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Challenges in Oceania: the fight over Pacific Island Countries (PICs)

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Oceania has discovered itself in the last 15 years as a newly appealing region for world powers. As a matter of fact, right after the Cold War, it loses a bit of its pivotal position upon which many events had hinged, but as China continues to grow, and western countries notice, Oceania has regained increasing attention.

As far as maritime challenges are concerned, we shall proceed keeping in mind that, of the players territorially present here, three are close allies of the US with a good naval capabilities (Japan, 5th largest fleet) and with which the US have an excellent intelligence sharing relationship (the Five eyes –Australia and New Zealand plus UK and Canada); and the opponent (China) to the US’s hegemony which apparently is not willing to put in place aggressive military actions, but through its soft power (i.e. economic and political pressure) is building up a new system of relations. The scope of this debrief is to shed a light on the Pacific Island Countries’ (PICs) maritime issues within the perspective of the US-China contrast.

As shown by the declarations of the Fiji’s ambassador in the US in 2019 at a CSIS event, the PICs are particularly worried about the inconclusiveness of US presidents’ doctrines, both Obama and Trump, which stated indeed a renewed interest for the Pacific, stressed by an active securing of sea lanes as well as by numerous warnings of being careful of the “Chinese debt trap”, but without, in fact, taking any action toward what the PICs really consider to be relevant to their survival. That is, monitoring of polluters and resources plunderers, of climate change issues like the rising sea level and shores erosion: in general, natural disasters, which for PICs are an actual threat, like the cyclone that in February 2018 destroyed both the Parliament of Tonga and $150 million in crops.

China’s growth

Therefore, as put by Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute (an Australian non-profit thinktank mainly based on donations) at the CSIS event, US policymakers’ insensitivity toward PICs may bring about a rapprochement with China. In fact, although the volume of US’s and Australia’s investments in the PICs is yet to be caught up by China, there has been a trend over the years through lending practices, major infrastructure projects for airports and highways (under the OBOR) and much more. From 2011 to 2017, China has committed more than $5.2 billion in investments and granted $518 million (according to the Lowy Institute) to PICs, for sectors like road upgrading (Fiji, $136 million; Papua New Guinea, $85 million), wharf redevelopment (Vanuatu, $85 million) and governmental buildings (Samoa, $52 million). All these projects were generically addressed to by the Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific in 2018, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, as “useless buildings”. These words sum up Australia’s concerns over the new level of expenditures in China, reinforced by Prime Minister Morrison’s statements who openly admitted, in 2019, how his country has taken for granted its influence in the Southwest Pacific. It is also true that while China invests millions in road upgrade and critical infrastructure, Australia has spent $219 million to improve medical care, donating drugs and vaccines or promoting initiatives of health education.

Australia

At a more meticulous look, the relationship between the PICs and Australia is something more than an economic bond. The PICs are mostly dependent on foreign aid to carry on their political existences and Australia has been obviously attentive of their needs, committing grants, from 2011 to 2017, for about $5.9 billion. For instance: PICs’ maritime security does not merely involve nature-linked issues, but also illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing, alongside drug smuggling from Latin America to Australia, which have caused a loss of about $616 million per year. In order to prevent these crimes, twelve of the PICshave agreed to have Australia sent them every three months until 2023 a newly built Guardian-class patrol boat and in 2020 Fiji, Palau, Kiribati and Tonga will receive them. Without an external assistance, these islands would find themselves in a dangerously precarious situation.

The nature of the bond between the PICs and Australia is very different from that between them and China, founded on sheer economic bases. On the other hand, if Australia’s spending on foreign aid continues to dwindle, like it has been doing since 1974 from 0,47% of GDP to 0,22% in 2018, there might begin to blow winds of change. What Australia (and New Zealand to a certain extent) have to be careful of is not to indulge too much in the PICs’ forbearance with unbalanced agreements or sudden and explicit withdrawal, which politically may result in a serious loss of a strategic ally in favor of China, regardless of the several “debt trap” reminders. Unbalanced agreements, like the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus (PACER Plus), which is basically a free trade agreement that, given that the PICs’ already have a nearly duty-free access to Australia and New Zealand, will not bring any major change for them, but it will definitely drop tariffs for Australian and New Zealand goods and, as the New Zealand’s government puts it, “[to] “preserve New Zealand’s position against major competitors from outside of the region in the years to come”.

