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The Origin and Essence of “Palestine” and “Palestinians” as political entities (A)

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“Palestine” as a territory and “Palestinians” as a people are not mentioned in the Qur’an or in the Sunnah (Hadīth and Sīrah), or in the entire Islamic Scriptures, or all along Islamic history. This is the most important fact to understand the political issues today. If any, “Palestine” and “Palestinians” are not only new invention of the 20th century, but the origin of the names is not Islamic or Jewish or other local Middle Eastern source, but a British one, a name taken from the Roman period.

Moreover, if the name “Palestine” has any linguistic relation to the Roman name “Palaestina” that meant to erase the Jewish name, Eretz-Yisrael, the Land of Israel, after it was conquered, there is nothing whatsoever concerning the name “Palestinians” as a nation, politically, socially, or etymologically.

To add to this scientific truth and reality, Jerusalem is also not mentioned in the Qur’an or in the Sunnah (Hadīth and Sīrah). After it was conquered by the Muslims in 638, it was called by the Muslim invaders “The City of the Temple House” (Madinat Bayt al-Maqdis). Bayt al-Maqdis is translated in Hebrew, the Jewish Beit Ha-Miqdash.

To end the religious-historical-political debate, this territory is called in the Qur’an “The Land of the Children of Israel” (Ard Banī-Isra’īl); “The Blessed Land” of the Children of Israel (al-Ard al-Mubārakah); “The Holy Land” of the Children of Israel (al-Ard al-Muqadasah). No “Palestine” or “Palestinians”, but the Children of Israel.

From Islamic perspective, Allah has assigned the Holy Land to the Children of Israel until the day of Judgement (Sûrat al-Mā’idah, 5:21). “we made the people who were deemed weak to inherit the eastern lands and the western ones which we had blessed; and the good word of your Lord was fulfilled in the Children of Israel” (Sûrat al-A’rāf, 7:137). “And we said unto the Children of Israel: dwell in the land of promise; but when the promise of the Hereafter cometh, we shall bring you as a crowd gathered out of various nations” (Sûrat Banī Isrā’īl, 17:104). “We made the Children of Israel the inheritors of the Land (Sûrat al-Shû’arā’, 26:59).

By that, the religious argumentation is over for good. There is no “Palestine” as a territory and “Palestinians” as a people, but the Land of Israel alone. As for the historical side, it is also short and clear: the territory called “Palestine” is a new political invention of the beginning of the 20th century; and the name “Palestinians” is the name of a people beginning to identify themselves from the second half of the 20th century.

“Palestine” had no special geographic entity or political role whatsoever in the history of the region, and the “Palestinians” had no specific sociopolitical or cultural identity, but only after the creation of the State of Israel. “Palestine” has never been a territorial-cultural unit in history, let alone a political one, with its people as one recognized entity, struggling for independence among other political entities in the region.

There is nothing at all, in the entire Islamic literature or poetry, archaeological or scientific, from the 7th century to the 20th century that mention whatsoever “Palestine” and “Palestinians”. Indeed, this is a new creation of the 20th century. Moreover, had the British called the territory not “Palestine” but “Jupiter”, would we be hearing today of a Jupiterian people fighting to liberate their Jupiterian territory?

To set the scientific undoubted truth: this has nothing to do with the question whether there is a “Palestinian” people today. Contrary to the “Palestinians”, who refute and deny any connection of the Jews to their land, the “Land of Israel,” it has to be said: today there is a Palestinian people, a new and invented one, but still it exists. But, it is a new creation of the 20th century, and “Palestinianism” as a national identity, is the creation of the middle of the 20th century.

So far for “Palestine” as a territory and “Palestinians” as a people. From here we can debate the relevant issues honestly and correctly, without the bias of false propaganda. King David captured Jerusalem and made it a political and religious center for the Jews. His son Solomon bureaucratized the Jewish state and inaugurated the First Temple. Since the dynasty of David and Solomon, and after the destruction of the Second Jewish House by the Romans in year 70, this territory, the Land of Israel, was conquered and ruled by many empires in history, and still, except of the Crusaders’ “kingdom of Jerusalem,” there has never been an independent political entity with its unique nation living and residing in the territory of the Land of Israel.

To make it even clearer: since the Islamic occupation of the Land of Israel in 634 and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there was never an Arab or Islamic independent rule or political regime in this territory. It was ruled independently in the first Jewish Kingdom, the Second Jewish Kingdom, and the State of Israel. This is a historical fact no one can deny scientifically.    

