The Palestine Question
In 2009, I'm writing a lot on the Palestine Question, building on work I've done on it since 1975. For the most recent JWN posts and other writings go to: You can access JWN posts for earlier years through these links: 2003-05, 2006, 2007, 2008. The video of my Mar. 31, 2009 talk at the Palestine Center is here.
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Blogger and veteran journo Helena Cobban has traveled to 18 countries since 9/11. Her seventh book, published in 2008, gives a compelling and hopeful look forward.

"An impassioned, thought-provoking, and accessible brief from a highly esteemed journalist" -- Hon. Lee H. Hamilton

"A quick and smart guide" -- Katrina vanden Heuvel

Friendly (Quaker) links and concerns
* Friends Committee on National Legislation -- A Quaker lobby in Washington, in the public interest
* American Friends Service Committee -- Quaker-based activism and public education, from Philadelphia
* The Quakers' Colonel -- blog on military affairs from FCNL-affiliated retired colonel, Dan Smith
* QuakerQuaker -- Portal to blogs on (mainly north American) Quaker faith and practice

War is Not the Answer
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I'm a writer and researcher on global affairs. I'm a Contributing Editor of Boston Review. I write a weekly news analysis on Middle East affairs for Inter-Press service. (These are archived here.) from 1990 through 2007 I wrote a regular column for The Christian Science Monitor, where I still contribute regularly. Previously I wrote columns for Al-Hayat (London).

I'm one of two Quakers who are also members of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Check out my longer c.v. here.

My home web-site has details of my six earlier books, my current projects, etc. Click on this image for info on my sixth book:


Here are links/portals to: My occasional co-posters here here are Don Bacon, a retired army officer who founded the Smedley Butler Society some years ago because, as General Butler said, war is a racket, and Scott Harrop.

Visit the group blog I've been working with, Transitional Justice Forum.
'Occupation of Palestine and Golan' watch

Check out Occupation magazine.

Here's a five-part series I wrote for Al-Hayat in 1998 on the human dimensions of the occupation of Golan.
Women getting WaPo-ed
I counted the pieces authored by women on the Washington Post Op-Ed page, between 12/21/2004 and 2/14/2005. The count was: 26 pieces out of a total of 260, equals 10.0%. Time to do this again, I think! (Volunteers?)
In the JWN archives

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JWN golden oldy posts
Now featuring: golden oldy posts from January 2004:
Click here to see the golden oldies from February thru December, 2003.
Topical index to JWN

Open thread July 28

Posted by Helena Cobban
July 28, 2009 9:21 AM EST | Link
Filed in JWN updates

Hi. I'm unexpectedly a lot busier than usual these few days. Here's your chance to express yourselves-- courteously, as always (!), and within the usual guidelines on length and discourse-hogging.

I'll be back soon.

Two great new resources on Palestine

Posted by Helena Cobban
July 25, 2009 12:21 PM EST | Link
Filed in Palestine 2009

Okay, they're very different, but here they are:

    1. This beautiful essay by African-American poet and author Alice Walker: Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters "the horror" in Rwanda, Eastern Congo and Palestine/Israel. It is a powerful reflection on some of what Walker experienced as a participant on the recent CODEPINK delegation to Gaza. It takes time to read, but is well worth it.

    When our Quaker group published its 2004 book on the Israel/Palestine conflict we called the final chapter, "Beyond Silence." Alice Walker goes very beautifully beyond silence in this essay. Including writing about the painful fact that her (Jewish) husband still

      could not tolerate criticism of Israel's behavior toward the Palestinians./Our very different positions on what is happening now in Palestine/Israel and what has been happening for over fifty years, has been perhaps our most severe disagreement. It is a subject we have never been able to rationally discuss. He does not see the racist treatment of Palestinians as the same racist treatment of blacks and some Jews that he fought against so nobly in Mississippi. And that he objected to in his own Brooklyn-based family... His mother, when told of our marriage, sat shiva[because of Alice's skin color], which declared my husband dead. These were people who knew how to hate, and how to severely punish others, even those beloved, as he was, of their own. This is one reason I understand the courage it takes for some Jews to speak out against Israeli brutality and against what they know are crimes against humanity.
    A shorter version of Walker's essay has been published at Electronic Intifada-- HT: Ray Close. But it's better to read the whole thing.

