Articles and Commentary

Obama and Israel are walking away from two-state solution with Palestinians

A Jewish settler looks at the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, from the E1 area on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Dec. 5. Op-ed contributor Sandy Tolan writes: 'US policy in the region continues to operate under the Beltway perception that “domestic political considerations” (chiefly driven by the Israeli lobby) must trump the national interest....despite the fact that within intelligence circles, Israel is increasingly seen as a strategic liability for the US.' Sebastian Scheiner/AP

The Obama administration’s refusal to support the successful Palestinian bid for symbolic “observer state” in the United Nations sends a strong signal that all will be business as usual during its second term. Worse, ever too mindful of the pro-Israel lobby in America, the United States has essentially endorsed a No State Solution between Israel and Palestine.

Official US policy has long been in support of a negotiated settlement that would produce two states, Israel and Palestine, existing side by side in peace. But during the “peace process” of the last 20 years, Israel’s actions have undermined that goal. Since the famous Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn in 1993, which marked the beginning of the Oslo process, the Israeli settler population in the West Bank has rocketed from 109,000 to more than 350,000. One of the largest settlements, Ariel (almost 20,000) has been absorbed into “greater Israel” by a separation wall that veers deep inside the West Bank; plans are in place to thus incorporate a second settlement, Maale Adumim(39,000).  Read the full piece from the Christian Science Monitor…




U.S. Endorses “No State Solution”

Ramallah after the vote, December 2012. Photo from

The Obama administration’s refusal to support Palestine as a symbolic “observer state” in the United Nations sends a strong signal that all will be business as usual during the second term.  Worse, with its latest and most shameful capitulation to AIPAC and the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., the United States has essentially endorsed a No State Solution between Israel and Palestine.

Official U.S. policy has long been in support of a negotiated settlement that would produce two states, Israel and Palestine, existing side by side in peace.  But during the “peace process” of the last twenty years, Israel’s actions have undermined that goal.   Since the famous Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn in 1993, which marked the beginning of the Oslo process, settler population in the West Bank has rocketed from 109,000 to more than 350,000.  One of the largest settlements, Ariel (20,000) has been absorbed into “greater Israel” by a separation wall that veers deep inside the West Bank; plans are in place to thus incorporate a second settlement, Ma’ale Adumim (34,000).  A ring of Jewish settlements all but surrounds East Jerusalem, crippling the dream of making the Holy City the future capital of Palestine.  Settlements, checkpoints, roadblocks, settlers-only roads, and Israel’s full military occupation of 60 percent of the West Bank: all have combined to carve a would-be Palestine into disjointed cantons, not the “viable and contiguous” land that the U.S. officially seeks for Palestine.  Rockets from Gaza or, in past years, suicide bombers from the West Bank have clearly undermined the Palestinians’ own case.  But the Israeli seizure of Palestinian land has continued apace, regardless of the level of violence.

These facts on the ground send clear signals that the Palestinians don’t have a partner for peace. With each new housing project, with each clearly-stated intent not to dismantle major settlements or allow Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem or the crucial Jordan Valley, Benjamin Netanyahu, like Ariel Sharon before him, has demonstrated his unambiguous contempt for two sovereign states.  Rather, Israeli leaders are turning the Holy Land into a single entity, with land, borders, airspace and underground aquifers controlled by Israel, and with citizenship rights granted only to some.

In the face of this, Mahmoud Abbas, the weak and unpopular leader of the West Bank Palestinians, had nothing to lose by going to the United Nations for its semi-meaningful statehood declaration.  (“Observer status” speaks for itself, though the prospect of Palestine joining the International Criminal Court could subject Israel to war crimes investigations, and Israeli officials to arrest and prosecution abroad.)

That Abbas wasn’t supported in this modest U.N. effort by the United States actually strengthens him at home.  Palestinians have become disillusioned since the soaring rhetoric of Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech gave way to the reality of America’s lopsided support for Israel, and its abandonment of modest Palestinian moves toward self-determination.

The latest wag-the-dog U.S. reaction:  Secretary of State-in-waiting Susan Rice’s cynical declaration in the U.N. that “today’s grand pronouncements will soon fade,” and Hillary Clinton’s profound understatement that “America has Israel’s back.”  The next day, Israel made a mockery of Clinton’s words, announcing it was unveiling plans to build on “E1,” the last piece of land that connects East Jerusalem to the West Bank.  Jewish housing there would be the last nail in the coffin for the two-state solution, and finally reveal American officials’ cluelessness as to Israel’s true intentions.

