Iran-Israel Relations

As pretty much everyone knows by now, relations between Israel and Iran are at an all time low, even by their usually grim standards. Though the entire issues has been greatly sensationalism – by media, politicians, and even the general public – a confrontation of some sort can’t be ruled out.

Indeed, it’s arguably already begun, albeit covertly – several Iranian scientists connected to the nuclear program have been assassinated, while Israeli some embassies were subject to bombings a few weeks ago. Neither side has taken responsibility, of course, but we can be reasonably sure they’re involved in taking deadly jabs at one another.

In any case, I won’t be focusing too much on the somber political dynamics of this issue (at least not yet). Instead, I want to raise attention to the better side of human nature in all this: efforts by average people in both nations to express peace and solidarity with one another, in spite of the militant rhetoric of their leaders.

Start with this campaign, created and led by an Israeli graphic designer who’s trying to reach out to Iranians and assure them that not everyone is on board with all this talk of war. He wants the entire world to get wind of this, too, in an effort to dispel the fear and hatred that precipitate every conflict. You can see the introductory video below, and visit the Facebook page (as well as the reciprocating Iranian page here).

People are naturally raising questions about whether this warmness and good will extends to Palestine. It’s a good question, but at this point I’m happy to see any sign on amiability towards any group. If anything, perhaps this will catch on and start a trend for other conflicts? (it’s already spawned more than a few parodies).

Either way, it’s reassuring to see people take matters into their own hand, and not allow their governments to speak for everyone when they purport to represent the national interest. Politicians, elected or not, don’t always reflect the will of their people, no matter how much they’ll insist it (as they should, given that even authoritarian regimes with contempt toward their people stake their legitimacy on reflecting popular will). Governments and citizens are two different entities, and it’s great that the latter can now make their own voices heard.

Finally, I’ll leave you a more heart-warming kind of Israeli-Iranian relationship:

Love is all you need.

Two Men, One War, Thirty Three Years On

Before I get into the title subject of this post, I think now is the chance to share some information about myself and my background. It’s rather voluminous, so feel free to just scroll down to the video below if you prefer.
 
For those who don’t know, I am second generation Lebanese and proud of it. I speak some Arabic, eat a lot of the cuisine, and was raised with some of the traditional values and customs. Otherwise, I’m pretty well assimilated into my country of birth (the United States), especially since my background – like that of most members of the Lebanese Diaspora – is Christian Maronite, a group that has long been westernized (my surname, for example, hardly passes for Arabic).
 
In fact, many Lebanese people don’t even identify as Arab. Though we share the same language, ethnicity, and some cultural elements, we arguably have much more in line with Mediterranean people – our food, dress, dialect, faith, and history are more tied with that of the Greeks, Italians, and other Southern European people. It’s partly due to these ties that millions of Lebanese live in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela (where my mom was born), France, and other extensions of European-Latin civilization.
 
Indeed, many Lebanese trace their roots back to the ancient Phoenicians, who were based around present day Lebanon, and who colonized many coastal areas of the Mediterranean Sea. I remember growing up and being told we were of Phoenician decent, and how the Lebanese peoples’ renowned financial and business acumen come down from them (they were prominent merchants and seafarers).
 
Of course, as with all matters of culture and identity, I must be cautious and note some disclaimers, not least of which being that I am speaking as a member of the Maronite Christian community. Identity is a malleable and variable thing – even within societies can be found more distinct subcultures, often far removed from the rest. So note that I am in no way speaking for all sixteen million or so Lebanese people around the world, especially since we’re far more divided than it might seem.
 
Lebanon is infamously split along sectarian lines, as it has been throughout history: most Muslim Lebanese, for example, don’t have as strong an affinity for the west as we do; however, even that depends on the sect we’re referring too: Sunni Muslims are far more similar to the Christians than the Shia are. Then you have the Druze, who are in a whole league of their own: depending on you ask, they are either an offshoot of Islam, a sect of Islam, or something else entirely.
 
Within the Christian community, too, there are denominational splits: Catholic Maronites are – or were – the traditionally dominant sect. Indeed, the French, who controlled Lebanon for several decades, favored them largely due to a shared faith and culture (this further solidified our westernization, such that French is a very popular language and we maintain strong cultural and political ties). But there are also various Orthodox, Protestant, and Apostolic Churches as well, and some of them resent this privileged position as much as the increasingly-majority Muslims do.
 
By now there are over thirty sects within Lebanon, each with variety of dynamics between one another. Some Christians ally with some Muslims; some religious groups try to stay neutral or build a multi-faith coalition; still others frequently change sides. Politics is messy, fractional, sectarian, and feudal: besides faith, family ties and political dynasties are the only other source of relative cohesion.
 