Bernard Lewis, perhaps the best Islamic and Middle East researcher, has made a comprehensive review of the issue, in which we can discern the following aspects. The word Palestine comes from Philistine, originally denoting the southern coastal region. In Hebrew that area was known as Pleshet, a Hebrew word. In the New English Bible, the Latin name Palaestina is replaced by Philistia in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the word Palestine does not occur at all.

The Babylonian conquest of the Land of Israel, and the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, culminated in destruction of the First Temple. The Roman conquest of the Land of Israel, and the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, culminated in destruction of the Second Temple. At first, the Romans called the country “Provincia Judaea”. But after crushing the Bar-Kokhba rebellion in the year 135, the Romans changed the name to “Provincia Syria Palaestina”, part of its policy of divide-and-rule, with the intention of uprooting any memory of Jewish existence. In about 400 CE, Palestine was split into two provinces known as “Palaestina Prima” and “Palaestina Secunda”. Later, in 425 CE, “Palaestina Tertia” was added. The new Roman name for Jerusalem was “Aelia Capitolina”. The Jews continued to consider it as the Land of Israel and “The Promised Land”.

After the Arabs had conquered the country, Palaestina Prima became Jund Filastin, the military district of Filastin (the Arabic adaptation of the Roman name), administered from Ramla; Palaestina Secunda including Western Galilee, became Jund al-Urdun (Jordan military district), was administered from Tiberias. The Arab division of the country, like the Roman, was not vertical between east and west, but horizontal, with Filastin in the south and Urdun in the north.

During the Islamic Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties, the country was treated merely as part of Syria (bilad al-Sham). For the Crusaders, the area was called “The Holy Land” or the “Kingdom of Jerusalem”. The end of Crusader rule in Jerusalem came in 1187, when Saladin (Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi) drove them out. After the Islamic re-conquest of the country, the term Filastin did not come back into use. The parts of the country were named after major cities (Jerusalem, Gaza, Nablus, and Nazareth). In various places, the area was sometimes called al-Quds Sahel, Jerusalem coast.

During the Ottoman Empire the Land of Israel was divided into three districts as administrative units (Sanjaks): Gaza, Jerusalem, and Nablus, with their provincial capital in Damascus. The country was known as “Southern Syria” (Suriyah al-Janubiyah). More specifically, the area from Safed to Jerusalem was part of the Vilayet (province) of Beirut. Indeed, Ottoman rule further emphasized the absence of any socio-cultural or political identity of the country in Arab and Islamic thought. For the population of the area, the territory had never meant more than an administrative sub-district, and had been forgotten even in the limited sense.

What was the social-political reality of the Land of Israel up to the end of the 19th century? Most documents and Christian travelers who visited the country described it as a land in decay. The common adjectives were “desolate” and “neglected”. “So abandoned that even the imagination cannot give it the splendor of life.” “The emptiness of a silent world.” The economy was primitive, the transportation wretched, and the roads dangerous. Jaffa and Haifa were described as “frozen, wretched life”.

According to all the demographic estimates, in the middle of the nineteenth century, there were about 300,000 persons, most of them a mixed multitude of recently arrived migrants. Arab Muslims were the majority of the population carried on a semi-nomadic way of life, and lived in the mountains of the Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. The Christians were concentrated in the holy cities, in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth. The Jews lived mainly in Jerusalem, where they were a majority of the population, as well as in Hebron, and the Galilee cities of Safed and Tiberias .

Until the end of the First World War, Palestine was divided into several districts belonging administratively to Syria, and the inhabitants considered themselves part of Syria, broadly defined. British rule from late 1917, made “Palestine” the name of the formal political entity. Neither Jews nor Arabs consented to the name, however the Jews accepted it formally together with the name the Land of Israel, whereas the Arabs saw themselves as part of Syria and rejected it.

The best account of the period is still Porath’s analysis. The idea of a British mandate for a Jewish National Home stimulated the counter-notion of Palestine’s unity with Syria, with Damascus as its capital. This trend is attested by the recommendation of the King-Crane Commission that, “The unity of Syria be preserved, in accordance with the petition of the great majority of the people of Syria.” King and Crane recommended that Palestine be included in Syria.