Yet the U.S. continues to operate under the Beltway perception that “domestic political considerations” must trump the national interest, and the human interest, even in a second Obama term.  This despite the fact that within intelligence circles, Israel is increasingly seen as a strategic liability for the U.S.  From Cairo to Tehran to Jakarta to Mindanao Island in the Philippines, Palestinians are seen as essential stewards of the Muslim holy sites, and their oppression and occupation by Israel remains a great rallying cry for militants worldwide. “The status quo is unacceptable,” former CIA director David Petraeus told the New York Times in 2010. “If you don’t achieve progress in a just and lasting Mideast peace, the extremists are given a stick to beat us with.”

The United States is now willfully disengaging from its own interests, and that of its citizens, at an immense and as-yet-unknown cost.  By failing to forcefully challenge Israel, or to support the modest Palestinian aspirations, the U.S. has essentially, if unofficially, endorsed the end of the two-state solution in favor of a system of one-state dominance by an occupying military power.

Changing course is always possible.  An excellent place to start would be to threaten the removal of American aid to Israel given its bellicose actions in the West Bank, in particular its announcement of plans for building on the landscape of Palestine’s last hope.  There’s precedent for that:  in 1992, Secretary of State James Baker, with the full backing of President Bush, refused to approve loan guarantees for Israel unless it agreed to halt settlement expansion.  The threat worked, for a while, until the Oslo era arrived.

Now would be the time to try again.  It could be accompanied assurances that the U.S. is not abandoning Israel, and a stated understanding of Israelis’ deeply-rooted fears of  isolation and vulnerability.  But friends shouldn’t let friends drive drunk – especially you’re both in the same car.  The U.S. needs a frank talk with Israel.  But that would require vision and political will on the question of Palestine – both of which have been absent from U.S. policy for a long time.

Free Speech and the “Clash of Civilizations”

Slur in the eyeblack. Photo by James G., via Flickr

Three hurtful words, scrawled in black circles under the eyes of a ballplayer named Yunel Escobar: Tu ere[s] maricón.  The message, conveyed in the eyeblack of the Toronto Blue Jays shortstop during a recent game, means, You’re a faggot.  That’s hate language, and reaction was swift and stern.  Major league baseball launched an investigation, the Blue Jays suspended Escobar for three games and enrolled him in “sensitivity training,” and he gave the obligatory apology in front of the microphones. Few if anyone publicly complained that, hurtful or not, homophobic or not, Escobar’s free speech rights trumped the concerns of others wounded by his words.  No one said Escobar should be able to continue displaying the slur.

“Given the reaction of the offended community, Escobar’s punishment was absolutely justifiable and necessary to maintain order in society,” wrote Stacie Brown on policymic.  In other words, the community came together and shut Escobar up, due to a collective sense of mutual respect for the rights of others not to be hurt by hateful speech.  Society has forged standards of respect and unacceptability about racial, ethnic, anti-Semitic and homophobic slurs.  Rightly or wrongly, the message is:  use certain hateful words in public, and you’ll pay the price.  So why is there a different set of values at work when it comes to the hurt caused Muslims by hateful, Islamophobic characterizations of the Prophet Mohammed, or denigrations of Islam?  Go to Salon…

“The Innocence of Muslims” is only the latest attack on the Prophet designed to provoke and therefore reinforce the image of Muslims as the Other, unworthy of the support and empathy of civilized peoples.  “The obvious, outward motive of such attempts is…to show Muslims as irrational, violent, intolerant and barbaric, all of which are attributes profoundly inscribed into the racist anti-Muslim discourse in the West,” writes the Egyptian journalist Hani Shukrallah, editor of Al Ahram Online.

But whether the provocation is the “Innocence” trailer, which depicts Mohammed as a pedophile and “murderous thug”; Danish cartoons, including one depicting Mohammed with a bomb in his turban;  a Florida Quran-burning; or images of naked women with verses of the Quran scrawled across their bodies, in a film whose director liked to call Muslims “goat-fuckers,” the defense centers on free speech.

“Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with,” President Obama pointed out at the United Nations this week, in the continuing wake of the “Innocence” furor. “We do not do so because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened.”

Instinctively, as a journalist, I’ve always been close to a free-speech absolutist.  After all, if we start banning things, where do we draw the line?

