Sunday, October 30, 2005

War kills people not maps

War kills people not maps

WAR can no longer be ruled out, says Tony Blair, in respose to the speech by Iranian President Ahmadnejad about Israel being "wiped off the map". For millions of people in Britain, Iran, the United States and Israel, the thought of another war in the Middle East, with who knows what destruction, is too terrifying to contemplate.

But frightening though it is, it may suit their governments to take that risk. It may suit Blair and Ahmadnejad to play with fire just as it once suited Thatcher and General Galtieri to send young men to their death in the South Atlantic to gamble their way out of troubles at home.
Only this time it's not some godforsaken islands at stake, but a Middle East packed with explosive material in every sense, and innocent people at risk in Tehran, Tel Aviv, Gaza or London.

To put the Iranian "threat" in perspective it is nothing new. Ahmadnejad may have raised a response from his crowd but he was only quoting what Ayatollah Khomeini once promised. This did not stop Israel or the Western Allies doing business with Iran. Israeli middlemen even helped Washington's covert arms supplies to Iran to keep its Gulf War going with Iraq.

Iran's rulers may have helped and encouraged co-religionists in Lebanon, but the Hizbollahi fought a resistance war, driving Israeli forces back over their border not wiping Israel off the map. We don't know whether Iranian intelligence services were involved in terror bombings in Buenos Ayres, or even the Lockerbie airliner bombing (seen as a reprisal for US navy downing an Iranian airliner with similar loss of life. The US ship's commander was decorated). But British security services, government and media have preferred to look away, in order to improve relations with Iran.

Only now it is different. Not because of a speech in Tehran. Not even because of Iran's nuclear development, which the British government had previously been urging be dealt with my diplomatic means. Iran, incidentally, is a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, whereas Israel, with its nuclear arsenal is not. As for UN inspectors, let's not forget Israel's "inspector", Mordechai Vanunu, still under what amounts to house arrest. We may wonder why an oil-rich country like Iran needs nuclear power, but with concern about climate change some people here are reviving the argument for nuclear energy.

On September 18, police in the Iraqi city of Basra stopped a car whose occupants tried to shoot their way past a checkpoint. In it they found two British special forces personnel in Arab dress, with explosives and remote detonators. This was near an important Shia mosque, and the men were allegedly making to look like Sunnis. The British Army, hitherto presented in the media as "friendly" occupiers, smashed its way into Basra police station to free its men, killing people and destroying cars and property en route, and incidentally releasing 150 other prisoners.

We can't help wondering how many covert operations had been carried out in Iraq before the two men got caught. The British media loyally claimed the men were on "surveillance", dropped mention of the explosives from later bulletins, then carried the story that the Basra police were really Muqtada al Sadr's militia. Then Tony Blair accused Iran of smuggling explosive devices into Iraq, and declared without any sense of irony that "neither Iran nor any other country has the right to interfere in Iraq"!

Since then there have been reports of bombings in Iran which the Iranian government is blaming on British special forces. The British naturally denies any such suggestion, just as it always insisted it was only trying to keep the peace between warring factions in Iraq. The name of the game is Diplomacy, but like the Three Card Trick, "Don't watch their mouths, watch their hands".

There have been fears for some time that Bush wanted to make Iran, or Syria, his next target, and while Jack Straw for a time played "good cop", it was thought Israel was being prepared politically and militarily to make the move. If so, and notwithstanding the difficulties, Ahmednejad has helped Western govenments and their media set the scene. Some of Iran's wiser spokespersons are trying to explain that he did not mean it, while inside the country those wishing he'd shut up say he is not up to his job.

"That, they would claim, is showing in domestic affairs as well, for the president's promises during the election campaign that he would tackle corruption, create more jobs and ensure that Iran's oil income was distributed more fairly have not so far been followed by any solid results, although there have been some corruption arrests. By contrast, he has delivered promptly on his commitment to battle liberalism, feminism and secularism, banning films, closing websites and sending out enforcers to pull the chador firmly down on the foreheads of Iranian women again, and is good on staging huge demonstrations such as the anti-Israel ones in Iran yesterday"..
(Guardian leader, Saturday 29 October).

In fact, having got in amid economic and social unrest which is continuing, with strikers facing brutal police repression, the president looks for enemies abroad. So it has been, so it will be, with no real help either to the Iranian people or the Palestinian people whom the Iranian presdent pretends to support.

About maps, and chaps
And now a word about maps. When I was a kid we had a few atlases at home, but Israel did not figure in any of them. Instead, there was still a place called Palestine, (and what's more it was still coloured British imperial pink!). Not a political decision, just that like many of our books, the atlases were second-hand, bought on Shudehill Market, and the State of Israel was not yet ten years old. People my parents' age still referred to Israelis as "Palestinians", and even the Zionists still had a "Joint Palestine Appeal".

In 1948, it was Palestine that was wiped off the map, by the combined effort of the Israeli army and Arab states. Decades afterwards it was not only Israel's Golda Meir who foolishly declared there were "no such thing as Palestinians". Politicians, Right and Left spoke only of "secure borders" for Israel and the Arab states. In 1986, soon after stepping off a plane at Ben Gurion airport (near where Arabs were driven from their town of Lydda in 1948), I was handed an Israeli Tourism Ministry map, and naturally it showed no Palestine, nor any borders for Israel.

"Geography is about maps, and history is about chaps", as schoolboys used to say. We might think the world has learned some history, the hard way, but only last year I heard that a Palestinian film was refused entry to a festival because organisers said there was "no such country as Palestine".

Hopefully it will be Israelis and Palestinians who eventually reach a just peace, despite all the worse than useless governments, and they will decide how to share the country. I still think it most likely this will start by Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders allowing the Palestinians to set up their own state.
But sooner or later, once conflict has given way to normal relations, movement, sharing of water resources and trade, people may well decide to dispense with the border (I am assuming they will have torn down the monstrous Apartheid wall long before this, unless a few points are left as tourist objects, like castles in Wales).

Then Israel as we know it will be "wiped off the map", while Israelis and Palestinians, Arabs and Kurds, and perhaps even Iranians, move around and mingle freely, as equals, constructing a socialist federal Mashraq, a United States of the Middle East.

Im tirzu, zeh lo agada.



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