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The betrayal of Gaza

The US is vocal about its commitment to peace in Israel and the Palestinian territories — but its ac

That the Israel-Palestine conflict grinds on without resolution might appear to be rather strange. For many of the world's conflicts, it is difficult even to conjure up a feasible settlement. In this case, not only is it possible, but there is near-universal agreement on its basic contours: a two-state settlement along the internationally recognised (pre-June 1967) borders - with "minor and mutual modifications", to adopt official US terminology before Washington departed from the international community in the mid-1970s.

The basic principles have been accepted by virtually the entire world, including the Arab states (which call for the full normalisation of relations), the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (including Iran) and relevant non-state actors (including Hamas). A settlement along these lines was first proposed at the UN Security Council in January 1976 and backed by the major Arab states. Israel refused to attend. The United States vetoed the resolution, and did so again in 1980. The record at the General Assembly since is similar.

But there was one important and revealing break in US-Israeli rejectionism. After the failed Camp David agreements in 2000, President Clinton recognised that the terms he and Israel had proposed were unacceptable to any Palestinians. That December, he proposed his "parameters": imprecise but more forthcoming. He then stated that both sides had accepted the parameters, while expressing reservations.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Taba, Egypt, in January 2001 to resolve the differences and were making progress. At their final press conference, they reported that, with more time, they could probably have reached full agreement. Israel called off the negotiations prematurely, however, and official progress was then terminated, though informal discussions at a high level continued, leading to the Geneva Accord, rejected by Israel and ignored by the US. Much has happened since but a settlement along those lines is still not out of reach, if Washington is once again willing to accept it. Unfortunately, there is little sign of that.

The US and Israel have been acting in tandem to extend and deepen the occupation. Take the situation in Gaza. After its formal withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel never relinquished its total control over the territory, often described as "the world's largest prison".

In January 2006, Palestine had an election that was recognised as free and fair by international observers. Palestinians, however, voted "the wrong way", electing Hamas. Instantly, the US and Israel intensified their assault against Gazans as punishment for this misdeed. The facts and the reasoning were not concealed; rather, they were published alongside reverential commentary on Washington's dedication to democracy. The US-backed Israeli assault against the Gazans has only intensified since, in the form of savage violence and economic strangulation. After Israel's 2008-2009 assault, Gaza has become a virtually unliveable place.

It cannot be stressed too often that Israel had no credible pretext for its attack on Gaza, with full US support and illegally using US weapons. Popular opinion asserts the contrary, claiming that Israel was acting in self-defence. That is utterly unsustainable, in light of Israel's flat rejection of peaceful means that were readily available, as Israel and its US partner in crime knew very well.

Truth by omission

In his Cairo address to the Muslim world on 4 June 2009, Barack Obama echoed George W Bush's "vision" of two states, without saying what he meant by the phrase "Palestinian state". His intentions were clarified not only by his crucial omissions, but also by his one explicit criticism of Israel: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."

That is, Israel should live up to Phase I of the 2003 "road map", rejected by Israel with tacit US support. The operative words are "legitimacy" and "continued". By omission, Obama indicates that he accepts Bush's vision: the vast existing settlement and infrastructure projects are "legitimate". Always even-handed, Obama also had an admonition for the Arab states: they "must recognise that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning but not the end of their responsibilities". Plainly, however, it cannot be a meaningful "beginning" if Obama continues to reject its core principle: the implementation of the international consensus. To do so, however, is evidently not Washington's "responsibility" in his vision.

On democracy, Obama said that "we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election" - as in January 2006, when Washington picked the outcome with a vengeance, turning at once to the severe punishment of the Palestinians because it did not like the results of a peaceful election. This happened with Obama's apparent approval, judging by his words before and actions since taking office. There should be little difficulty in understanding why those whose eyes are not closed tight shut by rigid doctrine dismiss Obama's yearning for democracy as a joke in bad taste.

Extracted from "Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians" by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99.

To buy the book at a special offer price of £11.99, call 08700 707 717, quoting "NS/Gaza" and the ISBN 978-0-241-14506-7

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Israel divided

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"Overnight, my school emptied": the story of a European border checkpoint

At a busy checkpoint between Turkey and Bulgaria near the Greek frontier, a long history of displacement and exile emerges.

“Bye-bye, komshu,” said the taxi driver. The Turkish word for “neighbour” is used throughout the Balkans.

We had reached the vici­nity of the Kapikule/Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint and he could go no further. We had driven past the mile-long queue of lorries waiting to be processed into the ­European Union. Some drivers waited for days and had come prepared: fold-up stools and portable stoves lined the road. I wondered what the sealed bulks of the lorries contained, and how much of it was fully known to their drivers.

A week earlier, I had crossed the other way – into Turkey – and witnessed a distressing bust by Bulgarian police of young Kurdish stowaways. The lorry driver seemed genuinely shocked, and he was in trouble. Lone women crossing this border in rented cars were regarded with suspicion, too: a Rom­anian woman had recently been caught with hard drugs inside the seats. In another recent incident, a smuggler had accelerated through customs and run over a border cop standing in his way. The smuggler was now in jail, the cop in a coma.

“Hello, arkadash,” said the new taxi driver as he loaded up my bag. Arkadash is Turkish for “mate”, also widely used in the Balkans. This driver had two cars: one with Turkish number plates, for domestic use, and another with Bulgarian plates, for border
purposes. We drove into customs. Slowly.