    2. I told you this would be different. But "Rbguy", writing his regular diary at "Daily Kos" this week, has done a great job of pulling together the many recent resources in the English language (including one of my own) on the topic of including Hamas in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

    I was planning to do a longer JWN post on all these resources. But then, after reading Rbguy's diary I realized I really don't need to.

    Rbguy, btw, is one of the new generation of Jewish-American bloggers and other activists who are certainly ready to "speak out against Israeli brutality" and to join with everyone else who is sincerely brainstorming fair and sustainable ways to end Israel's long-running oppression of the Palestinian people and all other manifestations of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

    And yes, his writing is also beautiful in its own way!

IPS piece on Fateh's crisis

Posted by Helena Cobban
July 25, 2009 10:30 AM EST | Link
Filed in Palestine 2009

IPS published my piece on Fateh's leadership crisis yesterday. It's here, also archived here.

The news peg for this was, obviously, Farouq Qaddoumi's public launching last week of the accusation that Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) had conspired with Dahlan, the US, and the Israelis in the poisoning of Yasser Arafat, and the subsequent ruckus within Fateh.

Fateh's Sixth general Conference is due to open August 4-- just ten days from now-- in Bethlehem. Let's see how that goes. Actually, I'd kind of like to go there and cover it.

I am intrigued by the logistics of the operation. Bethlehem, along with its traditionally Christian sister-towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, is encircled by some particularly ferocious sections of Israel's 8-meter high concrete Wall. And as I noted when I visited there in late February, access to this enclave is tightly controlled by the Israeli occupation forces... And that is just access from elsewhere in the West Bank! Then, of course, there is access to the West Bank as a whole, which is also controlled by the IOF.

Will Fateh's members from occupied East Jerusalem be allowed to travel to Bethlehem to take part? Fateh members from Amman or Beirut or elsewhere in the Palestinian diaspora?

It strikes me that for Abbas and his followers, this is sort of a no-win situation. If he wants to get a truly representative group of Fateh leaders and activists together for the conference, he needs Israeli cooperation... But then, especially in the present circumstances, having that cooperation can taint the proceedings very deeply, perhaps irreparably.

The PLO, which is the broader, Fateh-dominated body that claims to speak for all Palestinians, held a meeting of its policymaking National Council in Gaza in 1998. That was at the request of the PM of Israel, then as now Netanyahu, with the express aim that it should over-ride or delete those portions of the PLO's founding Charter that called for the end of a specifically Jewish state in historic Palestine.

That session was attended by no less a personage than Pres. Bill Clinton. (Woohoo! ... Irony alert.) It did not delete but did attempt to over-ride the controversial portions of the Charter.

Other key governance events that have taken place within the OPTs under Israeli occupation have of course included the elections of 1996, 2005, and 2006. Those, however, were all elections merely to administrative/governance positions within the Palestinian Interim Self-Governing Authority, rather than relating to the nationwide Palestinian constituency, a clear majority of which consists of Palestinians exiled from their homeland who have no vote in (and no direct interest in) the workings of the PISGA.

Fateh, however, claims to represent a portion of the "nationwide" constituency of Palestinians. So the idea that it will hold its policymaking gathering under the tight control and ever-watchful eyes and ears of the Israeli occupation is strange, to say the least.

But then, let's face it, Fateh is a strange entity altogether.


p.s. I intend to make it a practice to refer to the PISGA by its full name and initials whenever possible, as a way of reminding all of us that this body is not, and was never intending to be, a long-term governance solution for the Palestinians of the OPTs. Indeed it is now seriously past its Sell-by Date, since the text of the Oslo Accords stipulated that by 1999 Israel and the PLO (yes, the PLO, not the PISGA) would have negotiated a final-status peace between them, and presumably any "interim" governance formula would thereafter be phased out.

59 Gazans still missing from war, presumed under rubble

Posted by Helena Cobban
July 24, 2009 10:20 AM EST | Link
Filed in Palestine 2009

Ma'an news agency had this disturbing report today, in which it listed the names of 59 Gazans still missing since last december's Israeli assault on the Strip, and presumed still buried under the estimated 1.5 million tons of rubble still left uncleared there.

