Over the past decade I’ve been looking into how The Racket – a global network of multinational companies, investors and multilateral institutions – control policy across our world, and make sure it is written in their interest. The major player in this arrangement promoting these energies is the US government and all of its different agencies, but of course the US military is on hand if things get out of control. The Middle East has been the victim for centuries of domination and exploitation by the imperial powers of the day, and it is no different in the “American era”. The region has been a crucible in which many of these financial interests have been most brutally enforced, whether that be conventional economic imperialism or the geopolitical control which is its prerequisite.
One stark example of this came in a small house in the hills of East Jerusalem, where I witnessed a microcosm of the slow-burn murder of a people. No American who reads the mainstream newspapers or watches the corporate TV news would have had any idea this was happening. But seeing it upfront there was no way to dispute the huge crime that was being perpetrated with American taxpayers’ dollars and diplomatic support.
I spent a week sleeping on the floor in the home of the Hanoun family – a husband and wife and their three children, all Palestinian. I was there with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) – a brave collection of international activists who attempt to help Palestinians non-violently resist Israeli oppression. East Jerusalem was, by international law and basic morality, to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. After the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel had illegally occupied East Jerusalem, in contravention of international law, and has never left. In fact, Israel was working to take it all. In their 2014 war in Gaza, the Israelis killed more than 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza, the vast majority civilians. There is talk in the mainstream Israeli media about depopulating Gaza and turning it into an Israeli tourist attraction.
But during the time I was there the most pressing of the many issues were the attempts by an Israeli settler company to slowly cleanse East Jerusalem of its Arab population, focusing its efforts at that time on the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, which sits in a beautiful valley looking out toward Bethlehem. Longer-term activists were sleeping there as well, ready to document what everyone expected would be an imminent eviction. A few months later, at 5.30am, the Israeli border police did come and forcibly evict the Hanouns (so forcibly that the son Rami had to be taken to hospital). The activists were arrested, as were protesters who subsequently took to the streets. The Hanouns were offered a tent by the Red Cross. It was the culmination of a decade-long program of intimidation and harassment of the Sheikh Jarrah community that had seen lives destroyed to appease the most rancid kind of religious zealotry.
Sheikh Jarrah is situated in a valley down from the American Colony Hotel where Tony Blair, former British prime minister and possibly the most willing servant of the American racket in the world, was staying in a luxury suite when he graced Jerusalem with his presence as the racket’s “Peace Envoy”. When you looked out of the Hanouns’ window, Blair’s hotel was 30m away; Blair, I had no doubt, could see the Hanouns’ house during his morning swim. Before I contacted his spokesperson, Blair had nothing to say about the evictions, and he said nothing in the aftermath. That was one side of the valley. On the other, the British consulate peered down from its high security peak. The British consulate had been only slightly better, calling the latest eviction “appalling”, but had done nothing tangible to halt this obscenity. The US silence was even louder. The Hanoun family, like so many Palestinians, had been the victims of terror for decades as they fought off Israel’s attempts to take their homes. Maher Hanoun, who continued to lead the resistance, spoke to me with eloquence and calm as he chain-smoked his way through the evenings and recounted what had befallen his family. Maher’s father was a refugee from the Nakba, or “the Catastrophe”, as Palestinians call the founding of Israel in 1948 when gangs of Jewish paramilitaries expelled 800,000 Palestinians violently from their homes. Maher’s father was forced out of Nablus; his grandfather was forced out of Haifa at the same time. The Jordanian government gave them the houses in East Jerusalem in 1956 as compensation and transferred the ownership to them in 1962. Maher was born in 1958 so had spent his whole life, and brought up all his children, in his home. The Israeli settler company, Nahalat Shimon, backed by the Israeli courts, used a forged century-old Ottoman-era contract to claim ownership. Like all over East Jerusalem, the Israelis also tried to bribe Maher with an open check, if he would go quietly. He refused. “This is my home,” he told me. “I would never respect myself if I sold my home for money. They want to build a settlement on our hearts, on our dreams.” In the end, they succeeded.
