Ancient ideas of land and faith must underpin a new Middle East peace initiative

Having reported on the conflict for years, James Rodgers explains why energy and ambition alone will not be enough to secure peace.

It was a day of extreme heat, and extreme emotion. The prisoners were due to be released at Tarqumia, a checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank.

It was August. The Middle Eastern summer was at its hottest. There was no shade. Waiting families did not seem to mind. Perhaps they had been strengthened by learning to endure absence and separation. Perhaps hope and expectation alone sustained them that afternoon. Their excitement seemed to increase the air temperature even further.

The newly-freed prisoners were Palestinians who had been held in Israeli jails, mostly for carrying out, or planning, attacks on Israeli targets. A similar release is planned now, as part of moves by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to restart the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It was just such a restart, in this case prompted by the launch of the "Roadmap" for Middle East peace, which had led to the prisoner release I witnessed then, in 2003.

Such new beginnings seem often to be prompted by the ambition of politicians or diplomats. In this case, Kerry, new in his post, is taking on one of the toughest diplomatic challenges of the age. In his announcement last week, he talked of £a significant and welcome step forward", which would see delegations coming to "Washington to begin initial talks within the next week or so" – in other words, very soon now.

Without the dedication and energy which Kerry has shown, this stage might not even have been reached. It is his enthusiasm which is the catalyst. The need to end the conflict is nothing new. There seems to be a growing opinion that it may soon be impossible to create a Palestinian state on the West Bank. The European Union’s view, published last December, is typical. Foreign Ministers decided then that continued settlement expansion, "would seriously undermine the prospects of a negotiated resolution of the conflict by jeopardis­ing the possibility of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state and of Jerusa­lem as the future capital of two states."

If attempts to take on the challenge are not prompted by ministerial ambition, they are often prompted by more than circumstances inside Israel and the Palestinian territories. The Roadmap of 2003 came in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq; the Madrid talks of 1991 followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The disputes remain the same: borders; refugees (those who fled the 1948 war, which brought Israel into being, and their descendants); the status of Jerusalem. Any solution to these fundamental issues will require compromise, or acceptance of loss or injustice. So far, this has proved impossible.

As the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza from 2002-2004, I was the only international journalist then based in the territory. I watched the conflict unfold from a rare viewpoint. Reporting the news gave me an understanding of daily reality, and the longer I did it, the more I sought to understand the deeper, enduring, causes of enmity between Israeli and Palestinian.

Taking a week or so away from news reporting, I made a radio documentary about the conflict and ideas of home.

It seemed that the more you went beyond the questions designed to get a soundbite for that day’s bulletins, the more ideas of historical destiny, reinforced by religious faith, came to the surface.

I was reminded of this recently when watching a BBC Television documentary, Israel: Facing the Future.

"Both sides claim to have rights on this land, and they claim that they are the only ones who have the rights on this land, and no side can in any way forego its rights on every inch of territory because it’s holy land," Ephraim Halevy, a former Director of Mossad, told the reporter, John Ware.

This is the extremely inconvenient truth which conventional diplomacy, and the journalism which reports it, too often underplays. Taking it into account is no guarantee of a successful peace process. Ignoring it seems to guarantee failure. Energy and ambition alone are not sufficient. This new diplomatic initiative will need to understand ancient ideas of land and faith if it is to succeed.

James Rodgers is the author of the newly-published No Road Home: Fighting for Land and Faith in Gaza (Abramis) and of Reporting Conflict (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012). From 2002-2004, he was the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza. He lectures in Journalism at City University London. 

US Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images
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Locals without borders: governments are using diasporas to shape the migration crisis

Governments of countries key to the migration crisis are tapping diaspora influence more than ever before.

Last month, on 21 June, thousands of Eritreans descended on Geneva and marched across the city, finally stopping at the Place des Nations in front of the UN. The demonstrators had come from across Europe: Italy, Germany, London, and a young man who looked blankly at my French and English questions before exclaiming “Svenska!” (“Swedish!”).

They were here to denounce a recent report by the UN Human Rights Council condemning widespread violations of basic rights in Eritrea. According to the protesters, the report was based on shoddy research and is biased and politically-motivated: “Stop regime change agendas!” said one banner.

Two days later, a similarly sized group of Eritreans marched in the same direction, for the opposite reason. This contingent, 10,000-strong according to the organisers, wanted to show their backing for the report, which highlights many of the problems that led them to leave the Horn of Africa in the first place. Forced conscription, extrajudicial killings, and official impunity, all pinpointed by the UN inquiry, have driven a mass exodus to the surrounding region and beyond. In 2015 alone, 47,025 Eritreans crossed the Mediterranean to request asylum in Europe.

