Archive for January, 2008

By Abigail R. Fradkin

Abigail R. Fradkin ’09 attends Harvard College and is a Classics and Government concentrator in Lowell House.

On the night of the first of August 2007, Egyptian soldiers at the Egypt-Israel border killed four Sudanese refugees attempting to flee to refuge in Israel. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers witnessed the event, which was also captured on surveillance tapes. According to an IDF soldier’s account on Israel’s Channel 10 News, Israeli soldiers discovered the Sudanese refugees just as Egyptian troops arrived. The Egyptians immediately fired upon the refugees, killing two and wounding another. The fourth refugee ran toward the Israeli border, but an Egyptian soldier caught hold of him. After an IDF soldier intervened, a ‘tug of war’ [1] over the man ensued. Fearing that the Egyptians would shoot both him and the refugee, the IDF solider eventually loosened his grip. Several meters from the border fence, Egyptian guards beat the third and fourth refugees to death with stones and clubs. The Jerusalem Post quoted one soldier who witnessed the event: “What happened there yesterday was a lynch [sic]. These are not men, they’re animals. They killed him without even using firearms. We just heard screams of pain and the sounds of beating. Then the screams stopped.” [2]

This well-publicized atrocity, combined with the recent exponential increase in the number of Sudanese crossing the border into Israel, has made the issue of the beleaguered refugees from the both the Darfur region of western Sudan and southern Sudan particularly pressing. During the whole of 2006, only several refugees entered Israel, but by the summer of 2007, that number had increased to 50 or 60 each day. [3] Advocacy groups estimate that there are approximately 2,400 African asylum-seekers in Israel, including about 1,700 Sudanese, 300 to 500 of whom come from Darfur. [4] Twelve hundred of those Sudanese arrived in Israel in the past half-year after having successfully crossed the Egyptian border. [5] Many of the other asylum-seekers come from Eritrea, Ghana, and Kenya.

Israel is currently planning to set a quota for the number of refugees it can absorb. Referring to the 300 Vietnamese boatpeople whom Israel welcomed in 1977, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit pledged that Israel will absorb the African asylum-seekers “with the same compassion” with which it “absorbed the Vietnamese refugees.” [6] The government is now working with the UN to determine which asylum-seekers qualify for refugee status. UN representatives are in the process of interviewing the Sudanese refugees and will publish their recommendations upon completing their research. Considering the ongoing influx of refugees, this may take a long time.

The representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, Michael Bavli, asserts that ultimately “the decision on the quota will not be dictated by numbers, but on a personal, case-by-case basis.” [7] It seems most likely that the Darfurian refugees will be given priority because they are unable to safely return to their homes and are considered to have suffered the most; the future of the southern Sudanese refugees will likely remain less secure. On September 4, Sheetrit announced that Israel intended to grant citizenship to several hundred refugees from Darfur. The decision was widely praised in Israel, including by 63 Members of the Knesset (the 120-member Israeli parliament) who crossed party lines to sign a petition demanding that the Darfurians not be deported. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) affirmed that it has long believed that “it is the moral duty of the Jewish nation to do all it can to alleviate the human suffering caused by genocide wherever it arises.” [8]

This focus on Darfur reflects the fact that the situation in Darfur is even more dire than conditions in southern Sudan. In Darfur, ongoing and systematic terrorization, rape, mutilation, and murder have escalated into full-scale genocide. The current conflict began in February 2003 when a new opposition group, the Sudanese Liberation Army, embarked on an armed campaign against the government to protest the lack of government protection for, and development in, the marginalized region. The government, with its capital in Khartoum, responded by unleashing the Janjaweed (“guns on horseback”), or Arab militias, who proceeded to attack villages in Darfur, killing, raping and abducting villagers and destroying property and resources. Government troops have also been involved in the Janjaweed attacks, both on the ground and through bombing coordinated with subsequent ground assaults. [9]

In his February 2006 review of Julie Flint and Alex de Waal’s Darfur: A Short History of a Long War and Gérard Prunier’s Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, Nicholas Kristof describes the bases of the conflict: “While shorthand descriptions are simplistic, they’re also essentially right. In Darfur, the cleavages between the Janjaweed and their victims tend to be threefold. First, the Janjaweed and Sudanese government leaders are Arab and their victims in Darfur are members of several non-Arab African tribes, particularly the Zaghawa, Fur, and Masalit. Second, the killers are frequently lighter-skinned, and they routinely use racial epithets about the ‘blacks’ they are killing and raping. Third, the Janjaweed are often nomadic herdsman, and the tribes they attack are usually settled farmers, so the conflict also reflects the age-old tensions between herders and farmers.” [10] According to UN estimates, the fighting that began in Darfur in 2003 has killed between 200,000 and 400,000 people and displaced about 2.5 million. [11]

However, despite the greater urgency of the situation in Darfur, some Israeli and international organizations worry about the distinction made between refugees from Darfur and those from elsewhere in Sudan, primarily the south, whom both the UN and the Israeli government have tended to place in the economic refugee category. Eitan Schwartz, speaking on behalf of the Coalition for the Advancement of Refugees from Darfur (CARD), urged the government “to go the extra mile and to offer citizenship to all the Sudanese refugees in Israel.” [12] During the Second Sudanese Civil War, which began in 1983 and ended in January 2005 with the treaty between the Islamic government in the north and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement in the largely Christian south, 1.9 million southern Sudanese civilians were killed and more than four million were internally displaced. [13] Although the UN is effectively focused on repatriating people in the south, it has not found long-term solutions to the continuing problems in the region. The southern Sudanese still face serious difficulties, including the continued presence of government troops and associated militias in defiance of the accord, child slavery, terrorization of the population, and religious persecution, as well as extreme poverty. Alex de Waal, in a talk at Harvard University on his most recent book, War in Darfur and the Search for Peace, repeatedly stressed the importance of “Sudan as a whole,” and of making any peace talks in Darfur a part of the larger goal of implementing the procedures set forth by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. [14]

The 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, as amended by its 1967 protocol, defines a refugee as a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” [15] Refugees from the nightmarish conditions of fear and persecution in southern Sudan fit this definition, making a compassionate international response to the plight of all Sudanese asylum-seekers, not just those from Darfur, the only humane one.

The refugees face yet another complication: because the Sudanese government has consistently refused any diplomatic relations with Israel, it automatically charges with high treason any Sudanese national who sets foot in Israel, including refugees seeking asylum there. [16] According to a report by Israel Radio, Sudanese Interior Minister Bashir Taha accused Israel of encouraging Sudanese emigration to Israel in an effort to damage Khartoum’s international image. He also declared that Sudan would prosecute any refugees who returned. [17] It is therefore imperative that both UN interviewers in Israel and the Israeli government give serious consideration to asylum requests by all Sudanese, regardless of their regional origin.

Moreover, the Egyptian government, in its treatment of these refugees, makes no distinction between those from Darfur and those from southern Sudan. Indeed, by the time they reach the Israeli border, the Sudanese refugees have not only encountered unimaginable horror in Sudan, but brutal mistreatment in Egypt as well. A candid article in the Egyptian Al-Ahram Weekly asserts, “Excessively harsh socio-economic conditions and racist attitudes in Egypt seem to be the main reason why Sudanese refugees want to relocate to Israel. Of the Sudanese refugees now resident in Israel 71 per cent report verbal and physical abuse as the main reason for their fleeing Egypt.” [18] The article also mentions the December 2005 Mustafa Mahmoud mosque incident in which Egyptian police fired on a crowd of Sudanese refugee protestors, killing at least 27. [19] Since that incident, the number of Sudanese refugees fleeing to Israel has risen considerably.

After conducting several interviews with refugees in their temporary home on the grounds of Israel’s Ketziot Prison, where food, clothing, housing, medical care, other amenities and various courses have been provided, Sheera Claire Frenkel reports that “for many of the refugees, it is still difficult to talk about their lives in Egypt. Many of the men point to scars and burn marks as physical evidence of the abuse they say they endured at the hands of Egyptian gangs. The women point to new offspring, lighter skinned than the rest of their brood.” Atoi Magit, a 27-year-old mother of four, pregnant with her fifth child, declared that “her worst fear” was that Israel would return her family to Egypt. “Anywhere but there,” she said. [20]

To cross the Sinai Desert between Egypt and Israel, refugees pay Bedouin smugglers hundreds of dollars and risk being caught by the Egyptian border patrol. If they make it to Israel safely, they are sheltered in the temporary caravan park at Ketziot, where a more permanent camp is being constructed, or they are taken in by Israeli families or kibbutzim. Due to the initial lack of sufficient official aid or clear government policy on the issue, the task of refugee care has largely fallen to Israeli organizations and individual volunteers. Israeli families and businesses have donated food and clothing, doctors have volunteered their medical services, students have set up educational programs for children, and volunteers have provided general care for traumatized refugees.

Nevertheless, despite these efforts on behalf of the refugees, the Israeli government has yet to settle upon a clear and comprehensive official policy. On August 18 Israel deported 48 Africans—many reportedly from Darfur—back across the Egyptian border. [21] At the same time, David Baker, a government spokesman, announced that Israel would absorb the approximately 500 Darfurian refugees already in Israel. Two weeks later, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert granted citizenship to several hundred refugees. [22]

However, Baker also declared that any further crossing of the border would be considered illegal and that all migrants would be sent back to Egypt under the terms of an agreement with Egyptian authorities. [23] The deportation of refugees is officially contingent upon Egypt’s assurances that it will treat refugees well, but Egypt itself has denied making such a guarantee. On August 12, the Jerusalem Post quoted the Egyptian Foreign Ministry as saying, “Egypt has informed Israel—officially—that it is not obligated to receive any non-Egyptian citizen who illegally crosses the border into Israel.” [24] This statement appears to contradict Olmert’s July 1 announcement that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak agreed to take back the refugees and guarantee their safety, a pledge Mubarak has never publicly acknowledged. Indeed, the killing of the four refugees on August 1, the discovery of the bound and bloodied body of a 30-year-old refugee in the northern Sinai and continued shootings by Egyptian forces belie the value of that supposed guarantee. Moreover, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry condoned the August 1 killings and responded to news of the incidents with the following statement: “If those crossing refuse to heed the orders of authorities to stop, then authorities are forced to deal with them in such a manner to ensure respect for the law.” [25]

It is almost certain that refugees who are forced to return to Egypt will be met with harsh, even brutal, treatment. With this likelihood in mind, the spokesman for the Israeli Hotline for Migrant Workers, Romm Lewkowicz, charged Israel with violating the provision of the Geneva Conventions concerning a government’s obligation toward refugees from an enemy state. Moreover, Lewkowicz pointed out that it was Israel that promoted the provision after the Second World War, mindful of the shelter German Jewish refugees had received in Britain. [26] Echoes of the historical experience of many Israelis make the plight of the Sudanese refugees that much more poignant for them. As Liat Collins declared in the Jerusalem Post, “Look at them and see us…Even many of those opposed to granting them permanent asylum in Israel can easily imagine them as Jewish refugees struggling to cross borders or board boats to take them away from the Nazi hell.” [27]

Compassion alone is not an adequate solution to the problem, however. While countless acts of generosity have aided and comforted the refugees in their temporary home and occasioned sweet stories like that of the Sudanese girl Miyati thrilled with her all-pink clothes, [28] much more has to be done to meet the needs of these most needy of people. Though Israel has an unusually comprehensive system for immigrant absorption, the persistent social problems experienced by the approximately 85,000 Ethiopian Jewish immigrants are perhaps a good indication of the difficulty that the Sudanese are likely to face. Two decades after the first large influx of Ethiopian Jews, 62% of Ethiopian families have no income at all, 72% of children live below the poverty line and more than 90% of employed Ethiopians have low-paying, manual jobs. [29] These obstacles are also reflected in the population’s poor educational performance, with 32% of Ethiopian students, as opposed to 50% of the general population, eligible for higher education matriculation exams. [30]

Based on Israel’s difficulties in integrating its Ethiopian immigrants, it is clear that absorption of the Sudanese, with their experience of terror and their unfamiliarity with the developed world, will be no easy task. Various possible plans have been suggested, including a (gradual) replacement of some of Israel’s 100,000 legal foreign workers and 100,000 illegal workers with refugees. [31] Most Sudanese were involved in farming at home and there are now 29,000 legal foreign workers in agriculture. The kibbutzim have already taken in many refugees, who will be allowed to stay to live and work. An additional pilot program to employ Sudanese refugees in Eilat hotels has proven successful.