But there are two problems with blanket free-speech protections in these cases:  One, such universal protections don’t exist in the first place.  Laws on the books already prohibit certain hateful and provocative speech.  In Germany, it’s against the law to deny the Holocaust.   Here in the States, try advocating assassination, running an explosives seminar, defending the 9/11 attacks, or even making a charitable donation to the wrong group in the wrong conflict zone, and see how far you get.  Some of these restrictions emanate from the USA Patriot Act, but others have been in place for decades.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court in 1919, argued that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”  As Sarah Chayes points out in an LA Times op-ed titled “Free Speech or Incitement?”, “The Innocence of Muslims” was provocative by design, and therefore may fit U.S. case law that prohibits “specifically advocating violence.”  She quotes Anthony Lewis, former New York Times columnist and eloquent free speech champion: “If the result was violence, and violence was intended, then it meets the standard” for a criminal act.

The second problem in the blanket free speech defense is its unequal application to Muslims and Arabs.  “I come from a land, from a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam,” went the Disney film “Alladin”s opening song, “where they cut off your ear if they don‘t like your face. It‘s barbaric, but hey, it‘s home.”  Is there any other group in America for whom this kind of slur would not be roundly condemned, its offenders forced to apologize before being sent into the corner like Yunel Escobar?

There is little in the public conversation that seeks to understand and explain the hurt caused to Muslims by these slurs.  “To mock, to denigrate, to make fun of, somebody who’s deep…[in] the hearts of the Muslims? Really?” asked Sheikh Hamza Yusuf at a packed forum at Zaytuna College, a new Muslim college in Berkeley, in the aftermath of the “Innocence” furor.  (I was the forum’s moderator.) Yusuf argued that religious denigration should be seen in the same light as racial slurs, where “there are consequences. You will lose your job!  We don’t accept racial denigration anymore. I think religious denigration has to be seen as identity.”

Islamophobia, and the accompanying hating on Arabs, helps provide cover for exceptional denigration.   At the Zaytuna forum, Hatem Bazian, a co-founder of the college, described “an Islamophobic production industry that is dedicated to demeaning, to speaking ill of Muslims and attempting to silence Muslims from civil discourse.” This “othering” simply does not spur the same kind of outrage as slurs on blacks, gays, Jews, Asians or Latinos. In Hollywood especially, from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” Arabs and Muslims are the last fair game for attacks with impunity.  Jack Shaheen, director of “Reel Bad Arabs,” cites a  “dangerously consistent pattern of hateful Arab stereotypes.  All aspects of our culture project the Arab as villain.  That is a given.”  The attacks on Arabs and Muslims come with free speech arguments that often don’t apply for other groups.

“Western states and media,” wrote Mustafa Malik in the San Francisco Chronicle, “have waived the free-speech principles…in case of Holocaust denials, racial slurs, advocacy of terrorism and other expressions that could endanger Western social order or national security.  But they have persistently refused to prevent the vilification of Islam.”

Such vilifications, obviously, do not justify mayhem by the weak and besieged already enraged at the West – be it the murderers of the Dutch director, Theo Van Gogh, or the rioters who, post Innocence, have claimed the lives of dozens of people, perhaps including Chris Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya.  (The Libyan attacks may have been pre-meditated, and the video only a pretext.)

But it’s time to have a conversation about whether the free speech rights are being applied evenly, and whether speech which leads to murder deserves to be protected.  Simply saying “there’s nothing we can do” will only perpetuate the pattern.  This will leave the ground clear for extremists from both sides, who, ironically, need each other to join the battle in their perceived fateful clash of civilizations.


Anthony Shadid: Death of an honest witness

Anthony Shadid, at work in Cairo. Photo by Ed Ou. Used with permission.

Rare is the day when the death of a journalist merits a national period of mourning.  But that’s how the passing of New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid feels from here.

Shadid, who won two Pulitzer Prizes while with the Washington Post, was well known for his courage, having survived a shooting in the West Bank (most likely by an Israeli sniper), a kidnapping in Libya, harassment and intimidation by Mubarak cronies in Egypt, and, as an unembedded Post correspondent, the American invasion of Iraq. “After anthony shadid’s unauthorized trip into Syria, the Gov put him on television and called him a spy,” tweeted Shadid’s Times colleague, David Kirkpatrick. “He went back again.”