Japan

As for the other side of the board, Japan, France and the US too constantly try to reverse these anti-western trends, oftentimes acting in concert, given, after all, their significant past or position in the region. As a matter of fact, France’s largest EEZ worldwide (thanks to its overseas territories, accounting for 97% of its EEZ) gives a broad room for maneuvers which are usually backed both by the US (with military bases in Guam and in the Marshall Islands) and Japan, with Shinzo Abe’s doctrine of an “open and free Indo-Pacific”. Their shared interests to secure the area (geopolitically from China, economically from crime) are expressed through many projects and agreements with the PICs.

France

PICs’ limited capacity of governance of their maritime domains has been attractive for Japan, that has a per capita EEZ surface much smaller than that of most of the PICs, with which it has established a dialogue to cope with the vast and unguarded marine areas. Not directly through governmental channels, but through the NGO Nippon foundation led by Yohei Sasakawa, in light of Japan’s impossibility to partake in military and navy activities whose nature goes beyond their own defense. For example, it has facilitated the setup of the maritime coordination center in Palau, in full operational capacity in January 2018, as well as the installation of a surveillance system in the Malacca strait and the handover of patrol boats to Micronesian countries. As reported by Dr. Rieko Hayakawa, founder of the Sasakawa Pacific Islands Fund, the USPACOM and US Coastal Guard have recognized as positively proactive the Japanese efforts in the region to enhance maritime security.

USA

Moving on to another historical US ally, with a presence of more than 7000 defense personnel and tens of units among vessels, aircrafts and helicopters, France’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific is facing both environmental and non-traditional security issues (drug smuggling, IUU fishing, piracy, human trafficking, etc.), whose solutions are articulated within formal dialogues with western countries and PICs. As for climate change and natural disasters, France has demonstrated a strong commitment to humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HA/DR) exercises (like “Croix du Sud”), not to mention its proposal in 2017, at the South Pacific Defense Ministers Meeting (SPDMM), to coordinate members’ navies and armies (Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga, plus the United States and United Kingdom as observers) for a deeper study on the impact of climate change. As for non-traditional security, France, alongside Australia, New Zealand and the US, constitutes the Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group (QUAD), which manifests itself as a dialogue platform where maritime surveillance and military cooperation (principally against IUU fishing) are discussed. France’s privileged position of New Caledonia and Polynesia has recently guaranteed successes like the arrest of three Vietnamese so-called “blue boats”, that were fishing illegally offshore New Caledonia. Within the margins of the QUAD, the French forces have joined the numerous multinational operations under the Fisheries Agency of the Pacific Islands Forum (FFA), founded in 1979, currently with 17 members, that are PICs and Australia and New Zealand.

All these efforts are framed in the long institutionalized presence of the US in the western Pacific. Their influence is concretized through well-established organizations like the already-mentioned Pacific Islands Forum and QUAD, and also more recent initiatives like the biennial series of warfare exercises RIMPAC, the first in 2004, for which the US have recently extended an invitation to Fiji to join in summer 2020 (with slight changes to the pandemic).In 2019, the Trump administration has persisted in the predecessor’s recalibration to Asia, investing in the PICs, additionally to the annual $350 million, amounts like$36.5 million in August and $63.5 million in September, principally for development assistance linked to their associated states like the Marshall Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Federates states of Micronesia and Palau but also Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Most of this $350 million, in 2018,was redirected to the Foreign Military Financing to strengthen maritime security and law enforcement cooperation ($290 million); a minor part of that sum was redirected to economic development, infrastructure building and protection of environment (about $30 million). Without going through each sector of investment, it is enough to say that the US have improved their engagement but perhaps paying “too much” attention to ensuring their strategic role while neglecting areas of concerns that, as the Fiji Ambassador in the US put it above, consist of a more pragmatic nature which is not rooted in geostrategic games but in the needs of their people.

But what about now? The pandemic has revealed the structural problem afflicting Oceania, despite the number of cases was never high. Dependency on tourism has shown its limit and not only in their case (see Italy). The severe lockdown’s consequences will surely lead PICs to seriously reconsider their economic strategy. In the meantime, where will the help come from? Within certain institutions (IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank), the procedures for requesting disaster relief funds or more flexibility have been already activated. In Oceania, the impact of the pandemic itself has not been violent (but its effects will be).Today, the power games will be nevertheless played within the same context of relationships, but the question iswhat kind of response countries will offer and whether it fits accordingly with PICs’ needs.

I am a BA graduand in Political Sciences and International relations at "L'Orientale" University in Naples and currently studying as an exchange student at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris (SciencesPo, Asian Campus of Normandy).