The listing goes in order of age. The youngest three are:

    1. In'am Ra'fat Al-Masri, 12, Ash-Shati Refugee Camp
    2. Abed Ar-Rahman Ahmad Al-A'tawnah, 15, Al-Faloja
    3. Jihan Sami Al-Helu, 17, Al-Karama Tower
The oldest five are:
    54. Hakmah Abed Ar-Rahman Al-'Attar, 75, Beit Lahiya
    55. Mahdiaeyah Salman Ayyad, 76, Az-Zaitoun
    56. Eid Jum'a A'yyad, 80, Az-Zaitoun
    57. Mariam Abed Ar-Rahman Abu Thaher, 85, Beit Lahiya
    58. Mariam Mutawe' Mutawe', 85, Al-Mughraqa
May their souls rest in peace. But what an outrage that Israel refuses to allow into the Strip the heavy lifting equipment required to locate and extract the mortal remains of these 59 people, so they can be given a decent burial.

Remember the huge lengths Israel goes to to get hold of the body parts of every single Israeli citizen, including airmen downed in combat? Well, Palestinians honor their dead every bit as much. I can barely imagine the pain the families of these missing people must be experiencing.

Afghanistan: "Armed nation building"??

Posted by Helena Cobban
July 23, 2009 10:05 PM EST | Link
Filed in Afghanistan

The generally sane and realistic military analyst Tony Cordesman published a 28-page paper (PDF) yesterday on the US war in Afghanistan, which to me merely underlined how deeply un-winnable this US war has become.

Here's his lead sentence:

    There are no certainties in war, and the tasks that NATO/ISAF and the US must perform in Afghanistan go far beyond the normal limits of counterinsurgency. They are the equivalent of armed nation building at a time when Afghanistan faces major challenges from both its own insurgents and international movements like Al Qa’ida, and must restructure its government and economy after 30 years of nearly continuous conflict.
Armed nation building?

Pack up your guns and come home, guys. Do whatever deals you need to do, to get out of there fast. Leave Afghanistan to the Afghans.

I'm not even sure where this notion of "nation building" came from, within US/western strategic and policy discourse. The current Wikipedia entry on it is suggestive and helpful. For starters, it denotes a clear distinction between the process of nation-building and that of state-building-- most notably, by sending you to a different page for the latter.

To me, nation-building implies a process that can only be effectively and sustainably undertaken by the constituent members of the nation itself. It certainly can't be carried out in any meaningful way by a horde of very heavily armed robo-troops parachuted in from a distant land. It just might be that a group of armed men from outside could do something to help with the process of state-building. (Not that that would make the resulting state recognizably a democratic one, however.) But nation-building, in the sense of building up the ties among a group of people so they feel they all belong to one "nation" and are bound by the obligations of that commitment?

Nah, I'm still not seeing it as a possibility.

I don't think NATO can succeed at state-building in Afghanistan, either.

... This evening I was on a Press TV show with Larry Korb and Gareth Porter, about Afghanistan and Iraq, both. Larry, who's a sensible, realist person, seemed fairly supportive of Obama's decision to increase the numbers of US troops in southern Afghanistan. At one point I asked him what the best outcome was that he could reasonably foresee in Afghanistan. He said something like,

    Well, that in 18 months we would have stabilized things enough there that the process of nation building could be taking root. But if that hasn't happened by then, we'd have to look at other options.
This is not exactly a gung-ho outlook. But I think that even this outlook is very short-sighted and irresponsible.

Why wait another 18 months, when it is almost certain that the kind of "stability" Larry was looking for won't be there then... and along the way, how many more Afghan citizens and how many more Americans will have died?

Pres. Obama should start acting now-- to reach out to the whole of the rest of the world community, but especially Afghanistan's neighbors, to ask their help in formulating a plan for a speedy withdrawal of the western troops from the country. Pakistan and Afghanistan both need a lot of help in re-establishing effective governance at all levels. But military troops who are western are just about the worst imaginable tools to help bring this about.

And guess what. There are plenty of other ways for these two countries' peoples to get what they need.

Sure, many Americans still have a lot of concern about future Al-Qaeda attacks, or about Afghanistan once again turning into the kind of place where Al-Qaeda can find a safe haven for organizing its heinous plots. But once again, the insertion, use, and maintenance of a large western military force in the Afghan-Pakistani border region seems like just about the worst, and most counter-productive way to respond to these concerns.

My Nation piece on Fateh/Hamas, fulltext on web

Posted by Helena Cobban
July 23, 2009 10:59 AM EST | Link
Filed in Palestine 2009 , Writing and publishing

So here I've been, quietly waiting for The Nation to put the fulltext version of my May piece about internal Palestinian politics up onto their website... and I didn't realize that Agence Globale has already done it.