But courage alone doesn’t explain the unique contribution Anthony Shadid made to American journalism and culture.  As a bilingual, bicultural, Christian Arab American of Lebanese descent, he was predisposed to bring an unprecedented level of understanding to events roiling the Arab world.  The key to his profound contribution, however, goes beyond religion and national origin.  He found his inspiration in the alleys, roadsides and warrens of everyday Arab life.  The insight Shadid transmitted to his readers was gleaned not by simply talking to the powerful in their respective capitals, but from his conversations with barbers, tailors, fruit vendors and the unemployed.

At the brink of the U.S. war with Iraq in 2003, Shadid wrote that Arab disenchantment “flows not from a clash of civilizations or resentment over Western values and lifestyles, but from frustration over U.S., Israeli and official Arab policies.” This conclusion came in large part from listening to the words of Palestinian refugees in the camps in Jordan. “We want just a little justice from America, that’s it,” said Lutfi Khalil, a customer in a “sparse grocery store” with “rows of honey jars alternating with empty shelves.”

From a war-ravaged Baghdad in 2006, Shadid wrote of “the final, frenzied maturity of once-inchoate forces unleashed more than three years ago by the invasion” of Iraq.  This perception came not from chats with commanders and diplomats in the Green Zone, but from life-risking conversations with people like Karima Salman, the “stout Shiite Muslim matriarch” living beside a “dented, rusted steel gate perched along a sagging brick sidewalk,” whose daughter Fatima told Shadid: “One-third of us are dying, one-third of us are fleeing and one-third of us will be widows.”

And Shadid’s assessment of a band of Libyan rebels in the spring of 2011 was reported alongside the formerly faceless protagonists he came to name. “Fear is half of courage,” a 39-year-old rebel named Khalifa al-Awkali told Shadid, as he stood “atop a hill, waving an opposition flag and carrying binoculars.”  The rebel added,  “But we’re not scared, and we’re not going to surrender in the face of this tyrant.”

Four days later, Shadid and three of his Times colleagues were kidnapped by pro-Qaddafi militias.

Shadid’s brilliance lay in relying on his own eyes, ears, and voice – not on status quo conclusions about WMD or the realpolitik of Washington-Arab World relations.  He risked his life not out of bravado, but because he was determined to get on the ground, talk to everyone, and tell a true story.  That’s how he earned his readers’ trust.  And so it will continue, after his death:  In his lovely forthcoming memoir, House of Stone, Shadid turns his keen gaze inward, as he describes literally rebuilding his past in the land of his Lebanese ancestors.

Anthony Shadid was a journalistic giant in the tradition of George Orwell; a chronicler of the voices of ordinary people, in the spirit of Studs Terkel.  As a fellow journalist who’s spent 17 years covering Israel and Palestine, I always sought out Shadid’s writings to help put the broader region’s turmoil into context.  And as someone hoping to transmit journalistic values to the next generation of reporters – first at Berkeley, now at USC – I have treasured his journalism of the heart; his legacy of staying on the ground; his insistence in being an honest witness.



Election Round Two in Egypt: Should we grow more food at home?

Among the many things ultimately at stake in the first democratic elections in Egypt in decades is the price of food. High prices — for bread, in particular — helped fuel the protests in Tahrir Square back in January. Experts say that if Egypt’s going to have any chance at feeding its 85 million people, it needs a food policy do-over. Food for 9 Billion, a collaboration between Marketplace Radio (US), the PBS Newshour (US), the Center for Investigative Reporting and Homelands Productions, is about the global challenge of feeding a growing world.    Click here for Sandy Tolan’s report from Marketplace, on the market realities of food independence, produced with Charlotte Buchen.  Click here for PBS Newshour piece by Tolan and Buchen.  And click on “view full post” below for their analysis of the issue of food sovereignty in Egypt.

Egypt: Food for a revolution

By Sandy Tolan and Charlotte Buchen



In 2008, three years before Egyptians rose up against President Hosni Mubarak, the global food crisis provided a hint of what was to come. As world oil prices rose and Western countries planted ever more acres for biofuels instead of people, food prices skyrocketed. Suddenly, cooking oil, tomatoes, lentils, rice and even bread soared out of reach for many families. Riots and protests broke out around the world. In Egypt, fights erupted in the subsidized bread lines and five Egyptians died in the clashes. Three years later, memories of 2008 were still fresh: groundwork for the revolution.


