Power politics in the Middle East: How the global North-South divide capitalises on trauma

  • 0

Jannike Bergh is in conversation Matthieu Rey, historian and director of the Contemporary Studies department at the Institut français du Proche-Orient (Ifpo).

Hello Matthieu. The purpose of this conversation is to draw upon your knowledge, as an historian of Middle Eastern power politics, especially that of Iraq and Syria, as well as your knowledge of South African history, to reflect upon the unfolding crisis in Gaza.

I’m not working on Palestine, but of course, Palestine is embedded in all the issues that we encounter in our work on the Middle East. You have to consider Palestine as one of the major issues that affect all the other issues, a kind of meta-discourse linked to what we can call, in this region, East and West, or North and South. Israel and Palestine are places where both political cultures (the global North and the global South) meet. When I mention political culture, it’s not to say that there’s a big difference between the North and the South, but if you consider with which major aspects and major divisions the global North has built its political path with regards to the global South, the key component is the differences between the two. If I consider the North, first: I’m a white guy from the global North – I’m French and my education was French – and I’m currently running a unit which is a French research centre outside France, so of course, I keep connections with Europe – considering the North’s political culture, the main divisions of the 21st century are deeply linked to the fight against what we, broadly speaking, call fascism. All kinds of political parties, if they want to have a place, have to say continuously that they are against fascism or nazism. The latest example is how far-right movements in France started to say that they are fighting antisemitism. In that way, they are on the “good side” of the political board. Otherwise, these forces are disqualified from participating in the debate. In Europe, you can be post-communist, for example, because if you renounce your career as a communist, you can still have a credible career thereafter. Some intellectuals have done that in the 50s. However, you cannot be “post-Nazi”, that’s not possible and it disqualifies you from speaking. This is naturally the result of the major European tragedy initiated by the Nazis who massacred six million Jews.

These very significant divisions apply to all the different parties, and it’s important to keep this in mind, to understand why there is such a divorce between Europe and the global South on the topic of Gaza and the ongoing events.

The major trauma in the North was Hitler and how he destroyed Europe, and how it relates to modern European thought, including from the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution, culminating in the disaster of the Shoah, which destroyed six million Jews and other categories of the population.

With regards to the global South, I'll build the discussion on Israel and how Israel is built on the connections to the global North, not with the South. The North and the South are totally different insofar as how they are linked to their respective major traumas. The major trauma in the North was Hitler and how he destroyed Europe, and how it relates to modern European thought, including from the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution, culminating in the disaster of the Shoah, which destroyed six million Jews and other categories of the population. This event led to deep trauma for Europe. They then (re)built on the idea that Europe could be the place that defends freedoms. It then has to define what freedom(s) are – so I’ll elaborate on this aspect. Of course, the United States is part of the same culture, and it becomes more and more connected to the same history, because they helped fight for freedom and against nazism. And then, slowly, over 20 years you can see that fighting for freedom is also part of the US’ internal agenda. This was reflected both in their international agenda and internal agenda around freedom fighters and the emancipation of Black Americans.

In the global South, the main question is different, as the major trauma was colonisation, or all kinds of subordination that came from the North. And until now, the divisions between who is or isn’t allowed to speak would be those voices that denounce imperialism, whether it is through the fight for liberation or the fight against different encroachments coming from the North. It still continues today, but the problem with that is that the North uses its own categories to consider the South. Political Islam remains one of the major political forces that is completely embedded in the main objective of fighting imperialism. When these forces use Islam, it’s not to say they want an Islamic state, it is necessarily to say that they want an autochthonous state or a pure state without those encroachments from the North. Of course, political Islam is deeply informed and framed by the long relations between the North and the South, and political Islam uses a lot of vocabulary from the North. The problem with that, is that in Gaza, in those days – since the beginning of the Israeli-Palestinian question, that is, in 1948 and earlier (in the nineteenth century), but especially since the creation of the state of Israel, those two cultures, North and South, entered into a conflict without any bridges or any kind of space in which the political aspect of the question was properly framed, and not understanding what the other party had on its mind.

Before the state of Israel was created, the Zionist settlements at the beginning of the 20th century had to defend two key aspects: first, it had to defend the British Empire, and it was very clear, when the First World War ended, that the Jewish settlements were part of the general project of the British Empire. The second aspect that the Zionist settlements advocated was that it would “develop” the country, and they adopted a rhetoric that was very common at this time, that “the land needs to be developed because the natives did not manage to do that”. That’s very similar to discourse in South Africa and other colonial parts of the world.

During the Second World War, there was a great shift around Ben Gurion, one of the key new political leaders, who started to break away from the British Empire. In his view, the great power would no longer be Great Britain, but the United States. Israel changed the rhetoric in the 1960s: they became part of the “free” world against communism. For example, American support for the Six-Day War or the June War in 1967 was profoundly influenced by their war in Vietnam. As they could not afford the so-called communist encroachment in the Middle East while their capacities were entirely committed to Vietnam, they agreed on Israel “correcting” the threat from the Soviet allies, Egypt and Syria. From the US perspective and Israeli rhetoric, both were defending the free world. Then, in the 1980s, it changed, because the Cold War ended. A new motto emerged: the fight against terrorism, and this is once more connected to what we are witnessing in the Western world now. Post 1979, the North denounced terrorism and pointed out the Palestinian connection before advocating against Islamist groups. Nowadays, in Gaza, the scale of the destruction has certainly been much worse, but in Israel’s framework it was not very different from an anti-terrorist fight conducted by the US and their allies against terrorist groups: liberating Mosul from Daesh (ISIS) went with its destruction and displacement of its population.

On the other side, the same applies to Hamas: They say they are representing a true liberation movement. How did the National Liberation Front in Algeria do it? How did the ANC do it in South Africa? They used weapons. FLN committed massacres and violent attacks as part of the liberation struggle. Hamas followed this pattern, justifying it by the fact that Hamas’ rhetoric is to say that the Israeli society, as most of the people go to the army, are part of the army. For Hamas, they are fighting army against army. Of course that is not true, because you need to differentiate between civilians and soldiers, but colonial war always blurred this fundamental division. The French in Algeria displaced people in camps, and conducted a massive campaign of torture and arrests. Israel’s actions in Gaza are hardly different from a colonial war.

If you look past the rhetoric, concretely, what is actually happening in Israel, and for example why is Gaza in particular being ethnically cleansed, and this mass displacement happening specifically now? If you go beyond the weaponisation of antisemitism, and US imperialism, why is Gaza being targeted right now, beyond October 7, etc.?

The first point, and I want to be very clear on this, is that I’m not a specialist on Israel; I am much more familiar with Palestine.

I will put two to three points on the table for the debate because I don’t have the answer. But I think we have to consider it just to know how Israeli society has changed over the last two decades.

If you consider Israeli citizens who are 30 or 40 years old today (i.e. born in the 1980s), they did not witness major wars against Arab countries (therefore no longer a case of “being surrounded by enemies”). They grew up in a society in which the “enemy” consisted of more informal movements, parties and political groups, like Hezbollah, Hamas, etc. The First Intifada exemplified this phenomenon, with civil committees fighting against Israeli soldiers. When they turned 20 (in the 1990s), they belonged to the generation of the Oslo Accords, a generation that believed peace might result from negotiations. In reality, the Oslo Accords were largely based on exchanges of principles rather than technical discussions. It was exactly the opposite of the negotiation ending apartheid in South Africa. When delegations started to discuss concrete points in Taba in 2000, the US and Israeli armies withdrew when faced with the real cost of the peace process. But this closure happened while violent fights already flared up again, giving the impression that Palestinians were not playing along. On this aspect, we have to keep in mind that in South Africa, anti-apartheid struggles did not give up violence before reaching a full agreement…

Then you have the Second Intifada starting right away at that point. If I take the stance from an Israeli perspective, the Second Intifada led to significant trauma in Israeli society, because terrorist attacks occurred massively in different places in the territories, such as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, restaurants, discotheques, etc. It created a kind of trauma that meant that, finally, Israel was not the true achievement of the Zionist project: the Zionist project was clear, they wanted a state that provided security for the Jews. Suddenly, this idea was broken down definitively. It was not that they would achieve peace by defeating all Arab powers. What then happened in Israeli society was that some intellectuals and others started to leave because they started to understand that the core of the project rested on society evolving or developing in such a way that there would be a panel of opinions – and that peace with the Palestinians would not go well, so they left. At the same time, many Israeli groups started to radicalise their positions, standing for a violent and unilateral way of dealing with the Palestinians.

It’s important to note that, at this time during the Oslo Accords, Shimon Peres put in place a policy to change work permits and push Palestinian workers back into the West Bank and Gaza. Unlike in the 1980s, now fewer and fewer Palestinians would have access to Israel. This led to fewer interactions and fewer opportunities to get to know each other and have ordinary discussions – which is different, by the way, from South African apartheid, because Israel broke down the idea of needing Palestinians for Israel’s own development. They brought in workers from Southeast Asia (and you can witness this on 7 October: who were targeted? It was the whole society on the other side of the border, so the majority were Israeli and Jewish, but there were also people from Thailand, and Bangladesh, because they were brought into Israel to work.)

So, after these events, which share similarities with South African history, the idea that you could change the colonial project from the inside by making peace with the other side, started to crumble. At the same time, religious Zionism started to emerge and became more and more powerful. The Zionists pushed the idea of a “frontier” (and not a border), and we witnessed how they wanted to settle peace by force. If they wanted Jerusalem, they would need to take the West Bank, and so they would occupy different neighbourhoods. They would push on in the West Bank and occupy land that the State would recognise.

In the 2000s, there were dozens of thousands of settlers in the West Bank – today, there are over 200,000. And this is not only for political reasons, it’s also the political economy of Israel that urges people into these settlements, because real estate in Israel is very expensive. Also, we have to remember that Israel is like the size of Gauteng – so, always keep in mind that, when you are in Tel Aviv in relation to Gaza, it’s like being in Johannesburg in relation to Centurion – so you are neighbours, but you don’t know each other.

The last point is that Ariel Sharon implemented the outcome of the Second Intifada, he believed that peace can only be attained by force. He imposed what was the political culture of Israeli society in the 1980s. Under Sharon, they would withdraw from Gaza in 2005 and build a wall to separate the society. That is, in my view, the last attempt at a two-state solution. The problem is that we will never know what could have happened because Sharon disappeared.

His legacy was taken over by these far-right colonialist political parties. The division inside the Knesset is also one of the major incentives to radicalise Israeli politics – because if you want to have a majority, you have to take those little groups on board, in the government. If you combine all that from an Israeli perspective: first, you tried peace, you failed; then, you provide Gaza some kind of independence – at least in the rhetoric – and they continue to fight you; and finally, you know you will only have peace by force, because the core of Israeli society has been built on the idea of security since the beginning. As such, for the Israelis, the Gaza Strip symbolised the core of the problem.

At the same time, on the other side of Palestine, many groups (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc) shifted their strategy from the Second Intifada struggle to new practices of launching rockets from Gaza, which turned into a war platform for liberation. It is important to bear in mind this important change: not using suicide attacks from 2009 until now (even after 100 days of war) means that these groups fight for the future and not the present. It is completely different from the Second Intifada, during which they were pushing their fighters to destroy themselves in order to bring a solution. So, this is how Gaza became a stronghold. What could one want to do with Gaza? It’s no bigger than Johannesburg. Any military invasion will destroy the population. Since October 2023, the far-right pushed for the idea that maybe it’s a historical opportunity to restore the Nakba process from the beginning, therefore expelling the remaining Palestinians from Gaza. Because until October 7, there was no real reason to sell the project to Israeli society; the major trauma of the 7 October attack, echoing the same fear of annihilation witnessed during the Second Intifada, created the opportunity for the extremists to push for another agenda. Comparison with other historical processes will be interesting here such as with the Botha government. The problem is that, until now, the two political cultures from the global North and the global South have not engaged in dialogue to reach sustainable, political solutions. Rhetorically, Hamas is winning, because more and more people from the global South are behind Palestine. On the other hand, the far-right Israeli parties are winning: they are pushing the ethnic cleansing of Gaza, and nobody cares at the end of the day. As with the whole region, you can elevate the level of violence and break down societies. Syria is a good example.