Religion is such a big concern that Lebanon hasn’t done an official census since 1936, for fear of shaking up the political status quote. Muslims are widely considered to be a majority now, yet the political process still remains set up in favor of the once dominant Christians. During their rule, the French tried to sort this out by helping to establish a unique form of government known as Confessionalism, whereby political positions were to be guaranteed for the main religious sects: Christians get the Presidency, Sunni Muslims the Prime Minister slot, and Shias the position of Speaker of the House.
 
Now Muslims are a majority, but Christians are by and large wealthier and better connected. Tensions are high and people are scared. Memories of the Lebanese Civil War remain fresh in everyone’s minds – that brutal conflict was a culmination of long-standing political, social, and religious grievances hat lasted two decades. It was so complex that to this day, no one really knows how exactly it started. It involved dozens of factions with mutable relationships to one another, as well as foreign powers such as Syria, Israel, France, the US, and the United Nations.
 
Anywhere between 100,000 to 250,000 people were killed; many more – including my father – left, and at least a million were maimed, half of them permanently. The country was so badly damaged that to this day, you can still see the pockmarks of bullets on some walls, and many buildings remain ghostly, gutted-out shells.
 
Before 1975, Lebanon was widely regarded as the “Switzerland of the Middle-East,” with its capital, Beirut, compared to Paris. It was the center of banking, finance, tourism, and the arts. It looked set to be one of the most successful nations in the region, a prosperous gateway between East and West. Now it’s a wrecked and only precariously stable country.
 
Hezbollah, the Shia militia backed by Syria and Iran, is a virtual state-within-a-state, leading Israel into a war in 2006 that reset much of the rebuilding that had been done. Assassinations and gun fights between militant groups continue intermittently. Like most developing countries, Lebanon seems perpetually perched between chaos and stability, progress and regression. We’re a largely resourceful and fiscally prudent people, and that may help trump our other legacy of religious strife.
 
That leads me, finally, the to the main theme of this post: a short video shot in 2008 by a cinematographer Eric Trometer that briefly and poignantly explore the civil war through the eyes of two men that fought it – on opposite sides. It’s great to see a more intimate and raw exploration of this relatively unknown conflict.
 
I must admit that this was very nearly a tear-jerker for me. I generally feel a lot of empathy with other conflicts and human dilemmas across the world, but seeing it with respect to the nation of my heritage is deeply impactful. It makes me want to go to Lebanon not only to visit – which I sadly never have – but to help make it a better place (I often wonder, half-facetiously, how well I’d fit into the faith-based political paradigm as a non-religious person).
 
Most importantly, however, it gives me hope. Amid all the squabbling and even outright fighting amongst themselves, some people – even former enemies – are looking to make peace and build the nation together. They saw first hand the horrors of human hated and stupidity, and want to make sure others never have to learn it the same way. It’s a story that pertains to so many communities across the world, and I sincerely hope it succeeds, even with the odds against it.
 
I’ll end this long tract with an image I also found rather touching and inspiring. Though it’s probably just an peripheral example, I still think it makes for a nice glimmer of well-needed tolerance.        
                                                                                                                                                   

The Border Crossing At Wagah

One rarely speaks of India or Pakistan without invoking their intractable rivalry and infamously tense relationship. The two nations are almost synonymous for bellicose, distrust, and – even at the best of times – overwrought relations. They’ve fought several wars, engage numerous skirmishes and indirect clashes, and been at the brink of nuclear war as recently as 2001. Much of this hostility and mutual suspicion emerges from a central cause: a territorial dispute over Jammu and Kashmir, parts of which are held between each country but claimed in their entirety by both.

The village of Wagah is located between Lahore and Amristar. Note the disputed territory.

What is most tragic is that both nations share so much in terms of culture, history, language, and religion, and even maintain relatively robust economic links, yet none of these factors help dilute the posturing over land and pride (although one could argue, as I have, that such similarities and cultural exchanges have in the past, and to this day, lessened the chances of a larger-scale conflict). Needless to say, the Mumbai bomb attacks that occurred in 2008, perpetrated by Pakistan-linked terrorists, has only made the already dim prospects for peace and a thawing of relations even darker – though presumably, things are better than they seem lately, thanks to cooler heads prevailing.

Anyway, I unfortunately don’t have much time to get into the finer details of this issue, or its future implications. Rather, I wanted to share a fascinating, little-known event that occurs regularly in the context of all this quarreling. It fondly reminds me of our human capacity to make light of even the most dire of circumstances.

Given what I’ve established about this conflict, one could imagine India and Pakistan don’t share a very open and accommodating border. In fact, there is only one road border crossing between the two countries, in the village of Wagah, which is itself split between an Indian eastern half and a Pakistani western one.

As the only place where the two nations’ troops regularly interact in a relatively open and relaxed environment, it has become the site of a ceremonial “lowering of the flags” ritual at sunset, which is like no other between any other countries in the world, much less two barely in a state of war at times. The exchange comprises I could only describe as a combination of pep rally, pantomime, cockerel-like posturing, and you-got-served-style street dancing. You literally have to see it to believe it.