From the beginning, the British were engaged on three separate political tracks. This multi-faceted policy bore crucial influence on the future of the Middle East. It began with official correspondence, ten letters written, starting in July 1915, between Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, and Sherif Hussein of Mecca, whom the British made spokesman of the Arabs.

According to Clayton, the British Director of Military Intelligence, Britain only wanted to keep the friendship and active assistance of the various Arab chieftains. McMahon never had it in mind to set up an Arab state, since the conditions throughout Arabia, Mesopotamia, and Syria did not allow such a scheme to be put into practice. To Storrs, the Oriental Secretary, the Hashemite demands were impossible, and Hussein’s borders were in fact tragi-comic. Moreover, Hussein had received no mandate whatsoever from his Arab counterparts, and the whole issue was premature and out of context.

All British officials maintained that McMahon had specifically excluded all the areas west of the district of Damascus, what they call Palestine. According to Lloyd George, McMahon was very convinced that the exclusion of Palestine was well understood by Sherif Hussein. Colonel Vickery, an expert Arabist, stated that he could affirm most definitely that Hussein’s demands were centered only on Syria. Hussein stated quite emphatically that he did not concern himself with Palestine at all, and he had no desires there. This was Clayton’s impression too.

The second British political track was the secret talks with France and Tsarist Russia, resulting in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, concerning the post-war division of the Middle East under European control and their respective spheres of influence. The region was to be divided into zones of direct and indirect British and French rule, while “Palestine,” the brown zone on the map, was to be internationally administered.

The third British political track was the Balfour Declaration, a letter from the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, declaring that “His majesty’s government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.”

Much has been written about this commitment and its consequences. Essentially, the arguments are divided into four: a) strategic self-interest. The Jewish entity would be friendly to British interests in the region; b) self-deception: the Jewish people wielded enormous economic and political power that would help usher the US into the First World War, and would stop the Bolshevik revolution in Russia; c) religious idealism: the British Protestants believed it was the duty of Christianity to help the Jews return to Palestine, as a precondition for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ; d) admiration of the British leadership for Judaism and Zionism as conformed to the principles of national self-determination and the right of a nation to rule on a nation-state.

The British government was never consistent in its interpretation of the Declaration, and did not speak with one single voice. Yet, all agreed that President Wilson’s wartime Fourteen Points support the principles of self-determination, and the rights of small nations to independence, including the Jews.

Nevertheless, the Declaration was not published hastily or frivolously; nor was it formulated out of ignorance of the facts, in the words of Lord Amery, one of its authors. It is a striking fact that four drafts were drawn up, starting in July 1917, before the Declaration was published. Talks and discussions about the various approaches towards Palestine had already begun in Britain in 1915.

The following aspects are important for understanding the matter:

First, this was a step taken with deliberation, which the British government decided upon cautiously. It was an inseparable part of its policy. The government received the consent of all the major parties in Britain, and the decision was enthusiastically supported by policy-makers, particularly the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, and the foreign minister, Lord Balfour, admirers of Zionism and the advancement of Jewish interests in the Land of Israel.

Second, it suited the perceptions of British military men and statesmen who viewed the Jewish National Home in the Land of Israel as a basis for loyal manpower, a barrier to the French expansion southwards, from Syria and Lebanon, and an alternate base for the British presence in Egypt for defending the Suez Canal.

Third, Britain’s Principal Allies, the United States, France, Russia, and Italy, knew the contents of the Declaration before it was made public.

Fourth, inclusion of the Declaration in the Mandate over Palestine that Britain received gave it the force of law and a recognized international status.

Fifth, the Declaration had an attraction for public opinion in Britain and the United States, and it suited the spirit of the times that sympathized with national movements for attaining self-determination.

The goal of the British government was defined by the Foreign Office: to establish a state in its natural and historic boundaries, that constant immigration and economic development would make into a Jewish state. From Britain’s viewpoint, the greatest and oldest historical wrong done to the Jews was coming to an end.

There was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

The Arabs argued that the Balfour Declaration was merely a statement of sympathy for the Zionist movement, however, this was not the issue. The historical context was worked out in the Agreement of Understanding and Cooperation which was signed on 3 January 1919 by Amir Faisal – ”the leader of the Arab uprising”, according to the King-Crane Commission, “the representative of the Arab national movement”, according to the British – and by Chaim Weizmann, representing the Zionist movement. The aim was defined as collaboration in developing the Arab state and a Jewish Palestine:

Relations…shall be controlled by the most cordial good will and understanding (art. 1)…the definite boundaries between the Arab state and Palestine shall be determined (art. 2)…carrying into effect the British Government Declaration of the 2nd November 1917 (art. 3)…all necessary measures shall be taken to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine in large scale” (art 4).