The Israelis’ tactics were what Maher calls “slow torture”, and included arrests, bribery and violence. In 1998, after Maher refused to start paying rent to settlers, soldiers came to his house while his mother was very ill with leukemia and took all their furniture, including the bed. Maher had pleaded with them to leave it so his mother could die peacefully. In 2002, the Israelis succeeded and eventually kicked the Hanouns out for four years, before they returned in 2006; in 2002 his two girls were 9 and 13 years old. Across the way, and in the sightline of Mr Blair and the British consulate, there was a makeshift tent where a 62-year-old woman was now living after settlers took over her house. Initially they only took two parts of her house so she was literally living next to them. Then she was kicked out. Her husband had a heart attack when the Israelis violently repossessed their house with the help of over 50 soldiers (on the night of Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory). After spending some time in hospital, her husband had another attack two weeks later and died. The family again refused a bribe of an open check – in the millions of dollars – from the Israelis to leave their homes. “I don’t have a life now,” she told me from her tent. “With my husband and house gone, there is no life. I just hope with the help of God that this occupation will stop and we can return to our homes.” I never could find out what happened to this woman in the violent eviction by Israeli forces, but one report I read said even her tent had been destroyed.
I walked from Sheikh Jarrah to the British consulate (it took about five minutes) and asked Karen McLuskie, the spokesperson, what the British line was on the ethnic cleansing of what is meant to be the future capital of Palestine. “The British position is that Jerusalem has to be the shared capital of two states,” she told me. “I think what is happening in Sheikh Jarrah is not unique, sadly. There are a number of sites around Jerusalem where these kinds of actions are taking place – demolitions, evictions and settlement encouragement.” She specifically declined to comment on what the British government is actually doing to stop this illegal and inhuman destruction of Sheikh Jarrah. Ms McLuskie did concede, however, that: “The annexation of Jerusalem simply makes it harder to reach a peace deal, it simply cuts off the options.” After I contacted Blair’s spokesperson I was told that “Blair has raised the issue with the Israeli government”, and that “it remains an issue of concern”. I asked if Mr Blair would make the three-minute walk down to the Hanouns’ to talk to them about their predicament, to which the spokesperson assured me: “Staff from his office have previously visited families who have been evicted.” Notice the past tense. Maybe when the Hanouns had actually been evicted, Blair would send an emissary to their tent. The Americans refused to give an interview.
When you look around East Jerusalem and the surrounding area, there are considerable plots of land without homes. If Israel wanted to (illegally) build new settlements without kicking out Palestinians in the area they could, there is space. The targeting of Sheikh Jarrah and other areas is a process of ethnic cleansing, the transformation of East Jerusalem into a unified Jewish Jerusalem. As Maher asked, “Why can’t they build a settlement on any other bit of land?” The one good thing about the Netanyahu–Lieberman administration, which was in power at the time, was that they were much more honest about their colonization program than their “centrist” predecessors. The Netanyahu administration was now willing to get rid of some “outposts” in return for continued expansion in East Jerusalem and “natural growth” in existing settlements throughout the West Bank. That was the same policy negotiated by Ehud Olmert and George W. Bush before the Annapolis conference in 2007. Netanyahu was just more honest in saying that it obviates the possibility of a Palestinian state. “I can’t see how we can have a capital if there is no land, no houses, no people,” agreed Maher.
The next stop in this attempt to cleanse the putative future capital of Palestine of its indigenous population was the al-Bustan area of Silwan, which sits in the valley down from the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall. When I first arrived in Israel I went on the City of David tour, which functions as a three-hour Israeli propaganda extravaganza (dressed up as an archeological experience). King David in biblical lore is said to have been the first Jewish leader to settle the land in Jerusalem and his son King Solomon is said to have built the First Temple in the 960bc. In 2005, some archeological finds purported to provide evidence that supported this. Now the Israeli government was planning to turn the homes of the people of Silwan into an archeological theme park: 88 dwellings were due for demolition, home to about 1,500 Palestinians. At the end of the tour we went through the waterway that was built to connect the Old City to the spring outside the city walls. When I came out at the end of the tour, I didn’t realize that the spring was located in Silwan. A few days later I went to the tent where the residents of al-Bustan were mobilizing against the destruction of their homes and realized, while watching the tourists being bussed back up the hill to the “City of David”, where I had actually been. Again, as in Sheikh Jarrah, the people were defiant. “If they demolish my home, they will have to demolish my body too, I will die for my land,” said Zaid Ziulany, 54, who lived with his family in house “38” which was due for demolition. “Where are we meant to go?” he asked. “Should we all just sleep on the street?”
