Who stands with Palestine?

By Kalundi Serumaga, African Arguments, November 1, 2023

The UN’s failures are sowing the seeds of its demise, while Israel’s main enabler destroys the last vestiges of its own moral credentials. As streets heave with outrage, great powers are playing an odd game of chicken.

We need to have a serious conversation about how much longer the rest of world will stand by and watch as Western Europe (and their settler kin) continue to wreak havoc on the planet.

First, there is a real risk that this 500-year rollercoaster journey will end with a huge bang in the Middle East or central Asia, as somebody decides to nuke someone else.

Second is the general deterioration in the quality of human life globally, the consequence of planetary destruction.

Writing back in March 2022 at the start of the conflict in Ukraine, I pointed out that war was the norm for the peoples of Europe. In the last 300 years they may have spent more time killing each other than being at peace. 1945-1998 was the longest that the European landmass had ever gone without a conflict during the previous 200 years.

The Middle East has in many ways been an extension of that reality, certainly since the destruction of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922), engineered by the dominant global powers of the era: Britain and France. The two imperial powers moved in for a stake in an emerging strategic resource: oil.

America took over later, after the Western European powers had exhausted themselves fighting the 1939-1945 war, of which the Middle East was an important theatre.

I explained that this normally is how their “world” wars start: with some senseless and rather endless-looking but contained conflict, in which many innocents die, and many new weapons are tested, and then on to the main match.

The 1914-1918 war was preceded by conflicts in the Balkans; 1939-1945 was preceded by the Spanish Civil War, in which German air power and Soviet rifles were heavily involved.

Ukraine may be one big testing ground for a future “world” war. It is certainly the template for how all major wars will be fought in the foreseeable future. The current conflict in the Middle East may be the transition to the main event.

There are more parallels: “World War II” was also a consequence of the failure of the League of Nations, which terminally discredited itself with its handling of the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, itself a member of the League.

The League of Nations had been vital for modern nations aspiring to avert Europe’s fateful history of war and competition, following the bloodbath of 1914-1918, which killed 40 million. Quite naturally, the rich white countries sided with Italy. This not only triggered the collapse of the League; it also encouraged Hitler to realise that a League that abetted Italian expansionism abroad would be unable to summon the authority to stop his quest for lebensraum. He soon began taking over the poor white countries east of Germany – a quest that ended with his annexation of Poland in early September 1939, the line in the sand that marked the start of the next European conflagration.

The United Nations is being challenged in almost identical fashion today, first in its handling of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The ease with which President Putin’s government was able to shrug off any concerns expressed by the UN establishment is actually rooted in the UN’s longest-standing failure of international mediation and conflict resolution: the Middle Eastern conflicts, with the Israeli-Palestinian question at the heart of it.

The United Nation’s Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is one of the oldest UN programmes, having been set up by the United Nations General Assembly in 1949 to assist Palestinians and others fleeing the fighting that led to the creation of Israel in 1948. Its full name is the “United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East”. It is still operating in Gaza and the West Bank, occupied East Jerusalem, Lebanon, and Jordan 73 years later, attending to the great-grandchildren of those displaced persons (and employing many of them). It is notably older than the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) that deals with refugees globally.

Nothing better demonstrates a failure of mission.

The current crisis began with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the then pre-eminent armed Palestine independence movement, which after decades of fighting, unexpectedly accepted to recognise Israel’s right to exist. This was the real import of the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords mediated by Norway, which established the Palestine National Authority’s limited self-governing structure in Gaza and the West Bank.

This has since left Zionism politically naked, as it has had the long-term effect of torpedoing all the justifications for the over-policing and occupation of Palestinian territories. Suddenly, the ‘Arab threat’ lost a lot of its psychological punch, and the ball was now in the Israeli and American court to acknowledge the rights of the Palestinians to self-determination.

In other words, if Hamas did not exist, Israel and America would have had to invent it so as to justify their antagonism to Palestinian nationalism. But the problem with that cliché in these circumstances is that Israeli intelligence did indeed invent Hamas, as a religious ideological counterweight to the communist-influenced PLO.

The reciprocal acknowledgement of Palestinian rights did not happen. Occupation and the settler land-grab continued in violation of the Accords, as Washington continued to shield Israel from actionable criticism and sanction at the UN. Rendered impotent, the PLO degenerated into corruption and repression, eventually losing electoral control of Gaza to Hamas. In a spectacular case of ‘blowback’, however, Hamas took political office more anti-Israeli than the PLO had ever been.