“The revolution started because of the price increase, but in the old days, nothing like this happened before,” recalls Sabah Orany Saber, standing outside a discount produce market that caters to the servant class in the wealthy 6th of October neighborhood, near Cairo. “Now, everything is expensive. We used to eat off of our land and crops.”


Sabah; her husband, Qotb; and their children were once a farm family. They lived with Qotb’s parents and siblings near the family farm in Al-Fayoum, two hours southwest of Cairo. Several years ago, Qotb and Sabah brought three of their four children to the capital. They share a single room in a villa, where Qotb works as a chauffeur and night watchman. Now, instead of seeking higher prices for their produce, the urban migrants want affordable food: Like many of the estimated 40 percent of Egyptians who earn less than $2 a day, the family spends more than half its income on food.


“In Egypt, this price crisis has not come down for the common family; the prices of food are a daily crisis,” says Philip Rizk, an Egyptian filmmaker and activist who spent nearly every day at Tahrir Square during the January 25 revolution. “Most people can’t even afford protesting anymore because they’re not formally employed, which means you have to scrounge for work day in and day out.”


“Life was getting harder there for me and my father, and income was getting more limited, so I came to Cairo,” Qotb recalls. “I left so much behind. I left my heritage and land of origin, the village I was raised in, but, in the end, this is life. This is the reality. Until God makes it easier and we can stand on our feet, we are taking it step by step.”


The family’s journey to Cairo is part of a massive urban migration that is transforming Egyptian politics. More than 1 million peasant farmers – some estimates say closer to 4 million – have quit the land in the last 20 years. Among the factors driving this migration are escalating land prices; a farm policy that favors wealthy entrepreneurs; dwindling access to irrigation water, blamed on corruption under Mubarak; and population growth, leaving too many mouths to feed on small pieces of land.


For millennia, it wasn’t like that. Egypt was a nation of farmers. Blessed by the fertile silt of the Nile, they produced daily bread for the whole nation. Egypt had a secure food supply created at home. Now, in a global economy and with 85 million people, Egypt is the world’s biggest importer of wheat. Much of it comes from the U.S. and Russia. Under the Mubarak regime, this shift accelerated, as more and more Egyptian agriculture focused on high-value cash crops for export.


“I went to look at the land where the factory would be built, and it was just pure desert,” recalls Tarek Tawfik, an American-educated Egyptian entrepreneur.


In the late 1980s, encouraged by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Mubarak invited Egyptian entrepreneurs to come to the desert lands. Tawfik was among the first to answer the call.
“I said, ‘For heaven’s sake, this is where I’m going to be working?’ ” Tawfik remembers. “It was depressing. And then in no time, there was this factory built up, farms set up. Three or four other factories mushroomed out of this factory. We were the first company to go and farm potatoes in the middle of the desert, out of nowhere. People thought that we were lunatics.”


Today, factory farms line the desert road between Cairo and Alexandria, part of the 1,000 percent rise in the nation’s agricultural exports over the past two decades – to more than $1 billion in 2005. Under Mubarak, Egyptian businessmen like Tawfik flocked to the desert, growing, freezing, packaging and exporting grapes, strawberries, mixed vegetables and other luxury produce for the European table.

Meanwhile, some Egyptian and other agriculture and rural development experts question this policy. They ask why, when we’re already importing most of our basic staple like wheat, are we sending fancy fruit to the French? Under the free market concept of comparative advantage, promulgated in Egypt beginning in the early 1980s by USAID, the idea is to grow what you can for domestic consumption, and for the rest, raise cash by exporting high-value crops.

But this was not a classic free market. Incentives included cheap power, water, land and credit. Much of the work on factory farms is mechanized, critics say, so comparatively few jobs were created. Profits went straight back to investors and to pay off Egypt’s debt, rather than trickling down to ordinary Egyptians.


“This major plank of USAID’s programme,” wrote Ray Bush, professor of African studies and development politics at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, “has encouraged the production and export of strawberries for European out of season dinner tables, but this fruit and the export of vegetables does not seem to offer Egypt an escape route from its persistent agricultural underachievement. … Export revenue to compensate for low staple food production does not seem a useful way forward for Egyptian agriculture.”


Some Egyptian critics use sharper language. “Crony capitalism,” declares Magda Kandil, executive director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies.


“Basically, you have an entrepreneur who is well connected to people with high authority,” she says. “They’ve been capitalizing on connections that the average farmer cannot have in terms of marketing, economy of scale, access to water, access to technology, access to subsidized fuel, access to subsidized fertilizers. You end up milking a lot of the benefits for yourself. So I’m against this model because it doesn’t help the social agenda.”