From the Indian Side:

From the Pakistani Side:

Pretty dramatic stuff. This ceremony has been going on since 1959, even through all the wars and heightened periods of tensions. It hardly looks like the sort of exchange you’d expect from two nations commonly held to be mortal enemies. There is a light-hearted, even playful attitude about it, like a match between two sports teams. Despite some apparent aggression and pomp, the the troops involved seem like they’re getting into it more out of pride and sport than any maliciousness. The cheering and festive audience certainly helps bolster that impression.

Let's get ready to rumble.

In addition to this unique event, Wagah has also been the site of candlelight vigils celebrating the Independence days of both nations (August 14th for Pakistan and 15th  for India) as well as to show solidarity for peace and reconciliation. Since first emerging in 2001, it’s occurred several times in subsequent years. And aside from such displays, there have been substantial developments as well, such as the opening up of trade through the border, which has amounted to billions of dollars passing through just this little town a little. Such trade has persisted even despite the highs and lows of the conflict. Unsurprisingly, the areas is also being touted by both sides, especially India, as a tourist destination.

Between such potential mutually beneficial ties, and the spirited and well-meaning exchanges between the people of both sides, I can’t help but hold a glimmer of hope that in spite of all the vitriol seen on the political and international stage, the average person in both nations wants nothing to do with war. Maybe it’s a lot to take away from the “world’s silliest border,” as it’s called, but I can’t help but feel hope when I see the human side to these things.

On an interesting note, following bilateral talks last year, the two countries agreed to tone-down the exchange and phase it out entirely. Apparently, soldiers on each side complained of sore knees and feet from all the goosestepping and performing everyday.

Israeli Luminaries Press for a Palestinian State

Well, I’ve been rather busy as of late, so I haven’t had the time to post as much as I’d like (and believe me, I’ve had a lot I’ve been wanting to write about lately). Instead, I thought I’d share this interesting article from the New York Times, which has raised my spirits about the prospect of a resolution for this miserable and intractable conflict.

                                                                                               

By ETHAN BRONNER

Published: April 19, 2011

JERUSALEM — Dozens of Israel’s most honored intellectuals and artists have signed a declaration endorsing a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders and asserting that an end to Israel’s occupation “will liberate the two peoples and open the way to a lasting peace.”

The signers plan to announce their position on Thursday from the same spot in Tel Aviv where the Jewish state declared its independence in the spring of 1948. The page-long declaration is expected to be read there by Hanna Maron, one of the country’s best-known actresses and a winner of the Israel Prize, the country’s most prestigious award, which is granted yearly on Independence Day.

Of the more than 60 who had signed the declaration by Tuesday, about 20 were winners of the Israel Prize and a number of others had been awarded the Emet Prize, given by the prime minister for excellence in science, art and culture. Signatures were still being collected on Tuesday.

“The land of Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people where its identity was shaped,” the statement begins. “The land of Palestine is the birthplace of the Palestinian people where its identity was formed.” It goes on to say that now is the time to live up to the commitment expressed by Israel’s founders in their Declaration of Independence to “extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness.”

Yaron Ezrahi, a political theorist at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem and one of the signers, said the group chose this week to issue its declaration because it was Passover, which marks the freedom of the Jewish people from slavery.

“We don’t want to pass over the Palestinian people,” Mr. Ezrahi said. “This is a holiday of freedom and independence.” He added that given the struggle for freedom across the Arab world today and the Palestinians’ plans to seek international recognition of their statehood by September, it was important for Israeli voices to be added to the call.

Two weeks ago, another group of several dozen prominent Israelis, many of them from the fields of security and business, issued what they called the Israeli Peace Initiative, a more detailed but somewhat similar plan for a two-state solution. Both groups say they are upset by their government’s policies in this regard, which they consider insufficient.

The Palestinian leadership says that unless Israel ends the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it will not return to negotiations with it and will instead seek international recognition of Palestinian statehood by September at the United Nations.

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the real problem is that the Palestinians refuse to acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish state. Official recognition of that, it says, would revive negotiations, although there are also clear differences over land and Israel’s security needs.

Mr. Netanyahu is expected to announce by the end of May his proposal for moving forward with talks on a two-state solution.

                                                                                        

In the grand scheme of this complex issue, this effort may ultimately not amount to much; but the fact that Israel’s best and brightest are willing to go against the mold and stand for what’s right is a positive reminder that there are still decent, level-headed people on both sides. It reminds me of similar developments in Palestine, in which more Palestinians are going about things in a nonviolent way, led by a generation of tech and business savvy youths who are seeking to peacefully develop  Palestine as much as free it.

There have been many false positives before, and extremists in both lands remain disproportionately more influential and troublesome. But so long as a flicker of decency, integrity, and mutual respect remain, there is always a cause for hope. On that note, I must head to bed. I look forward to discussing this issue are greater length in the future. Hope you all have a wonderful weekend.