I was leaving behind the ­mosque-studded border town of Edirne and would soon reach the factory-filled border town of Svilengrad. Ruined factories, that is. For centuries, before the wounded leviathan of the planned economy collapsed, Svilengrad had produced silk. Today, it produced nothing. It was a transaction terminal for the pleasure-seeking populace of the three border nations: Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria. Here were casinos called “Pasha”, “Ali Baba” and “Saray” that promised “shows, prizes and many more surprises”. On the outskirts of town, in a former border army building, was a refugee camp that promised nothing.

The twin border cities of Svilengrad and Edirne sat in the fertile plains of Thrace where a section of the Roman Via Diagonalis passed and where everything grew: vines, sunflowers, cotton, wheat, and what early travellers described as the best watermelons in the Levant. Now the Greeks came across the border to both cities, to get what they needed, cheaply – including haircuts in Bulgaria and fake Levi’s jeans in Turkey. The checkpoint with Greece was just a few miles to the west, and from the last sleepy Greek town, Kastanies, across the swollen waters of the Evros-Maritsa River, you could see Edirne sprawled like a concubine in the haze of the Thracian plains.

The three border rivers (Arda, Tundja, Evros-Maritsa) flooded almost every year: if a dam upstream in Bulgaria opened a sluice, both Turkey and Greece would be flooded. Indeed, this border has seen many spillovers and upheavals over the years, including the catastrophic “exchange of populations” after the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when borders were redrawn and many in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey found themselves in alien territory overnight. They had to run for their lives across the new lines.

The road under the wheels became bumpy, a sign that we had crossed into Bulgaria. Ahead of us in the haze rose the communist-era apartment buildings of Svilengrad. In my youth, this area – like all towns, rivers and mountains that fell within 30 kilometres of the national border – was a militarised zone.

The border was a taboo subject. Hidden by Balkan peaks and electrified by Soviet technology, it was everywhere, like the state. The border was that which never slept. It was near the Black Sea beaches where, in my childhood, we went for holidays along with the East Germans, Poles and Czechoslovaks – some of whom went swimming towards Turkey, or made a run for the land border and got shot by Bulgarian guards. It was near the mountain villages where we went to pick berries and climb fir trees from which you could see Greece.

“Do you go to Greece?” I asked Ibrahim, the taxi driver. He had once been a schoolteacher.

“What would I do in Greece?” he replied, smiling. “I don’t speak Greek. This is my patch, here, Turkey and Bulgaria.”

Ibrahim was an ethnic Turk but his family had lived in Bulgaria for many generations. Bulgaria’s ethnic Turks account for roughly 10 per cent of the population, a natural effect of the long cosmopolitan centuries of these once Ottoman lands. But in the summer of 1989, just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ibrahim and another 340,000 Bulgarian Turks passed through this checkpoint with all their worldly possessions. It was the largest exodus in Europe since the Second World War – but in peacetime.

They had been left with little choice in communist Bulgaria, where assimilation campaigns had been waged against them and other Muslims at frequent intervals during the Cold War. The last such campaign forced ethnic Turks with Muslim names to change them to Christian (Slavic) ones. In some parts of the country, even the names of the dead were changed in registries and on gravestones – an act of violence that strikes me as especially cruel.

This self-wounding campaign by the communist state was a diversionary tactic: despotic regimes need enemies. Ethnic minorities are easy prey. Those who resisted were told by the state to clear off to Turkey, and Bulgarian officials opened this checkpoint. Until then it had been closed to all Bulgarian citizens and was used only by Western travellers to Turkey or Turkish Gastarbeiter to Germany.

Ibrahim had been a young teacher in a town at the foot of the Balkan Mountains. “But what is a teacher without kids? Overnight, my school emptied,” he said.

Ibrahim decided to follow, although he spoke no Turkish. He departed alone, leaving behind his mother and sister, who couldn’t face a life of exile and took the new names instead. For the first few years, he lived in a leaking tent in a huge refugee camp in Edirne – where he saw some of his former pupils. He attended evening Turkish classes and eventually found his feet.

Many of those who had crossed the border that summer returned to Bulgaria after the collapse of the communist regime in 1990, reclaimed (or bought back) their houses, and started again. But many remained in Turkey and made new lives for themselves. Families were split down the middle. Today, entire neighbourhoods of Edirne and Istanbul are populated by Bulgarian Turks; one nation’s loss became the other nation’s gain. Then there were those, like Ibrahim, who continued to live a split life.

“Because my memories are all here, you see,” he said, without malice. “My mother, my sister, the old neighbours. But my wife, my kids, my business, are there.” He gestured back towards Turkey.

How do you feel, I asked him, when you see the refugees today? He shook his head. “It’s your pride that goes, you see. Back home, you were a person. With a history, with a future. When you become a forced exile . . .” He trailed off. “The life of an exile is worse than war.”

We arrived at the hotel in Svilengrad where I had booked a room. Ibrahim took out my bag and placed it on the pavement. “Bye-bye, arkadash,” he said; and standing by my bag, I watched him drive down the broken road back to the border.

Today, the Kapikule/Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint is said to be the world’s busiest land crossing. But back in 1989 Ibrahim had crossed this checkpoint alone, on foot. I will always think of him like this: a young teacher with a suitcase, walking through no-man’s-land, into the unknown.

Kapka Kassabova’s “Border: a Journey to the Edge of Europe” is published by Granta Books 

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda