Tag Archives: Palestinians

Can we tackle the challenges of “tomorrow” without the wisdom of “yesterday”?

LISTEN (HEADPHONES RECOMMENDED): At the 2012 Israeli Presidential Conference, Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson outlines the four categories of predicting the future, inspired by history and bizarrely, Donald Rumsfeld.

The assembled speakers during the plenary session focusing on the issue of the economic future for the world. (Far-Left): Alan Bollard, Governor Bank of New Zealand. (Centre-Left): Niall Ferguson. (Centre): Richard Haas, President Council on Foreign Relations. (Centre-Right): Martin Wolf, Associate Editor Financial Times. (Far-Right): Stanley Fishcher, Governor Bank of Israel (photo credit: Daniel Easterman).

Professor Niall Ferguson, the acclaimed Harvard and Oxford historian, economist, consultant and television personality, once again graced the glitzy light-effect laden stage of the fourth annual Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem last month.  The conference, organized under the auspices of the industrious octogenarian President Peres, is one of the largest in the Jewish world, attracting over 5,000 participants and 200 speakers from Israel and abroad.

Criticized by some as an incoherent and disjointed affair, lectures, speeches and workshops featured everything from psychology to the Arab spring, to the rise of Asia and cloud computing.  However, the over-riding theme of the conference was essentially about thinking and planning for the future or “tomorrow”.  Something Israelis, even by their own admission, are not terribly good at.

Professor Ferguson on the big screen during his speech at the 2012 Israeli Presidential Conference
(photo credit: Daniel Easterman).

As usual the conference organizers were able to secure a star-studied array of high-profile personalities from the worlds of politics, technology, economics and science including Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair, Google Chairman, Eric Schmidt, world-renowned sexologist “Dr Ruth” and even Zionist infant terrible, Peter Beinart.  But out of all these highly regarded and accomplished individuals, perhaps none were able to encapsulate the challenges of “tomorrow” quite so ably and succinctly as Professor Ferguson.  Probably this is because very few people in the world have the same command that Ferguson has over such a variety of distinct yet inter-related subjects.    From the history of the British Empire to high finance and the intricacies of macroeconomics, to his understanding of the importance of technology; not only does Ferguson seemingly know it all, but crucially he knows how to explain it all, and he does so in a compelling and user-friendly fashion.

This year, Niall Ferguson in his own words “conjured up the spirit of Donald Rumsfeld” by structuring his lecture according to the famously clunky categories of “known knowns” and “known-unknowns” first propounded by the much-maligned Former Secretary of Defense during the Iraq War.

So what will be the most serious challenges of tomorrow Professor Ferguson?  Well, the most obvious one or “known known” as Ferguson insists on calling it, is the ongoing economic crisis plaguing the United States and Europe.  When governments on both sides of the Atlantic were forced to bail out the banks for their profound recklessness and ill judgment, the tremendous mountains of debt they incurred were then of course transferred to the balance sheets of sovereign states.  While a second great depression was narrowly avoided in the short-term, the western world is now reeling from what can best be described as a all-mighty economic hang-over after binging on enormous sums of credit in the form of numerous budgetary and monetary stimulus packages.

The so-called “PIGS” economies of Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain have so far fared worst in this latest round of global economic misery, but Ferguson also thinks that the US is not so far behind despite the fact that it is still (barely) the largest economy in the world.  If the bond markets finally catch wind of the precarious state of America’s finances, Ferguson believes (as he has stated elsewhere) that we could literally be in for a world of trouble.  As yet, it is difficult to predict when this tipping point will be, but barring a radical change in policy, it is hard to see how the US will be able to evade this outcome indefinitely.  Meanwhile, Western economies will continue to sputter along at infuriatingly low or even minus growth rates.

In terms of the next category of “known unknowns”, these are as Ferguson says, things we think are going to happen, but don’t really know when or where.  For Ferguson, this is essentially the category of future military conflict and war, namely in the Middle East where the Syrian civil war is still raging and a possible pre-emptive strike against Iran still looks likely.  And then of course there is the continued failure on the Palestinian track, which Ferguson forgets to mention.  The PA under Abbas and Fayyad are becoming increasingly unpopular and their hold on power over the restive populations of the urban sections of the West Bank seems to be slowly weakening.  A sudden outpouring of violence and anger in the West Bank in the wake of continued Syrian instability could plunge the region into further chaos and misery.

Skipping over the third category of “unknown unknowns” which essentially deals with the destabilizing effects of rapid and unforeseen technological advancement, we now move on to final category of “unknown knowns”, which Ferguson himself has confusingly titled.  Despite the perplexing nomenclature, this is perhaps the most important category.  Drawing on major historical events as our guide, we see that wherever there is a dramatic improvement in living standards and a rising middle class, there is also an accompanying rise in revolutionary political sentiments.  Nowhere is this most true today, than in China, the great economic and geopolitical story of our time.  If the growing legions of middle class Chinese start demanding western political rights as well as western brands and economic standards, we could potentially see much greater instability in China with consequences for the whole world.  As Ferguson warns, when great powers change places, and a monumental “reconvergence” between different empires occurs, the ensuing process is not usually smooth and painless.

According to Ferguson, this last category is not just the most important, it is also the one that only those familiar with history and the lessons of “yesterday” can employ for the good of tomorrow.

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PHOTO-ESSAY: Hebron, Israel’s Forgotten City

As Israel turns in on itself, focusing on the multitude of social and economic problems facing the country, the West Bank continues to drift further away from the country’s collective consciousness.  But how long will the relative quiet in Hebron last?

On Friday May 18th I participated in a tour with “Breaking the Silence”, a group of former IDF combat soldiers.  The following photo-essay shows a day-in-the-life of Hebron in 2012, and how in this city, even a minor incident can cause things to rapidly spin out of control…

Palestinian children walking down a deserted Hebron street. To the right is a white tent built by settlers which has been torn down repeatedly by the IDF. Each time requires at least 300 soldiers.

The official Israeli checkpoint for passage in and out of the West Bank, far beyond the internationally recognized 1967 “Green Line” which itself has no discernable markers. The so-called checkpoint looks more like an innocuous European-style border crossing between countries, providing a sense of normalcy for Israelis and other privileged visitors to an otherwise abnormal system of military government.

Revered by both Jews and Muslims as the final resting place of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Bible, the Me’arat Ha-Machpela or Al Haram al-Ibrahimi in Arabic is also the site of the 1994 massacre by the Brooklyn-born settler, Baruch Goldstein.  Goldstein’s killing of 29 Muslims and wounding 125 is widely regarded as one of the major causes for the outbreak in Palestinian suicide attacks and the consequent derailment of the Oslo peace process.

Palestinian child looks-on at the rare sight of Israeli civilian visitors from the other side of the roadside barrier which divides Jews and Muslims along Hebron’s main Shuhada street, a few steps away from the Tomb of the Patriarchs.  Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in October 2000, Palestinians are forbidden from travelling by car or opening shops in the city center.  Despite attempts by Israeli NGOs to improve conditions through legal action, Palestinian freedom of movement, even by foot is severely restricted in Hebron to this day.

A Sunglasses-clad military border policeman surveys the scene, as the group continues down Shuhada Street. Often confused by foreign media outlets as “Israeli soldiers”, the border police or “magavnikim” in Hebrew shorthand are actually a branch of the Israel National Police and not the military. Even so, young Israelis can choose to volunteer for Magav at the age of 18 as part of their three-year mandatory military service.  Those that do so are usually motivated by ideology as the unit has regular contact and confrontations with Palestinians, particularly at checkpoints.

Once the scene of a busy marketplace selling fruits, vegetable and meats much like Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda “shuk”, this stretch of Shuhada street is still a virtual ghost-town or as is common in army parlance, “sterilized” of Palestinians.  The only movement that can be found is bizarrely of a jogger (in orange), an armored police vehicle and a solitary soldier whose silhouetted figure can just be made out in the background.

Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders of the Israeli NGO, “Breaking the Silence, and the “tour leader” for the day’s excursion through Hebron.  Shaul, a former soldier who served for years in Hebron during the Second Intifada, is a religiously observant Jew with close family, including a sister that lives in the settlements. Breaking the Silence strictly define their role as that of “providing education and information”, particularly for Israelis on the situation in Hebron and the surrounding area. They are quick to point out that their goal is not to suggest a “political program” for solving the conflict.  Nevertheless they are unequivocally opposed to the continued occupation of the West Bank.

One of the numerous IDF soldiers we passed along the way, next to a heavily armored police vehicle.  Hebron is the second largest urban area in the West Bank with a population of 166,000 Palestinian Arabs.  It is the only major Palestinian city in the West Bank which Israelis are legally allowed to enter because of the three “micro-settlements” of 1,000 Jewish settlers within the actual city.  Guarding these 1,000 people is a battalion-strength force of about 500 soldiers, reinforced by both regular and border police.  This means that for every two settlers, there is at least one solider protecting them, the highest ratio of its kind in the West Bank.  Despite these heavy outlays of money and manpower, Israel formally claims no sovereignty over Hebron.  The only governing authority over the city is military rule.

“Breaking the silence” tours are usually notorious for the interruptions and antagonism they elicit from the small settler community of Hebron.  While there were two minor disruptions by settlers from the area, overall local reaction to the presence of the tour group in the city was muted and bemused rather than aggressive or violent. Here a member of Hebron’s Chabad House argues that the property was acquired through legitimate means while Shaul continues to address the group, rebutting the man’s claims.

However, the day was not entirely without incident. Towards the very end of the tour, the group finally got a tiny taste of the emotionally charged nature of Hebron and the often unfair and illogical conduct of the city’s security forces.  As the group attempted to enter the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a vicious verbal standoff ensued whereby the border police refused to allow the Israelis to pass through.  One visibly religious and senior-looking officer instructed the police troops not to say anything to any of the increasingly agitated members of the group, “not a word” and not to grant them entry under any circumstances.  Threats of arrest and confiscation of photographic equipment were made, to which the group responded by shouting insults, yelling “chatzuf” or “insolent” at the magavnikim.

Despite the stern orders by his commander, the middle-aged trooper of Ethiopian origin, pictured in the foreground here, flaunted all protocol; loudly claiming that one of the group had made a racist comment against him.  Here I was able to take one hasty shot of the continuing exchange between him and group member, while one of the younger military policeman (out of shot) aggressively urged me to move on, shouting more threats.

And suddenly, the initial complete refusal of entry was overturned in an instant.  As a large American-Jewish tour group comprising both secular and religious teenagers approached the site, inexplicably the order by another officer was given to allow everyone entry.  Here at the entrance to the site’s many hallways lined with “memorials” to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, I wait behind a crowd of American tourists whose presence seems to have been the random decisive factor enabling my own access to Judaism’s second holiest place.

Breaking the Silence says that Israelis suspected of “left-wing” views are routinely barred entry to the Tomb of the Patriarchs if they don’t look “religious”.  Strangely, the information materials we were given by the NGO were also temporarily confiscated upon entering the second security check area situated within the enclosure itself.  On my way out, I saw a friendly-looking magavnik of about 19 or 20 years of age, intently reading one of my leaflets.  “Very interesting,” he said after he reluctantly handed it back to me, clearly enjoying the colorful graphs, facts and figures contained in the materials.  It seemed to sum up the very bizarre encounter, where personal whims and emotions ruled the day rather than clear orders and the fair application of one rule for all.  Our unpleasant inconvenience was just that, a simple inconvenience (albeit one filled with vitriol and the threat of violence), but for the Israelis involved, it perhaps gave them a small snap-shot of what it is like to be a Palestinian, even if for only a brief moment.

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