In Tunisia, the people had actually successfully overcome the US and French backed despot. I met Mustafa and Kamal on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, where they protested in January 2011 to get rid of the dictator who had ruled their country with an iron fist for 23 years. Tunisia has changed a lot in the year since then. We ate at the Opium bar-restaurant, one of the many lining the French-style boulevard named after the dictator before Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. “We couldn’t have done this before, no way,” said Mustafa, a 25-year-old originally from Tabarka in the north of Tunisia. “I mean, the only thing I could have told you is how great Ben Ali is, what a good man he is.” “If you wanted to talk politics in a bar and the police heard you, they will put you in prison,” Kamal told me nonchalantly. “Now I can say what I want to you.” It was strange coming to Tunis and listening to the scale of repression and police abuse during the Ben Ali era. I had just never heard about it. Before this US/French-backed despot was overthrown, no one in the West seemed to care that we were propping up a police state in one of the UK’s most popular tourist destinations. The US has provided $349 million in military aid since 1987 when Ben Ali came to power in a coup. The tyrant was trained at the former US Army intelligence school at Fort Holabird in Maryland, like so many of the world’s monsters. But the next stage of western connivance in the subjugation of the Tunisian people was the widespread media and political fear over the democratically elected Al-Nahda Party, which was Islamist. The course from actively arming a kleptocratic dictator to pushing for the Tunisians to support “western values” is of course familiar. Franz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth: “As soon as the native begins to pull on his moorings, and to cause anxiety to the settler, he is handed over to well-meaning souls who … point out to him the specificity and wealth of Western values.” Any right-thinking Tunisian would, of course, see that the most consistent western value in their country is to support dictators. Initially, when people were getting shot by snipers on the streets of Tunis, Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, said the US “didn’t want to take sides” and was worried about the effect of “unrest and instability” on the US relationship with Tunisia. In the end, over 200 perished. After the revolution won out, Clinton and France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy moved on to praising “progress” in the country while also expressing apparent concern that Al-Nahda might impose Iranian-style dictatorship on the Tunisian people. (They didn’t care when it was Pinochet-style dictatorship.)
Events followed the typical US imperial modus operandi during a popular uprising against one of its dictator satraps. It goes like this: public ambivalence about the protests alongside private support for the tyrant when it is unclear if the uprising will succeed. Then, when it looks as though the tyrant will not be able to hold on, a switch to public support for the uprising alongside private support for the same regime shorn of its now-discredited figurehead. Such a methodology worked in Egypt: the long-suffering Egyptians now have Mubarakism without Mubarak. Tunisia is different. As Fanon put it: those who were last are now first, while those who were first are now last (or in exile in Saudi Arabia in the case of Ben Ali). The fear of Al-Nahda was misplaced and based on western desire to remain in firm control. There are plenty of clear differences between Tunisia and Iran in 1979 when the revolution overthrew another western-backed torturing tyrant, the Shah. First, Al-Nahda had assembled a coalition including secular socialists and social democrats to form the government. The president, Moncef Marzouki, is a secular human rights activist who spent decades in the wilderness fighting the US-backed atrocities being committed against dissidents in Tunisia.
