A tough task ahead in Yemen

A Houthi militiaman sits at a tank near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Yemen.

A Houthi militiaman sits at a tank near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Yemen.

This is my column that was printed in Arab News on January 25, 2015:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

After days of bloody clashes this week between the militias of the Houthi rebels and government forces in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital — which included bombing the presidential palace and laying siege to it, leaving President Abdu Rabbuh Mansour Hadi stuck inside for days — Hadi was forced to accede to the demands of Houthis. He granted greater participation to the rebel movement in all military and civilian agencies, and in return the group promised to withdraw from strategic areas of the capital and to release the presidential chief of staff who they had kidnapped on Saturday.

The president also promised to review a draft Constitution that would divide the country into six new administrative regions. The Houthis claimed that they felt aggrieved and disadvantaged in the new plan. Then on Thursday night, with no withdrawal of Houthi forces from key installations in the capital as had been promised, Hadi and his entire Cabinet resigned, saying they were too frustrated to continue.

But we have seen all of this before in September 2014 when the Houthis brutally swept into the capital, killing 300 people and demanding that the Hadi government share power with them. Cornered and scared, and after weeks of clashes, the president agreed and signed an agreement with the Houthis. The rebels took control of various ministries and financial institutions, but continued to remain excluded from other centers of power. In his reluctance in sharing power, Hadi has the support of other Sunni political parties in the country, which do not want to share their power with the Houthis, which as Shiites make up only 30 percent of the population.

The Houthis insist that there was no coup, but when you use heavy weapons against the president’s palace; attack the president’s guards; keep him prisoner in his palace for days, and take control of state TV and radio stations, what should one call it then?
The only person I heard in Yemen have the courage to say it was a coup was the now ex-Minister of Information Nadia Al-Sakkaf in an interview by phone with a CNN correspondent in Sanaa on Tuesday night.

US naval forces intercepted ships with Iranian weapons off of the Yemeni coast in 2012, proving that Iranian military support was being given to the Houthis.
On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) accused the Houthis of a coup against the legitimate authority in Yemen, and warned that the Gulf countries would “take all necessary measures to protect their security and stability, and their vital interests in Yemen.” They even offered to send a mediator to Sanaa to help in negotiations between Hadi and the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia has been the main source of foreign aid to Yemen for the last few decades, providing generous amounts of oil and other aid. This financial assistance has been almost completely stopped since September 2014 when the Houthis took control of Sanaa.
Hadi has also been a major ally of Washington, an enthusiast of the US drone program that kills targets of the Al-Qaeda. With $1.4 billion in American aid already spent in Yemen since 2009 in economic and military aid, and an additional $232 million scheduled to be disbursed this year, the administration of President Barack Obama is very reluctant to call what is happening in Yemen now a coup because under US law any aid from Washington has to be suspended if there is a military coup in a country. So get ready for verbal acrobatics from American officials in the coming weeks in order to not call a coup “a coup.”

Beyond the threat of Houthis, Yemen also faces a secessionist movement in the south, and the brutality of Al-Qaeda. The audacity of the Houthis and their use of force show that there is not much room to negotiate with them. They want more power, period. Certainly Iran is behind this sudden show of action and courage and it is buying an ugly fight with the Gulf countries and the US.


Israel should accept Hamas’ demands

Palestinian boys play in the rubble of Gaza International Airport on July 15, 2007, following an Israeli military incursion earlier that day. (AFP photo)

Palestinian boys play in the rubble of Gaza International Airport on July 15, 2007, following an Israeli military incursion earlier that day. (AFP photo)

This column appeared in Arab News on July 27, 2014:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

It is amazing that more than three weeks after the start of this Israeli aggression on Gaza, no one is discussing the proposal of the Palestinian group to put an end to hostilities. The 10 demands of Hamas are nothing extraordinary; on the contrary, they are items that have been discussed several times with Israel in the past but never implemented.