There was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

In his famous exchange of letters of March 3-5, 1919, with Felix Frankfurter, Amir Faisal recognized that there was no distinguishable Palestinian nationhood, and declared “There is room in Syria for both of us.” However, Arab pressures on Amir Faisal showed their success in an interview in the Jewish Chronicle of October 3, 1919. He explained his views about the meaning of his agreement with Weizmann as follows: From the Arab viewpoint, Palestine is merely a district, and the objective was to set up an Arab state including Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. The Arabs could not retreat from this position. The Jews are members of the Mosaic faith and are not a nationality. Moreover, the possible immigration of Jews is up to 1,500 per year. This territory would be a sub-district of the Arab kingdom under his kingship, in which the Jews would enjoy cultural rights. However, Jewish sovereignty is utterly rejected.

There was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

With the opening of the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, Amir Faisal presented a memorandum describing the demands and proposals of the Arab national movement. His proposals were rejected, but subsequent to the tension that developed between Britain and France, the president of the United States, Wilson, proposed sending an investigating commission to examine the attitudes of the inhabitants as to a desirable government. This commission, which in the end had only two members, American representatives, King and Crane, presented its recommendations in August 1919 in a detailed report: Syria (including Lebanon and Palestine) should be considered a single political unit, headed by Amir Faisal, and it should be guided by a mandatory power, but not by France. The commission proposed changing Zionist plan and preventing the turning of Palestine into a Jewish state. However, this report was filed away by the American administration.

There was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

Meanwhile, the mandate principle was accepted in June 1919, in Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations. In April 1920, at a session of the San-Remo Conference, it was agreed to grant the mandate over Syria and Lebanon to France, and the mandates over Palestine and Iraq to Britain. Included in the mandate was the Balfour Declaration as a document obliging political action. Thereby the Balfour declaration took on international validity.

The mandate was approved by the League of Nations on July 24, 1922, but it entered into effect only a year later, when the Churchill White Paper was included in it. Winston Churchill was the Colonial Secretary. His White Paper stipulated that the National Home provisions of the Mandate were not applicable to Trans-Jordan to the east. Thus, the Churchill White Paper cut away a major part of Palestine (35,468 square miles out of 46,339) in order to set up the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, known at that time as Trans-Jordan.

Still, there was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

In the remaining years until the conclusion of British rule in 1948, the Jewish and Arab inhabitants lived in a country officially named “Palestine” in English, “Filastin” in Arabic, and “Palestina (E.I.)” in Hebrew, the initials E.I. standing for Eretz-Israel.

Therefore, in opposition to the Arab claims that Britain was characterized by blatantly inconsistent policy, by a zig-zag policy, there are ample proofs there was precisely a high degree of consistency in its policy, though there were disputes between policy-making officials in London and policy executing officials on the ground. Moreover, Kedourie is right in his brilliant study of in the Anglo-Arab labyrinth, saying that if there was a fraud, and if manipulations were performed, it was precisely the Arabs, masters at negotiating, who tried to change the circumstances of political history in order to dictate other political frameworks, so as to make reality turn in their favor.

If one closely examines British policy from the Balfour Declaration in 1917 to the MacDonald White Paper in 1939, he will note a drastic shift of British policy towards the Arab positions. Yet, it was not enough for the Arabs demanding an extreme pro-Arab policy, since they demanded all of the territory, out of total rejection to Israel, as they do today. Still, there was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

So much for “Palestine”, but what about the “Palestinians”? Who are the “Palestinians”? The population now called “Palestinians” were a mixture of many peoples roaming and migrating around the region, from and through Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Arabia and even Sudan. The Syrian and Egyptian accents of Arabic are very conspicuous among the Arab population.

During the Ottoman period, the Arabs living in the country were known particularly by their religious affiliation. They did not regard themselves – nor were they regarded by others – as “Palestinians”.