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Southeast Asia

50 Years of Clear Skies and Diplomatic Ties

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Authors: Harsh Mahaseth and Archisha Tiwari*

The late Prime Minister of Vietnam Pham Van Dong had remarked in 1980 that the relationship between India and Vietnam was “as clear as a cloudless sky”, and now that the two countries celebrate 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties it can be safely assumed that the statement has stood the test of time. Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla paid an official visit to Vietnam on the invitation from National Assembly Chairman Vuong Dinh Hu from 19th April to 21st April 2022 following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s phone call with Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam on 15th April 2022. There is a constant reiteration of Vietnam’s role in India’s Act East Policy and its Indo-Pacific Vision which is cemented by bilateral relations in all fields including but not limited to economy, trade, defence and tourism.

History

From ‘Bilateral Relations’ to ‘Strategic Partnership’ to now a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ the two countries have always shared close diplomatic ties which is a result of their shared experience of struggle for liberation from foreign rule and national struggle for independence. Despite having different political systems, there has been numerous high level diplomatic visits and India has time and again played a key role in Vietnam whether it was supporting its independence from France and its unification or it’s commitment to provide assistance in advancing Vietnam’s defence in the present decade.

India launched its Act East Policy in the year 2014 where it rightfully recognized the need for economic, strategic and cultural relations with South East Asian countries in the field of connectivity, trade, culture, defence and people-to-people contact. Vietnam is a very vital and strategic partner for India and as commented by Ambassador Pham Sanh Chu, India has become one of Vietnam’s top three partners as a comprehensive strategy partner along with Russia and China, but India and Vietnam’s diplomatic relations are stronger.

India’s Indo-Pacific Vision is positive and inclusive of and nations in its geography and beyond who have a stake in it. ASEAN centrality and unity is an important element of the vision. This is as per the remarks delivered by Saurabh Kumar, Secretary(East), Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India. Vietnam yet again plays a key role in the region and in India’s vision especially with respect to the area of South China Sea that is currently a contested area with China blatantly violating United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and hereby going against India’s vision for the region that aligns with Vietnam’s.

Phone Talks

The telephonic conversation between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong turned out to be very fruitful wherein the Prime Minister requested for greater facilitation of market access for India’s pharma and agri-products in Vietnam and highlighted the historical and civilization links between the two. There was an emphasis on the role of importance of international law when in context of both the current Ukrainian crisis and the situation in South China Sea.

Om Birla’s Visit

There couldn’t have been a more appropriate way to keep the celebratory spirit going than a visit of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, which also marks the first official visit of India in Vietnam after the COVID-19 pandemic. SD Pradhan in his article aptly recognizes the significance of the meeting and convergence of two law making bodies and their heads who also serve as the representative of their citizens by default. It shows an intermingling of ideas and views of two countries with different political systems. Vuong Dinh Hue, the Chairman of the National Assembly of Vietnam visited India in December 2021 and gave out a three-level action plan: (1) Deepening relations of the two law making bodies. (2) Need for two sides to under one another’s socio-economic development policies and (3) Developing a system of comparing notes on international issues of common concern and to seek solutions to global issues. Om Birla’s visit is a step towards hastening and progressing the proposed plan. There were further considerations given to expansion in areas such as climate change and sustainable development, health care and digital economy. Reiterating the previous phone call and the Indo Pacific Vision, there was a discussion on defence and increase in maritime security with the acquisition of BrahMos by Vietnam being discussed. Dr. Rajaram Panda in his analysis of India-Vietnam comments on how Vietnam considers India a global power and supports India to play a greater role in a muti polar world based on standards of international law.

A very important part of Indian-Vietnam relations is the cooperation on economic policies and trade. India is the most important market for Vietnam accounting got 80% of Vietnam’s total trade with South Asian nations. Om Birla mentioned the desire to increase the bilateral trade to reach US $15 billion from the previous US $13.2 billion while admiring the growth of Vietnam on a variety of economic sectors.

There was a discussion on the partnership in the energy sector with the hopes of renewal of the ONGC Videsh Limited contract for another 15 years. Not only that on a more cultural level, Om Birla also while meeting the Party Secretary Nguyen Van Nen, highlighted the common civilization heritage. The cultural ties are also evident when the topic of tourism was brought up and discussed with an agreement to enhance cooperation in tourism. Speaking of tourism, after the suspension of direct flights between New Delhi and Hanoi in light of the pandemic, the air connectivity was impacted but Birla’s visit restored the connectivity.

Way Forward

Currently the two countries are implementing the 2021-2023 Action Program that aims to implement all the agreements and discussions that took place in the official meets and telephonic conversations. The relationship is a long standing one with deep understanding of each other’s needs and a mutual sense of respect. With a pending invite for the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and policies that expand years, the sky continues to be as clear as it was in 1980.

