Reviewing PALESTINE +100 on

I’m pleased to report that I have written a book review for, one of the world’s foremost science fiction / fantasy websites.

The book is Palestine +100, which (according to its publisher, Comma Press) is the first ever anthology of Palestinian science fiction. It features a dozen stories of speculative fiction, all set a century after the establishment of the state of Israel—an event that Palestinians call the Nakba (catastrophe).

The book’s authors seem to be in dialogue with each other. They ask, first, the extent to which their people must let go of their past in order to secure a future; and second, how much their past defines who they are. Moreover: how does the presence of the Israelis and their nation-building project impact on what it means to be Palestinian?

You can read the entire review on, which I hope prompts you to read the book.

Yeah But The Other Side Started It

Mohammed Abed

Terrible, terrible scenes on the border between Gaza and Israel. The IDF have massacred 52 protesters.

Meanwhile, social media is full of people seeking to justify and excuse this violence. The main line being parroted seems to be that Hamas provoked the attacks, because dead Palestinians are politically useful.

There may be some within the Hamas leadership who think like that, but that does not excuse or mitigate the violence by Israel, a country that is supposed to be a democracy, that is supposed to respect human rights.

What we need to remember in these situations is that blame is not zero sum. It can be possible for Hamas to have malign motives in staging the protest and putting people in danger. That does not remove moral culpability from the Israeli soldiers who pulled the trigger; nor the Israeli politicians who endorse their actions; nor the American politicians who in turn protect those Israeli politicians from accountability. Continue reading “Yeah But The Other Side Started It”

It depends what you mean by ‘state’, ‘Israel’,’right’ and ‘exist’

Kibbutz in Southern Israel

In an Atlantic article about the prohibition of anti-Zionist views at American Universities, this:

One letter signed by more than 130 UC faculty members supported naming anti-Zionism as an expression of anti-Semitism, saying students need guidance on “when healthy political debate crosses the line into anti-Jewish hatred, bigotry and discrimination, and when legitimate criticism of Israel devolves into denying Israel’s right to exist.”

The phrase “Israel’s right to exist” is a common one in debates about Zionism and the hideous disputes between Israel and the Palestinians.  It’s often used as a line in the sand: critics of Israel are often asked whether they support its “right to exist”. Continue reading “It depends what you mean by ‘state’, ‘Israel’,’right’ and ‘exist’”

Our humanity drowns in the Mediterranean

Should the EU act to save illegal immigrants from drowning in the Mediterranean? Superficially, this question sounds a bit like one of those dilemmas presented by moral philosophers: do you switch the path of the runaway train so it kills one old man instead of a family of six?

But in this case, the question is not a like-for-like, life-for-life comparison. Instead, it boils down to whether we

  1. save the lives of dozens, or perhaps hundreds of illegal immigrants; or
  2. try to save a few million Euros of costs incurred by the Italian navy

… and I suppose, a few million more Euros caused by the inconvenience of being stuck with a boat-load of Africans without identity documents.

Students in ‘Introduction to Ethics’ seminars should not find this example particularly troubling. Since we are not weighing up human lives, a few humane heuristics will see us through. One of those is that if its a choice between people and money, you save the lives. When confronted with someone in clear and present danger, and the power to save them, we should not sit on our hands and watch them drown.

Really, what is so hard about that? Continue reading “Our humanity drowns in the Mediterranean”

On the killing of children

The news is hideous. 298 people died when Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot out of the sky over Ukraine, apparently by pro-Russian separatists. Meanwhile, almost as many people have been killed in Gaza by Israeli air strikes, in response to Hamas firing rockets into Israel.

In both cases, the news reports emphasise the number of children killed. It’s a common journalistic practice that we take for granted, which is actually quite curious.

What is being communicated? Is it that a child’s death is somehow more tragic, because they have not had a chance to properly experience life? If so, what about all the dead adults who have still not achieved their potential?

Continue reading “On the killing of children”


Ugh. I just unwhittingly clicked on a YouTube video showing the immediate aftermath of the assasination of Ahmed Al-Jabari in Gaza. A passer-by drags out dead body from the car… and half of it is missing. It is sickening and certainly Not Safe For Work or children. I wonder how long it will remain live on YouTube before the company removes it for being too graphic.

The video is a huge contrast to the clinical black and white footage distributed by the Israeli Defence Force. Ever since Operation Desert Storm there has been discussion of the way in which TV pictures frame our view of war, sanitising the horror. In recent years there has also been much analysis of the ‘gamification’ of war, as soldiers brough-up on video games join the army and begin shooting real people. The two contrasting images of the same incident speak to that dehumanising tendency.