While the great powers of the world hem and haw over what to do about the genocide in Darfur, as well as the possibility of intensified conflict in southern Sudan, Israel has been forced to look into the eyes of Sudan’s suffering people and grapple seriously with the practical and moral implications of these conflicts. Two recent developments have so far done little to reduce the suffering or improve the prospects for a cessation of the ongoing genocide in Darfur. First, on July 31, 2007, over four years after the beginning of the current fighting in Darfur, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to deploy a joint African Union and UN peacekeeping force of up to 26,000 troops in an attempt to bring an end to the violence in the region. Though initially slated to begin in October, deployment of this greatly expanded force was delayed by disagreement over its composition. On January 1, after months of bureaucratic wrangling and particular intransigence on the part of the Sudanese government, formal authority was finally transferred from the current African Union force to the joint mission. However, what was to have been the largest peacekeeping effort in the world now consists of only 9,000 troops, a number which experts worry can do little to seriously affect change. [32] Second, the opening on October 27 in Libya of the latest round of peace talks was marred by a boycott by major rebel figures and disputes among the rebel groups present. [33] Furthermore, while Sudan called for an immediate cease-fire, it fired seven missiles at a target in Darfur that very day [34] and, while delegates are now involved in private talks, [35] no progress has been made. In the meantime, and as the would-be forces attempt to establish peace, the people of Darfur and southern Sudan will continue to face unspeakable daily horror and to seek refuge wherever possible.

In the Western World, only the United States, with 28,123 accepted refugees, Australia, with 21,241, and Canada, with 6,258, have given asylum to large numbers of Sudanese. The other major countries offering asylum are, in descending order, Chad, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. [36] Alex de Waal described this international response as “mean, measly, unethical and even illegal.” [37] Beyond a doubt, the world has yet to fulfill its moral and legal obligation to shelter the beleaguered refugees of Sudan. Other countries must not only exert concerted pressure on Egypt to treat these refugees well, but must finally, themselves, pursue a serious campaign of refugee assistance and give practical consideration to a resolution of the conflict. This should not be Israel’s problem alone.


[1] “Egyptians killed 4 Sudanese on border,” Jerusalem Post, 2 August 2007.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sheera Claire Frenkel, “Israel, UN to stem tide of Sudanese refugees. Officials seek countries to absorb Africans,” Jerusalem Post, 9 August 2007.

[4] Refugee estimates vary.

[5] Ilene R. Prusher, “Israel to grant Darfur refugees citizenship,” The Christian Science Monitor, 6 September 2007.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mazel Mualem, “Israel to grant citizenship to hundreds of Darfur refugees,” Haaretz, 5 September 2007.

[9] Amnesty International: Appeals for Action, “Sudan Crisis – Background,” Amnesty International, 16 September 2007, <http://web.amnesty.org/pages/sdn-background-eng&gt;

[10] Nicholas Kristof, “Genocide in Slow Motion,” The New York Review of Books, 9 February 2006.

[11] Mazal Mualem, “Israel to grant citizenship to hundreds of Darfur refugees,” Haaretz, 5 September 2007.

[12] Ibid.

[13] UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, “South Sudan Operation,” UNHCR, http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/southsudan?page=intro (accessed 19 September 2007).

[14] Alex de Waal, Book forum on War in Darfur and the Search for Peace, Harvard University, Cambridge, 27 September 2007.

[15] OHCHR: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights , “Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees,” adopted 28 July 1951, United Nations OHCHR, http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/o_c_ref.htm.

[16] Gamal Nkrumah, “Here today, gone tomorrow,” Al-Ahram Weekly, 16 September 2007.

[17] Sheera Claire Frenkel, Ilana Diamond, and Staff, “Sudan: Israel encouraging emigration,” Jerusalem Post, 9 July 2007.

[18] Gmal Nkrumah, “Here today, gone tomorrow,” Al-Ahram Weekly, 2-8 August 2007

[19] Amnesty International Library, “Egypt: Amnesty International calls for inquiry into killings and opposes threatened collective expulsions of Sudanese protesters,” Amnesty International, 6 January 2006, <http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGMDE120022006?open&of=ENG-2AF&gt;.

[20] Sheera Claire Frenkel, “‘We knew it would be safe here’”, Jerusalem Post, Pg. 1, 31 July 2007.

[21] Isabel Kershner, “Israel Returns Illegal Migrants to Egypt,” The New York Times, 20 August 2007.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Sheera Claire Frenkel, “Cairo warns it won’t take back refugees who sneak into Israel,” Jerusalem Post, 12 August 2007.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Liat Collins, “The Sudanese Dilemma,” Jerusalem Post, 17 July 2007.

[28] Sheera Claire Frenkel, “A Sudanese refugee with her child at her temporary home at Ketziot Prison,” Jerusalem Post, 31 July 2007.

[29] Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), “IAEJ Employment Initiative,” http://www.iaej.org.il/pages/our_projects.htm (accessed 6 October 2007).

[30] Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), “IAEJ Education Initiative,” http://www.iaej.org.il/pages/our_projects.htm (accessed 6 October 2007).

[31] Evelyn Gordon, “Why a ‘genuine refugees only’ policy makes sense,” Jerusalem Post, 23 August 2007.

[32] Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Bush Signs Bill Allowing Sudan Divestment,” The New York Times, 1 January 2008.

[33] Jeffrey Gettleman, “Rebels Split at Talks on Darfur, The New York Times, 27 October 2007.

[34] Warren Hoge, “U.N. Objects to Expulsion of Aid Official from Darfur,” The New York Times, 8 November 2007.

[35] Gettleman.

[36] UNHCR Statistics, “2006 Global Trends: Refugees, Asylum-seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons,” UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, http://www.unhcr.org/statistics.html (accessed 7 October 2007).

[37] De Waal.

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By Gabriel M. Scheinmann

Gabriel M. Scheinmann ’08 attends Harvard College and is a Government concentrator in Eliot House.

The People’s Republic of China has extended its footprint in the Middle East, even as the United States has grappled with myriad regional messes. Beijing is building political relationships with key oil-producing states in the region, based on its briskly growing need for energy, particularly crude oil and natural gas. Communist China has also become involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking and UN peacekeeping, spheres that have traditionally been American territory.

Since 9/11, many Arab states, pressed by the U.S. for democratic reforms and human rights improvements, have warmed to the prag-matic and business-friendly Chinese approach that ignores the authoritarian nature of their regimes. Washington has been late in recognizing China’s new initiatives in the Middle East. Instead, the U.S. has been preoccupied with the chaos in Lebanon, Iraq, and Pakistan, as well as the threat from terrorist groups and Iran. The U.S. has also traditionally assumed that if conflict with China did erupt, it would be triggered by acknowledged flashpoints such as Taiwan or North Korea. As a result, the U.S. has neglected the possibility that a return to a bipolar world may actually arrive via the Middle East. Though direct military conflict is unlikely in the near future, recent economic trends, Chinese strategic decisions, and American preoccu-pations with short-term goals have signaled the beginning of the Cold War of the Twenty-First century.

China’s Middle East Policy

Beijing’s Middle East policy has four basic components. First, China has pursued extensive political ties in the region consistent with its energy needs. Second, China has reached out to isolated Middle East states in order to minimize criticism of its brutal repression of a rapidly growing, separatist-leaning, and violent Muslim population in its western autonomous region. Third, China has developed a series of naval bases, known as a “string of pearls”, across the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean as part of a gradual expansion of its naval capability. Finally, China has sought to gain geopolitical leverage by turning the Middle East into America’s renegade province, diverting U.S. energy and resources away from East Asia.

At this stage, China is unwilling and unable to directly challenge American primacy and is keenly aware of Washington’s red lines in the region. Thus China has been supportive of American and UN efforts to create an international tribunal to prosecute the (Syrian) killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and has paid lip service to American efforts to bar Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. [1] Chinese Premier Wen Jibao has reiterated that “Resolution 1737 adopted unanimously by the UN Security Council members reflects the concerns of the international community about the Iranian nuclear issue.” [2] China is also keenly aware of and has avoided challenging the new U.S.-sponsored Sunni-Israeli regional realignment against Iran. It has demonstrated its commitment to greater stability in the region and has avoided opposing the American initiatives in Lebanon, Pakistan, or in the Palestinian territories.

The sole exception, Chinese opposition to the Iraq War, was rooted in China’s firm belief that national sovereignty is inviolable, an atti-tude that pleases its Arab trade partners and deflects international criticism of its own domestic policies. Additionally, Beijing was concerned that its growing energy interests would be supplanted by a stronger and more physical American presence in the region. Many Chinese strategists are suspicious of the U.S. military presence in the Gulf, believing that the invasion of Iraq and American threats to attack Iran are part of a plan to monopolize regional oil supplies. [3]

Meanwhile, China has begun flexing its own muscles. In early 2006, Beijing sent a 182-member engineering battalion to Lebanon under UNIFIL—its first peacekeeping contingent sent to the Middle East. [4] It has since increased its contribution to 354 soldiers following the end of the Second Lebanon War, and reports suggest it will double that number in the near future. Increased Chinese confidence in its ability to direct events in the Middle East led Beijing to appoint its first special envoy for Middle Eastern affairs in 2002. [5] Though both the first envoy, Wang Shijie, a veteran diplomat who had served as ambassa-dor to Bahrain, Jordan, and Iran, and his successor, Sun Bigan, have had little to show for their time and efforts, their appointments and Chinese troop deployments mark a volte-face from China’s previous ignorance of, abstention from, and powerlessness in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

China also currently enjoys far greater positive standing in the Middle East than the U.S. Unencumbered by historical records of colonialism or current accusations of imperialism that beset Europe and the U.S., China is seen as a benign power in the region. It has neither publicly laid out a specific vision or policy for the region, nor has it announced that it intends to transform the regimes and institu-tions of the region’s countries. Having never participated in large military or diplomatic endeavors in the region, Communist China is a relative unknown to many Arabs. Ruling elites in Iran and the Arab world appreciate China’s willingness to conduct business uncondi-tionally, disregarding their country’s record on human rights or democracy. In Egypt, a recent government poll showed that China was the most favorably viewed non-Arab country, with 73 percent of Egyptians seeing it as “friendly”. [6]

Energy: Sine Qua Non

Chinese ambitions in the Middle East are primarily driven by the energy needs of its rapidly growing and industrializing economy. In addition to meeting the needs of its expanding power sector, Chinese energy imports are also needed to satisfy its transportation needs, which are primarily driven by the automobile market. [7] Some estimates suggest that China will have more cars on the road than the U.S. as early as 2030. Though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once told the Chinese that “Israeli know-how is more valuable than Arab oil,” Chinese actions suggest otherwise. [8]

After becoming a net oil importer in 1993, China is now the second largest importer of crude oil after the U.S. and could surpass it by 2025. In April 2007, Beijing imported nearly 50 percent of its oil needs, quickly approaching the U.S. level of 61.9 percent. [9] In August 2006, Chinese oil imports from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Oman alone amounted to 43 percent of total oil imports. [10] Led by its three major state-owned energy companies, the China National Petroleum Corpo-ration (CNPC), the China National Petrochemical Corporation (Sinopec), and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), 75 percent of Beijing’s oil imports will be from the Middle East by 2015. [11] As Washington slowly diversifies its energy sources, Beijing is becoming increasingly dependent on the Persian Gulf. In 2005, trade between China and members of the Arab League totaled $51.3 billion. Estimates suggest that this could double by 2010. [12]

The Dragon’s Fire: A Minor Factor

China has never been a major player in the Middle East arms market, though it has been somewhat involved in the region’s weapons trade. In 1985, the Middle East was the recipient of all Chinese arms sales, with Iran and Iraq absorbing 91 percent of these. [13] However, after 1988, that percentage dropped into the teens. Even at its peak in 1987, Chinese arm transfers amounted only to 12 percent of total arms sales to the region. The Chinese delivered around 60 to 75 anti-ship missiles known as C-802s (designated Yingji-8 in China) to Iran by 1997. China also sought to sell M-9 ballistic missiles to Libya and Syria before shelving the deal due to American pressure. [14] Overall, however, China has remained a marginal player in the Middle Eastern arms market since the end of the Cold War.