Visser: Obama gets Iraqis out of boxes; US MSM still don't

Posted by Helena Cobban
July 23, 2009 10:53 AM EST | Link
Filed in Iraq-2009

Reidar Visser has an encouraging short report noting on the way that Pres. Obama referred to Iraq's people(s) yesterday:

    At one point he mentioned “all of Iraq’s ethnic and religious” groups, but in another instance he referred to the “people of all parts of Iraq” and there was no reference to the specific tripartite formula of “Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds” which was prominent only weeks ago during Vice-President Joe Biden’s visit. All in all, his remarks are likely to be seen as unobjectionable by a majority of Iraqis, quire regardless of what they may think of the current Iraqi government.

(Hey, perhaps Obama's people have been reading Reidar's and my writings on this topic earlier this month? Here and here.)

But, as Reidar notes, the western MSM still

    remain stuck in their own clichés. Here, reconciliation “between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds” is the only ticket in town, even if this means having to struggle with quotation marks and sometimes even cheat.

I do know as a longtime journo that frequently, when you're writing under the pressure of deadlines, you need to have handy "labels" that you slap onto various groups, especially in situations of fluid and often fast-moving conflicts. But a reporter and her editors need constantly to be re-examining the helpfulness as well as the effects of those labels. And since the Iraqi story is not particularly "fast-moving" at this time, there's no excuse at all for the MSM journos not to be doing this.

East Jerusalem / West Jerusalem

Posted by Helena Cobban
July 23, 2009 10:24 AM EST | Link
Filed in Palestine 2009

Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now did a great post on their blog recently showing how wildly inaccurate PM Netanyahu was when he claimed, Sunday, that Palestinians can buy homes and live in West Jerusalem.

Netanyahu made this mendacious claim to buttress his argument that "it should be quite okay" for Jewish Israelis to construct homes and live in occupied East Jerusalem.

But as Lara-- and a number of others have pointed out-- it is just about impossible for Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to "move over" and live in West Jerusalem, since most of the housing there is on what is called "Israeli state land", whose sale, or rather long-term lease, to people who are not either Israeli citizens or certifiedly Jewish people from elsewhere is forbidden under a covenant between the government and the Israel Lands Authority.

However, neither Lara nor her primary source, Israeli attorney Daniel Seidemann, mention two other highly relevant aspects of the situation regarding access to housing in West Jerusalem:

    1. Though the Israeli High Court has ruled (in the Qa'adan case) that real estate controlled by the ILA should be made available to Palestinian citizens of Israel, on an equal footing with Jewish Israelis, in practice Palestinian Israelis still find it just about impossible to buy or even rent ILA-controlled homes. Therefore it is not just Palestinians registered as residents of occupied East Jerusalem who can't freely buy or move into the ILA-controlled homes in West Jerusalem-- neither can Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship.

    2. The vast majority of homes controlled by the ILA and other Israeli government authorities in West Jerusalem are properties that rightfully belong to Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed from that half of the city during the fighting of 1948. Many of those former residents of West Jerusalem ended up in East Jerusalem. (They include Um Kamel al-Kurd, evicted from her home in Sheikh Jarrah for the benefit of Israeli settlers, last November, and living in harsh circumstances in a tent since then.)

    These West Jerusalem / East Jerusalemites now have to suffer this triple indignity:

      a. They are forbidden to return to family homes that are often just a short walk away from where they now live in East Jerusalem, and have to watch as the homes' current Jewish residents make free and full use of properties that the Palestinian owners' forebears scrimped and saved hard to build, and designed and decorated with great loving care.

      b. Since 1948 these West Jerusalem / East Jerusalemites have done the best they can to build new-- though always hopefully temporary-- lives for themselves in the East Jerusalem areas where they sought refuge in in 1948. But now, even these neighborhoods are under intensive attack from Israeli settlers who receive considerable support from the Israeli authorities.

      c. And now, too, they hear the Israeli prime minister making the quite mendacious claim that they are just as "free" to move into West Jerusalem as the settlers are to move into East Jerusalem!

It simply isn't so.