The gruesome, visceral aftermath also provides some understanding of the hatred towards Israel that steams out of Palestine. In the background of the video you can see children observing the scene. I am glad that I never saw such sights in my childhood. Is it any surprise that those who experience such visual traumas grow up to hate those responsible? Time and again, I find my thoughts returning to this 2005 essay by Laurie King on the symbolism of the body in war, occupation and resistance:

These violations [at Sabra and Shatila] of individual bodies were not haphazard or random acts carried out in the heat of murderous rage, but rather, part of a grammar of political exclusivity, a systemic and coherent — though certainly deranged — message that an entire group could be violated, perhaps even eradicated, with impunity. The message of that massacre endures and echoes a quarter of a century later. Its scars are social, physical, and symbolic, and are felt far beyond the scene of the crime.

So what we have here are different methods of dehumanisation. The fact that these people we fight against are our fellow humans is forgotten in the melee and the maelstrom. Some comments psoted below the video of the half-body:

Lol, not much of him left, and nice slug trail to boot (link)

I wish wars still involved swordmanship and valor but now we got this lame no effort shit. Oh well. (link)

Where’s the rest of him? Ah well…One less scum bag polluting the world (link)

These are not the comments of those who see the other side as human.

See also: Twitter and the anti-Playstation effect on war coverage.

The Gaza Merry-Go-Round

I looked back through the archives of this blog, to see what I wrote about the previous military interventions in Gaza.  The comments I offered then seem to work pretty well for the current crisis too.  From 2006:

These events are a tragedy in the strict sense of the word, where the traits of the main characters make certain events inevitable. Sure, Israel didn’t start it. Watch any one of the countless Greek Tragedies that will plague this year’s Edinburgh Festival, and you will see that it is never the protagonist’s fault. Hercules didn’t start it. Electra didn’t start it. Clytemnestra didn’t start it. But at the end of the play, when everyone’s dead, one still thinks “if only you had been different.” Nasrallah is the malevolent deity, nowhere to be found yet omnipresent at the same time. He laughs at how easy it is to provoke this tragedy.

I also wrote:

Another blood feud is created, ready to be concluded in some Tel Aviv pizza parlour in 2012.

That turned out to be right.  In 2009 I wrote about how the asymetric warfare practiced by Hamas and Hezbollah can outmanoever Israel:

If you’re faced with a situation where bombing civilians seems to be the only course of action left open to you, then you’ve already been outmanoeuvered, you have already lost, and the only thing you are playing for is your own soul, your own humanity.

All this seems right for 2012, too.

This statement from President Peres seems to fall precisely into the tragic, circular logic discussed above:

This is ridiculous for two reasons.  First, collective punishment of the Gazans is not the only possible course of action.  This fascinating but depressing article in the New York Times by Gershon Baskin, and Israeli negotiator who helped secure the release of Giliad Shalit, outlines just one alternative course of action that was open to Israel – negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas.  According to Baskin, Ahmed Al-Jabari (the Hamas leader assasinated by Israel last week) was the man best placed to deliver a cease-fire, a project in which he was actively engaged at the time of his death.

Peres’ comment is absurd for a more practical reason – Israel’s “eye-for-an-eye” style retalitory policy has not made its citizen’s safer.  Just the opposite, in fact: the military intervention has actually caused an increase in rocket attacks.  The first Israeli citizens to die from rocket attacks this year were killed last Thursday, after the Government began bombarding Gaza.  So the current military action fails on its own terms.

Valentine's Day in Hebron

These are my hurried notes from the end of a long day, 14th February 2005, after witnessing some horrible things.

Walk through the old city of Jerusalem, from Jaffa Gate to Damascus Gate, and you walk from the first world to the third world. Only on the other side of the old city can you find a bus that will take you into the West Bank.

We take a car from Jerusalem to Hebron, to the south. The geography of the region is surprisingly small. In ten minutes we are outside the city, and passing Bethlehem. Not long after and the outskirts of Hebron appear on the horizon.

We meet G, a Norwegian, and D from Italy. Both work for an international NGO in the city. The peace process is like an ailing phoenix, which rises from ashes and then decends into flames on a regular basis. Back in 1994, a Jewish settler massacred 29 people in the Ibrahim Mosque in the centre of Hebron. The NGO’s mandate is to act as observers and report on the interactions – and conflicts – between the Israelis and the Palestinians here. They operate by trust alone. They are unarmed and can only provide an independent account of the events that transpire here. They hope that their presence has a calming effect on the settlers and Palestinians alike.