Another thing that didn’t help: Egyptian laws that helped force more than a million farmers off their land. Under Law 96 of 1992, many lands given to small farmers under President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s land reform program in the early 1950s suddenly were returned to the original landlords. This was part of a broader strategy of “market-based reforms” encouraged by USAID, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Rents for tenant farmers shot up by as much as 1,000 percent, according to Bush, the University of Leeds professor; others faced brutal evictions by Egyptian security forces.


Farmers who fought to stay sometimes paid the ultimate price: Between 1998 and 2000, according to the Egypt-based Land Center for Human Rights, 119 people died and 846 were injured in violence related to Law 96. The law ­– combined with other factors, like large families, tight credit, expensive fertilizer and water scarcity – prompted the exodus to the Gulf states, Suez, Alexandria and Cairo.


“Life was harder there on me and my father,” recalls Qotb, the chauffeur and night watchman. “So I came to Cairo.”


When he can, Qotb climbs into a packed microbus and rides southwest to Al-Fayoum to bring some cash to his father, who still works the parched land. At dusk on a warm evening, the two men walked side by side on the dry, cracked 2 acres the family received from Nasser.


“There’s no water,” Qotb’s father repeatedly exclaims. The family grows some corn and prickly pear cactus fruit, but not much else.


Under Mubarak, families here say, water was steadily diverted toward crony projects. Now, Qotb’s father gets only a slow trickle once a week.


“Look right here,” commands Hussein Abdel Wahab Heyba, Qotb’s neighbor, standing in front of a water diversion gate in Al-Fayoum. “This is our main source of water, what used to cultivate all our old land from before.”


He and other farmers here say the government stole the water, redirecting it to help a rich man’s desert bloom. “It was given to the cronies, to the families, to the well-connected people,” he says.

Here, farmers fought with local police over which direction the water would flow. At one point, Hussein says, gun battles broke out. “This is why there was a revolution.”


When Mubarak fell, Hussein was on his way to Tahrir Square, part of a rotation of Al-Fayoum farmers fighting the corruption they say was helping force them off their land. Eighty percent of his generation has already left, he says, helping create a massive urban class that increasingly depends on imported food. Egypt, once self-sufficient in food production, now imports more than half of its staples, including the source of Egyptian baladi: its daily bread. Some say Egypt is now vulnerable to international price spikes or the political agendas of wheat-growing countries.


“You cannot guarantee the price of the international market, you cannot guarantee … that one day every (nation) will (not) keep his wheat to himself,” says Mamdou Hamza, a well-connected civil engineer who became a harsh critic of the Mubarak regime.


During the revolution, Hamza “adopted” scores of young people, providing counsel and encouragement and becoming a kind of godfather of the revolution. “Last year, Russia said, ‘I’m not going to export wheat.’ So (did) India. People could use it strategically against us to push us to do things we would not otherwise like to do. It could happen.”


For a stable Egypt, Hamza believes new leaders need to focus on growing more food at home. “We must have at least 80 percent strategically produced in this country,” he says.


This may prove difficult at a time when elaborate policy shifts are a lower priority for a new parliament struggling simply to assert its independence amidst military control.


But Hamza says the work must begin now. This would mean making more efficient use of irrigation, creating farmer cooperatives on larger plots, and preventing developers from gobbling up the mere 5 percent of Egypt’s farmland that is suitable for agriculture.


“If you don’t eat with your hand in the farm to produce your food,” says Hamza, reciting an old Egyptian proverb, “you will not be able to think with your own brain. Somebody will think for you.” And who will that be? The person “who will feed you.”


Qotb and Sabah no longer eat by their own hand. A laborer of the landless class, Qotb still dreams of going back to Al-Fayoum. “We could have worked together as one big family instead of being divided,” he says. “I dream about it all the time, but I don’t have the money to support that dream or to go back home.”


Now the family is part of an urban force, demanding lower food prices and access to education as the price for peace under a new regime. On Dec. 12, in the second round of parliamentary elections, Qotb and Sabah, with their children in mind, will vote in a free election for the first time.