That may change. In the recent past, China has sold Saudi Arabia CSS-2 “East Wind” intermediate range ballistic missiles. [15] Sudan, currently murdering civilians in Darfur and potentially engaged in a reignited civil war, is the greatest recipient of Chinese arms, including small arms, anti-personnel mines, howitzers, tanks, helicopters, and ammunition. During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah fired a C-802, at an Israeli anti-aircraft warfare ship, killing four Israeli soldiers. [16] Recent reports suggest that China has agreed to sell two dozen J-10 fighter planes, a jet based on Israeli components and technology, to Iran at a time when Iran is facing a third round of international sanctions over its nuclear program. [17]

Axis of Cooperation

Beijing has established warmer ties with Syria, Iran, and Sudan, all declared American enemies. Syrian President Bashar Assad was quoted in 2004 as saying that “China is now a superpower and is very important after the absence of the Soviet Union.” [18] Trade between China and Syria surged 55 percent to $1.4 billion in 2006. [19] By the end of last year, Chinese companies had signed project contracts in Syria worth $819 million. CNPC will begin construction on a $1 billion refinery in Deir al-Zor, the same site of a purported Israeli air attack on possible nuclear installations in September, in 2008. [20]

Beijing has also sought to fill the void created by American and European sanctions against Iran and Syria, undermining American efforts to isolate both regimes. The new Sino-Syrian relationship was summarized by Syrian Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdallah al-Dardari: “Our strategy is to stop exporting crude in three years and refine every drop of oil Syria produces. . . . Syria has had strong and historic political ties with China and it is natural for the economic relationship to strengthen.” [21]

Though it has stood by EU and UN-led efforts to curb Iran’s nu-clear program, Beijing has gone out of its way to reach out to Amer-ica’s most serious adversary. In the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin and then-Premier Zhu Rongji visited Iran and Libya, labeling the two U.S.-defined state sponsors of terrorism as “friendly countries.” [22] President Jiang’s trip to Iran marked the first by a Chinese head of state since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. In December 2002, when Iranian Majlis speaker Mehdi Karrubi visited Beijing, President Jiang declared that “both states share almost similar stances on most issues.” In return, Iran has come to expect support from Tehran. Alae’ddin Broujerdi, head of the Majlis National Security and Policy Committee, announced that Iran expects “Moscow and Beijing to show more strength, power and independence . . .We expect them to use their veto power as a show of their independence and political strength, as the U.S. invariably does in instances involving the Zionist regime.” [23]

Chinese trade with Iran was estimated at $10 billion in 2006. [24] In 1994, Tehran accounted for just 1 percent of Beijing’s oil imports; today the proportion is nearly 13 percent. [25] At the end of 2004, Iran’s oil minister said that he expected China to eventually replace Japan as Iran’s largest oil market. Sinopec recently signed a $100 billion deal with Iran to import 10 million tons of liquefied natural gas over a 25-year period in exchange for a Chinese stake of 50 percent in the devel-opment of the Yadavaran oil field in Iran. [26]

China has also sold Iran anti-ship cruise missiles such as the Silkworm (HY-2), the C-801, and the aforementioned C-802. [27] In November 2003, the CIA issued a report stating that China was one of the leading providers of assistance to Iran’s ballistic missile programs. [28] China had planned to supply Tehran with a uranium conversion facility and nuclear power reactors, but public disclosure of the deal in 1995 and heavy American diplomatic pressure led to its cancellation. [29] In 1997, China pledged to stop selling cruise missiles to Iran, but in January 2005 the U.S. imposed penalties on eight Chinese companies for transferring ballistic missile technology to Iran. [30]

The same pattern has been repeated elsewhere. Since 1995, China, led by CNPC and Sinopec, has heavily invested in Sudan’s energy sector. [31] In addition to selling a variety of weapons and transport vehicles to the Sudanese regime, China has also established three arms factories in Sudan, leading to the proliferation of AK-47s across the country. [32] Today, Beijing is Khartoum’s leading oil partner, importing 64 percent of all Sudanese oil. Here, too, China has established energy and political relationships with a regime hostile to the U.S.

Operation Iraqi Freedom: A Chinese Boon

Anticipating American troubles in Iraq, China swiftly positioned itself to be one of Baghdad’s largest trading partners and political friends. The Chinese embassy in Baghdad opened less than two weeks after the transfer of authority from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the interim Iraqi government in June 2004. China also offered material assistance for the subsequent January 2005 elections and has provided fellowships for Iraqi students, technicians, and diplomats to travel to China and train in their respective fields. Last year, trade between China and Iraq topped $1.1 billion. [33]

A Chinese oil exploration and development contract has recently been the subject of two groundbreaking Iraqi gestures. First, the Iraqi government agreed to honor a CNPC deal signed with former leader Saddam Hussein in 1997 to develop the al-Ahdab oil field, valued at the time at $1.2 billion. [34] The field had an estimated pre-war capacity of 90,000 barrels/day and has been prioritized by the Iraqi government because of its proximity to new power stations and refineries. The deal was also the first to be offered to a foreign company by the new Iraqi government. [35] Additionally, China has cancelled $8 billion of Saddam-era debt, an important gesture of friendship and a symbol of closer political ties. [36] The Iraqi ambassador to China has remarked that friendship between China and Iraq dates back 2,000 years, blur-ring the historical truth but implying the intimacy of the new relationship.

The GCC and China

Beijing has also sought to establish economic ties with Gulf Cooperation Council states. Trade between China and the GCC topped $32 billion in 2005 and a free trade agreement is due to be completed by the end of 2007. [37] The overseas construction arm of CNPC moved into the Kuwaiti market in 1983 and embarked on a major business expansion in 1995 when the group won an oil storage reconstruction project. [38] China initially developed oil relationships with Oman and Yemen, rather than Saudi Arabia, because they both produced a light, sweet crude oil that Chinese refineries could easily handle. [39] By 2001, China had signed almost 3,000 contracts with the six GCC states for labor services worth $2.7 billion. [40] In 2002, the GCC had no major investments in new company facilities in China, but by 2006 they had thirteen, seven of which were bankrolled by the UAE. [41] Bilateral trade between China and Yemen reached $3.2 billion in 2005 and, in 2006, China became Yemen’s largest trading partner. [42] In December 2006, OPEC and China jointly announced that they had established a future cooperation framework on energy issues, “in particular, the security of supply and demand, in order to enhance market stability.” [43]

A New Pillar? Beijing and Riyadh

The emerging Sino-Saudi special relationship is crucial to Beijing’s Middle East policy and perhaps its biggest coup in the region. Overcoming the deep-rooted ideological polarity between the birth-place of Islam and an atheist Chinese communism, Riyadh has partly embraced Beijing in order to offset new strains in the U.S.-Saudi relationship after 9/11. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said in 2004 that Saudi Arabia would reduce its dependence on U.S.-dominated security arrangements in the future. When King Abdullah made his first overseas trip as the new Saudi king in January 2006, he notoriously skipped Washington and became the first Saudi monarch ever to visit China. [44] In January 2007, a delegation from a Shanghai political think-tank was told in Dubai that a bigger Chinese role in the Gulf would be welcomed, especially if Beijing backed Arab positions in the UN Security Council.

Diplomats from both countries have worked furiously to construct a strategic energy relationship that will permanently ensconce a Sino-Saudi partnership. In 1999, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Riyadh and inaugurated a “strategic oil partnership” between the two countries. [45] Saudi Arabian oil exports represent a greater share of Chinese oil imports (17 percent) than American oil imports (14 percent). [46]

Sinopec has partnered with Aramco to build oil refineries capable of handling Saudi high-sulfur crude oil in China’s Fujian and Qingdao provinces—a development that will ease and increase Saudi oil exports to China. [47] China has also been a major investor and partner in the Saudi oil industry. The China Petroleum Pipeline Bureau and the China Petroleum Engineering and Construction Group recently announced that they will lay down a 225-mile pipeline, as a section of the Abu Dhabi Pipeline, and will transmit oil from Saudi Arabia’s Habshan Oil Field to Fujairah, one of the seven emirates of the UAE. [48] Sinopec received a contract to explore and produce natural gas in the Rub al-Khali Basin, the first time Riyadh has opened the area up for investment in nearly 30 years. [49] In February 2007, Sinopec partnered with ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco to set up an oil refining, chemical products, and finished oil marketing venture in China’s Fujian Province. [50] While many believe that the U.S.-Saudi strategic relationship is based on energy supplies, applying the same calculus to the rapidly emerging Sino-Saudi relationship would imply a similar conclusion.

Playing Both Sides: Arabs and Israelis

Beijing’s relationship with Israel, Washington’s greatest ally in the region, has been rather warm in order to avoid any discord with the U.S. Though Israel was the first Middle Eastern country to recognize Communist China, the two did not exchange ambassadors until 1992. [51] Additionally, Israel is one of only a handful of countries to have never granted diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. [52] During Israeli Prime Minister Olmert’s January 2007 visit to Beijing, the band at the banquet in his honor played “Jerusalem of Gold”, a striking change from a time when Chinese diplomats refused to even mention the word “Jerusalem” in deference to Palestinian sensitivity. [53]

Chinese weapons purchases from Israel have often been a major irritant in U.S.-Israel relations. Israel remains China’s second largest arms provider, including of “Harpy” anti-radar drones and Python-3 air-to-air missiles. [54] Twice in recent times, Israel has been forced to cancel arms deals with China after heavy American pressure. Israel’s 1999 agreement with China to upgrade China’s Harpy Killer UAVs greatly angered the U.S. defense establishment. [55] In 2004, China tested the upgraded UAVs over the Taiwan Strait. In 2003, under heavy American pressure, Israel cancelled the sale of one $250 million Airborne Early Warning Command and Control radar system to China. [56] The U.S. is concerned that Israeli-supplied weapons could be used against the United States in the event conflict over Taiwan erupts.

The Chinese “War on Terror”

China has forged strong ties with Muslim states in order to quiet criticism over its ruthless tactics of suppression directed against a Muslim separatist movement in the Uighur region of its western, autonomous Xinjiang province. While estimates put the overall Mus-lim population in China around 20-30 million, the distinctly non-ethnically Chinese Uighurs concentrated in Xinjiang account for 7.2 million of that population.

China is a strong supporter of Hamid Karzai’s Afghan government, with which it shares a 20-mile border. It, moreover, backed U.S.-led efforts to eliminate the Taliban because the Taliban had supported the East Turkistan terrorist forces that threatened the stability of the Uighur region. [57] Between 1990 and 2001, East Turkistan terrorist forces staged more than 200 attacks in Xinjiang, killing 162 people and wounding many more. Then-Chinese Minister of Religious Affairs Zhou Guohai announced that harsh measures against Muslims were needed because the Chinese “deeply fear Islamic extremism” and “deeply distrust the Koran and what it teaches.” He also went on to declare, “We will make sure that Islam is practiced in a way that is in line with Chinese culture and tradition.” [58] In December 2002, in a concession to the Chinese, the State Department agreed to put one obscure Uighur separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Move-ment, on the list of global terrorist organizations. For Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, energy and diplomatic relations trump the plight of Chinese Muslims.

Patience and Protection

China’s unwillingness openly to confront the U.S. in the Middle East is due to its self-perceived Achilles’ heel: its inability to protect energy supplies in American-controlled seaways. At present, 60 percent of Chinese oil imports arrive on tankers through the Strait of Hormuz. Securing deliveries therefore means safeguarding sea lanes from piracy, terrorist attacks, and hostile powers. An American naval blockade of Chinese tankers in the Strait of Hormuz or the Straits of Malacca would paralyze the Chinese economy. That, in turn, could catalyze domestic popular uprisings, which is China’s biggest fear. In 2006, Chinese naval forces conducted exercises simulating the rescue of a threatened tanker, a clear symbol of defensive preparatory measures. [59]

China is also helping Pakistan build a new and major deep-water port and electronic eavesdropping station at Gwadar, a mere 100 miles from the Iranian border and along the direct path of oil imports. Though ostensibly for Pakistani commercial use, the level of Chinese investment and Gwadar’s lack of usefulness as a feeder port in the Baluchistan deserts suggest that Beijing also has strategic interests in the development. [60] The basing of a Chinese fleet, even a token force, would be a clear signal of Chinese intentions to defend its oil investments from superior naval powers. [61] A February 2007 visit by President Hu to the Seychelles also suggested that China may hope to take advantage of the archipelago’s strategic position to construct a naval base. [62] China has also finalized a deal to build a naval base in the Maldives, due to be operational by 2010, as well as a naval bunker facility on Sri Lanka, much to the displeasure of the Indian government. [63] By assembling a “String of Pearls”, an image describing China’s expanding geopolitical strategy of acquiring a chain of small naval bases along its most vulnerable oil routes, Beijing is investing in protecting its energy supplies from possible U.S. threats in the not-too-distant future. China’s willingness to upgrade Iran’s anti-ship cruise missile capability is another attempt to erode U.S. naval superiority. [64]

When the Time is Right

Careful not to invite conflict with the U.S. before it has adequately protected itself against a potentially crippling American naval blockade, China has also embraced regional American allies, such as Israel. By supporting Israel’s right to security—a position unthinkable ten years ago—and following the Western lead on sanctions for Tehran, Beijing has sought to portray itself as benign to American hegemony. As long as America still controls the game, China is willing to abide by the rules the U.S. establishes.

Nevertheless, China has reached deep into the Middle East, creat-ing robust economic and political relationships with American pariah states such as Syria, Iran, and Sudan. Furthermore, it has developed its own “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia, Washington’s other ally in the region. As Sino-Saudi trade, energy investment, and diplomatic cooperation continue to increase, the Saudi royal family will have to balance its various American and Chinese interests against each other.

Chinese leaders have been emboldened by what is perceived as an American retreat from strong positions in East Asia. U.S. troop deployments in South Korea and Japan have dropped by nearly 13,000 since 9/11. [65] The Bush Administration’s willingness to negotiate with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program signals a softening in attitude on the Korean Peninsula. The War on Terror, the Iraq War, and the recent destabilization of several countries in the Middle East have shifted Washington’s attention away from the Asian rim—a development welcomed by Beijing. The Bush Administration has also exhibited a marked rhetorical shift on Taiwanese issues since 9/11. Initially announcing that the U.S. would do “whatever it takes” to defend the island, President Bush has explicitly opposed Taiwanese independence in recent statements in a major backtracking from his former position. [66] As China recognizes U.S. softening of its positions on and presence in Japan, Taiwan, and the Korean Peninsula, it has cautiously entered a traditional American sphere: the Middle East.

As Chinese dependence on Middle Eastern oil deepens, it can be expected that Beijing will vociferously back the interests of oil-producing Middle East states at the UN Security Council and in relations with the U.S. and EU. Forced to choose between a rising power that promises investment without conditions about democracy or human rights, and an established power whose stated goal is to democratize all authoritarian regimes, states will likely choose the former. The Middle East could easily become the Twenty-First Cen-tury’s Africa—a Cold War battlefield laden with natural resources but scarred by proxy wars and backward economic development. While careful to continue being a responsible stakeholder in the international system, China has begun to battle the U.S. for supremacy and re-sources in the opening stages of the next Cold War.

[1] This has also meant soothing the fears of America’s most important regional ally, Israel. Following his January 2007 trip to Beijing, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that he heard “many surprising and positive things” from Chinese Premier Wen and that Wen “made it absolutely clear” that Beijing opposed an “Iran with a nuclear bomb.” Haaretz, January 10, 2007.

[2] M. K. Bhadrakumar, “China’s Middle Easy Journey via Jerusalem,” Asia Times, January 13, 2007.

[3] Zhong Wu, “China Aims to Diversify Oil Sources,” Asia Times, February 28, 2007.

[4] Shichor, Yitzhak, “Silent Partner: China and the Lebanon Crisis,” The Jamestown Foundation, Volume 6, Issue 17, August 16, 2006, http://www.jamestownfoundation.org

[5] Yufeng Mao, “Beijing’s Two-Pronged Iraq Policy,” The Jamestown Foundation, China Brief, Volume 5, Issue 12, May 24, 2005, http://www.jamestownfoundation.org

[6] Alistair Lyon, “Energy-Hungry China Breaks Ground in the Middle East,” Reuters News, November 27, 2006.

[7] Leverett, Flynt and Bader, Jeffrey, “Managing China-U.S. Energy Competition in the Middle East,” The Washington Quarterly, Winter 2005-06.

[8] Rubin, Barry, “China’s Middle East Strategy,” Middle East Review of International Affairs, Volume 3, Number 1, March 1999.

[9] Shai Oster, “Iraq Turns to China for Help in Reviving Oil Industry,” The Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2007.

[10] David Winning, “China Taps Middle East for Crude as Demand Surges,” Dow Jones Interna-tional News, September 24, 2006.

[11] Lyon, Ibid.

[12] “China Seeks to Expand Trade, Energy Ties with Arab World,” Agence France Presse, May 31, 2006.

[13] Shichor, Yitzhak, “Mountains out of Molehills: Arms Transfers in Sino-Middle Eastern Relations,” Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal, Volume 4, Number 3, September 2000.

[14] Eisenstadt, Michael, “U.S. Policy and Chinese Proliferation to Iran: A Small Leap Forward?,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, October 31, 1997 <www.washingtoninstitute.org>

[15] Henderson, Simon, “China and Oil: The Middle East Dimension,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 15, 2004 <www.washingtoninstitute.org>

[16] Shichor, Ibid.

[17] Yossi Melman, “Iran to Buy 24 Jet Fighters from China”. Haaretz, October 23, 2007.

[18] Lyon, Ibid.

[19] “Syria Open to More Chinese Investment in Energy, Infrastructure,” Xinhua News Agency, July 10, 2007.

[20] Khaled Yacoub Oweis, “Syria, China Edge Closer to Oil Refinery Deal,” Reuters News, July 9, 2007.

[21] Oweis, Ibid.

[22] Blumenthal, Dan, “Providing Arms: China and the Middle East,” The Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005, Volume XII, Number 2.

[23] Bhadrakumar, Ibid.

[24] Bhadrakumar, Ibid.

[25] Jin Liangxiang, “Energy First: China and the Middle East,” The Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005, Volume XII, Number 2.

[26] Chietigj Bajpaee, “China Becomes Increasingly Involved in the Middle East,” Power and Interest News Report, March 10, 2006 <www.pinr.com>

[27] Bajpaee, Ibid.

[28] Blumenthal, Ibid.

[29] Rubin, Ibid.

[30] Calabrese, John, “The Risks and Rewards of China’s Deepening Ties with the Middle East,” The Jamestown Foundation, China Brief, Volume 5, Issue 12, May 24, 2005 <www.jamestownfoundation.org>

[31] Calabrese, Ibid.

[32] Nicholas Kristof, “China and Sudan, Blood and Oil,” The New York Times, April 23, 2006.

[33] “China Welcome to Explore Iraqi Oil Resources,” China Daily, June 19, 2007.

[34] Frank Gaffney Jr., “China’s Double Standard,” The Washington Times, June 26, 2007.

[35] Jamil Anderlini and Steve Negus, “Iraq Revives Saddam Oil Deal with China,” Financial Times, June 23, 2007.

[36] “Beijing Cancels Part of $8 billion Iraq Owes,” International Herald Tribune, June 23, 2007.

[37] Emma Graham-Harrison and Chris Buckley, “Oil-hungry China Courts Saudi King,” Reuters, January 22, 2006.

[38] Jin Liangxiang, Ibid.

[39] Leverett, Ibid.

[40] Jin Liangxiang, Ibid.

[41] Jim Krane, “Warm Relations between China and the Gulf Arab Countries,” AP, April 11, 2007.

[42] “China, Yemen discuss Middle East, Gulf; Sign Eight Deals,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur, April 6, 2006.

[43] “China and OPEC Start Energy Dialogue,” China Daily, December 23, 2006.

[44] Krane, Ibid.

[45] Leverett, Ibid.

[46] Energy Information Administration <http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/Saudi_Arabia/OilExports.html&gt;

[47] “Big Deals in Gulf-China Trade Boom,” AP, April 11, 2007.

[48] “PetroChina to Lay Oil Pipe in Saudi Arabia,” Xinhua News Agency, June 5, 2007.

[49] Calabrese, Ibid.

[50] “Sinopec in Talks with Companies from Middle East,” Sinocast China Business Daily News, May 29, 2007.

[51] Jin Liangxiang, Ibid.

[52] Bajpaee, Ibid.

[53] Bhadrakumar, Ibid.

[54] Bajpaee, Ibid.

[55] Migdalovitz, Carol, “Israel: Background and Relations with the United States,” CRS Report for Congress February 13, 2006.

[56] Mark, Clyde R. “Israeli-United States Relations.” CRS Report for Congress April 28, 2005.

[57] Jin Liangxiang, Ibid.

[58] Blumenthal, Ibid.

[59] Liu, Melinda, “The Merchant Marine,” Newsweek International, March 28, 2007 <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7243349/site/newsweek&gt;

[60] Masood Anwar, “Real Significance of Gwadar Port,” The International News, March 29, 2007 <www.thenews.com.pk/print1.asp?id=47664>

[61] Haider, Ziad, “Baluchis, Beijing, and Pakistan’s Gwadar Port,” Georgetown Journal of Interna-tional Affairs, February 2005, 98, www,stimson.org/southasia/pdf/GWADAR.pdf

[62] Chellaney, Brahma, “China Covets A Pearl Necklace,” Asian Age, April 7, 2007 <www.asianage.com>

[63] Kumar, Amit, “A New Balance of Power Game in the Indian Ocean,” Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, November 24, 2006

[64] Blumenthal, Ibid.

[65] Kane, Tim, “Global U.S. Troop Deployment 1950-2003,” The Heritage Foundation, Center for Data Analysis Report #04-11, October 27, 2004

[66] Kan, Shirley, “China/Taiwan: Evolution of the ‘One China’ Policy—Key Statements from Washington, Beijing, and Taipei,” CRS Report for Congress, September 7, 2006

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By Victoria S. Golshani

Victoria S. Golshani is a graduate of Emory College (B.A. Economics and B.A. International Relations, 2004) and the London School of Economics (M.Sc. International Relations, 2005). She has worked as an analyst at McKinsey & Company and for the Department of Homeland Security.


“It is no longer our country, Iran. What have we to go back to? We are Persians. They, those people who rule today, they are Muslims. They have forgotten what a Persian is.”—Anonymous

The Jewish people have been part of Persia since the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem between 586 and 538 B.C.E. Their presence in Persia can be traced as far back as the Biblical story of Esther and Mordecai, whose tombs rest in ancient Ecbatana, present-day Hamadan, Iran. Perhaps surprisingly, Iran has the second highest number of Jewish holy sites, only surpassed by Israel. [1] Persian Jews have a distinctive Jewish faith and tradition, but they can scarcely be physically distinguished from other Persians. [2] Since the introduction of Islam in Persia in 1502, however, Jews have been made to live as second-class citizens, sequestered in ghettos, and considered “untouchable” by Islamic law. Only under the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty, did Jews experience a golden age, a time when they achieved much educational, economic, social, and political success. That period was deleted from the history books by the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

From Ancient Times to Pahlavi Rule

In 1502, Imami Shi’ism was declared the national religion of Persia. Under Shi’a rule, Persian Jews faced forced conversion, mass exile, and murder. Prior to the introduction of Islam, the Jews of Persia had a comfortable and stable existence, but the adoption of Shi’ism reduced the status of Persian Jews to that of a “persecuted minority” or an outcast group. [3] Under Islamic law, Jews were considered ahl al- kitâb or “People of the Book” and afforded the protected status of dhimmi. But as in other Islamic lands, dhimmi law forced the Jews to wear a colored patch, multi-colored hat, and non-matching shoes, to remain sequestered in ghettos, without the right to own land. Iran instituted the discriminatory Pact of Umar, a covenant of subjugation dating back to 717 C.E. for the ahl al- kitâb living on newly conquered lands, and the Jam Abbasi laws, introduced by Shah Abbas in 1588, which limited Jewish activity. Together, these laws restricted Jewish mobility, public conduct, house and synagogue construction, rights to property and legal representation, and the range of professions Jews could legally hold.

During the Qajar Dynasty (1781-1925), the anti-Semitic laws of the Persian Empire grew significantly more severe. The Muslims consid-ered the Jews to be ritual polluters, najas, or “dirty.” [4] Laws forbade Jews to be outside when it rained, for the impure water that touched them may come in contact with a Muslim. [5] For the same reason, Jews and Muslims could not share bathhouses. A Jewish person could neither sell meat to a Muslim nor touch any merchandise that could be purchased by a Muslim. Jews were forbidden from speaking loudly in public and Jewish women were forced to veil their faces. It was not long until Iranian Muslims began physically harassing their Jewish neighbors. Jews were often attacked, had their clothing torn to shreds, their hats cut to pieces, their heads shaved, their earlocks clipped, and their beards removed. [6] The phrase jud baazi, or Jew-game, described the act of making a Jew beg for his life, and the term jud kosht or Jew-murder became a generalized term describing the most painful form of death. [7]

A Golden Age: The Pahlavi Dynasty

With the coronation of Reza Pahlavi in 1925, Jews established a higher social position than ever before. [8] After Shah Pahlavi disbanded the Pact of Umar and Jam Abbasi and proclaimed religious freedom in Iran, Jewish fears of persecution diminished considerably. [9] Reza Pahlavi’s son, Muhammad Reza also known as Reza Shah, continued to improve the conditions of Jews throughout Iran. The liberal polices Reza Shah adopted toward Jews were the byproduct of his efforts to Westernize and modernize his country. [10] The centuries-old barrier separating Judaism and Islam slowly crumbled as the Jewish people integrated into the Iranian society. [11] Jews were no longer barred from any profession nor were they forced to pay dhimmi taxes. Under the Pahlavi rule, Jewish ghettos immediately began to disappear and by 1967 more than half of the Jews who lived in Shiraz, once the historical center of Jewish life in Iran, had relocated to the northwest quadrant of the city. In 1977, only one quarter of Shirazy Jewry remained in the old mahalleh or Jewish ghetto. [12]

Under the banner of modernization, Pahlavi rule ushered in a long-desired societal acceptance of Iranian Jews. Jews began to give their children Persian names, making them indistinguishable from their fellow Muslim citizens. Linguistic differences began to disappear as Jews were admitted into the educational system. Most importantly, neighborhoods became integrated and socialization between Jews and Muslims increased. Children faced fewer obstacles to interfaith friend-ships. Parnianpour, a woman who grew up during the Pahlavi Dynasty says:

“Most of my life, relations between Jews and Muslims have been pretty normal. My family has always lived primarily among Muslims. My friends from childhood were mostly Muslims, and we all think of ourselves as Iranians.” [13]

The Iranian government financially supported public primary education for Jews and allowed foreign Jewish organization to aid the Persian Jewish community. Palestinian Jewish emissaries were permit-ted to come and teach in Jewish schools. [14] In 1947, the American Joint Distribution Committee provided education, medical services, sanita-tion and feeding programs for Iranian Jewish children. [15] Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), a French organization started in 1860 that supported Jews who were subject to religious persecution, initiated a system of schools in Iran after World War II. [16] AIU proselytized the French ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity to Iranians. Other Jewish philanthropists founded the Ostar Hatorah schools in cities that lacked the Alliance schools. Jews could now receive both a Jewish and secular education with ease.

The majority of Jewish students continued to attend public schools, however, which reflects the religious and cultural comfort they must have felt in Iran. By 1968, 80 percent of the male Jewish population and 25 percent of the female Jewish population in the city of Shiraz received a secular education. [17] By the end of Pahlavi rule, Jewish literacy rates approached 100 percent [18] and Iranian Jewish students were attending boarding schools and colleges in Europe and the United States.