*Archisha Tiwari is a Research Assistant at the Nehginpao Kipgen Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and a law student at Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, India. 

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Southeast Asia

Myanmar: Crimes against humanity committed systematically

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Crimes against humanity continue to be systematically committed in Myanmar, with ongoing conflicts severely impacting women and children, according to a UN report released on Tuesday.

The evidence gathered to date by the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), which is outlined in its Annual Report, indicates that sexual and gender-based crimes, including rape and other forms of sexual violence, and crimes against children have been perpetrated by members of the security forces and armed groups.

Crimes against women and children are amongst the gravest international crimes, but they are also historically underreported and under-investigated,” said Nicholas Koumjian, Head of the Mechanism.

Deep dive collection

Since starting operations three years ago, IIMM has collected more than three million pieces of information from almost 200 sources, according to the report.

These include interview statements, documentation, videos, photographs, geospatial imagery and social media material.

The report reveals that children in Myanmar have been tortured, conscripted and arbitrarily detained, including as proxies for their parents.

“Our team has dedicated expertise to ensure targeted outreach and investigations so that these crimes can ultimately be prosecuted,” said Mr. Koumjian.

‘Widespread’ violations

According to the publication, “there are ample indications that since the military takeover in February 2021, crimes have been committed in Myanmar on a scale and in a manner that constitutes a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population” and the nature of potential criminality is also expanding.

This includes the execution by Myanmar’s military of four people on 25 July 2022, which was carried out after the report was prepared.

Perpetrators of these crimes need to know that they cannot continue to act with impunity. We are collecting and preserving the evidence so that they will one day be held to account,” said Mr. Koumjian.

Rohingya

This latest analysis was released just two weeks before the five-year commemoration of clearance operations that resulted in the displacement of nearly one million Rohingya people.

The Rohingyas have faced decades of systematic discrimination, Statelessness and targeted violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Violent attacks in 2017 triggered an estimated 745,000 Rohingya, including more than 400,000 children, to flee to Bangladesh.

Most of the Rohingya who were deported or forcibly displaced at that time are still in camps for refugees or internally displaced persons.

“While the Rohingya consistently express their desire for a safe and dignified return to Myanmar, this will be very difficult to achieve unless there is accountability for the atrocities committed against them, including through prosecutions of the individuals most responsible for those crimes,” Mr. Koumjian explained.

“The continued plight of the Rohingya and the continuing violence in Myanmar illustrate the important role of the Mechanism to facilitate justice and accountability and help deter further atrocities.”

Dedicated work

Meanwhile, with the consent of its information sources, IIMM is sharing relevant evidence to support international justice proceedings currently underway at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Mechanism was created by the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 to collect and analyse evidence of the most serious international crimes and other violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011.

It aims to facilitate justice and accountability by preserving and organizing evidence and preparing case files for use in future prosecutions of those responsible in national, regional and international courts.

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Southeast Asia

Will Evolving Relation Between Arakan Army and NUG lead To Any Political Change in Myanmar?

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photo: Wikipedia

On May 18, Myanmar’s Civilian National Unity Government (NUG) held an online meeting with the Arakan Army in the Rakhine (Arakan) state. Arakan Army Chief Major General Tuan Mrat Naing and his Deputy Brigadier General Neo Tun Aung spoke for about two hours with Foreign Minister Jin Mar Aung of the shadow government’s coalition relations committee and Democratic leader Wu Min Ko Ning. The NUG is believed to have taken the initiative in an effort to engage with armed groups that could help bring down Myanmar’s military regime. Basically, the current situation in Myanmar and the activities of the shadow government were discussed. This sudden alliance of NUG with the Arakan Army leads to the question: Is the political situation in Myanmar taking a new turn?

The current situation in Myanmar

After the military seized power in Myanmar, the anti-coup resistance group (PDF) and allies of their ethnic armed group have been fighting the junta for more than a year, with Kachin, Karen, Karenni, and Chin ethnic groups, in particular, supporting the PDF. Myanmar’s military has not been able to contain the opposition, despite unwarranted attacks, lawsuits, assassinations and arson. On the contrary, in many parts of the country, the administrative system has collapsed, while their troops are losing due to killing and fleeing in the face of resistance. Resistance groups have, however, also failed to oust the junta or drive it out of their area altogether resulting in neither side having any decisive win yet. On the contrary, around 600,000 people have been displaced since the coup due to the civil war. About 30,000 people have taken shelter in India and 6,000 in Thailand. Though Myanmar’s economic prospects have almost shattered, the military sustains as strongly as its former military rulers. The impact of Western sanctions is negligible as multinational companies from China, Russia, India, Japan, Thailand, and South Korea are doing their usual business. On the other hand, The NUG government is trying to launch its own administrative system in central Myanmar (especially Sagaing, Mandalay and Magway-centric) through its armed forces PDF.