Picasso Comes to Palestine

A masterpiece on display at a tiny art academy in Ramallah

The two-year odyssey of Picasso’s “Buste de Femme” goes far beyond the art itself:  it’s about protocols, “peace” agreements, ports and checkpoints.  And it demonstrates how art can play a role in the nationalist vision of an occupied people struggling for some normalcy while forging the nascent institutions of a state. Read more, from Al Jazeera English…

June 7: The Anniversary Nobody Remembers

A secret meeting 44 years ago could have changed the course of Middle Eastern history. But it never happened.

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970)

In this part of the world, carrying tragic dates around in your head is kind of like breathing: you do it automatically, without thinking. This time of year, for Palestinians, June 5 marks the 44th anniversary of their occupation by Israel. June 6, in the evening, evokes the darkness when Ramallah fell, and finally people realised that the tanks rolling into town were not Iraqis sent to the aid of the local people: they belonged to the army of Israel.

But buried beneath such memories of defeat for the Arabs in the Six Day War is the story of a momentous June 7 meeting that never happened. If it had, it just might have carved a different path for the Middle East.

Read more, from Al-Jazeera English…

The Surreal State Solution

Following Obama’s weak speeches and Netanyahu’s rejection of any compromise, Palestinians look elsewhere for support.

It’s always bizarre to watch the cheering throng of US congressmen, their pockets lined with AIPAC contributions, fawn over a visiting Israeli leader as if he were a conquering war hero of their own.  But seen on YouTube from the West Bank, Binyamin Netanyahu’s fanciful walk through Middle East diplomacy, and his disingenuous endorsement of peace and democracy – accompanied by an estimated 55 standing ovations – was truly surreal. Read more, from Al-Jazeera English…

A Moral Case for a Just Peace

A just and durable peace need not be based on love or appreciation. But it must be based on dignity, equality, and mutual respect.

With a revolutionary spirit in the Middle Eastern air, with momentum building for unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations this September, and a virtual certainty of a coming Palestinian majority on the lands “between the river and the sea,” plans discarded long ago are reemerging.  Read more, from the Christian Science Monitor…

Pushing for a Palestinian Tahrir

Feeling abandoned by their political leadership, Palestinian youth are pushing for change.
On a cool January evening at the height of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, Najwan Berekdar and a few friends were sitting at a smoky café in Ramallah, puffing on water pipes and strategising. “We were talking about what’s happening in Tunisia, and we decided, maybe this is the momentum – we should use it…”    Read more, from Al-Jazeera English…

Palestine Comes to Hollywood

Most Americans, Jew and Gentile, grew up with the Leon Uris history of the struggle for the Holy Land. Exodus chronicles the heroic birth of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust. There the story ends; there is no other narrative.  This politically convenient and magnificently incomplete version of history remains the dominant American narrative of the tragedy known as Israel and Palestine. Despite the cracks in that narrative in recent years, the über story of Exodus – Uris’ 1958 mega-bestseller, and the subsequent Hollywood film starring Paul Newman – still holds a tremendous grip on the American imagination.  Read more, from Al-Jazeera English

Two-state Solution: A Postmortem

In the wake of the Palestine Papers and the Egyptian uprising the ‘peace process’ as we know it is dead.
Among the time-honoured myths in the long tragedy of Israel and Palestine is “the deal that almost was”. The latest entry, what we might call the “near deal of 2008,” comes from Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, chronicled in excerpts from his forthcoming memoir and feverishly promoted in The New York Times as “the Israel peace plan that almost was and still could be”.  Read more, from Al-Jazeera English…

The Palestine Papers: A fact-based play, in one act

Uncle Sam to his shrink:  “For six decades I’ve been pretending to be the honest broker — but I’m here to tell you: It’s all lies!”

Scene: A psychiatrist’s office in a nondescript strip mall in suburban Virginia. Dr. Weller, a clean-shaven, balding man in his sixties, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, khaki pants and a loose knit sweater with suede elbow patches, moves across the carpeted floor to greet his new client. At the doorway stands a tall, rangy senior citizen with a pointed white beard and top hat with red and white stripes and a white star on a blue background. Dr. Weller extends his hand.  Read more, from Salon…

Israel and the psychology of never again

The wounds of its people’s tragic history have trapped Israel in a cycle of violence

Why does Israel continue to act against its own interests?  Over the years, and especially since 2006, the Jewish state’s deadly, over-the-top military actions in response to provocations from Hamas and Hezbollah — and now from a flotilla ferrying humanitarian aid to Gaza — have backfired. And in each case, the Jewish state has grown less secure by increasing its international isolation and fueling fury much closer to home. Read more, from Salon…