Not only did Jewish schools and synagogues flourish, but the Shah overturned laws barring Jews from many professions. Jews could now climb the social and professional ladder. Within decades, the Jewish standard of living grew substantially higher than that of the non-Jewish population. [19] Muslims and Jews could freely conduct business with one another for the first time in centuries. Jews invested in sales franchises, land, and hospitality services, thus allowing for a vast improvement in the economic status of the Jewish community. [20] Jews were no longer only peddlers, goldsmiths, butchers, and merchants but were now doctors, teachers, landlords, and even civil servants. Jewish newspapers, books, and magazines printed in Hebrew and Persian entered circulation. By 1977, only two percent of Jews were receiving state economic relief. [21] For the first time in Iranian history, a Jewish bourgeoisie that even boasted a small population of million-aires emerged, with Tehran as its epicenter. Many Jews inside Iran, as well as those in bordering nations, such as Iraq, stopped emigrating to Israel and looked instead to Tehran. [22]

The political life of Jews in Iran during Pahlavi rule has been called “the most favorable era for Persian Jews since Parthian rule.” [23] When Hitler visited Iran during World War II, the Shah protected the Jews; Iranian Jews believe that the Shah told Hitler that the Jews of Persia were as old as Persia and as Aryan as the rest of the Iranians. [24] He abolished the Law of Apostasy and allowed Jews to have political representation in the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament. Most importantly, the Shah began full diplomatic relations with the state of Israel in 1960. [25] Israeli delegates regularly attended international conferences held in Tehran and Israeli athletes participated in Iranian sporting events. Top Israeli politicians and leaders such as David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Abba Eban, Yitzhak Rabin, and Yigal Allon visited the Shah and high-level Iranian politicians. El-Al, Israeli’s flagship airline, operated openly through Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport. Trade and other transfers between the two nations were extensive, and included oil transactions, agricultural assistance, and consumer good sales. An estimated 70 to 80 percent of Iranian military officers with the rank of major or higher made trips to Israel between 1960 to 1979. [26] The Shah’s close relationship with Israel was symbolic of the improved relations between Muslims and Jews within Iran.

Turning Back the Clock: Post-Revolutionary Iran

Overnight, the 1979 Islamic Revolution overturned all the societal gains made by the Jewish community under the Shah. In the first few years after the Revolution, dozens of Jews were executed. [27] Habib Elghanian was the wealthiest Jewish philanthropist in Iran where he funded Hebrew schools across the country. Elghanian, who had introduced plastic to Iran, was accused of being a Zionist traitor, or to be more specific, he was charged with “friendship with the enemies of God, warring with God and His emissaries, and economic imperialism.” [28] He was hanged in 1979. Although Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering that all Jews be treated well, [29] and that Iranian Jews should be distinguished from Zionist agents, the record shows otherwise.

The supposed equality of Jews and Muslims and the rhetorical dis-tinction between Jew and Zionist soon became a political joke. Jews reverted to the status of dhimmi. Khomeini reinstituted the jizya and declared that if Muslims had obeyed the divine ordinances, “a handful of Jews would not have dared to occupy our land.” [30] During the year of the Revolution alone, numerous Jews were killed for “causing economic corruption in Iran.” [31] Any person who had a connection with the Shah or had “too much wealth,” was handed a death sentence. [32] Most of those who fled left their wealth behind to be appropriated by the Islamic regime.

These discriminatory practices all continue to this day. All workers in public sectors have to be screened for Islamic credentials. [33] “Blood money,” the payment given by the family of a murderer to the family of the victim, once again became customary in Iran after the Revolution, and the amount of financial compensation a Jew can receive from a Muslim in the case of a relative’s murder or death is equal to one-eighth the amount that is paid if the victim is a Muslim. [34] Further-more, Jews face obstacles in bringing civil suits to trial, are barred from high-level government posts, and are faced with insuperable delays in service delivery. Iranian courts refuse to accept testimony from Jews and, unsurprisingly, murderers of Jews have never been brought to justice. [35]

Parallels have been drawn between the state of Iranian Jewry and the state of German Jewry in the 1930s. [36] The Jewish population’s decline in Iran strongly reflects the new anti-Semitic fervor stirred up by the Revolution. [37] The Jewish population is estimated to have declined from 150,000 at mid-century to 30,000 in the decades following the Revolution. Current estimates range from as low as 10,000 to as high as 35-40,000. Both the U.S. and Israel have recognized the dangerous state of Jewish life in Iran. Immediately following the Revolution, the Iranian government confiscated all Jewish passports and would not allow more than one member of a Jewish family to travel abroad. [38] Although these laws no longer exist, the regime keeps a close watch on the Jewish community, their travels, and their ex-tended family, especially in the U.S. and Israel.

After the Revolution, Iran severed all relations with Israel and de-clared Israel an enemy of Islam. Iranian Jews learned the hard way to renounce any connection to Israel or Zionism in public. [39] “You can be Jewish and not associate yourself with Israel,” says Sarah Hay, a 21-year old computer engineer student from Tehran. [40] Jews are unable to telephone or send mail to relatives in Israel, let alone visit. Jews who have corresponded with family in Israel have been executed or jailed for “spying for Israel.” [41] In 1999, 11 Jews were convicted on this charge. One boy was only thirteen years old. “Virtually every Iranian Jew has relatives in Israel. To regard normal family connections of Jews with Israel a crime makes a mockery of pledges in the Islamic Republic constitution that Jews will be accorded full rights as a recognized religious minority,” another Iranian woman says. [42] In March 2006, fifteen Iranian Jewish folk dancers visited Russia. When the Russian Jewish community brought out a cake decorated with the Israeli flag to celebrate the occasion, the Iranian Jews would only eat from the section of the cake that did not bear the Israeli flag. [43] Even abroad, they feared the possible repression of their government. As Haroon Yashaie states, “supporting Israel is absolutely out of the question.” [44]

The Jewish community, once the most affluent in Iran, now consists mostly of people who are too old or too poor to leave. [45] Given the potential repercussions of speaking out against the Islamic regime, the substance of interviews with Iranian Jews must be viewed skeptically. In recent documentaries, Jews tell journalists of their good life in Iran and their freedom to live as they wish. [46] However, a recent Dateline documentary [47] captured the climate of fear in which they live. The film shows a Jew imploring the Dateline cameraman to stop filming a woman in a Kosher restaurant. When the cameraman puts down the camera, but without stopping the film, the fearful Jewish man says:

“You should stop filming now. That’s enough stop please. You only have a permit from our council…They gave you a permit to film in the synagogue. That’s all. That’s all…Please stop. We have problems. If our members happen to say the wrong thing by mistake… we’ll get in trouble for it.” [48]

Anti-Jewish slogans, cartoons, films, and celebrations, such as that of the one-hundredth anniversary of the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, have permeated Iranian popular culture. Although anti-Semitic violence is rarely reported in Iran, a U.S. State Depart-ment report reveals that Jews, fearing reprisal, are reluctant to speak of mistreatment and that the Jewish community in Iran is closely monitored by the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance and by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. [50]

Iran’s current vehement Holocaust denial is not surprising. Since the establishment of the Islamic Regime, Iran has supported Roger Garaudy, a French author and philosopher who drew much public attention for his conversion to Sunni Islam and anti-Holocaust writ-ings. When the French government fined Garaudy $40,000 for racial defamation and Holocaust denial in his 1995 book Mythes Fondateurs de la Politique Israélienne, Iran helped pay his fine. [51] The link between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in Iran was witnessed at the Jaleh Square Massacre of September 1978, in which the government opened fire on crowds of protesters against the Revolution. When a crowd of 10,000 to 20,000 gathered in the square refused to disperse, govern-ment troops began to shoot into the crowd, killing hundreds and wounding thousands. [52] Mujahedeen and Fedayeen guerillas began chanting “Massacre the Jews” with megaphones and opened fire from surrounding rooftops. The Muslim religious leaders in Tehran claimed that thousands had been massacred by Zionist troops. [53]

The complaints of Iranian Jewry are routinely ignored or censored by the government. Maurice Motamed, Iran’s only Jewish parliamen-tarian, accused President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of insulting all the Jews in the world by denying the Holocaust, but did so only in media interviews and not in the parliament. [54] Furthermore, the chairman of the Jewish Central Committee of Tehran, Haroun Yeshaya, sent a letter to President Ahmadinejad strongly criticizing him and inform-ing him that his denial of one of the “most obvious and saddening events of 20th-century humanity” produced “anxiety among the small Jewish community of Iran.” The government promptly acted to censor him. [55] Having protected the Jewish community in the face of strong anti-Israel rhetoric in the early days of the Revolution and having long challenged anti-Semitic television shows and books published in Iran, he was asked not to run for reelection as chairman. [56]

Once again, Jews are being ostracized and are unable to socialize much outside of the small Jewish community because of their precarious situation. Gone are the days of Jewish leadership in local politics and professional circles. [57] Synagogues are now the central point of Jewish life. In a Dateline interview, Robert Halduh, a Jew still living in Iran, says that the “[Muslim] religious environment is more conducive to being a religious [than] a non-religious environment.” [58] Synagogue attendance has soared partly due to the religious atmosphere culti-vated by the Islamic Republic, [59] and partly due to the withdrawal of Jews from public life into close-knit communities. For the most part, Jews inhabit their own separate space within the limits of the Islamic Republic, a “protected” but rather uncertain people. [60]

Even in their own communities, however, Iranian Jews are not free from outside interference and suppression. The Iranian mullahs strictly control Jewish education. They forbid Jewish schools from teaching the Torah or other holy scriptures in Hebrew, [61] thereby forcibly separating Hebrew from Judaism and ensuring that Hebrew is only taught as a secular language. The only school that teaches Hebrew lessons is the Orthodox Jewish Otsar Hatorah School, which the Iranian gov-ernment sardonically forces by law to provide lessons on the Jewish Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest. Despite government interference, Ostar Hatorah is still a far friendlier place for Jews than public schools, where many Jewish children complain of unfair grades and physical abuse due to discrimination. [62] The Goharian family, for example, explains that other students will not sit next to their children at school because they are Jewish. [63] In an interview for a Dutch documentary, one student discussed how her teacher told the other students that she was najas and that if they touched her they would never be able to rid themselves of impurity. [64] The situation became so difficult for the young girl that she was forced to switch to the Jewish school. [65]

The situation of Iranian Jews is so tenuous today that it is difficult to believe how deeply woven they are into the fabric of Persian history. Iranian Jews are the preservers of Shiraz wine from the Shiraz region of southwest central Iran, and they were some of the highest advisors to the former Shah. Of course, Persian anti-Semitism long predates Islam, as the Jewish holiday of Purim attests. After all, Purim celebrates the Persian Jewish princess, Esther, who used her influence with the anti-Semitic vizier, Haman, to save the Jews from captivity and murder. Although there is still a small Jewish community in Iran, it has significantly dwindled from its pre-Revolution heyday and is now a vulnerable remnant of what it once was. Unfortunately, it is only outside Iran that Jews can be both Iranian and fully Jewish. The history of the Jewish community of Iran is centuries old; it may soon be coming to a close.


[1] “Iran’s Jews: Shalom Salaam,” Dateline, 16 May 2007.

[2] Elgin Groseclose. Introduction to Iran (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947): 57.

[3] Laurence Loeb. Dhimmi status and Jewish roles in Iranian Society. (Salt Lake City: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers Ltd., 1976): 92.

[4] Ibid. 93.

[5] Ibid. 93.

[6] Ibid. 93.

[7] Ibid. 93.

[8] Peter Avery. Modern Iran. (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1965): 490.

[9] Ibid. 490.

[10] Michael E Bonine (ed.) and Nikki R. Keddie (ed.). Modern Iran: The Dialectics of Continuity and Change. (New York: State University of New York Press, 1981), Contributed by Laurence D. Loeb.

[11] Robin Wright. The Last Great Revolution. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000): 206.

[12] Bonine and Keddie, 306.

[13] Wright, 206.

[14] Bonine and Keddie, 310.

[15] Ibid. 310.

[16] Ibid. 310.

[17] Ibid. p. 310.

[18] Wright. 206.

[19] Peter Avery, 308-311.

[20] Ibid., 308-311.

[21] Bonine and Keddie, 310.

[22] Ibid. 310.

[23] Laurence Loeb. Outcaste: Jewish Life in Southern Iran (New York: Gordon and Breach Publishers Inc: 289.

[24] Boghrat Khorsandi. Personal Interview. 28 September 2000.

[25] Barry Rosen. Iran Since the Revolution. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985): 89.

[26] Ibid. 89.

[27] Boghrat Khorsandi. Personal Interview. 28 September 2000.

[28] Roya Hakakian. Journey from the Land of No (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004): 151.

[29] http://www.sephardicstudies.org/iran.html

[30] Rosen, 90-91.

[31] Amnon Netzer (ed.). Pādyāvand V.II. (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 1999): 244.

[32] Boghrat Khorsandi. Personal Interview. 28 September 2000.

[33] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/hriran97.html

[34] http://www.iranian.com/Opinion/2003/March/Jews/

[35] Ibid.

