Mapping the Middle East: Palestine?

Assyrian Empire

My recent post on Israel and Hamas has prompted commentary–quite a bit of it ahistorical. Among the ahistorical claims is that Palestinians somehow possess a greater claim to lands in the region than Jews. It's ahistorical first of all because soverign nation states are largely a late 18th/early 19th century invention. Any people's claim to sovereignty by some sort of "ancient" claim is at best sentiment, and at worst an attempt to mask expansionist dreams in what E. J. Hobsbawm called "invented tradition."

The idea of a nation state is old, but the reality emerged out of revolutions such as those that convulsed the American colonies and France in the late 18th century, and which led to the creation of unified Germany and Italy in the 19th. Prior to then people lived in city-states, kingdoms, empires, principalities and such, but not in nation states. The idea of drawing lines on a map and labeling those living within that dotted enclosure a "people" or a "nationality" is, at root, a fiction to which most of the earth's peoples have acceded over the past two hundred plus years.

Enter the idea of a Palestinian nation. One hears that Palestinians lived in the Middle East before the Jews. That's dodgy history and even worse anthropology. We toss around terms such as "Arab," "Palestinian," and "Jew" as if they are races rather than cultural and religious preferences or simply the movement of armies. DNA evidence shows that 72% of all Israelis and 82% of all Palestinians are ancestrally related–that is to say that the entire region is a hodgepodge of older peoples whose cultures are now extinct (Phoenicians, Moabites, Canaanites, etc.), who mingled with newer cultural traditions: Muslim, Christian, and Jew. Indeed, some anthropologists argue that there is, biologically speaking, no such thing as a "Palestinian."

It's for certain that there was no such thing as Palestinian nationalism until the 20th century. It emerged as an analog to Zionism and has no less legitimacy, but no more either. Check out Wikipedia's entry on ancient Palestine. Pay close attention to the maps–especially what's not there. With the exception of a loose confederation known as Palestina in the 5th century AD, there has been no kingdom, empire, or other political entity known as Palestine. There had been two Jewish  kingdoms (Israel and Judea) in the area long before "Palestina."

Palestine historically referenced only a region. Those who today claim any "historical" right to region are deluded. If there is a Palestinian "race," its ancestors were Assyrians, Egyptians, Macedonians, Romans, the peoples of various caliphates, Crusaders, and Ottoman Turks–not autonomous Palestinians.  They were also pagans, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Muslims.

Here's a map of the region before World War One. From 1516 to 1917, "Palestine" was simply a far-flung province of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The Turks fought with Germany and Austria-Hungary during World War One–the losing side.

 Enter the great nationalist map-drawers: England and France. The Middle East was a (word play intended) turkey to be carved after the war. Notice below that lines have been cavalierly drawn. These had little to do with ethnic groups, tribes, or historical affinity; they were a deal between the winning powers. The next map shows the region in 1930. See any state called "Palestine?" Nope. It's a "mandate," a word meaning that Britain administered the region by right of conquest. 

Of course, the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Vichy (Nazi) France) tried to do the same thing during World War II. The Brits retained nominal control during the war, but had the 1942 Battle of El Alamein gone the other way, Germans would have controlled the area. The war signaled the end of Europe's age of imperialism and its subjects learned a few things from their years of domination, including the concept of nationalism

Look at the map of the region in 1947 and you'll see that new "nations" have emerged–that is, new fictions of dotted lines enclosing various peoples. Palestine isn't one of them, nor is an autonomous Israel; they are part of "Syria."

In 1948, the United Nations–in response to the Holocaust, but also to centuries of vicious anti-Antisemitism–acknowledged lines on a map and declared it "Israel." They drew some others and called it "Palestine," but those claiming to be Palestinian didn't accept the first set of lines and repudiated the second. Various newly created Arab nations declared war on Israel and were surprised when Israel defeated them.

Here's what the region looked like in 1949, after the peace treaty. I call your attention to the fact that Egypt occupied Gaza and Jordan claimed the West Bank (aka/Palestine). This is where we've been since 1949, with various wars–none preemptively launched by Israel–shifting the lines here and there quite a few times.

The entire debate over the "right" to this land or that is political, not historical. We talk about "nations" because that's how we think at this moment in time. We also think that boundary disputes are supposed to be adjudicated by bodies such as the United Nations, the body that declared Israel's existence and its right to exist. It has also upheld the idea of an independent Palestine, a situation that has yet to occur because those living there accept neither Israel's right to exist or any of the lines drawn on maps. This is the rule of the jungle, not law. It ought to invite the label pariah, not victim. 


For the Misplaced Love of Hamas!

The people who did this aren't worth your tears.
Someone hand me a bucket and mop–I need to wipe up the crocodile tears from bleeding hearts bemoaning Israel's assault on Gaza. I too lament the loss of all life and want this to stop. But let's place the blame where it belongs: on Hamas.

There's an old adage in need up of a comma update: he lives by the sword shall die by the sword, and a lot of innocent people die with him. Hamas is getting pounded and that's a good thing; the sooner Hamas is neutralized, the better the chances for peace in the Middle East. Most Westerners, though, are fixated on the disproportionate loss of life and collateral damage such as Israel's accidental bombing of a UN school.

In the first case all this really means is that Israel is better armed than Hamas, so stop making it into white keffiyehs against black yarmulkes. It's really a classic example of Israel being pushed to its limits. Can we stop pretending that Hamas is the legitimate voice of anything except hatred? Hamas are terrorist anti-Semites sworn to Israel's destruction. If Hamas had Israel's weaponry, it would have used it years ago, the cost in human lives be damned. As it is, 4,800 missiles–yes 4,800–have been fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel since 2001, nearly 4,000 of them after Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza in 2005. Who's the aggressor here, folks? Granted, Israeli loss of life from those attacks has been "light" (a term you wouldn't want to use around those who lost loved ones), but this is a measure of Hamas's inexactitude, not its determination.

About inexactitude, let's parse the school bombing a bit. It's only in movies and video games that rockets always hit their targets. The majority are not high-tech "smart bombs," and even then, smart bombs are often pretty dumb–as much as 60% of the time. Check out Paul Walker's excellent column subtitled "The Myth of Surgical Bombing in the Gulf War" (http://deoxy.org/wc/wc-myth.htm) Oh, excuse me for mentioning that the United States does the same things for which so many Americans are willing to condemn Israel for doing. Should I also mention that Israel was actually attacked by Hamas, as opposed to the manufactured reasons for U.S. involvement in both Gulf Wars? 

Is this the time to note the hypocrisy of Americans criticizing Israel for things we'd never tolerate? I've used this analogy before, but it remains apt. How long would it take to send in the Marines if Mexico shelled San Diego or El Paso daily? What if Russians routinely smuggled suicide bombers into Alaska? There were 164 suicide bombings inside Israel between 1989 and 2008 resulting in 804 deaths. Since 2008, both bombings and attempts have increased. Still want to talk about all the innocent lives lost in the Israeli assault? As a friend of mine once asked, "Bombs from above, bombs from below…what's the difference?" It's incredible that Israel has put up with Hamas as long as it has.

There are a few other things that baffle me over the sudden Western love for Palestinian terrorists. Has everyone forgotten the Palestinian gangs that danced in the streets when the Twin Towers fell? I haven't. Do we really think that a Palestine consisting of Gaza and the West Bank is viable? It's probably the worst idea since East and West Pakistan (with India dividing them). That one went really well–East Pakistan rebelled and formed Bangladesh in 1971, now one of the world's poorest nations. An independent Palestine would give it a run for its non-money.

The rational solution would be that Jordan absorb the West Bank and Egypt reassert claim over Gaza. The rub is that neither country wants any part of the factionalism, poverty, and violence of Gaza or the West Bank. So is this the time to remind you that it was Israel that gave Gaza its right to self-determination in 1994, that Jordan repudiated its desire to reclaim the West Bank in 1988, and that Israel agreed to the 1993 Oslo Accords by which some measure of autonomy was given to the West Bank? (Yes, there were strings attached.)

I won't deny that Israel isn't always a good neighbor and that West Bank settlements are a bad idea. Yet it remains the case that only Israel has traded land for peace and that Israel has never engaged in terrorism or launched an unprovoked war. We can cry many crocodile tears, but there will be no peace in the region until Palestinians silence Hamas (and Islamic Jihad) and recognize Israel's right to exist. Secretary of State John Kerry should set this as a precondition for any further U.S. discussion of Palestinian statehood and stay out of the region until it occurs.

One final thing. That school bombing shouldn't have happened. Kerry forged a ceasefire two days earlier. Guess who broke it? That would be Hamas.


The Martian: Contemplating the Worst

By Andy Weir
Crown Publishers, 369 pp. 9780804139038 (e-version)
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Human beings are pack animals, which helps explain our fascination with such asocial themes such as hermits, survivalists, and marooned individuals. We can't help wonder what we would do if stranded on a desert island or cast adrift in the sea. Think of movies such as Jeremiah Johnson, Cast Away, All is Lost, Into the Wild, Wrecked, Behind Enemy Lines…. We are obsessed with the very idea of staying alive against long odds, as in Hunger Games or Survival. Of course, there is Western culture's most famous example of desperate individualism, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, a book seldom out of print since it appeared in 1719. What would we do if we were literally the last person on earth?

As we see in all such productions, the islands are not "desert" atolls devoid of all survival tools, food, and water, or the film/book/show would be a very short one indeed. Likewise, the "last" person usually isn't–he or she is part of a small band, or a Friday materializes somewhere in the narrative. Andy Weir's page-turning science fiction novel ups the ante. What if you really were the last person alive in an environment with no soil, food, water, or air? What if there was no Friday to offer companionship and you knew if wasn't remotely possible for a rescue team to reach you for four years, assuming anyone even learns you did not perish in the accident in which your crewmates thought you were killed? When would you ingest toxins provided for such an eventuality?

 The Martian has been accurately called an amalgam of Apollo 13 and Cast Away. Some time in the near future the crew of the Ares 3 Mars mission is conducting experiments on Mars when a freak dust storm tears an antenna from its moorings and impales their colleague, Mark Watney, sending him tumbling down a ravine. The crew has seconds to enter escape pods and head for the mother ship before the storm envelops them. There's nothing that can be done as Watney's suit was punctured and the commander's reading of Watney's suit monitor confirms death, probably from an explosion of his blood vessels occasioned by sudden and total depressurization of his space suit. There's nothing to do but save themselves and return to the ship to mourn during their two-year journey back to earth.

Except Watney doesn't die. His own blood seals the puncture and he manages to scramble back to his habitat. Emergency self-surgery is the easy part. How can he survive in a hab unit with air, food, and water designed to sustain for months, not years? And Watney can't contact anyone–that suit-piercing antenna was part of the communications array. Mark's a resourceful guy, but each time he runs the supply numbers, the math comes up short–by several years. Should he just inject himself and become a for-real casualty?
Two things transpire, the details of which will astound science geeks. First, NASA has left behind all kinds of space junk–rovers, habitats, old suits, solar cells, etc.–that can be jerry rigged, especially by an outside-the-box thinker like Watney. He even figures out how to produce some soil for crops, though the explanation isn't for the squeamish! I'm no scientist, but Weir's explanations of how Watney produces food, air, and water sound plausible. But Watney also knows that if he has any chance of rescue, he will have to time a rover drive to the Ares 4 landing site at exactly the right time–a daunting task as it's 2,000 miles away, he'll have to recharge the rover, and its top speed is 15 mph. Are you up for a four-month drive in a vehicle you can't leave? And even if everything goes right, it's still going to be a crawl to the end in which he could die before rescue.

Once Watney begins to move about, an observant NASA official notices the activity. But what to do about it? As we are reminded in Weir's taut novel, NASA has to jump through political hoops, not just scientific ones. I don't want to give away too much, so suffice it say that this is a beat-the-clock story akin to The China Syndrome or The Andromeda Strain (with much better science). There is also the question of how long one can live with one's self, a reminder that hermits are more romantic in fiction than in reality.

Weir's book is thought provoking, smart, and intense. You don't have to be a physicist to read it (though it would help), nor do you have to be a sci-fi fan. (I don't read much sci-fi, though I loved this book.) The Martian is ultimately about the will to live versus real and imagined limits. It makes us contemplate hope, human ingenuity, and our personal tolerance for unspeakable loneliness.  Rob Weir

Note: To the best of my knowledge, Andy Weir is not related to yours truly.


Kris Delmhorst: Blood Test

Blood Test
Signature Sounds #2065
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Back in 1996, Kris Delmhorst was a fresh new voice on the folk scene. Now she's an experienced performer and Blood Test–the titular song on her first collection of originals since 2008–reminds us she's been on the road long enough to lapse into a nostalgic mood: Remember how it used to be?/Nothing on the radio and nothing on TV/Just us and all those hours/The humming roads, the singing stars/We could listen in,we could drown it out... It's a blood test, tell me are you real? She returns to her past on "92nd Street," an homage to her New York childhood. Eighteen years on stage and six of motherhood give Delmhorst the right to be wistful. In fact, the tone of Blood Test puts me in mind of material from Patty Larkin's (or maybe Suzanne Vega's) backlist–especially the spare arrangements, the phlegmatic vocals, and lyrical twists that skirt the borders between description, irony, and unease. On "Bees," for instance, she sings: Well the leaves are turning gold/They're turning red and gold/God at least there's something changing.... Sameness also surfaces in "We Deliver."

Are these musings on the inuathenticity of modern life, reflections on social problems–a theme she decidedly explores on "Homeless"–or rumblings from her own soul? A little bit of all three? Deliberately ambiguous? Those answers would be her call, not mine. I can report, though, that there is a lot of light on this album to counterbalance gloom implied or real. "Bright Green World," for instance, is upbeat in theme and arrangment. Delmhorst was a big fan of The Cars, and this song pays homage to that band's pop-tinged-with-New Wave feel. There's also the jangly "Temporary Sun," which rocks out to Mark Spencer's electric guitar, Anders Parker's bass, and Konrad Meissner's drums. Add a few straight up folk songs and Blood Test passes the good album litmus test. I'll leave the rest to armchair pyschologists. Rob Weir