Two things stood out. First was the sharp polarisation of the Eritrean diaspora community in Europe, which muddies the waters for outsiders trying to make sense of the situation: how can one side say everything is fine while the other claims massive abuses of rights?

Second was the sheer engagement of this diaspora, some of whom may never have set foot in Eritrea. They had come from across Europe, with or without the help of funding, to stand on a rainy square and fight for the narrative of their nation.

As an Irishman abroad, would I have the commitment to jump on a plane for a political protest with no certain outcome? I probably wouldn’t, but then again my country is not just 25 years old and still struggling to define itself on the international stage.

Individual stakes are also much higher for people like Abraham, an Eritrean in Switzerland who told me how he was forced into the army for seven years before managing to escape via Sudan two years ago. With two children still in Asmara, he has significant skin in the game.

As for the naysayers, they are also under certain pressure. Some reports suggest that the government in Asmara exercises extensive power in certain diaspora circles, threatening to cancel the citizenship of those who denounce the regime or refuse to pay 2 per cent income tax each year.

Ultimately, such a situation can only lead to a committed kind of polarisation where pro-government supporters need to publicly demonstrate their backing, and the anti-government kind have nothing left to lose.

But on a more benign level, the idea of states systematically harnessing the power of the diaspora for domestic gains has also been growing elsewhere – including in Ireland. Historically a nation of emigrants, Ireland has seen its diaspora swell even further following the economic downturn: OECD figures estimate that one in six Irish-born people now live abroad.

In an age of networks and soft power, this represents a sizeable demographic, and a well-educated and well-off one to boot. The government has clearly recognized this. In 2009, the first Global Irish Economic Forum was held to tap into the business know-how of expats, and has since taken place biannually.

More importantly, two years ago the first Minister for the Diaspora was appointed, tasked with taking overall charge of engagement efforts: no longer simply cultural ambassadors operating Irish bars abroad, emigrants are economic and political seeds to be cultivated. A referendum is planned next year on whether to grant them the right to vote from abroad in presidential elections.

Elsewhere, in Germany, the 3m-strong Turkish population has attracted renewed interest from the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years. According to a 2014 paper by think tank SWP, Ankara now explicitly designates these Turks abroad as a “diaspora” rather than a scattered group, and adopts clear public diplomacy efforts, channelled through cultural centres, to tap their influence.

This has sometimes rankled in Berlin: although Ankara’s diaspora policy encourages citizens to learn German and integrate into German society, the underlying motivation is one of Turkish self-interest rather than benign assimilation. In a battle for the front-foot, German immigration policy clashes with Turkish emigration policy.

Intra-EU movements, largely unhampered by visa questions, have also become substantial enough to warrant attention. For example, hit hard by the economic downturn and austerity measures, many educated Spaniards and Portuguese have flocked to Northern European cities to seek employment.

London, a melting pot of diasporas from all over the world, is reportedly home to more French people than Bordeaux: together they would make up the sixth largest city in France. As countries continue to rebuild following the financial crisis, forging a connection to the skills and political power of such emigrants is a policy imperative.

And if no other EU country, aside from Ireland, has introduced a dedicated minister for this, the growing economic potentials may spur them to do so.

Diasporas have been around for millennia. Why are governments getting so interested now? And what does it mean for the future of citizenship, nationality, and identity?

Technology is one obvious game-changer. Diasporas not only have more options to keep in touch with their home country, but with so much of daily life now happening on virtual platforms, they also have less reason to integrate in their host society.

It is now almost feasible to ignore the surrounding communities and live quite comfortably in a bubble of media and connections from back home. This then works both ways, with governments increasingly willing to use such communications to maintain links. The “imagined spaces” of nations are morphing into “virtual spaces”, with unpredictable consequences for traditional models of integration.

Marco Funk, a researcher at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Brussels, says that the growing ease of mobility compounds the idea of “people moving from one country to another and staying there” as simply out-of-date.

The coming years, he says, will be marked by patterns of “circular migration”, where citizens hop from one country to another as whim and economic opportunity arise. Governments, especially in an increasingly stagnant Europe, will likely try to beef up links with this mobile generation, especially since it is often pulled from the more educated classes.

Fearing a “brain drain”, yet unable to keep the talent at home, they may foster a more fluid system of “brain exchange”: the diaspora as a mobile resource rather than physical loss.

Of course, none of this will be straightforward, especially at a time when a major fault-line around the world is the future of globalisation and migration. An uptick in nationalist tendencies may mean that diasporas will find themselves (once again) unwilling pawns on a political chessboard, protected or manipulated by governments back home while scapegoated by segments of their host societies.

But one thing is sure: even as walls are rebuilt, diasporas will not disappear, and governments are recognising their power. All politics may remain local, but the local now knows no bounds.