The Hamas demands include release of more than 400 Palestinian prisoners arrested by Israel after June 23 when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and allegedly killed by Palestinians; an end to the naval and land blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, with the full reopening of border crossings, which have basically been closed for the past seven years; establishment of an international airport and seaport for Gaza, and the permanent reopening of the Rafah crossing with Egypt under UN supervision; rehabilitation of the industrial zones in Gaza; that Israel refrain from interfering with the unity government between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank; and finally, expansion of the fishing zone in the Mediterranean Sea by six nautical miles. In exchange, Hamas promises to cease all hostilities against Israel for the next 10 years.

It is ironic that Gaza did once have an international airport financed with US, Saudi and European money, opened in 1998 by US President Bill Clinton and the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the late Yasser Arafat. Palestinian Airlines had flights from the airport to Cairo, Jeddah, Amman, Dubai, Doha and Istanbul. Unfortunately, the Israelis shut the airport down after the second Palestinian Intifada broke out in September 2000, and destroyed the 2.2 mile runway in December 2001 after an attack killed four Israeli soldiers. The Israelis also bombed the radar center. Today the airport remains in ruins, only emphasizing the sense of isolation that the Gaza population feel being cut-off from the rest of the world by the Israeli blockade of the territory.

The resounding silence that came from the Israelis and Americans to the Hamas proposal was not surprising. After all, it’s no secret that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hates Hamas, but likes to have them there in Gaza to derail peace talks with the Palestinians, and to ultimately prevent the formation of a free and independent Palestinian state, composed of Gaza and the West Bank. A radical and heavily armed Hamas launching missiles into Israel every two years, coupled with the growing number of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, authorized by the Netanyahu government, are the perfect excuse for the Israelis to never reach a final peace treaty with the Palestinians and so leave them living under the punitive and unforgiving fist of Israel.

The Israeli columnist Ben-Dror Yemini of the daily Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper partly agrees with me, writing that Israel should accept all the demands of Hamas, and even more, in exchange for the Palestinian group to disarm. He says it is necessary to demonstrate the willingness of Israel to negotiate a cease-fire and a durable peace, especially now that Israel is suffering both in the court of international public opinion because of the more than 864 Palestinian civilians killed in Gaza by the heavy Israeli bombardment, including over a hundred children, and more than 5,700 injured.
But it is extremely unlikely that Hamas will disarm. After all, what will it win in return? An independent Palestinian state, totally free from the control of Israel? No. And besides, no country in the world would accept being totally unarmed and at the mercy of its former enemy (Israel), which has the sixth largest army in the world and nuclear weapons. These demands are unrealistic.

What we saw this week once again was the shameful support of the administration of US President Barack Obama of the brutal Israeli offensive in Gaza, using US bombs paid for by American taxpayers to kill innocent civilians. According to calculations by the UN itself, only 110 of the more than 864 Palestinians killed in Gaza so far were members of Hamas. The American scholar Stephen Walt wrote a great article on The World Post website this week  entitled “AIPAC Is the Only Explanation for America’s Morally Bankrupt Israel Policy”, saying that the only explanation for the morally bankrupt US policy of how to deal with Israel can only be explained by the power and influence that pro-Israel lobbyists, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have on most American politicians and the US Congress. And I have to note that there are many pro-Israel lobby groups on the Christian Right also. This has led to a paralysis of truth among American politicians, who are terrified of telling the truth when Palestinians are massacred by Israel, for fear that they will be punished by these pressure groups in upcoming elections. If an American politician has the audacity to criticize Israel publicly, do not doubt that in the next election pro-Israel lobbyists will not spare money to help competitors, funding attack ads on TV and radio.

If Israel accepted Hamas’ demands, it would force both sides to have to make efforts to show they were sincere in implementing the accord. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is enough goodwill in the Netanyahu government. It’s too hawkish and would rather play the role of victim and continuously blame Hamas for all of its problems.



Who is the real terrorist in Gaza?