Second, Tunisian civil society is engaged with the process and will only grow. One of the retrograde patterns you see in a Middle East speckled with US-backed dictatorships is that Islamism is often the only avenue for expressing dislike of the current state of affairs. The space for secular left movements has been crushed since the pan- Arabism of Nasser in Egypt worried the US enough to extinguish the left across the region (helped along by an Israel fearful of the efficacy of the secular nationalism of Fatah in the Occupied Territories). Now that Ben Ali has gone, the lid has been taken off the boiling pot. There was space for young people – in fact, everyone – to breathe here, there were opportunities to engage freely with politics and to think outside of the box. And now outside that box the vista is broader than Islamism. It will take time – perhaps a couple of generations – but the secular left can now grow and will undoubtedly become more significant. Many of the revolutions of the Arab Spring have been led by the tech-savvy young secular left – particularly in Tunisia and Egypt with their large labor movements. Contrariwise, the Islamists – who in many ways had a symbiotic relationship with the brutal US-backed dictatorships they were at war with – will slowly become more irrelevant as these police states fade away. They will have less to feed on, and their policies will now stand the considerable test of governance. Third, the military acted nobly in Tunisia, unlike in Egypt. Ben Ali fled after the military refused to murder their own people, making them wildly popular in the country. There is also little fear that they will launch a coup against the democracy the Jasmine Revolution created. “They are with the people” is a refrain heard often in Tunis. It is understandable: without them it is possible Ben Ali would still be in place and a river of blood would be flowing down Habib Bourguiba Avenue. In the Opium bar, Mustafa told me he voted for the CPR, a secular left-wing party headed by Mr Marzouki, because he thinks their program is good for the economy and women. But, he said, he doesn’t fear Al-Nahda. “I like them,” he added. Kamal, on the other hand, voted for Al-Nahda because he thinks they are “good people … They are not extreme. The Salafis are crazy, but they are not very important here.”
Clearly, what scared the West more than any Islamist is a secular revolutionary left opposed to the neoliberal order we set up over the past 40 years. That would really hurt the bottom line. Islamists themselves have often been quite welcoming to the Bretton Woods institutions and the neoliberal economic order. With the usual suspects now trying to impose those dictates on Tunisia, it was near impossible for the ruling parties to try something else (even if they wanted to). So far Tunisia has followed US and Bretton Woods dictates to the letter, privatizing many of its state-owned assets (at the same time plumping up Ben Ali’s wallet) and eviscerating public institutions and subsidies for fuel and food. Many actually compare Al-Nahda to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, and it is no secret that the AKP has been a dream for business and international capital. In their time in power, the AKP privatized a raft of public assets, including Tekel, the state- owned tobacco and alcohol company, which it agreed to sell off as part of the structural adjustments attached to a $16 billion loan agreement with the IMF. Before Erdogan started acting like the new sultan, the business press was in raptures about the AKP. This was why I worried for Tunisia – not because of Islamists, but because of neoliberals. As Fanon put it: “The apotheosis of independence is transformed into the curse of independence, and the colonial power through the immense resources of coercion condemns the young nation to regression.” Or, in fewer words, take an independent course and starve.
The US and its allies will never stay silent; they will always try to intervene. But the question for the revolutionaries is: are you going to let them intervene? Are you going to organize? It’s been the case all through the history of the racket’s local dictators – from the Shah of Iran to Suharto in Indonesia. No matter if you are a client of the Americans, the most powerful country in human history, if you get the revolution, the Americans can do nothing – the people create a new imagination. Nawal El Saadawi, the most famous feminist writer in the Middle East, was heavily involved with the uprising in Egypt. For her it was the culmination of a life dedicated to overthrowing dictatorship in her homeland. I went to see her in her one-bedroom apartment on the 13th floor of a tower block in the Shoubra neighborhood of Cairo, right on the banks of the Nile. “All the Gulf countries are colonized by the US. Wherever you have oil, you have the US,” said El Saadawi. “We got rid of the head only, but the body of the regime is still there, militarily, economically, media, education, everything.” So has she lost hope for this great uprising, then? “Oh, no, no,” she said, smiling. “I am very optimistic, I never lose my hope. Hope is power, hope makes me smile, hope makes me live. I am a writer, a novelist, I need hope, I cannot live with a bleak attitude. So long as we have young people here and we go to Tahrir Square I will have hope. We live in a jungle; we don’t live in a healthy society. It’s about power, when the grandfather has money, prestige and power, he rapes the granddaughter, it’s a matter of power. When we finish with this mentality – that it’s not power that dominates, it’s justice, freedom, love, equality – we have revolution, like in Tahrir Square, and we eradicate power.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.