, also referred to as Ansarullah, are a Zaydi Shi’a clan with many grievances against the Yemeni government that had formed as a rebel movement in early 2012 in the aftermath of the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings and the removal of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The leaders of the group have since depicted their activities as a continuation of this popular revolution. The group’s recent success does not only stem from outside support from Iran, but also from their ability to mobilise disenfranchised Shi’ites, who are suffering economic hardship. Widespread grievances stem from a general lack of access to resources and have been fuelled by cuts in fuel subsidies in July 2014 which played in the hands of the rebels. Currently, Houthi rebels have de facto control over much of the country’s north including Sa’ada, Hajjah, Amran, Al Hudaydah, Al Mahwit, Raymah and Sanaa and are pushing southwards to Aden. Many small groups ally with the Houthis including members of the former central security force, a unit seen as loyal to ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
In December 2014, the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for new elections two years ahead of schedule as tensions over the “Jewish state” bill proposing to declare Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people” threatened to undermine his leadership. Netanyahu and his right wing, hawkish Likud Party does now fight to be re-elected. His biggest opponent is the Zionist Union, a centre-left alliance between Issac Herzog’s Labour Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, a part founded in 2012 to present an alternative to voters frustrated by the stalemate in peacemaking.
Prospects of Land-for-Peace
While many international observers and politicians view the peace process as Israel’s most prevalent political issue, there seems to be little demand amongst the Israeli population for peace with the Palestinians and the outcome of the election will thus rather depend on the parties’ economic policies. BBC’s Middle East correspondent, Kevin Connolly, writes that ‘the moribund state of the vexed peace process between Israel and the Palestinians has never felt like a major campaign issue’. However minor in the run-up to the elections, the prospects for a re-instigation of the haltered peace process will depend heavily on the outcome of the election as Netanyahu and his party moves further and further away from traditional peace proposals.
Israel’s current Prime Minister, who six years ago still embraced the concept of the ‘Two-State Solution’, recently used the unstable situation in the Middle East with ISIS continuing to fight in Iraq, Syria and Libya to explain that for his government the idea of a Palestinian state has lost its viability. He argued that a newly founded state would be vulnerable to be taken over and used as a battleground by militant extremists. The New York Times published an article today, March 16th, stating that Netanyahu authorized the construction and extension of the heavily criticised settlement Har Homa in one of the southern neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. It was part of campaign launched to rally support amongst right-wing voters, who oppose a Palestinian state and hence any negotiations aiming at establishing a Palestinian state in exchange for peace. Both settlements and the ownership of Jerusalem remain two of the main obstacles for peace between Israel and its occupied territories.
While the future of the peace process remains unclear independent of the outcome of tomorrow’s election, recent events and developments indicate that in case of a Likud success the prospects for peace look dire.
While Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank do not have the right to vote, the Arab population in Israel, the descendants of those who in 1948-49 remained on the territory, which became Israel, makes up 15% of the electorate and will thus influence the outcome of the election. Traditionally, most of the Arab population’s votes were divided amongst three Arab parties. For this election, however, the Arab parties joined forces with its leader Ayman Odeh stating that their number one objective is to end the current premiership of Netanyahu. If the Arab list is successful – recent polls indicated that they are able to win between 13 and 15 seats in the Knesset – the prospects to revive the peace process are likely to increase as they promised to emphasize the issue and aim to enshrine it again on Israel’s national agenda.