Palestinian children, wounded in an Israeli airstrike on a UN compound housing civilians, receiving medical treatment in Gaza in July 2014. (AP photo)

Palestinian children, wounded in an Israeli airstrike on a UN compound housing civilians, receiving medical treatment in Gaza in July 2014. (AP photo)

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

If you watched only Western television and read US and Brazilian newspapers, no one could blame you for believing that Hamas, the Palestinian group ruling the Gaza Strip, was the vilest terrorist group that the world ever saw. Over and over, anchors, reporters and commentators repeat the mantra that Hamas has been declared a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, and for that reason practically no one is willing to talk to them directly, except perhaps for Turkey and Qatar, which support the group, and a handful of Arab nations.

Anyone with half-a-brain would know that this is pure propaganda, dreamt up by right-wing Israelis and Americans trying hard to discredit the group for its untiring efforts in resisting Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and Israeli oppression of practically every aspect of Palestinian life. Hamas is divided into several wings: Social, political and military. The social wing is in charge of the charitable networks that run schools, hospitals and universities to help the needy Palestinians of Gaza. The political wing runs Gaza after winning parliamentary elections in 2006, and the military wing is the one launching missiles into Israel and building those tunnels that Israel is so ferociously destroying now.

There is no love lost between the leaders of Hamas and those of the Palestinian Authority that rule the West Bank from Ramallah. The PA tried to take over control of Gaza in 2007, but after a brief civil war with Hamas, they were defeated and were forced to retreat to the West Bank. In April 2014, Hamas and the PA signed a government of unity agreement, more out of political expediency than anything else. Israel immediately rejected this, presumably scared that a united Palestinian front would make them considerable adversaries to deal with in negotiations for an independent Palestinian state.

According to a recent fascinating article by Mark Perry in Foreign Policy magazine entitled “You Can’t Kill Hamas, You Can Only Make It Stronger,” a Fatah official is quoted who claims that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reassured US Secretary of State John Kerry “that the reconciliation agreement was designed to ‘destroy Hamas’ by bringing it into the political process and then defeating it in subsequent elections.”

In the same article, Abbas is said to have argued in March with several senior Fatah leaders, accusing one of being too pro-Hamas, saying that Hamas had embraced Iranian aid in the past. (Hamas broke off with Iran in 2011 over Iran’s support of the Bashar al-Assad regime in the Syrian civil war.) The leader replied that Abbas was right, but asked: “How does that make us look, when we are the ones that have embraced Israel? And we’ve gotten nothing. Nothing.”

That is crux of the problem facing the Palestinians now. The US, Israel and the Europeans would love to oust Hamas from Gaza and from any future Palestinian government, saying they are too radical and inflexible in the face of Israeli demands. Israel would very much prefer the docile PA of Abbas, who willingly shakes the hand of Israeli officials in public and hardly makes a noise as ever more Jewish settlements are built in the West Bank.

It is clear that appeasement and peace with Israel has not brought a Palestinian state into existence, or even fast tracked negotiations to get there. In fact, such talks have effectively been dead for years now. The US is not an impartial mediator in all of this, and neither is the EU or Egypt. I’m not saying that an all-out war on Israel is the solution. Far from it. But rolling over and playing dead, like the PA is doing in the West Bank has clearly not worked. The way forward is to resist until minimal Palestinian demands are met, and the Israelis know full well what they are.

With more than 1,800 Palestinians dead in Gaza so far by Israeli bombs, and over 8,000 wounded, who is the terrorist group? Hamas or the Israeli government? The answer is clear.

Attack on Gaza: Disappearance of truth through propaganda

Palestinian children walk in the rubble of a destroyed home a day after an Israeli air strike in the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip on July 9, 2014. (AP photo)

Palestinian children walk in the rubble of a destroyed home a day after an Israeli air strike in the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip on July 9, 2014. (AP photo)

This article appeared in Arab News on July 20, 2014:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

It always amazes me to see how non-Arabs around the world have been so thoroughly brainwashed by Israeli propaganda that they believe that every Hamas member is a terrorist and that Israel has the right to bomb Gaza incessantly, killing more than 300 Palestinians so far, and injuring more than 1,850.