Washington has done well over the decades to protect Israel from documented violations of human rights and international law, using its veto in the Security Council, effectively blocking any unfavourable resolutions against Israel that emerge from the General Assembly.

But if this American stance eventually triggers a League of Nations-style collapse into irrelevance, then America will find herself burdened with a messy and chaotic aftermath it can no longer shoulder. That moment (when now much more probable than ‘if’) could mark the formal end of American global dominance.

But before that (or maybe as a prelude to it), my own suspicion is that we are in a situation where everyone caught up in the Middle East crisis is playing everyone else.

It appears that the United States’ real target is Iran. This would be the third time.

The first was in 1953 when the CIA overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government to prevent the Iranians from nationalising the western-controlled oil industry, and imposed a dictator on them.

The second was the eight-year war of aggression against Iran, which the Americans sponsored Saddam Hussein – they were still friends – to instigate in 1980. The Americans were unhappy with the 1979 Iranian Shia revolution that had swept their puppet dictator out of power. Soon after, students seized the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 diplomats and military officials hostage for 444 days, a humiliation Washington has yet to live down or forget. Given that this revolutionary regime is still in power in Iran, and has built-up a satellite-field of well-trained and equipped armed Shia groups in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, Washington has to plot carefully.

PM Netanyahu is being led to believe that he will be allowed to physically push the refugee-residents of Gaza (themselves descendants of refugees from elsewhere in what is now Israel proper) west into the Egyptian desert, and add the territory to Israel.

The great danger here is that the West has always seen Israel as a useful tool (no matter how Israelis may see themselves) for Western/American ambitions in the Middle East. And a day always comes when a workman decides that the axe he has long been using has finally worn out. He will use it for the last time, even breaking the head in the process, and then throw the wooden handle onto the very pile of firewood it has been helping him chop.

What the Jewish peoples should never forget is the true meaning behind the depths of hatred that were shown to them by Europeans from the time of the earliest pogroms in the 1080s, up until the German-led (not German-only) Holocaust. With such a history, they should never actually believe the West’s declarations of undying love for Israel; it flies in the face of literally centuries of lived experience. White Power has no friends.

As one American commentator said many decades ago: “America will not stop giving its absolute support to Israel, until the day it does.”

I wonder if Israel is the tool that America is prepared to break in its ambitions to destroy Iran? I somehow cannot shake off this feeling.

If I am correct, then a promise of land in Gaza (in a complete and final open trashing of what is left of the memory of the Oslo Accords) may be to Israel what the promise of Kuwait was to Saddam, in return for Israeli help in taking out these Iranian non-state actor allies in the region, principally Hezbollah.

This would see the hawkish Israeli government being led into the same American trap poor Saddam walked into. Having used Saddam to try and destroy Iran, the US State Department led him to believe they would have no objection to him annexing Kuwait. Saddam needed Kuwait’s oil revenues to recover the cost of the Iran war, and argued that as a neighbour and former province, Kuwaiti oil actually came from the same oil fields as Iraq’s, deep under the desert soil. He invaded Kuwait, and the US promptly disowned him, beginning the process that culminated in his overthrow and execution some sixteen years later.

Such a promise is what may be necessary to bring Netanyahu’s government fully on board to counter the more difficult expressions of Iranian politico-military influence in the region.

Take note that nearly all the other belligerents in the current wars in the region – Syria, southern Iraq, Yemeni Houthis (whom the Saudis have been bombing -with hands-on American military support – since 2015, much in the way we see Gaza bombed today), and Hezbollah in South Lebanon – have a strong Shia (or at least non-Sunni) element. Remember also, that Sunni-led Saudi Arabia’s largest and most developed oilfields are found in the far east of the country, in an area demographically dominated by Shia Muslims (with Iran just across the Gulf). It would be wrong to see this, therefore, as a contest solely pitting the Arabs against the Zionists. In truth, it more closely resembles a chess game with more than two players.

In this context, Saudi Arabia’s interests should be examined a lot more closely. Up until the October 7th Hamas attack, the Kingdom had been steadily “normalising” relations with Israel. This rapprochement was happening in the face of Palestinian oppression in Gaza and the West Bank, and more profoundly, despite the repeated desecration of the al-Quds Mosque (Islam’s second-holiest place) by extremist settlers in East Jerusalem. To put it bluntly, the Saudis, along with many other Arab regimes, had abandoned any real solidarity with the Palestinians, just as Egypt under Anwar Sadat had been persuaded to do so some 40 years earlier.