Rhetorically, Hamas is winning, because more and more people from the global South are behind Palestine. On the other hand, the far-right Israeli parties are winning: they are pushing the ethnic cleansing of Gaza, and nobody cares at the end of the day.

What we have to understand is that the Israel-Palestine question, in France and the United States, is not about external policy first, but revolves around their domestic affairs. It’s much clearer in the US: there are deeply embedded connections between several groups – and mostly, those that support Israel are not left-liberal but the Republicans, what we call the Christian Zionists, who, by the way, had a lot of influence in the past election of Trump, and they are strong. It is also linked to the fact that Israel organises its advocacy through the political system of the US and its lobbies, and it’s legal. It can be traced back to the war of October 1973, when Israel recognised the importance of American support during the war. Thereafter, they started organising lobbies. At that time, the US kept good relations with the Arab monarchies from the Gulf, sharing their oil interest. These monarchies were afraid of the same enemies as Israel, i.e. the Arab progressive parties. So, the lobby for oil was the lobby for Israel. This created a kind of rationality in American policy. You have to defend the Gulf and Israel. Naturally, there were no direct connections. The only close connections between the two came during the Abraham Accords when Trump attempted to normalise relations between Gulf countries and Israel. What Hamas did was to break down these connections because up until now, the normalisation of relations between the UAE, Saudi Arabia etc. with Israel, is postponed or has been at a standstill for a long time, because they know their societies would be against it, and it would be hard.

Could we say that the far-right is using antisemitism in an Islamophobic way? This question is within the context of the recent immigration reform in France, and if I understood you correctly, could this rhetoric (of weaponising antisemitism) be purely for votes?

Firstly, antisemitism in France is a big issue, because you have true antisemitism from lots of different political groups, from the right to the left. And there are a lot of acts against Jewish people simply because they are Jews, so we should not dismiss this issue. Part of the problem is how we connect the Jewish communities inside France to the Zionist project. There was a debate a while ago about the BDS movement, for example saying that BDS was anti-Zionist, therefore it was anti-Semitic, which is quite ludicrous for historians, because the Zionist project is deeply embedded in the idea of European antisemitism. If you want to understand Zionism, look back at what Chaim Weizmann, the then-president of the Zionist organisation in 1914 wrote to Lord Balfour saying that he shared the British politician’s anti-Semitic views, meaning that Jews could not be fully part of European society and that is why they needed an independent state. Sometimes politicians forget this important point – it causes more antisemitism and it’s very dangerous.

I can be led to believe that Marine Le Pen is not the same as her father (far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen), but when I saw her leading demonstrations against antisemitism, I had a bit of doubt about the truth there.

Secondly, what is antisemitism in European political thought? It’s mostly anti-modernism. If you look at the Protocols de Sage de Sion, it’s one of the worst antisemitism books in history: It’s against the bank, industries, against change brought upon by the Industrial Revolution. European societies have changed a lot since the 1980s. In the 1970s, French society was mostly white and Christian – or Communist –, even if there were some minorities, but they were just pushed out of the cities – the political public space – the minorities were workers that were there for a period of time. Then borders were shut down and these societies became more diverse. At the same time, because of the economic crisis, the middle classes or lower middle classes now faced massive precarity. All that the politicians had done in the last 40 years was to point out cultural differences, not the socio-economic issues, and this is the problem that we’re facing. Political issues include how to deal with social and economic issues. That is part of the social balance.

What impact would South Africa’s case against Israel at ICJ have on the region? Is it naive to think of it as a Madiba moment, or are there BRICS implications there?