We descend into the centre of town. Modern, squat skyscrapers hold apartments and shops selling the light industrial goods that are made around the city. Textiles, shoes, jewelry. Taxis and minibuses clog the streets. We see old men in grey blazers and the old traditional Khafir scarves in red or black, a mirror of their dead leader Arafat, now a poster-boy who adorns the walls of the city, alongside his colleague and successor Abu Mazen. Other election posters are half visible too.

Into the old city. Past a road-block first of all, followed by a checkpoint with a nonchalant and bored IDF sentry lurking alongside it. We take a turning down an alley, and in the half-light we can see more old men outside their stalls – fleeces, food, metal work, and a barbers. G and D say “Salam Aleikum” and so do we. Soon I become confident and say it to everyone who passes, and they respond with a smile and a squint.

Halfway down the alley, we look up to see a Israeli settlement that has been built over the old town. A wire mesh has been stretched over the of the alley to catch the rubbish that falls from the settlement into the souq below.

At the other end of the alley, the souq, we encounter another sentry post. Inside I see the soldier playing a game on his mobile phone. We have arrived at the Ibrahami Mosque, the scene of the massacre a few years ago. While G says that they will wait outside because they are wearing a uniform, we are free to wander into the holy place. Although, we cannot wander straight inside. We must first have our bags searched, and pass through a metal detector. Confronted by the IDF solider who is manning the checkpoint, I am struck first of all by the fact that she is a She… and then by the fact that she is a spotty, plump eighteen year old. Our assertion that we are without religion seems to annoy her, but nevertheless she and her two cohorts (lanky boys, also acne-riddled, also with guns slung over their chests) do their duty and check our bags.


Inside the mosque, all is quiet. Three men with the traditional headdresses sit and read, while a couple of young boys lounge against a pillar. At the back of the chamber we can see the tomb of Abraham, enclosed behind bars. Across the crypt though, we can see some young Jewish men, also standing behind bars, praying at the tomb. After the massacre the tomb was enclosed and split in two, so that the two communities would be able to pray separately at the same place. When we go outside again, we see the Jewish entrace to the same building.

In the plaza in front of the temple I can see more IDF solidiers. A pretty girl stands admonishing her friends lightheartedly. If it were not for their green fatigues, I mght think they were just about to go and hang out in the mall together.

We amble up to higher ground to get a good look at the city from above. We can see the white buildings that coat the hillside like molluscs and barnacles on an upturned fishing boat. A few men are rebuilding a wall that has been bulldozed for some reason. G says that these building are many hundreds of years old.

As we talk about the architecture, the lunchtime silence is shattered by an ambulance that speeds down the road behind us. At the same moment, D’s radio tactlessly blurts out the reason why the ambulance was there. The IDF have just shot dead a twelve year old boy, down at the checkpoints near the Ibrahami Mosque. It is difficult to imagine what possible threat he could have posed that required such lethal force. Down in the city we know a mother will be soon be crying. We know one young man will never send a Valentine card, or feel the rush of his first soft kiss. And we know that another boy or a girl with a gun has become a killer. An eighteen year old has killed a twelve year old. This will not make the morning papers.

Wary of what may happen next, we avoid the mosque and take a back route down into the souq again. There seem to be so many children on the street, teenage girls in groups of three or four, gossiping about the strangers walking through their town. I consider saying Salam Aliekum to them, but now it seems inappropriate. Do they know what has just happened less than two hundred yards away?

If they were unaware of any incident, a grenade goes off, and the explosion echoes around the city. As we descend and retreat to the new town, a voice begins to rant over the mosque speakers. Emerging from the same dark alley at the old town boundary, I see that the IDF sentry has become more alert. No longer playing on his mobile phone, he is leaning against his concrete barricade, and his rifle is aimed directly at us. From this angle it is hard to make out the shape of the gun. I can just see a hole at the top of the barrel. There is nothing to do but ignore the soldier, and find the car that we came in. The local residents seem to ignore him too – an old man steers his donkey and cart past us and the gun, into the souq and towards the Ibrahmi mosque.

Once again, I see for myself the capacity of people on this planet to dehumanise one another. Another glimpse into the eyes of the only devil I believe in.

I don’t feel sick. I feel nothing. G and D take their leave of us, and go to collect information for their report of the incident they could not predict, and did not prevent. We on the otherhand, go back to the new town. We get a cup of sweet Arabic coffee, then buy a couple of beautiful woven shawls in red and green. Pure lambswool, you know.