We must admit that we as Arabs and Palestinians have failed miserably in the propaganda war of winning minds and hearts in the West. Israel is still considered by many as a beacon of democracy in the heart of a strife-torn Middle East that is made up of countries beset by revolutions and upheavals that seem to have no end. Of course, not many people stop to think that Israel’s democracy is only for its few Jewish citizens of European origin. If you are of Arab origin or Palestinian, you can be assured of being treated like a second and third class citizen.

It is unfortunate that western media is often complicit in spreading this distorted image of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, often framing it as both sides having equal demands and grievances, when it is so obvious that the Israelis have all of the cards, advantages and privileges in their hands, while the Palestinians live under the brutal and humiliating daily Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. O Globo newspaper here in Brazil ran a story about the latest in Gaza, and used two photos to illustrate the story: One of the funeral of the four children murdered on the Gaza beach by an Israeli air strike and a photo of the funeral of the Israeli rabbi who died from shrapnel wounds from a Hamas missile that hit Israel. Both pictures were sized exactly the same. For sure, the editors were trying to show that they were being fair and balanced, providing exactly the same visual space to both sides in the conflict. But is that really fair, when Israel is obviously the vastly superior military power, and has killed many more Palestinians than Hamas has killed Israelis, 246-2 at last count?

The decisions by the US television networks NBC to pull its correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin from Gaza and CNN to pull its correspondent Diana Magnay from Israel were unfortunate. Mohyeldin, who is Egyptian-American, was doing excellent reporting by not sugarcoating the Israeli attacks on Gaza, showing the human cost in Palestinian lives lost and injured to US viewers on a daily basis. For sure this did not please die-hard supporters of Israel in the US, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who it seems successfully lobbied NBC to have him pulled out of Gaza. That was a loss for American journalism and viewers. Thankfully, NBC reconsidered its decision after a public outcry, and after receiving a petition organized by an activist peace group called Jewish Voice for Peace signed by 15,000 people in a single day calling for Mohyeldin to be returned to Gaza. Magnay was pulled from Israel after tweeting that Israeli settlers who had threatened her crew and herself with violence were “scum.”

The US press partly redeemed itself when the New York Times printed an article by Nathan Thrall, a security analyst, saying that it was the United States and Israel that pushed Hamas into this latest war by refusing to support the Palestinian unity government agreement of April 2014 signed with the Palestinian Authority government of Mahmoud Abbas, and the constant obstruction by the United States of Palestinian government efforts to get money to pay the 43,000 government workers in Gaza, who have not been paid for months. He notes that the reconciliation government could have served Israel’s interests since it did not have any Hamas members, and offered a foothold for PA members in Gaza. But Israel strongly opposed it fearing Palestinian unity, and strongly pressured the US not to recognize it too. Had any of this been widely discussed in the US press before this current conflict? No, the US government conveniently kept its mouth shut and made it seem like Hamas was being unreasonable and belligerent—something it always likes to accuse the group of.

Hamas has been insisting that Israel free several hundred Palestinian prisoners and that Egypt open the Rafah border crossing in Gaza before it agrees to a cease-fire. I think it is running out of time and lives, and should agree to a cease-fire as soon as possible. But Israel and the US should make sure those 43,000 government workers in Gaza get paid as soon as possible, and agree to ease entry and exit into Gaza. While it is true that Hamas has been one of the few remaining Palestinian groups willing to resist Israeli occupation and oppression, one has to ask at what cost in human lives lost and property destroyed? When is it time to say, enough is enough?