I suspect that the Saudi calculation is that if Israel could help get rid of her great theocratic rivals in Tehran (despite recent diplomatic back-slapping between the two), this would not be a bad thing. Furthermore, if Israel were also to massively shrink, or even collapse and disappear in the process, maybe the Kingdom feels it would be let off the hook for having looked the other way for the last decade or so as the Israeli screws were being tightened on the Occupied Territories.

Everything now seems to boil down to means, or ability. Or stupidity.

Can the United States effectively wage a war from the sea against Iran? Doubtful. The US retains the appearance of big muscles, but a lot has changed in military affairs since the last Gulf Wars. And as Russia in Ukraine has demonstrated, there is an important difference between the military equivalent of steroid-built muscle-bulk and the real thing. The West cannot effectively sustain a conflict against a similarly-armed enemy. The Iranians are not farmers with improvised weapons and AK-47s (and even those, the US could not defeat).

Only a successful nuclear bombing of Tehran or its oilfields can do that. But that would be the start of something else, assuming it could be executed to begin with.

Can Israel effectively fight Hezbollah to its north, while facing a home-grown Hamas in Gaza? Perhaps Hamas alone; though fighting on the ground in Gaza will be very different from aerial bombing, and this may be exactly what Hamas has been anticipating and planning for all along. As for the belligerents in the north, they have already fought Israel to a standstill more than once. So, fighting both at once may be an Israeli ambition too far. This is where direct American help will be needed.

Will Russia stand by while its ally Iran is menaced by the US-led naval fleet assembling in the eastern Mediterranean? With already seventy-three ships visible, this is now “the largest US/NATO assemblage of warships in at least the past half-century”, according to the military-affairs blogger Will Schryver.

Probably not, since this may even provide Russia with the opportunity to punish and weaken what it considers to be the real source of the war in Ukraine. In any event, Russia must assume that, as the Syrian regime’s close ally, the Russian military bases Syria granted will be high on the target-list of whatever alliance Washington will put together.

Will the neighbouring Arab countries be able to contain the intense and mounting anger of their own populations as the people in Gaza get pulverised? Or put another way: how much credibility do the leaders of the Sunni-majority Arab states still have with their people, given their decades of basically useless hand-wringing in the face of the Palestinian plight, while Shia voices have stepped forward to be seen to be doing something?

Will Israeli citizens continue to allow their government to manufacture a new generation of enemies for their children to face? With the rise of social media, and the emergence of a younger generation, many Israelis are getting a new view of how the rest of the world sees, if not them, then at least their governments. A lot of thinking is going on.

And can Israel maintain itself as a member of the Middle East community of nations should America decide to become renewed “best friends” with the Arab powers? Definitely not, unless it is going to invent a new source for the military aid it has been receiving from the United States. According to Al-Jazeera, “Between 1946 and 2023, the US has supported Israel with a total of $124bn in the form of military and defence aid. Of the $3.8bn military aid provided to Israel this year, half a billion has been for Israel’s missile defences.”

Don’t forget that the House of Saud, which the West installed as the ruling family in the peninsula, was the first real strategic alliance it created in the region – long before modern Israel came into existence.

Critically: what will Turkey do, or have to do? The former owner of this vast territory now on fire; both a member of NATO and also the last official leader of the Sunni world; the sleeping military giant of the region, and just a border or two away from belligerents of all the conflicts roiling central Asia and Russia, Turkey’s interests and actions will significantlyshape the course of a wider conflict.

In all this, one thing remains tragically constant: that the interests and concerns of the ordinary Palestinian will be cast aside, just as they were in 1948, 1967, 1973 and 1982. The Oslo Accords, Yasser Arafat’s great diplomatic feat, are also dead now.

History shows that in all calculations, once the superpowers, regional powers and local actors have plotted their moves, it is the Palestinian people who will be short-changed.

But this time, if all players keep to their current postures, then we are looking at another “world” war. And this time, a real one, because all the previously short-changed peoples of the world are going to get involved, but for their own agendas.

That is the price the world powers will pay for refusing to stick to their own rules, just because the ones complaining about the injustice were only a small people.