Posted on Comment Is Free.
A lead story out of Iraq in recent days has been the construction of a 12-foot high and three-mile long wall in the Adhamiya district of northern Baghdad. It represents the latest tactic used to quell the ever-spiralling sectarian bloodshed. Standing alongside Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa in Cairo, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki announced that building of the wall would be halted, while US generals continue to explain that the matter was under discussion with their Iraqi counterparts. To make the situation even more awkward, coverage of the wall issue began just as US defence secretary Gates arrived in Baghdad as part of a regional swing-through that included a stop in Israel. Comparisons were inevitably drawn locally and internationally between Israel’s separation barrier and this latest addition to the Baghdad skyline. Separation walls are a very sensitive issue in the Arab Middle East right now. One Baghdad pharmacists was quoted as asking, “Are we in the West Bank?”
Indeed, there are certain similarities – both the Americans and the Israelis are pursuing military, or even architectural, palliatives where political solutions are required. In both instances the barriers may temporarily decrease violence before new, and perhaps more devastating, means are used (missiles come to mind). American Generals used the seemingly over-laundered phrase “gated communities” (presumably golf courses will be added later), while Israel refers to a security fence. But in both instances this gentler language unsurprisingly fails to mitigate local anger. Secretary Gates’ visit came at the halfway point between two rather unwanted Middle East anniversaries, the four-year anniversary of the US occupation in Iraq in March and the forty-year anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories coming up in June.
The word occupation – ihtilal – is a powerful one in Arabic, and with even the Saudi leader, King Abdullah, referring to the American presence on its doorstep as ihtilal, the labelling issue is apparently decided.
Of course, the differences between the Iraqi and Palestinian situations outweigh the similarities. America is not a territorial neighbour of Iraq and the two countries are not in the same kind of territorial dispute. US forces are still there at the invitation of a democratically-elected government. While the ongoing Israeli occupation needs to be ended, Israel was at least clearly threatened by its neighbours in 1967 when the invasion took place, and has since faced frequent terrorist attacks launched from Palestinian territory. We now definitively know, if it was ever in doubt, that the same cannot be said about America and Iraq. The Israel Defence Force is a national service, conscription military, while the US has a volunteer army. Oh yes, and there are not too many American civilians queuing up to build permanent American settlements in Anbar province or anywhere else (temporary private contractors don’t count).
But, ihtilal is ihtilal, and Robert Gates’ trip to Israel might have been more productive (for American soldiers, at least, if not for military contractors) had the defence secretary spent more time with veteran critics of the occupation, rather than cutting deals on what weaponry would be sold to the Gulf and the shiny new toys Israel would receive in return. An honest conversation about occupation with Israelis could impart at least four lessons to Americans: you will make few friends; those friends you do make will pay a domestic price; you, too, will pay a domestic price; and life as an occupier will come to define your military.
Nobody will thank you. Simply put there is no such thing as a benevolent occupation and an ever-decreasing number of locals will see benefit in defining themselves as your friends. Part of the American conversation has become about those ‘ungrateful Iraqis’, but this misses the point. Appreciation cannot coexist with the level of violence and daily suffering now prevalent in Iraq. This round in the battle for legitimacy has been lost. You are an occupier and everything you do will be treated with suspicion. (By the way, pushing the government to pass legislation on oil revenue that will principally benefit your own companies hardly helps to allay those suspicions.) An old Israeli publication on “myths and facts” of the Palestinian question used to claim that the Palestinians benefited under Israeli rule. There were more universities, more freedoms than elsewhere in the Arab world, and so on. Long gone are the days when Israel tried to make such claims.
Those you consider friends will not have an easy ride and will spend most of their time avoiding the charge of collaborating with the occupation. The Sadrist forces recently joined the Fadila Party in quitting the Iraqi government becuase there was no timetable for American withdrawal. The non al-Qaedist Sunni opposition has trouble trying to ally itself with an American backed coalition, and even Prime Minister al-Maliki has occasionally sought to publicly distance himself from US positions. In the Palestinian Authority, Fatah tied its colours to the peace process with Israel and the assumption that America would deliver an end to occupation. It didn’t. When Parliamentary elections came along, Hamas ran a stunningly simple set of campaign ads: “Israel and the US want you to vote Fatah.” So, befriending you will carry a domestic burden, but there is another burden that will be all your own.
Occupation is a costly thing, even without civilian settlements. The supplies, logistics and bases for troops are all dollar-guzzling. Budgetary priorities are skewed and even the parameters for the debate on domestic social spending are narrowed. My Israeli social and education activist friends are well versed in the devastating domestic impact of investing in an occupation.
Finally, what will the American military look like when it gets deeper into the groove of occupation? One of the key findings of the Israeli commission investigating last summer’s war in Lebanon is that the Israeli military cut back on its training and its preparedness for major military battle as a result of focusing on its duties in the Palestinian territories. Already in the US, with all the added burdens of a voluntary military, the strains on the army are being felt.
Of the US army’s 44 combat brigades, all have served at least one tour in Iraq. Except for the one brigade permanently based in South Korea, the army’s own deployment policy has been violated in extending tours of duty to 15 months. America has become seriously ill-prepared to assume its role in any trouble spots or threats that may emerge elsewhere in the world.
Yesterday was Independence Day in Israel, but the celebrations were somewhat lacklustre, and the ongoing occupation is a big part of that. It may sound counter-intuitive, but when Palestinians and Iraqis can mark their respective and authentic independence days, it will also be a time for Americans to celebrate. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be just as important in restoring US credibility in the Middle East and undermining the forces of implacable extremism in the region, as the discovery of a holy grail to Iraqi de-occupation.
The solution on Israel-Palestine is known – just read the Clinton Parameters or Geneva Initiative. The majority of Israelis and Palestinians can support such solutions, and a formula also exists for engaging Hamas and allowing them to acquiesce in such an outcome. Solutions for Iraq are less readily available, but arrangements for a new political dispensation in that country, as well as for regional involvement and assistance, could all begin to be elaborated at next month’s Iraq conference, which secretary of state Condoleezza Rice is due to attend.
In both situations, political will, creativity and courage are the missing prerequisites for success. Until the focus shifts in both Iraq and the Palestinian territories from the military to the political and diplomatic, it’s all just another brick in the wall.