[36] Amnon Netzer (ed.). Pādyāvand V.III. (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 1999): 225.

[37] Wright, 207.

[38] Netzner, Pādyāvand V.I, 160.

[39] Angus Mcdowall, “Iran’s Jews Struggle in the Shadow of Holocaust Denials,” 22 May 2006 <http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/article549814.ece&gt;.

[40] Krichevsky.

[41] Netzner, Pādyāvand V.I, 160.

[42] Ibid. 160.

[43] Krichevsky.

[44] “Iran’s Jews: Shalom Salaam.”

[45] Amnon Netzer (ed.). Pādyāvand V.I. (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 1999): 145.

[46] Such as: “Life as an Iranian Jew,” Frances Harrison, BBC Newsnight, 21 September 2006.

[47] “Iran’s Jews: Shalom Salaam.”

[48] “Iran’s Jews: Shalom Salaam,” Dateline, 16 May 2007.

[49] http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2005/51599.htm

[50] Marc Perlman. “Letter Fuels Concern Over Fate of Jews in Increasingly Radical Iran,” JTA, 20 February 2006 <http://www.jta.org/cgibin/iowa/news/article/20060220Letterfuelsconcern.html&gt;.

[51] Hooshang Vazerey. “Roger Garaudy, Old Communist, New Muslim, Opportunistic Extremism,” Iran Press Service, 1 October 2007 http://www.iran-press-service.com/articles/vaziri_garaudy.html

[52] http://www.semp.us/publications/biot_reader.php?BiotID=137

[53] Boghrat Khorsandi. Personal Interview. 28 September 2000.

[54] “Life as an Iranian Jew,” Frances Harrison, BBC Newsnight, 21 September 2006.

[55] Perlman.Golnaz Esfandiari. “Iran: Jewish Leader Criticizes President for Holocaust Denial,” 13 February 2006, http://www.rferl.org/features/features_Article.aspx?m=02&y=2006&id=FB25E81F-BCE9-4291-ACDB-CF2C5C69FE92&gt;.

[56] Perlman.

[57] “Iran’s Jews: Shalom Salaam.”

[58] Ibid.

[59] Angus Mcdowall, “Iran’s Jews Struggle in the Shadow of Holocaust Denails,” 22 May 2006, <http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/article549814.ece&gt;.

[60] Barbra Demick. “Life of Jews Living in Iran,” Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, 30 September 1997, <http://www.sephardicstudies.org/iran.html&gt;.

[61] Boghrat Khorsandi. Personal Interview. 28 September 2000.

[62] Jaklin Golshani. Personal Interview. 28 July 2007.

[63] “Life as an Iranian Jew.”

[64] Jews of Iran, dir. Ramin Farahani, NIK Media, the Netherlands, 2005.

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By Jonathan S. Greenstein

Jonathan S. Greenstein ’10 attends Harvard College and is an Economics concentrator in Currier House.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks by Al Qaeda, the United States Government has heightened its focus on global cash flows. Vast and increasing amounts of money travel across international borders on a daily basis, generated and funneled by a wide range of sources, including charitable, as well as criminal and terrorist, organizations. A close look at the political economic aspects of terrorism and its relation to the state suggests that terrorism presents an opportunity for rentier states in the Middle East to benefit directly and indirectly from terrorist-related rent generation.

According to The Economist, rent-generation is figuratively the act of cutting yourself a bigger slice of the cake without making the cake bigger. [1] Hazem Beblawi, a noted political economy theorist, explains that a rentier state is one that relies on substantial external rent, keeping in mind that there is no purely rentier economy. Few people generate the rent, but the government is a major beneficiary. [2] One effect rentierism subsequently has on a state is to undermine the idea of work-reward causation, as it is unearned income, and to create an exploitative mentality where layers of beneficiaries emerge as groups take advantage of their special situations. [3] A rentier mentality consequently damages a state’s commitment to real economic development and its accountability to citizens. Instead, the rentier state becomes a “welfare” state that allocates resources based on political patronage, [4] thereby fostering cronyism and corruption. Several states in the Middle East exhibit these tendencies to varying degrees. Whereas the Saracen countries of North Africa, formerly known as the “Barbary States,” can be seen as historical examples of rentier states, Saudi Arabia and Syria are modern-day examples.

While these ideas of the rentier state were initially formulated to describe the behavior of oil-producing states, [5] the rent dynamic and its effects can be applied to things other than natural resources. It is important to note then that rents were a source of income for Middle Eastern and North African countries centuries prior to the discovery of oil. In the eighteenth century, for example, the Barbary States de-manded ransoms, or external rents, to allow ships safe passage on trade routes through the Mediterranean Sea. “Styling themselves as mujahideen—warriors in an Islamic holy war—Arabic-speaking pirates preyed on Western vessels, seizing their cargos and enslaving their crews,” among them, three American ships in the mid-1780s. [6] When Massachusetts Federalist and then-future U.S. president John Adams approached officials from Tripoli in an attempt to negotiate safe passage for merchant ships, he was advised that “no nation could navigate [the Mediterranean] sea without a treaty of peace.” It is difficult today to estimate the real monetary value of rents generated by Barbary piracy, but it is known that the proposed price of the “treaty of peace” with Tripoli, together with the price of treaties with other North African pirate states, totaled approximately 10 percent of America’s annual budget. [7] This cooperation between the mujahideen and North African governments was an early form of state-sponsored terrorism, designed to produce revenues for the state.

Today, terrorist rent-generation can take several recognized forms. The first form is state terrorism, whereby governments seek rents from other states, as Nazi Germany did by annexing Austria and looting its gold. The second form can be called the “rent-seeking” model. Gordon Tullock, the economist who coined the phrase “rent-seeking,” cites as a simple example a protection racket in which a gang takes a cut from the shopkeeper’s profit. [8] On a broader scale, “rent-seeking” terrorist organizations compete with governments for rents [9] and are therefore likely to advocate their overthrow. The third form is state-sponsored terrorism. This model is distinct from state terrorism as the state distances itself from terrorist organizations while secretly benefiting from them and assisting them. Under this model, terrorist organizations are “engaged in gains from trade” and seek to obtain sponsor-ships by providing “disruptive services” for governments. Governments proceed to capture external rents while limiting their own exposure. [10]

In the first case, it is easy to condemn state terrorism internation-ally and to hold states accountable in various ways. For example, Nazi Germany was held accountable by having to pay reparations to those whose property it confiscated. In the second case, governments them-selves have an interest in controlling competing terrorist organiza-tions, although, paradoxically, they can and do sometimes benefit from them. In the third case, where states and terrorist organizations are nominally separate but actually closely connected, states deny their complicity in terrorism and it becomes difficult for other coun-tries or international institutions to hold them accountable. State sponsorship of terrorism has therefore proved an effective way to achieve a state’s foreign policy goals and further its economic objec-tives, while shielding itself from international condemnation. [11]

It is a paradox of terrorism that the “rent-seeking” model, in which terrorist activity is considered a threat to a government’s monopoly on power and resources, can sometimes benefit the government. This paradox is best illustrated by Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Al Qaeda. To achieve its aim of “bringing down the royal family,” Al Qaeda has targeted the regime’s principal rent generator: its oil infrastructure. In 2006, Saudi Arabia’s oil industry accounted for 10 percent of world oil supply and 75 percent of Saudi Arabia’s revenues. Since 2000, the value of its oil exports has increased from $71 billion to $191.5 billion. [12] Somewhat ironically, Saudi Arabia generates addi-tional oil rents from Al-Qaeda’s activities because “the fear of attacks is a key factor in oil prices remaining high.” [13] In addition, the U.S. has showered Riyadh with aid and arms for counter-terrorism as a direct result of the threat Al-Qaeda poses to the Saudi royal family. [14] While Saudi Arabia appears to be taking Al-Qaeda’s domestic threat seriously, it uses some of the additional oil rents to finance terrorism abroad. [15] The Saudi Arabian case shows that when rent-seeking terrorism is contained and successfully prevented from toppling a regime or triggering a global recession, it can produce rents for the state.

The state-terrorism model can describe Syria’s militaristic behavior before the rise of Hezbollah in the 1980s, but the “gains-from-trade model” of state-sponsored terrorism [16] is a better description of Syria’s behavior since then. A comparison of Syria’s two strategies reveals the benefits and costs of each. Historically, Syria has generated significant strategic rents through militarization and aggression. By maintaining a military conflict with Israel and acting as the Soviet Union’s client state for much of the Cold War, Syria generated a war dividend through financial transfers estimated at $12-13 billion, between five and six percent of its GDP. [17] By stationing troops in Lebanon from 1976 onwards, Damascus furthered maintained its military opposition to Israel. But these policies exposed the Syrian government to Israeli retaliation. Syria sustained catastrophic losses in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which demonstrated that although the threat of war may generate rents, direct confrontation can be costly. The result ever since has been Syria’s adoption of a de facto “no war, no peace” policy. [18]

Further, Syria’s occupation of Lebanon allowed it to generate addi-tional rent from criminal activity. In the 1980s, the Syrian army was involved in significant drug cultivation and trade in Lebanon. [19] While the exact drug-trade revenues are unknown, one study reports that in 1985 the participation of Syrian troops in looting, taxing, and re-exporting Lebanese goods generated $5 million per day in rents. [20] Although Syria’s armed forces formally retreated from Lebanon in 2005, Syria’s proxy, Hezbollah, built up a growing political and military presence in Lebanon, which has facilitated Syria’s ongoing rent-generation. Syrian officials, including the former Minister of Defense and chief of Syria’s intelligence operations in Lebanon, have continued to be involved in drug trafficking. The same intelligence chief was later implicated in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. [21]

A comparison of public responses to the 2005 Hariri assassination and the 2006 Second Lebanon War with Israel demonstrates the differences between the two strategies and the benefits of Syria’s indirect rather than direct involvement in Lebanese affairs. Following the assassination, the U.S. condemned the attack, recalled its ambas-sador to Syria, [22] and demanded a comprehensive UN investigation. [23] In contrast, during the 2006 war, Lebanon and Hezbollah bore the brunt of Israeli military might, while Syria remained unscathed. In fact, Syria was regarded as a positive force and was congratulated for opening its borders to refugees and providing humanitarian aid to displaced Lebanese people. [24]

Ultimately, state-sponsorship or facilitation of terrorism can be a rational economic choice for a state that relies on rents. Such behavior can give a state access to additional external rents that would other-wise be unavailable without placing its regime at risk. As a result, however, terrorism perpetuates the unproductive behavior, corruption and cronyism that are characteristic of a rentier mentality and that are among the main causes of political and economic underdevelopment in the region. The Saudi Arabian government’s schizophrenic relation-ship with terrorist organizations that claim to want to overthrow it and Syria’s ability to generate revenue through criminal activity in Lebanon are demonstrative of terrorism’s economic appeal. Only when the potential economic motivations of terrorism are understood and terror-sponsoring regimes are held directly accountable for the actions of their proxies will there be any chance of overcoming the regional problem of rentierism and defeating terrorism.


[1] Matthew Bishop. Essential Economics. London: Profile Books, 2006. Available at http://economist.com/research/Economics/alphabetic.cfm?letter=R#rent-seeking

[2] Hazem Beblawi. “The Rentier State in the Arab World,” in Luciani Giacomo (1990), Pg. 87-88

[3] Ibid, Pg. 96-97

[4] Giacomo Luciani. “Allocation vs. Production States: A Theoretical Framework,” in Luciani (1990), Pg. 71

[5] Beblawi, Pg. 86

[6] Michael B. Oren. Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007. Pg. 18

[7] Ibid, Pg. 26

[8] Gordon Tullock, “The Fundamentals of Rent-Seeking.” The Lock Luminary 1, no. 2, Winter 1998, Part 2.

[9] Richard M. Kirk, “Political Terrorism and the Size of Government: A Positive Institutional Analysis of Violent Political Activity.” Public Choice, no. 40 (1983). Pg. 44

[10] Ibid, Pg. 48

[11] Louise Richardson, What Terrorists Want. New York: Random House, 2006. Pg. 51

[12] “Saudis Round Up 172, Citing A Plot Against Oil Rigs.” The New York Times, April 28, 2007.

[13] “Saudi Arrests Stoke Oil Facility Worry.” The Wall Street Journal, April 28-29, 2007.

[14] International Affairs Congressional Budget Justification for Fiscal Year 2008. February 14, 2007. Available on the U.S. State Department Web site. http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/80701.pdf. Pg. 514

[15] Matthew Levitt, Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad. New Haven:Yale University Press, 2006. Pg. 188

[16] Kirk, Pg. 48

[17] Perthes, Volker. “Si Vis Stabilitatem, Para Bellum, State Building, National Security, and War Preparation in Syria,” in Steven Heydemann (2000), Pg. 158

[18] Ibid, Pg. 160

[19] Picard, Elizabeth. “The Political Economy of Civil War in Lebanon,” in Steven Heydemann (2000), Pg. 305

[20] Ibid, Pg. 298

[21] Feinberg; Benjamin, Sarah Marek, and Jan Snaidauf. “Hizbullah and its Worldwide Crime/Terror Infrastructure.” December 20, 2005. http://www.american.edu/traccc/resources/publications/feinbe01.pdf. Pg. 9

[22] “U.S. Recalls Ambassador to Syria.” International Herald Tribune, February 17, 2005.

