Back in one piece. Lots of photos; I’ll post those, and some attempt at a coherent narrative, once I’m less jet-lagged.
Also coming up in the future, some notes from the recent trip to Jordan.
However, there have been some very important political developments in the Middle East in the past few days that AFAIK the American press hasn’t really picked up on, so they probably bear note here. The short version is that we may be on the near verge of a serious civil war among the Palestinians, and the upcoming Israeli pullout from Gaza may trigger even more complications. Things should be coming to a head over the next two months. Even at the best, the peace process is likely to completely fail in the absence of any central Palestinian “side” which can meaningfully participate in negotiations.
- The pullback: On August 16th (so the planning goes), the Israeli army is going to pull out of Gaza unilaterally. Originally, when Arik Sharon proposed this everyone thought he was trying to distract everyone from the Greek Island Affair (a bit of possible corruption involving his family), but that blew over and he kept going – he seems to be dead serious, and staking a damned lot, on this manoeuver. This needs to be looked at from two perspectives, the Israeli and the Palestinian.
From the Israeli side, the buildup to this has been a deep political division between people who support and oppose the pullback. Basically, the settlers vehemently oppose this, to the extent that it’s reasonable to expect a certain amount of violence between them and the army if/when this actually happens. (My money is on when, btw, not if) There has already been a marked rise in violent incidents involving settlers – just yesterday, some guy was arrested with eight high explosive devices in his home, which he was planning for use in terrorist attacks against Palestinians. You should see this guy smile and cheer as he was led away…
(Incidentally, to clear up a possible misconception: The Israeli police’s anti-terror units don’t just focus on Palestinian terrorists. There’s a surprising number of really psychotic fellows on the Israeli side too – vide infra)
As far as ordinary politics goes, the issue is very hot – lots of protests, votes in Parliament, and so on, but it looks pretty certain that it’s going to go through. There simply aren’t that many settlers in Gaza, it takes a hell of a lot of force to protect them, this doesn’t serve any visibly useful purpose apart from “colonizing all of the historically Jewish kingdom” (to give a very rough translation of rhetoric), and so a lot of the public is quite willing to pull out. This has made the hard core of settlers more desperate, since it’s clear that this is going to be the start of a sequence of real political losses for them, and the common knowledge in the country is that there are two real ways they could interfere with the pullout: either assassinate the Prime Minister, or plunge the area into a total war in which a pullout would be unthinkable.
No, this isn’t just rhetoric. People – by which I mean military and police – are gearing up heavily and trying to defend against these two possibilities, especially between now and the target date. It’s expected that there will be multiple attempts to do both. (The latter, most probably, by an attack on the Temple Mount, although there are other even worse possibilities open)
Now, I would normally be 100% behind getting out of Gaza (what the hell were we doing there in the first place?) except that one other thing is very clear in this – a pullout will lead to a real increase in violence, at least temporarily, since it will be seen as a clear sign of weakness, and (for reasons below) there’s going to be a lot of incentive for people in Gaza to be engaging in as much “show of force” as possible against Israel post-pullout.
(An important thing to remember is that Israel is a really damned small area. Even though officially only 22% of Israel is the occupied territory, about 50% is uninhabitable desert, and the distance from the center of Jerusalem to the center of Ramallah is only a few kilometers – and from Gaza to various significant Israeli cities even less. Within range of portable missiles etc)
Before I get to the Palestinian side of this and just what a pullout means, there’s some more news…
- Disarming militias and roadblocks: On Friday, the Palestinian foreign minister (whose name I’ve just completely spaced – blame jet lag) made an official pronouncement that the Palestinian government would not attempt to disarm any of the militias. Shortly afterwards, Abbas publicly contradicted this. Also, in the same few days, various of these groups have started setting up real roadblocks inside Palestinian territories, checking people’s IDs, sometimes forbidding travel, etc.
I’m a bit too sleep-deprived to go into the details of why this is really bad news, but it’s hopefully pretty obvious, by reference to what’s happened in other places that didn’t disarm their militias. (i.e., civil war without fail) Abbas’ countermanding of the statement seems to me like a sign that he’s having trouble even holding his government together, and that his control over the Palestinian Authority is pretty much entirely fictitious. This is bad because it means that there’s no hope at all for a peace process – there’s simply no other side for the Israelis to negotiate with, and it’s a long-term problem that admits no clear solutions. The roadblocks are another fairly obvious problem, and for reference they have a strong parallel: roadblocks of this sort were one of the chief symptoms of the descent of Lebanon into Balkanization and civil war.
I’m too tired to write more, but if I don’t get this posted now I’ll never get around to it. So short version: Israel’s pullout from Gaza in two months should lead to a big flare-up; Israeli politics are being pulled far apart by this, and lunatics may try something drastic to prevent progress. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are sliding uncomfortably towards a civil war, and Gaza is still separating out into Hezbollah control and Iranian influence. Expect lots of “excitement” starting in about one month, give or take.
How serious is it? Well, we’ll find out soon. The situation on the Palestinian side is damned serious, because it means that peace is basically out of the question for the foreseeable future, on the scale of decades or more barring unforeseen circumstances. But Israel is working towards decoupling itself as much as possible from this. If things go on the good side, Israel could remain a decent place to live, but the PA is going to degrade quickly, and not because of anything Israel is doing.
(I’ve got some notes on possible projections, but I’m far too tired to edit those into postable shape – damned jet lag)