All reliable history books clearly prove that the non-Jewish population of “Palestine” grew steadily by many groups from around countries after the Jewish-Zionist flourishing economy and its enterprises. The 11th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica, in volume 20, under the entry “Palestine,” provides a detailed information on the inhabitants, roughly estimates to be 650,000. They are composed of a large number of elements, differing widely in ethnological affinities, language and religion. There are no less than 20 foreign ethnicities other than the small native fellahin and the Jews and Christians living in the cities: Assyrian, Persian, Roman, Arabian, Nawar, Turkic, Armenian, Greek, Italian, Turkoman, Kurd, Bosnian, Circassian, Sudanese, Algerian, and others. It mentions that this complexity makes it no easy task to dwell on the ethnology of “Palestine.”

Therefore, if there were Palestinians and a Palestinian state existed, when was it founded and by whom? What were its borders? What were its capital and major cities? What was its language and its national emblem and currency? Who were its leaders, what were their interactions with other leaders, and where they are written in accords of the history of the region? There is nothing of the sort, and all are imagined and fabricated.

Indeed, the people called “Palestinians” are anything but generic Arabs collected from all over the regional countries. If they really have a genuine ethnic identity entitled for self-determination, why did they never try to become independent until the establishment of the State of Israel, and mainly the 1967 Arab defeat? The “Palestinians” have only one motivation: the destruction of Israel as a state and as a nation.

The first years of the Mandate saw their stubborn struggle to be part of Syria, to have a Syrian identity. The Arabs in the country began to use the name “Palestinian” only on account of the Zionist successes. Their identification as Palestinians came only after the establishment of the State of Israel, and it was purely crystallized after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war.

As late as 1945, the famous Arab historian Philip Hitti appeared before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry and vehemently claimed that there were no Palestinian people, and that no “Palestine” had existed in history. This was also the official position of the Palestinian Arab representatives. They stated that “Palestine” was part of Syria in the geographic sense, and its inhabitants belonged to the Syrian branch of the Arab family of peoples.

This was also the position of the Arab representatives who appeared before the UN General Assembly in 1947. They asserted that Palestine was part of Greater Syria, and that the Palestinians did not constitute an entity separate and distinct from the Syrians. The striking phenomenon that emerges here is the reference to the Arab population as Arabs, not Palestinians. All the international decisions spoke of Arabs. The refugees too were referred to in the 1950s and 1960s as Arabs. Even Security Council Resolution 242 spoke only of Arab refugees, not of “Palestinians”.

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Who are the real betrayers of Egypt, Critics or Sycophants?

Mohammed Nosseir

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“You are betraying your country by exposing its defects!” is a common accusation made by the sycophants to the ruling regime in Egypt who have managed to well situated themselves in our society simply by blindly praising the ruler’s policies. Apparently, these sycophants place a higher value on the privileges that they have gained to living in a truly advanced nation. In fact, the real betrayers of any given authoritarian nation are those who justify this immoral ruling mechanism for their own personal gain.  

Despotism is the evilest ruling mechanism ever devised; apart from its cruelty and unfairness, it works on inflating the ruler’s ego by mirroring his thoughts that are always passionately endorsed by his flatterers, regardless of their merits! Meanwhile, the ruler’s manipulation of the entire political sphere impairs the state’s ability to detect and correct its blunders. Concurrently, the harsh and inhuman treatment of the state’s critics, which includes threats to their personal lives, results in spreading fear throughout the entire society.

A successful strategy for running a country ruled by a tyrannical government is to enable ignorant citizens to dominate the state media exclusively, thus empowering them to express their opinions on a much wider scale than knowledgeable citizens. This approach consequently creates significant friction between knowledgeable and ignorant citizens, resulting in the polarization of the entire nation. The state methodically fuels this process by labeling the mediocre as loyal citizens and accusing its critics of treason.

The privileging of sycophants financially, along with advancing their power and upscaling their status, have prompted many Egyptians to join this beneficial club, which prerequisites praising superiors and justifying their faults, thus compensating for the natural dullness and incompetence of the flatterers. Meanwhile, the state’s critics who demand freedom and stand by their values are aware that they are engaged in a long-lasting battle and are risking their lives for generations to come!

In fact, sycophants are the weakest link in the state’s ruling dynamics. They hypocritically heap intense praise on the security apparatus who sacrifice their lives to defend our nation – but do their utmost to ensure that their youngsters abandon their military duty; just one facet of their deceitful conduct. Sycophantic behavior and false testimony are the most sinful acts in Islam; yet they have become, ironically, a habitual pattern of behavior in our social norms.  