Palestinians are not ghosts

Israeli missiles hit smuggling tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. (AP photo)

Israeli missiles hit smuggling tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. (AP photo)

Published in Arab News on July 13, 2014:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The brutal Israeli offensive against hundreds of alleged Hamas targets in Gaza this week, after many missiles were launched daily against Israel, is once again a battle of David and Goliath. The brutal bombing of heavily populated Palestinian residential buildings, hospitals and schools can only be described as vindictive and murderous since it is quite clear that the Hamas missiles are being launched from empty fields and not from crowded apartment blocks. Of course Israel has the right and indeed duty to defend its citizens from attack, but killing 78 Palestinians and injuring 550 of them in just three days with no dead Israeli is nothing fair or balanced.

Everything comes after the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers on June 12 that, after missing three weeks, were found dead. The Israeli government immediately blamed Hamas for it and ordered the arrest of more than 400 Palestinians — including former Hamas prisoners Israel had released in 2011 in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit — and the demolition of the house of a family of Palestinians in the West Bank who are known supporters of Hamas, for allegedly having participated in the kidnapping. But until today, Israel has not presented any evidence proving Hamas’ involvement.

The right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rather than calm the waters, left the most anti-Arab voices sound high, and groups of Jewish settlers from the West Bank roamed the streets of Jerusalem hunting for Palestinians to attack. Israeli police had to intervene and arrest several of these hoodlums. Unfortunately, the young Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir, 16, had no luck. On July 2, he was taken by force from a street by Jewish extremists. His body was later found completely charred, an autopsy report saying that he had been forced to drink gasoline before being burned alive.

It is in this seemingly endless cycle of revenge and counter-revenge that we enter the current confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians. Many Brazilians believe unfortunately only in the Israeli side in all of this, not having the time or patience to study the conflict a bit more in detail. And Israel, with its false narrative of always being the victim, and of being the only democracy in the Middle East, gains supporters in the United States and Brazil, who do not see that this narrative as an attempt to erase the history and presence of the Palestinian people.

It is unfortunate that there are still people in this world who insist on denying the existence of the Palestinian people. But that is exactly what a retired judge of the Brazilian Superior Military Court, Flavio Flores da Cunha Bierrenbach, postulated in his article in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper of July 6. He said that Yasser Arafat had invented the notion of the Palestinians as a people after the defeat of the 1967 War as a marketing gimmick to further his cause.

It is an understatement to say that I was astonished to read this. Anyone who has a minimum of information about the Middle East knows that the Palestinian struggle for statehood has existed for over 60 years and that the independence of Israel in 1948, had forced at least 700,000 Palestinians out of their villages, the most violently, others through payments and threats. A Brazilian journalist colleague, Jose Antonio Lima, wrote a great reply to Bierrenbach on the website of the newsweekly Carta Capital the next day. “It is surprising that, on this side of the Atlantic, people still foster some kind of idea that, ultimately, flirts with racism and at very least hinders the search for peace,” wrote Lima.
The dream of a solution of two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, free and independent, side by side, is crumbling with the steady growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 War, and which would form the bulk of a Palestinian state. In fact, the Israeli Right does not want to see a Palestinian independent state. They are content to live behind separation walls, oblivious to the pathetic situation of the Palestinian people, who are humiliated daily by the Israeli occupation, which controls everything that goes in and out of the territories.

Life for Palestinians in Gaza is even worse. There tunnels from Egypt that brought medicines, gasoline machinery and even fast food, bypassing the virtual blockade to which Israel subjects the territory, are now 95 percent blocked. This exacerbates the anti-Israeli sentiments, and along with the recent arrests of dozens of Hamas members by Israel, explains the new wave of missiles targeting Israel.

Israel should sit down and talk with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas. Excluding Hamas leads nowhere, except to more confrontation and more violence. We have to reduce the violence and tension and stop having endless negotiations for a peace that go nowhere. The Israelis have to be pressured to give real concessions to the Palestinians. Only the US can do this, but unfortunately I do not think Americans want to or can do so in the near future. Without this pressure, and the Israelis threatening to invade Gaza again, we may be entering into a third intifada.


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