[23] Mehlis, Detlev. Report of the International Independent Investigation Commission Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1595 (2005). United Nations Security Council. Beirut, October 19, 2005. http://www.un.org/Docs/journal/asp/ws.asp?m=S/2005/662. Pg. 61

[24] Raman, Aneesh and Hala Gorani. “Lebanese Refugees Pour Across Syrian Border.” July 20, 2006. http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/meast/07/20/lebanon.refugees/

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Interviewed by Julia I. Bertelsmann and Joel B. Pollak

Julia I. Bertelsmann ’09 attends Harvard College and is an Economics concentrator in Eliot House.

Joel B. Pollak ’99 is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Cape Town. He was a political speechwriter for the Leader of the Opposi-tion in South Africa from 2002 to 2006 and is a second-year student at Harvard Law School.


Dr. Sari Nusseibeh is the President of Al-Quds University in East Jerusa-lem. He earned a Ph.D. in Islamic Philosophy from Harvard University in 1978 and has taught at Birzeit University in the West Bank as well as Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He played a prominent role in the first Palestinian Intifada and represented the Palestine Liberation Organiza-tion in East Jerusalem during the second Intifada in 2001. In 2003, together with former Israeli internal security chief Ami Ayalon, he launched a peace campaign called The People’s Voice that gained hundreds of thousands of signatures among both Israelis and Palestinians. He published an autobiography, Once Upon A Country: A Palestinian Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) in 2007. He is married to nonviolence activist Lucy Austin and has four children. New Society interviewed him in his office in East Jerusalem in July 2007

New Society: What do you think the prospects for peace are, now that Hamas has taken over in Gaza?

Dr. Sari Nusseibeh: It’s hard to talk about the future because it’s not laid out already. It’s something you can create. One doesn’t know what people are prepared or willing to do. Looked at from a distance, one would think we were in the worst possible situation with Hamas in control of Gaza and a schism in Palestinian society at every level. But it is also possible to think that maybe, because it is so bad, the society would be able to determine what is in it’s best interests—namely, peace—and therefore we could come out more strongly in favor of peace with Israel than we could five years ago.

NS: What do you think the prospects are for the two-state solution?

Nusseibeh: I think it depends on us. Nothing happens by itself. Politics is a construct of human action. We can always create a two-state solution. We can always create a one-state solution, a three-state solution. Any kind of political structure. It is really within our power.

NS: But which do you think is ideal?

Nusseibeh: I personally am not a nationalist. I’ve never really been in favor of an Arab Palestinian state per se. I’ve only been in favor of a Palestinian state—and therefore the two-state solution—because of my sense that Israelis and Palestinians want this solution, and that it is therefore the least bad scenario. I think the two-state solution can be used to construct other scenarios for the future, including a one-state solution, but any solution must be arrived at by consent. If people decided that they wanted a one-state solution or a larger structure that included states like Jordan and Lebanon, then I’d support those suggestions as well. If they wanted to create a system based on a federation of smaller city-states, then I’d support that too. It may come to that. If one looks at the clusters of different populations—Jewish and Muslim—maybe one can think of separating and combining those clusters at different levels.

NS: In 2002, you and Ami Ayalon signed an agreement based on six points. If I remember correctly, you suggested that all Arabs in Israel should get Palestinian citizenship and that all Israelis in Palestine should get Israeli citizenship.

Nusseibeh: No. We did not say that. We said that Israel should be the only Jewish state and that Palestine should be the only Palestinian state. That does not mean that people of different nationalities shouldn’t live in each. We said that, with regard to returnees, Pales-tinians should return only to Palestine and Jews should only return to Israel. After the border adjustment and agreement, we said there should be no more settlements in the Palestinian state—and by settle-ment, we meant large clusters and planned developments—but Jewish families should certainly be allowed to live in the Palestinian state. Ayalon wanted to allow Israel to annex Israeli settlements into Israel, and I agreed on the condition that Palestine would be compensated and would be able to receive an equal amount of land in return.

Realistically speaking, if the Palestinian government went and asked Arabs from Nazareth or Umm al-Fahm to take Palestinian citizenship, most would probably refuse because they are happy to be Israelis. They don’t want to become Palestinian citizens. Sometime in the future, there could be sufficient openness between the two communi-ties that could enable individuals from either group to enjoy the fullness of the entire region so that they would not feel any longer that by belonging to one part they are barred from enjoying freedoms in the other. This is really an ideal kind of situation. It will take time. In order to achieve it, we have to focus on education, on economic development, on cultural development, on developing an open society of tolerance between people.

NS: One of the other requirements may be building Palestinian insti-tutions. In your book, you talk about your efforts to build many institutions in the early 1990s towards a state. To what extent does that remain a challenge today?

Nusseibeh: It is not really such a challenge. Although we failed to build a proper state structure between 1994 and 2000, I don’t think that our failure was due to genetics. There are different reasons why we failed, but I think we are still capable of building a state structure and sound institutions. I think so mainly because of the fact that over all these years, particularly since 1967, the Palestinians have had to look after themselves. And they have been able to look after them-selves. I’ll give you some examples. Take, for instance, the major hospital that we have in the West Bank, Al Maqasid, near East Jerusa-lem. This health provider was not a product of the government but of civil society. Palestinian people got together and created it. And they created many similar institutions: universities, colleges, and schools. You name it, we created it. The government did not create those things. Ordinary people did. And this makes me believe that we are indeed capable of building institutions. We did fail to build pre-state institutions between 1993 and 2000, for many reasons. One should study those reasons, and then work again towards success. I think that in the next few years, if we are helped to develop our institutions, we may be able to build a state. And even if it doesn’t result in a state, it’s important anyway to have good institutions.

NS: We spoke to Bassem Eid and he said: Who needs a state? Pales-tinians need work permits, food, and services. Do you agree with him?

Nusseibeh: That’s a good thing to say in the following sense: I think one should keep in mind that the state is not an end in itself. One must ask the questions: What are states for? You have to think about your concerns and values. And you have to prioritize them. You have to say, for example, my main concern is that I be free. And by that, I mean, having the social space within which I can grow, develop, and achieve happiness. In such a place, I have to feel equal with others. I don’t want to infringe upon others’ space, nor do I want my space infringed upon. But also, in this sense, there must be equality. You have to think of the balance, of what is most important. Freedom of travel, being able to vote freely, being able to go to school and be educated, having good facilities in school, having access to good services. Do you know Amartya Sen’s concept of living standards? People have basic needs. One must ask: how do I achieve all these things? Can I achieve them through a state? If the answer is yes, then I want a state. But if a state does not provide me with those things, then I do not want it. This is what I say personally. This is my position. I am not for a state, I am not a nationalist, but I want a space for myself as a human being, a space in which I will be provided with the things I need. Now, I do think it is possible to do that in the context of a state. And maybe achieving those things in the context of a state allows others to achieve them in the contexts of their states—Israelis, for example. This is why I think that maybe a two-state solution is a good thing. But it is an open question.

NS: What do you think is the major obstacle preventing Palestinians from achieving those aims? Many Israelis would blame the Palestinian Authority’s corruption, use of violence, and desire that Israel disap-pear rather than exist peacefully alongside it.

Nusseibeh: There are many Palestinians who either don’t want to have peace with Israel or who think that peace with Israel is not possible. And there are likewise many Israelis who feel that peace with the Palestinians is not possible. The numbers vary. It probably goes up and down on both sides. The numbers are probably not synchronized. The numbers might be in inverse proportion.

I think one of the reasons why this attitude might exist on both sides is the lack of vision. If all you see is the rigid mountainous landscape surrounding you, if you feel imposed upon, only then is it difficult. You need to free yourself in order to start imagining. Then you can move forward. The obstacle is the lack of imagination on both sides.

NS: Do you think it will be difficult for Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians so long as those negotiations are undermined by Iran?

Nusseibeh: I don’t like to believe that Iran has such an influence on how I as a Palestinian think. It certainly has an influence on Hamas—it pays them money. But Hamas is not Palestine. Nor is the Hamas ideology something that is rigid. It is a bit more complex.

What is Hamas? It is a virtual construct. Behind Hamas are indi-vidual human beings. Now individual human beings are open sys-tems. In other words, one day they may adopt the ideology of this virtual construct and another day they might adopt something else. Hamas is itself, full stop. It believes, for instance, in the liberation of all of Palestine, in the creation of an Islamic state. The question to ask is who is the person who adopts those beliefs and is such a person also somebody who will continue holding those beliefs. My feeling is that that is not the case. I think a majority of Palestinians are prepared to accept a two-state solution based on 1967 lines, East Jerusalem as a capital, compensation for refugees, all those things. If the Palestinians are given this offer, they will take it.

So I don’t believe it’s a question of Iran. It’s not Iran that prevents them from doing this. So, you might ask me, what does prevent them? And there are a number of different reasons.

First, we don’t really know what Israel’s intentions are with re-spect to the Palestinians. We are not sure what their intentions are regardless of the statements they make. But if, for instance, Israel were to make a promissory note, saying, “We are prepared to come to peace with the Palestinians on the following terms,” and if [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert were to state very clearly Israel’s ultimate positions with regard to a two-state solution, I personally believe that the majority of Palestinians would take this offer.

That is why Ayalon and I came up with the destination plan. We said the Road Map [for Peace] would not move anywhere unless we outline a destination.

NS: There are some who say that the path of the security barrier is the destination, that the line will be a “plan B” and become the border to which Israel withdraws.

Nusseibeh: I said that a few years ago at a talk. I said this would be a good plan B option for Israel’s security regime. When Sharon first put up this wall, I argued with my colleagues and told them that I thought this would be Israel’s plan B. I think if I were him I might have done the same thing—if I were also a military kind of guy who didn’t really believe in peace with neighbors, if I was only guided by security concerns and a short-term vision. But this is not going to work. Mili-tary solutions never work. No matter how clever, military solutions always fail as solutions.

NS: In your book you described how you protested the route of the security barrier to prevent it from being built on Al-Quds campus grounds. I have not been in Jerusalem for several years, but what strikes me since the erection of the wall is how much more integrated West Jerusalem seems. Since the barrier has gone up, people seem to feel safer and less suspicious of one another. There have been some articles about how Arabs from East Jerusalem have been moving to West Jerusalem as people have been moving from one side of the barrier to the other.

(Nusseibeh walked us over to the window and pointed out the barrier to the west.)

Nusseibeh: Now we’re looking due west. There’s Beit Hanina. This is part of East Jerusalem. Now, if we look west, you see in the middle of the hill another part of Beit Hanina—a continuation of the same community. But between the two parts, there is now a barrier. So it’s all a kind of jigsaw. It doesn’t make any sense from our point of view, although it makes sense from the point of view of the Israelis.
So what are the Israelis doing? They are building a highway that will partly go through and under Arab areas. So that east and west are joined. At the same time, the Arab habitations are disjointed. They are separated even though—if you look from a bird’s eye view—they are in the same area. Now, does this make Israelis feel more integrated? It is possible. But the Arab inhabitants are certainly more scattered. The living standards of the Arabs are nothing to write home about, except if you are doing a kind of tragic-comic kind of story.

I do think that Israelis feel more secure since the erection of the barrier. You probably know about logical fallacies, though, and one of the first one learns about is post hoc ergo propter hoc—after the fact therefore because of the fact. Because B follows A it is a result of A. So people think now that it is the wall that has stopped suicide bombings, because suicide bombings stopped after the wall. But I do not think this is the case.

NS: Tomorrow is the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, the commemora-tion of the destruction of the first and second Temples. You write very emotively about Jerusalem in your book. Is there any kind of shared sense of mourning for the city? Are Palestinians developing rituals around Jerusalem in the same way?

Nusseibeh: You know, there’s a competition between Israelis and Arabs to see who holds the strongest connection to Jerusalem. When the Arabs see the Israelis commemorating events that assert the connectedness between Jerusalem and the Jewish people, the Arabs get very upset and say “no, no, no.” Or they say, “Yes, but that was 3,000 years ago. Maybe 3,000 years ago the Jewish people were con-nected to Jerusalem but the people here today, Israelis who claim to be Jewish, have nothing to do with the Jews who once lived here.” So they’re very angry about any kind of assertion that Jews have a claim to Jerusalem. And I suppose likewise with Israelis. Many look down on the assertions Muslims make that they have a claim to the city, and make fun of stories like the flying donkey. Many like to repeat that Jerusalem is not the first, not the second, but the third holiest city in Islam whereas it is the first holy city in Judaism.
But the truth is that after I wrote my book I had second thoughts about Jerusalem. I think we are giving it too much importance. I think that the two sides have gone crazy about Jerusalem in that we’re giving far more weight to things like space and stone, location and geography, than we are to human beings. We are prepared to sacrifice human beings for the sake of location, which is a crazy notion.

I was thinking the other day, going back to the story of when Abraham wanted to sacrifice his son and God said here is a lamb instead. The whole point was—I mean, I imagine—that God’s message to Abraham was that he should not sacrifice human blood over that rock, over Jerusalem, over that specific location where we have been spilling blood, Jews and Muslims. This is a contravention of God’s message.