That Egypt needs to be ruled by an Iron-fist is a common argument put forth by the flatterers. It is translated into applying harsh measures to critics and laxity toward lawbreakers – a proposition that reflects the low moral values espoused by flatterers to secure their status. The policy of maximum repression adopted by the current ruling regime might be successful in controlling society; however, it has certainly contributed to an escalation of terrorism activities by political Islamists against the military apparatus.

In my former party, the Egyptian Democratic Front, a few executive party members used to instantly report our internal discussions to the State Security apparatus. In addition totheir immoral conduct and betrayal of their peers, they used to enhance their ratting out by exacerbating our opposing political stands. I argued, at that time, for either offering those ratters a crash course on “minutes-taking” or inviting the State Security apparatus to participate in our meetings to better learn about our viewpoints.

“Cairo is a dirty city” – a painful remark that I occasionally hear from international visitors to our capital. The Egyptian State will never be able to manipulate the perception of millions of diversified tourists who visit Cairo yearly, but we can easily work to bring order to our city and live in a hygienic place. The same applies to other qualities of life such as freedom, dignity and justice; we need to highlight deficiencies in these areas to be able to advance our nation.  

President Al Sisi has a clear desire to be a remarkable leader; he believes that expanding our roads and building new flyovers will make Egypt an advanced nation and that these developments will be credited to his legacy. The president is unaware that the future of our country will be written and judged by the youths of today, who are extremely angry with him due to his policy of demolishing humanity and freedom, compounded by his inability to create decent jobs for youngsters.

Egypt is currently confronting a number of complex internal and external challenges, including an economic slowdown, a civil war on our eastern borders, a potential water shortage due to the filling of Ethiopian GRED and rising unemployment. All of these challenges, and many more, will simply be intensified by our deep polarization, further weakening the state. The sycophants’ deliberate misleading of Egypt concerning these challenges is dragging our nation downward, transforming us into a fragile state.

Advancing an old-fashioned country like Egypt requires honest citizens who have bold ideas and enough courage to implement their ideas. These qualities are found more among knowledgeable citizens and critics of the state who are already sacrificing for their country; large numbers of them are spending their best years in prison simply for having voiced their opinions. Modernizing Egypt will require our president to unite our nation, appointing well-educated citizens to key positions and completely discarding state sycophants.

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Israel-China Relations: Staring Into the Abyss of US-Chinese Decoupling

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Israel knew the drill even before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boarded his flight to Tel Aviv earlier this month four days after the death of his father. It was Mr. Pompeo’s first and only overseas trip since March.

Echoing a US warning two decades ago that Israeli dealings with China jeopardized the country’s relationship with the United States, Mr. Pompeo’s trip solidified Israel’s position at the cusp of the widening US-Chinese divide.

Two decades ago the issue was the potential sale to China of Israeli Phalcon airborne warning and control systems (AWACS). Israel backed out of the deal after the US threatened withdrawal of American support for the Jewish state.

This month the immediate issue was a Chinese bid for construction of the world’s largest desalination plant and on the horizon a larger US-Chinese battle for a dominating presence in Eastern Mediterranean ports.

Within days of his visit, Mr. Pompeo scored a China-related success even if the main focus of his talks with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was believed to be Iran and Israeli plans to annex portions of the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.

Israel signalled that it had heard the secretary’s message by awarding the contract for the Sorek-2 desalination plant to an Israeli rather than a Chinese company.

The tender, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.

China’s interest in Israel is strategic given the fact that the Jewish state is one of the world’s foremost commercial, food and security technology powerhouses and one of the few foreign countries to command significant grassroots support in the United States.

If there is one thing Israel cannot afford, it is a rupture in its bonds to the United States. That is no truer than at a time in which the United States is the only power supportive of Israeli annexation plans on the West Bank.

The question is whether Israel can develop a formula that convinces the United States that US interests will delineate Israeli dealings with China and reassure China that it can still benefit from Israeli assets within those boundaries.

“Right now, without taking the right steps, we are looking at being put in the situation in which the US is telling us we need to cut or limit our relations with China. The problem is that Israel wants freedom of relations with China but is not showing it really understands US concerns. Sorek-2 was a good result. It shows the Americans we get it.” said Carice Witte, executive director of Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL) that seeks to advance Israeli-Chinese relations.

Analysts, including Ms. Witte, believe that there is a silver lining in Israel’s refusal to award the desalination plant to a Chinese company that would allow it to steer a middle course between the United States and China.