We were wrong, it was not a twelve year old boy. It was Sabri Fayez Al Rjoub, aged 15.

Intifada Fatalities 2000-2005 (Source: B’Tselem)

Zero Sum

Intifada Kid’s Letter From Ramallah sparked an interesting response and debate at Devil’s Kitchen. I’ve had this draft sitting around for a couple of days – updated to take in some of Katy’s comments.

Another aspect of the conflict between Israel and Palestine which annoys me, is the universal insistence on treating it as some sort of zero-sum game. It is as if there is some kind of kudos, a finite substance which travels back and forth accross the mythical and derided Green Line, which both sides try to win back from the other. Perhaps points, or “political capital” would be a better analogy. Acts of violence lose you points, while any kind of olive branch or positive manoeuvre will gain you points. At present, the Israeli Government is ‘up’ (Gaza withdrawl) but the Palestinians are ‘down’ (Hamas voted into power).

The concept of ‘political capital’ or points scoring operates widely in Westminster and Washington (indeed, anywhere with a recognisable leglislative district, I assume), but it is essentially an unjust system that bears no relation to the way the world actually operates. Indeed, just like global warming, it creates a sort of ‘positive feedback’ which actually makes a situation worse, and serves to keep the problem burning.

Consider the situation in Israel and Palestine. Ultimately, the two sides have mutually exclusive dreams on what should come to pass, in the Holy Land they reluctantly share. Since Hamas are branded terrorists, this bizarrely increases Israel’s political capital, and they will soon begin to spend it, moving towards their own vision of a shrunk-in-the-wash West Bank. They move away from reconciliation with the Palestinians, and thus the cycle continues.

And it is retaliation, vengeance, which dominates the region (An Eye For An Eye?). It is this desire, something that both sides have in common, which is the destructive force in the region. I saw the Israeli Ambassador to the UN interviewed on the BBC earlier this week, engaging in a very undignified and slightly sickening numbers game with the news presenter. “But the 4000 we killed were terrorists you know” or some such flawed logic to moralise state sponsored death.

Build bridges not walls

How much better if the conflict was not considered a zero-sum game at all. A vote for Hamas, with covenant couched in fervent fundamentalism, reflects poorly on the Palestinian populous. That should not mean that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank gains extra credence, but somehow it does. Conversely, bulldozers in townships or the death of another stone thrower reflects poorly on the Israelis… but its not an excuse for blowing up a Tel Aviv omnibus. Far better for the two sides to play for the same team – humanity – and shoot towards a common goal. “We will not deal with Hamas” will achieve simply nothing. “How may we help you?” might be a better response. “Your problems are our problems” must be a mandatory mantra.

This is frightfully idealistic, of course. Many will say that neither side has the ability or the desire to have those kinds of conversations. The Hamas covenant certainly precludes this, as do the fundamentalist conceptions of a Jewish state. I agree, and I weep, but merely point out that the political game being played is a flawed one. The exchange of political capital may continue, but the only score that rises is the number of dead bodies on the borders and buses. I am reminded of the tagline for the 2005 box-office gore-fest Alien versus Predator: “Whoever Wins, We Lose”. Humanity cannot win the game being played at present.

Changing the rules of the game must be the answer, because it is the only answer. Everyone must be transferred over to a single team, a single political group called homo sapien. Giving priority to a common humanity, rather than balancing the competing needs of two or more religions, is indeed an idealistic dream. But it is the only possible game that humanity has a chance of winning. Negotiations must begin from this position. Nothing else matters – not religion, not terrorism, not retaliation.

Letter from Ramallah

I think an alternative voice is required to continue the analysis of the Palestinian election result (My Edinburgh armchair opining will resume shortly).

Intifada Kid lives in Ramallah, and observed first hand the recent elections. Here he presents a blistering response to those who would write off the Palestinian people.

Ok, I’ve had enough of reading the amateurish and/or wrong-headed analysis provided by people like Devil’s Kitchen and Emanuele Ottolenghi. Both effectively make the same point: that Palestinians democratically electing Hamas vindicates Israel’s argument that there is no peace partner. As Ottolenghi writes:

“[u]nless Hamas reneges on its ideology and endorses a new course, then Israel’s claim that there is no Palestinian partner is vindicated. The resulting Israeli policy of unilateralism is vindicated. Israel’s argument that the Palestinians do not want peace is vindicated. Israel’s argument that Islamists’ nuances and differences of opinion are just tactical, not strategic, is also vindicated. And the prospects of a Palestinian state will become even more remote.”