It’s very interesting for somebody from the North. The initiative was taken by South Africa as a state and they included Ireland as part of the team. If you consider problems revolving around colonisation, there were three places in which these questions were deeply unresolved: Ireland, South Africa and Palestine. As we know from the 20th century, there are three paths out of colonisation: There is the American path where you decimate the locals, annex the region, and create a new society (the same as Australia, New Zealand, etc.); there is the Algerian path where you push out all the settlers and those who have connections to the settlers. Lastly, you have the South African way, and this pertains to mobility and sovereignty. Mobility pertains to the right to move around the world, and to live wherever you want with the right of movement. Then there is sovereignty, which is different: having political rights because of where you reside. In this matter, South Africa has created the idea that it’s possible for many different communities to live together, putting aside the idea of origins. That’s why South Africa’s case against Israel is very important and symbolic for the world. This is my opinion as someone from the global North: it demonstrates the possibility of real cosmopolitanism, the only answer to racism.

Arab nations are looking to South Africa to say, you are doing what we expected from our governments but our governments cannot do that. Some of their governments do not have a good human rights track record.

The global South and the Arab region have responded with fervour. All my friends from Morocco to Iran changed their Facebook profile photos to the South African flag. It’s very clear. It’s massive! Arab nations are looking to South Africa to say, you are doing what we expected from our governments but our governments cannot do that. Some of their governments do not have a good human rights track record. If Sudan or Syria took Israel to trial, it would be very easy to overturn. It’s not naive – if the court decides that there is a genocide taking place, there will be a lot of constraints imposed on Israel. It’s not like the resolutions of the UN Security Council that conclude that Israel needs to withdraw from Gaza. There will be judicial processes whereby Israel will have to commit. If it happens, all the countries that recognise the ICJ will have to enforce the law. And it will have a huge impact on Israeli politicians and businesses. We will see.

It’s a major shift. Another major break is that the Western (global North), as we can see, are cautious of how they should react. They cannot simply denounce the South African position, they rather mediated by mentioning that the case is a step too far, as France did. It has triggered something on both sides, North and South. It’s important, because either the trial will end, and it will divide the UN between North and South, or it’s an opportunity to find a place of dialogue, in which this important issue may find a politically and legally grounded solution. Today, neither the General Assembly nor the Security Council in the UN can play this role. Previously, solving a war between Israel and Arab countries always involved the great superpowers, and none of them are currently ready to commit. This could also open a path for political resolution in the long term.

I read that rising evangelism in East and West Africa means that countries are increasingly pro-Israel, although one would have expected that all African nations would support the decolonisation of Palestine, it seems that there are ideological shifts.

Connections to decolonisation in Africa are much more complex if you take Israel into consideration, because Israel has been fighting on the African continent for at least 30 years for different reasons. There is commercial interest in Africa, putting Israel in the position of a strategic partner for many countries. The same goes for security issues and connections to some African governments that bought Israeli technology. Finally, there are other links to weaker states, for example, Malawi is one of the places in which Israel finances development. A great game – sponsored by the US during the Trump administration – is to condition financial help for their support in international organisations. For example, Israel was able to advocate for a seat at the African Union… So there are different layers, and it is much more complex than decolonisation movements. Israel found a way, apart from South Africa, to unplug the idea that they are part of the decolonisation agenda. Because the decolonisation project in some places around Africa is more linked to their own old imperialist powers such as France, Great Britain…

South Africa has a unique relationship to Palestine specifically because of the system of apartheid. Do you agree?

It’s an internal political problem, but because of the fabric of South Africa since the 1990s, it’s really hard to “forget coloniality” – they know better.

Matthieu Rey is an historian studying state-building and policymaking in Western Asia and Southern Africa. He is the director of the Contemporary Studies department at the Institut français du Proche-Orient (Ifpo). He recently published When Parliaments ruled the Middle East: Iraq and Syria, 1946–63 (AUC Press, 2022).

  • 0
Verified by MonsterInsights