“China understands that by giving the Americans this win, China-Israel relations can continue. It gives them breathing room,” Ms. Witte said in an interview.

It will, however, be up to Israel to develop criteria and policies that accommodate the United States and make clear to China what Israel can and cannot do.

“In order for Israel to have what it wants… it’s going to need to show the Americans that it takes Washington’s strategic perceptions into consideration and not only that, that it’s two steps ahead on strategic thinking with respect to China.  The question is how.” Ms. Witte said.

Ports and technology are likely to be focal points.

China is set to next year takeover the management of Haifa port where it has already built its own pier and is constructing a new port in Ashdod.

One way of attempting to address US concerns would be to include technology companies in the purview of a still relatively toothless board created under US pressure in the wake of the Haifa deal to review foreign investment in Israel. It would build in a safeguard against giving China access to dual civilian-military use technology.

That, however, may not be enough to shield Israel against increased US pressure to reduce Chinese involvement in Israeli ports.

“The parallels between the desalination plant and the port are just too close to ignore. We can’t have another infrastructure divide,” Ms. Witte said.

The two Israeli ports will add to what is becoming a Chinese string of pearls in the Eastern Mediterranean.

China already manages the Greek port of Piraeus.

China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) is looking at upgrading Lebanon’s deep seaport of Tripoli to allow it to accommodate larger vessels.

Qingdao Haixi Heavy-Duty Machinery Co. has sold Tripoli port two 28-storey container cranes capable of lifting and transporting more than 700 containers a day, while a container vessel belonging to Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO docked in Tripoli in December 2018, inaugurating a new maritime route between China and the Mediterranean.

Major Chinese construction companies are also looking at building a railroad that would connect Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon to Homs and Aleppo in Syria.  China has further suggested that Tripoli could become a special economic zone within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and serve as an important trans-shipment point between the People’s Republic and Europe.  

BRI is a massive infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven effort to connect the Eurasian landmass to China.

Potential Chinese involvement in reconstruction of post-war Syria would likely give it access to the ports of Latakia and Tartous.

Taken together, China is looking at dominating the Eastern Mediterranean with six ports in four countries, Israel, Greece, Lebanon, and Syria that would create an alternative to the Suez Canal.

All that is missing are Turkish, Cypriot and Egyptian ports.

The Chinese build- up threatens to complicate US and NATO’s ability to manoeuvre in the region.

The Trump administration has already warned Israel that Chinese involvement in Haifa could jeopardize continued use of the port by the US fifth fleet.

“The writing is on the wall. Israel needs to carve out a degree of wiggle room. That however will only come at a price. There is little doubt that Haifa will move into the firing line,” said a long-time observer of Israeli-Chinese relations.

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Will Gulf States Learn From Their Success in Handling the Pandemic?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic for Gulf states has done far more than play havoc with their revenue base and fiscal household. It has propelled massive structural change to the top of their agenda in ways that economic diversification plans had not accounted for.

Leave aside whether Gulf states can continue to focus on high-profile, attention-grabbing projects like Neom, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion USD 21st century futuristic city on the Red Sea.

Gulf rulers’ to do list, if they want to get things right, is long and expensive without the burden of trophy projects. It involves economic as well as social and ultimately political change.

Transparency and accurate and detailed public reporting go to the core of these changes.

They also are key to decisions by investors, economists, and credit rating companies at a time when Gulf states’ economic outlook is in question. Many complain that delays in GDP reporting and lack of easy access to statistics complicates their decision-making.

Nonetheless, if there is one thing autocratic Gulf governments have going for themselves, beyond substantial financial reserves, it is public confidence in the way they handled the pandemic, despite the fact that they failed to initially recognize crowded living circumstances of migrant workers as a super spreader.

Most governments acted early and decisively with lockdowns and curfews, testing, border closures, repatriation of nationals abroad, and, in Saudi Arabia, suspension of pilgrimages.

To be sure, Gulf countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia that receives millions of Muslim pilgrims from across the globe each year, have a long-standing history of dealing with epidemics. Like Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, they were better prepared than Western nations.

History persuaded the kingdom to ban the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in late February, days before the first case of a Covid-19 infection emerged on Saudi soil.