Relations between the Arakan Army and the NUG

Following the coup, in April last year, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), formed the NUG as a shadow government with lawmakers and allies of ethnic minorities to challenge the junta’s legitimacy at home and abroad. With the promise of a federal democratic union, if military rule ends, the NUG is trying to build trust with ethnic armed groups (EAOs) to fight the military rule. In this effort, NUG is establishing relations with the Arakan Army. On May 15, NUG issued a statement on the occasion of Rakhine National Day and expressed its condolences to the people affected by the military and political conflict in Rakhine. It has also promised to work with relevant agencies to establish justice. The shadow government sent a message of greetings and worked together on April 10, the 13th anniversary of the founding of the Arakan Army.

However, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party’s relationship with the Arakan Army has not been good in the past. While came into power in 2015, the NLD-led government did not play a significant role in promoting democracy, human rights, and the autonomy of ethnic areas. Even having secured the largest number of seats in the Rakhine state, the NLD refused to allow the Arakan National Party (ANP) to elect a state chief minister. When war broke out in Arakan between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar army in 2018, the NLD clearly sided with the army, which angered the Rakhine people. The NLD administration at the time agreed to the world’s longest Internet shutdown in Rakhine State, branding the Arakan Army as a terrorist organization and canceling elections in large parts of Rakhine State. These steps by the Aung San Suu Kyi government further tempted the Arakan Army to transform its demand for autonomy into a struggle for liberation and independence.

Relations between the Arakan Army and the Military Junta

The post-coup civil war situation spread throughout Myanmar, but the Rakhine state was an exception. A ceasefire agreed upon between the Military and the Arakan Army in November 2020 has kept the region relatively calm ever since. The Arakan Army has discouraged mass protests against the coup, and the Rakhine state remains relatively peaceful while other parts of the country were engulfed in violence. As a result, while the military was busy suppressing resistance across the country to consolidate its power, the political wing of the Arakan Army, the United League of Arakan, established administrative control over two-thirds of the state (especially rural areas) and introduced its own tax system and judiciary. To ensure stability in Rakhine, the junta also, as part of its political and military strategy, withdrew the Internet blackout in Rakhine and withdrew the Arakan Army from the list of terrorist organizations after the coup, and released many political prisoners associated with it.

But, the Arakan Army’s recent reluctance to meet directly with junta chief Min Aung Hlaing and its currently evolving relational proximity to the NUG has made the military rethink its strategic and operational orientations toward the armed group to some extent, prompting the military to step up security in Rakhine and urge locals not to contact the Arakan Army. In response, the Arakan Army is also threatening the head of the Myanmar Army’s Western Command, accusing it of interfering in internal affairs. There have also been a few minor clashes between the two forces, such as an exchange of fire, signaling likely future disability.

Change on Course

Although the Arakan Army has not yet institutionalized a dream of independence of independent Arakan, they are committed to gaining autonomy. And the Arakan Army has an endless opportunity to gain international support by involving the Rohingya in gaining autonomy purposefully demonstrated by Arakan Army Chief General Tuan Mrat Naing while making positive comments in favor of Rohingya repatriation and civil rights to the Rohingya. NUG has already announced that it will return civil rights to the Rohingya, with the implicit intent of gaining international recognition. It has even supported the ongoing jurisdiction in the International Court of Justice on the ethnic cleansing campaign of the Myanmar army against the Rohingya.

The Myanmar army has been pursuing a policy of procrastination with respect to the Rohingya repatriation, effectively to gain the support of the Bamar tribe in line with its long-standing policy of feeding Buddhist Nationalism for political scores. However, the experience of the Bamar people being persecuted by the junta in the post-coup period has created an anti-military attitude in the Bamar tribe itself. Now the military is hanging the Rohingya repatriation issue as a trump card in the international arena though they have the potential for international sympathy by repatriating the Rohingya.

 If the Arakan Army changes its current silent stance in favor of the NUG, the landscape of Myanmar’s internal politics may change. Realizing that, NUG is trying to gain the support of the Arakan Army. Now evolving relational proximity between the Arakan Army and NUG will likely invigorate the already growing collective resistance further against the oppressive Junta regime. With the potential for further change in the already complex political landscape in Myanmar, now the question is:  How much will the military Junta change its current policy orientation, be it to the people’s democratic aspiration or rights to the Rohingya minorities?  

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