I note that Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Association has even weighed in on this issue, saying incredulously to Netanyahu:

    as a longtime Jerusalem resident, I can only say -- huh? Arabs in West Jerusalem? Wen? Eyfo?
By the way, Lara Friedman also has an informative interview with Seidemann here about the settlers' projects in Sheikh Jarrah. And if you go to to the Ir Amim webste (English here) you can find a lot more information about the planning/settling/demographic situation in Jerusalem. Including you can download a good description-- with map-- of the settlers' plans for Sheikh Jarrah.

Up on the Roof.... in Tehran

Posted by Scott Harrop
July 23, 2009 9:29 AM EST | Link
Filed in Iran

From the rooftops of Tehran, "Laleh Azadi" sends us an extraordinary essay, a "scream" into the darkness, rich with irony and insight, sadness and hope. Worth pondering in full, consider these excerpts:

"We put all our emotions into screaming “Allahu Akbar” into the night from the rooftops. We must stay under the radar during the day but the night brings a small sense of freedom. The streets are quiet and the heat has subsided so we can breath and use our voices. The calls that begin around 10 p.m. each night have gained strength since last Friday. There are more voices -- both desperate and defiant -- from young and old, men and women. It is the way we remind each other not to give up all hope, and it is our call for a leader."

There's something haunting here. In the west, we tend to associate darkness with fear, foreboding, even evil. The darkness is something we "curse." Yet for Iranian reformists, the night becomes a sanctuary, a source of courage.

Laleh gives us more than raw emotion; she provides a different window for the outside world to comprehend the terms of the struggle:

"For many, this movement is about reclaiming the spirit and intent of the Islamic Revolution -- even if most of us were born after it. We want to fight for the principles our parents fought for thirty years ago -- the right to be free from tyranny, the right to choose, and the right to a voice. We see Khamenei and Ahmadinejad moving the Islamic Revolution away from democratic pluralism and towards authoritarianism."

By day, the loudest voices of protest presently come from senior clerics, something Laleh wishes to explain:

"It might seem surprising to outsiders that the loudest voices of dissent are coming from the religious seminaries and Muslim clerics in Qum, but this is not unusual for Iran. Since the revolution, human rights activists, feminists, and even left-leaning politicians have found their greatest ally in Islam. Hence, the use of the color green -- the color of Islam -- for this resistance movement. It is as if to say to the conservative clerics who rule the country, “You cannot suppress us with religion. The martyred Imam Hussein is our example and Islam is our religion. It protects us, gives us a voice, and compels us to be compassionate for all humanity.”

In Laleh's real world, all is not black and white, nor is it velvet. It's green.

Iran battle lines 101

Posted by Scott Harrop
July 22, 2009 3:04 PM EST | Link
Filed in Iran

Quick items for keeping up with the ongoing legitimacy crisis within Iran:

1. Excellent IPS review by Farideh Farhi of the fault lines in Iran, as revealed in Rafsanjani's Friday Prayers speech and blistering reactions.

It is now clear that the Islamic Republic's ever-present political frictions and cleavages can no longer be managed in ways they have been in the past, either through behind-the-scenes lobbying at the top or selective repression or some combination of the two....

Adding to the drama was the immediate appearance on Rafsanjani's personal website of a headline in which he recalled the early years of the revolution. "The term fear has no meaning for us," it said. "For every generation, there is a test. Issues related to society and people are the most important tests."

Note especially Farhi's emphasis on the eclectic and yet unified nature of the opposition movement. Echoes of 1979.

2. Further quotes and analysis by Muhammad Sahimi of critiques from Leader Khamenei and reformist rebuttals.

For the Leader, it seems "the real people... those with real intellect.... think about and follow God...." the riotous corrupt by contrast are castigated as slaves to the foreign body. For Musavi,

"Many of the prisoners are well-known and have served the political system and the country for years. Who is going to believe that they colluded with foreigners to sell out the country’s national interests? Is this not an insult against the nation?"

3. Call by ex President Khatami for a "referendum" as the only way to resolve the crisis:

"I would like to add a point here and declare explicitly that, the only way out of the present crisis is relying on people’s vote and holding a referendum."

4. Ayatollah watch: Sahimi's run-down this morning of hotly contradictory clerical statements regarding the recent elections. Contrary to an absurd commentary put out by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy earlier this month, Iran's clerical centers have neither been silent nor unified.

5. For the puzzled, I highly recommend a lively hour with my mentor, Professor R. K. Ramazani, available via podcast here. Many of the questions are basic -- yet profound.

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