Beyond public health concerns, Saudi Arabia had an additional reason to get the pandemic right. It offered the kingdom not only an opportunity to globally polish its image, badly tarnished by human rights abuses, power grabs, and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but also to retain religious influence despite the interruption in the flow of pilgrims to the kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia is still a reference for many Muslim communities around the world,” said Yasmine Farouk, a scholar of Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It also allowed Saudi Arabia to set the record straight following criticism of its handling of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 when the kingdom became the epidemic’s epicenter and in 2009 when it was hit by the H1N1 virus.

Saudi Arabia is also blamed for contributing to a public health catastrophe in Yemen with its frequent indiscriminate bombings.

A country in ruins as a result of the military intervention, Yemen has grappled for the past four years with a cholera epidemic on the kingdom’s borders.

Trust in Gulf states’ handling of the current pandemic was bolstered by degrees of transparency on the development of the disease in daily updates in the number of casualties and fatalities.

It was further boosted by a speech by King Salman as soon as the pandemic hit the kingdom in which he announced a raft of measures to counter the disease and support the economy as well as assurances by agriculture minister Abdulrahman al-Fadli that the crisis would not affect food supplies.

Ms. Farouk suggested that government instructions during the pandemic were followed because of “trust in the government, the expertise and the experience of the government [and] trust in the religious establishment, which actually was following the technical decisions of the government.”

To be sure, Ms. Farouk acknowledged, the regime’s coercive nature gave the public little choice.

The limits of government transparency were evident in the fact that authorities were less forthcoming with details of public spending on the pandemic and insight into available medical equipment like ventilators and other supplies such as testing kits.

Some Gulf states have started publishing the daily and total number of swabs but have yet to clarify whether these figures include multiple swabbings of the same person.

“It is likely that publics in the Middle East will look back at who was it that gave them reliable information, who was it who was there for them,” said political scientist Nathan Brown.

The question is whether governments will conclude that transparency will be needed to maintain public confidence as they are forced to rewrite social contracts that were rooted in concepts of a cradle-to-grave welfare state but will have to involve greater burden sharing.

Gulf governments have so far said little about burden sharing being allocated equitably across social classes nor has there been transparency on what drives investment decisions by sovereign wealth funds in a time of crisis and changing economic outlook.

Speaking to the Financial Times, a Gulf banker warned that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “needs to be careful what he spends on . . . Joe Public will be watching.”

Headed by Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund has gone on a $7.7 billion USD shopping spree buying stakes in major Western blue chips, including four oil majors: Boeing, Citigroup, Disney, and Facebook. The Public Investment Fund is also funding a bid for English soccer club Newcastle United.

The banker suggested that Saudi nationals would not appreciate “millionaire footballer salaries being paid for by VAT (value added tax) on groceries.” He was referring to this month’s hiking of sales taxes in the kingdom from five to 15 percent.

The fragility and fickleness of public trust was on display for the world to see in Britain’s uproar about Dominic Cummings, a close aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who violated lockdown instructions for personal reasons. Mr. Johnson is struggling to fight off demands for Mr Cummings’ dismissal.

To be sure, senior government officials and business executives in the Gulf have cautioned of hard times to come.

A recent Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey of CEOs predicted that 70 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ companies would go out of business in the next six months, including half of its restaurants and hotels and three-quarters of its travel and tourism companies.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan warned earlier this month that the kingdom would need to take “painful” measures and look for deep spending cuts as a result of the collapse of oil prices and significantly reduced demand for oil.

Aware of sensitivities, Mr. Al-Jadaan stressed that “as long as we do not touch the basic needs of the people, all options are open.”

There was little transparency in Mr. Al-Jadaan’s statements on what the impact would be on employment-seeking Saudi nationals in a labor market where fewer migrant workers would be available for jobs that Saudis have long been unwilling to accept.

It was a missed opportunity considering the 286 percent increase in the number of Saudis flocking to work for delivery services.

The increase was fueled by an offer by Hadaf, the Saudi Human Resources Development Fund, to pay drivers $800 USD a month, as well as a newly-found embrace of volunteerism across the Gulf.

The surge offered authorities building blocks to frame expectations at a time when the kingdom’s official unemployment rate of 12 percent is likely to rise.

It suggested a public acknowledgement of the fact that well-paying, cushy government positions may no longer be as available as they were in the past as well as the fact that lesser jobs are no less honorable forms of employment.

That may be the silver lining as Gulf states feel the pressure to reinvent themselves in a world emerging from a pandemic that potentially will redraw social, economic, and political maps.

Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia

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