This is a re-branding of that old Israeli argument: “Palestinians are genocidal anti-Semites who really don’t want peace, and so (even though we’d love to) we can’t reward them with statehood.”

In one stroke, Israel is absolved of responsibility for occupying and colonising Palestinian land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for the past 38 years, for displacing Palestinians in 1948 and 1967, for continuing to discriminate against its own Palestinian citizens in a blatantly racist manner, and for rejecting the appeals of Palestinian leaders like President Abbas to return to negotiations. Instead, the onus is once again on the Palestinians to prove that they are “moderate” enough to deserve a state. If they fail, well, we’ll be forced to keep colonising and occupying their lands, demolishing their homes and shooting their kids- ensuring that they “taste Israeli steel,” as Ottolenghi puts it. And of course, we have to accelerate construction of the Wall: the animals must be encaged.

First off, let’s remember that it is the PLO – not the PA or PLC – that remains responsible for negotiating a final status peace agreement with Israel. Israel isn’t supposed to negotiate with Hamas simply because they are in the PLC, a body elected by the minority of Palestinans who happen to live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel is required to negotiate with the legitimate representatives of all Palestinians everywhere – the PLO.

Hamas may become members of the PLO’s Palestinian National Council by virtue of being in the PLC, but Fateh remains dominant in the PLO. And the PLO has, since the Declaration of Independence in 1988, accepted a two-state solution. To read more about PLO positions on peace, negotiations and final status issues, visit, the Negotiation Affairs Department of the PLO.

Secondly, far from vindicating Israel’s unilateralist approach, Hamas’ victory is in part a Palestinian response to the relentless occupation and colonisation of their land and Israel’s refusal to negotiate with President Abbas – a man who was, you may remember, elected on a platform of peace and the resumption of negotiations by an overwhelming majority of Palestinian living in the oPt a year ago. Israel’s stubborn refusal to return to negotiations, or even honour its agreements with the Palestinians (the Condoleezza Rice-brokered agreement of November 2005 is only the most recent example) served to undermine President Abbas’s message that Palestinians’ liberty, peace and prosperity could be achieved solely through negotiations with Israel.

One major reason why Palestinians rejected Fateh was that it is the party responsible for leading the PLO’s recognition of Israel in 1993 and a 10 year ‘peace process’ that brought with it no peace. As Saeb Erekat, the Chief Palestinian Negotiator wrote in the Financial Times, Israel’s unilateralism and constant refrain that there was no partner on the Palestinian side was nothing but ‘Bypass Diplomacy’, designed to protect Israel from negotiating with Palestinians before imposing a final-status arrangment on the Palestinians. This would/will probably take the form of a number of cantons with “transportational contiguity” which Israel could label a “state”, but which would lack the natural resources and viability to function as such.

Another reason Fateh were ousted was that their leaders were considered corrupt and self-servicing while Hamas’s leadership has spent over a decade building a functioning network of social services that the PA should have been providing.

Hamas were not voted into office for suicide bombings. Hamas have not even carried out any suicide bombs since 2004. If Palestinians wanted a leadership committed to suicide bombings, they would have followed Islamic Jihad’s call to boycott the elections. It is the (highly marginalised) Islamic Jihad who claimed responsibility for the past few suicide attacks in Israel.

In fact, Palestinians have actually never been more willing to compromise than they are now, as a recent report for the US Institute of Peace concluded.

So how do we resolve the apparent contradiction that the overwhelming majority of Palestinans support the resumption of negotiations with Israel, leading to peace on the basis of a two-state solution, and yet voted Hamas into office at the PLC? Perhaps the Palestinian electorate is very much like the Israeli one. Although all polls suggest most Israelis also want a two-state solution, and peace with Palestinians, they elected the war criminal Ariel Sharon and his ultra nationalist Likud party into office in their last elections. In situations of conflict perhaps people trust their toughest leaders most to make the difficult compromises and display pragmatism.

For Israel to claim now that, after arguing for years that it does not have a Palestinian partner, Hamas’ win only confirms their claim is disingenuous, hypocritical and, worst of all, damaging to the prospects of reaching a peaceful two-state solution – a solution that both Israelis and Palestinians continue to support, and certainly deserve.


Regarding the need for strong leaders, Andrew Sullivan points to a similar sentiment by Jonathan Zasloff at The Reality-Based Community: The American public wants a Democratic policy, enacted by Republicans.