NS: Are you hopeful for the future?

Nusseibeh: Yes. I’m hopeful for the future and even about the present. I keep thinking that the world is much larger than our fooleries. There is much more than the mistakes and miscalculations we make, than the connivance or whatever we do to suppress other people. So in the end, the world is still much bigger than us. There is more to the world than what we see, is almost how Shakespeare put it, although I think he did so better.

NS: How do you like speaking at universities to students? How did you like speaking at Harvard?

Nusseibeh: I enjoyed the talk at Harvard because the community was a more mature audience than one usually finds on a campus. But I’ve come across audiences in the States and Europe where I’ve felt very sad to find that the war is raging out there. And it’s like we here are fighting and we go out hoping that we can be finished with this war. What we find instead is that the war is just spreading outwards and replicating itself, becoming the war of Jewish and Arab communities everywhere. What I would like to find when I go abroad is people making peace or people at peace with one another who can help me here to make peace with the party I’m at war with. I don’t want to go out and see even more war. Why should I go out? I sometimes get depressed when I see that.

NS: I remember that when you spoke at Harvard the moderator and several students seemed to be pushing you in one direction.

Nusseibeh: (Laughing) I seem to remember they pushed me to the bathroom!

NS: (Joking) I don’t know whether you did that on purpose—

Nusseibeh: Of course not! Not every peaceful Palestinian action is a contrivance!

NS: —but I thought it was brilliant. You effectively said, “Let’s let reality intrude for just a while.”

Nusseibeh: (Laughter) It was very embarrassing. There was the next president of Harvard sitting in the front row and I said to myself “this is Harvard. Can I do this kind of thing?” And then I thought, “Hell, why not?”

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Interviewed by Joel B. Pollak

Joel B. Pollak ’99 is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Cape Town. He was a political speechwriter for the Leader of the Opposition in South Africa from 2002 to 2006 and is a second-year student at Harvard Law School.


Bassem Eid is the Executive Director and co-founder of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG), which tracks human rights violations against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, regardless of who commits them. He is a former fieldworker for B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization focusing on the occupied territories. Eid’s work at PHRMG has concentrated on documenting violations by the Palestin-ian Authority against its own citizens. In recent years he has also moni-tored abuses committed by the Fatah and Hamas factions in their internec-ine struggles. Eid has received numerous human rights awards and frequently addresses Israeli and foreign audiences about the human rights problems facing Palestinians. Earlier this year, he teamed up with left-wing Israeli politician Yossi Beilin at the Doha Debates, arguing that Palestinians should abandon the right of return for the sake of peace with Israel.

New Society: Tell me about your life—where you are from, and how you came to be where you are today.

Bassem Eid: I am Palestinian and I was born in the Old City in East Jerusalem. I lived there for eight years, but then in 1966, for no reason, the Jorda-nian government established a refugee camp called Shuefat Refugee Camp near the French Hill in Jerusalem. The Jordanian government removed 500 families from the Old City, mainly from the Jewish Quarter. It was exactly one year before the 1967 war. I lived in the refugee camp for 32 years from 1966 until 1999. For the past four years, I have been living in Jericho.

I finished secondary school in one of the municipality schools in East Jerusalem. Then I attended Hebrew University for two years and studied journalism, but I couldn’t continue for financial reasons. After leaving the university, I worked as a freelance journalist for Palestin-ian and Israeli newspapers until 1988 before joining B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization that investigates rights violations in the occupied territories. In mid-1996, I resigned from B’Tselem and founded the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG), which is where I still am today.

NS: Why did you leave B’Tselem?

Eid: When the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established 1994, I noticed that most Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations continued monitoring the Israeli occupation, but that nobody wanted to pay any attention to the PA’s violations. In a meeting held in March 1996, the board members of B’Tselem decided that they would not concern themselves with PA abuses. That’s why I left. I wanted to fill a role that I thought was very important, but that was empty.

NS: So you left that same year?

Eid: Yes. The decision came out in March, and I left at the end of July 1996 to set up the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. Our main aim is to observe the Palestinian Authority’s violations. Between 1996 and 2000, our publications did not cover Israeli violations at all. All of our reports and press releases responded to Palestinian Author-ity abuses. We only started collecting data on Israeli violations after the second Intifada broke out in September 2000. Then we started to investigate Israeli killings, assassinations, house demolitions, and the use of the excessive force. In the meantime, we continued to collect information about Palestinian Authority violations.
Today, we are probably the organization with the most extensive data on internal killings among the Palestinians. I believe we are the only organization, for example, that investigates the murder of col-laborators by Palestinians. We also investigate long-term imprison-ment without charge, torture, the conduct of the state security court, and deaths that occur in Palestinian detention centers. We collect information on these issues and update our reports everyday.

NS: Why do you think B’Tselem chose not to monitor the Palestinian Authority?

Eid: In my opinion, that was a wise decision. At that time, there were still large areas under Israeli occupation and B’Tselem still had a lot of work to do to expose rights violations by the Israeli army in the occupied territories.
On the other side, I think that if the Palestinians want to form a successful civil society, live in a democracy, and respect human rights, we will have to build institutions with our own hands. We should not lay our fate in other people’s hands. We have done so quite enough over the past sixty years. We are still demanding a state from the international community instead of building it ourselves. I think that it is the time for the Palestinians to start building their own democracy right now. I believe that democracy has never been offered by leaders or governments. Democracy is determined by the people themselves.

NS: How did the Palestinian Authority react to your new organiza-tion?

Eid: Creating a human rights organization under an Arab regime is like committing suicide. Yasser Arafat was used to doing whatever he wanted without being criticized or monitored. When I started watch-ing, investigating, criticizing, he started to look at me in a very bad light. The Palestinian Authority defamed us and slandered us. Among other accusations, they said that we serve the enemy’s interests.

When we started to publish reports on PA human rights viola-tions, the reports became sexy news material for the international community. They were particularly well-reported by the Israeli media. The issue was especially sexy because, as you know, I had spent the past seven and a half years criticizing only Israel. Arafat saw me as a traitor.
We had a very tough period and had to get through many tough moments. Sometimes, ironically, these fears and difficulties gave us more energy and made us become even more committed to the sub-ject. We decided to continue in spite of all the danger surrounding us. And here we are! We still exist.

NS: Has your work become easier or more difficult since Arafat’s death?

Eid: Well, I think the PA does not really exist anymore. It exists in the pages of newspapers rather than on the ground itself. The PA com-pletely destroyed itself during the past seven years. They got them-selves into huge trouble.
As far as my work is concerned, I feel very secure right now. Eve-ryone knows me where I live in Jericho. I’m very satisfied with what I’m doing.

NS: What do you think of the prospects for Palestinians right now? Will there be a Palestinian state? Is the two-state solution still viable?

Eid: It must be possible to create a Palestinian state. The question is how. How will we deal with it? How will we build it? How will we unite to establish good institutions?

In my opinion, the establishment of a Palestinian state is not only related to the Israelis. It concerns the Palestinians. We have had a very bad experience with building a state, developing it, and keeping it alive.

That brings me to the September 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza. Everybody thought that the Israeli disengagement would be a kind of test for the Palestinians. It would test whether we are really able to build our own state and manage our daily lives ourselves. In my opinion, we totally failed to manage Gaza, develop it, and build infrastructure.

Today, fewer and fewer Palestinian voices speak up in favor of es-tablishing a state. Everybody has his own horrible troubles. The only people calling for a state right now are the politicians.

Politicians around the world are buying and selling blood. This is the only income that they have. And that’s exactly what Arafat prac-ticed with the Palestinians. I remember with great sadness what happened when he started creating an Intifada and threatening the Israelis. Palestinian security workers went to the schools, ordered the schoolmasters to close the schools, and then sent the schoolchildren to throw stones at the Israelis. That was a very horrible thing to do. Politicians sacrifice their people to achieve their political interests. This is unfortunately the Palestinian attitude.
Look at Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, who is saying, “No more resistance!” This is a huge change. One can resist, but one must also protect oneself and one’s survival. People were born to live, not to die. When you are alive, you can choose to resist, but you can also choose to build, to achieve things, to reach for what you want. When you die, you just die. This is a good lesson for the Palestinians right now: sacrificing ourselves will not help us achieve anything. We won’t achieve anything with violent resistance.

We are having to face the consequences of our actions over the past seven years. In my opinion, the Palestinians totally lost their way during the past seven years. Things will get worse if we continue in the same way. We will have to change our direction.

NS: What do you think should happen in Gaza?

Eid: Gaza is a big problem for the Palestinians, Israelis, and Egyptians. The international community becomes more and more afraid of the Palestinians because Hamas reflects such a negative side of Palestinian politics. I don’t think that Hamas will ever offer Gaza to back to Abbas.

The question is: Who is going to control Hamas? Hamas right now oppresses the Gazan people. But who will contain Hamas? I don’t think that dialogue will solve the problem.
We will all be watching whether Hamas can manage Gaza and keep it functioning. The Arab countries should put more effort into solving the conflict between Hamas and Fatah. The problem is that the Arab countries are so divided, some supporting Hamas against Fatah and some supporting Fatah against Hamas. This won’t help the situation.

I don’t think the international community can do very much on this issue, besides continuing to provide important humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza. On the whole, though, it’s too early right now to tell what will happen to Gaza and Hamas.

NS: What about Hamas in the West Bank. Are they a factor?

Eid: They do exist in the West Bank, but what’s happening in Gaza could never happen in the West Bank.

This is not only because Fatah is stronger than Hamas, but also be-cause of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. Israelis will never allow Hamas militants to take over Jenin, facing Afula.

Of course, Hamas will still threaten to occupy the West Bank, to jeopardize any peace agreement, and to harm the Palestinian Presi-dent and government in the West Bank. I don’t think we will see peace in the near future.
Daily life in the West Bank will become a little bit easier, though, according to the promises of Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas. But I think the peace process will take much longer than anybody expects.

NS: What do you think is the main reason that the conflict continues?

Eid: I think there is a lack of good will and leadership on both sides. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also tends to become a commercial conflict. Everybody is making something off this conflict. There are countries that have an interest in perpetuating the fighting. The Iranians, for example, are trying to provoke a regional war using Hezbollah and Hamas.

I don’t think the Palestinians will have the same opportunities for peace that we were offered between 1947 and July 2000. Palestinian violence has probably caused some countries to want not to get involved anymore. The foreign policy of the international community is totally biased.

NS: When you say that foreign policy is biased, you mean in which direction?

Eid: Well, the problem is that the international community is not united. Countries are divided. Policies are divided. So many different biased policies are involved in this conflict. In this kind of situation, I don’t think that the Palestinians or the Israelis will be able to reach a kind of final peace or a final agreement between themselves.

NS: Do you think there’s a possibility that Israelis and Palestinians will be able to build something out of the cooperation that still exists between them in some areas? Are these areas of cooperation possible foundations for peace?

Eid: Small-scale cooperation is very important. But I don’t think a permanent solution is possible right now. Let us talk about a tempo-rary one, instead. This is what Abbas and Olmert are doing right now. Let us release few thousand Palestinian prisoners, let us evacuate a couple of checkpoints, let us open the gates of the wall between villages and clinics or schools, let us issue a couple of tens of thou-sands of work permits to Palestinians so that they can work in Israel—this is what we are negotiating with the Israelis now.

When you talk about the state, the settlements, the borders, and the water, the Israelis say, this is so complicated, let’s leave it to the end. In the meanwhile, let’s do things step-by-step. That is how we are today negotiating with the Israelis. Many of these small things will probably continue to be delivered in the future.

NS: How do you feel about the situation? What motivates you?

Eid: I’m very angry and frustrated. I’m hopeless. I know my ideas provoke people, but I’m not a politician. I care much more about people’s lives rather than their lands. Land you can get everywhere in the world, but you can never replace lives. I don’t want to hear about killings, I don’t want to hear about shootings. I hate violence.

I am 48 years old. I had never, ever in my life seen a tank shooting until the past six or seven years. Since then, when I’ve gone to Ramal-lah, Bethlehem, Jericho, I’ve been so afraid. I’ve seen the kinds of things I never want to see again. I don’t like the way we are militariz-ing the conflict. It’s horrible. And I don’t like the way we’re making it religious. That brings great danger.

Looking back through history, one finds several examples of con-flicts that were solved without any kind of bloodshed. So I do believe that we can solve our conflict. We will have to learn from the experi-ences of others.

NS: What did you learn when you went to South Africa this year?

Eid: South Africa is very interesting. But it couldn’t be a model for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are some very good things in the South African case that we can learn from. The Truth and Reconcilia-tion Committee, for example.
The most important lesson is that the people in South Africa built their democracy and institutions with their own hands. Nobody offered it to them. I hope Palestinians will learn from that.

But otherwise, the South African case is very different from our situation. It involved people fighting against one apartheid govern-ment. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you are not talking about one government or one nation. It’s totally different. We are not fighting for a one-state solution. Of course we are not.

What I learnt in South Africa is that some Islamists in South Africa are totally disconnected from the realities and still believe that the solution will be one state—an Islamic state. I found that very horrible.

NS: Do people in the West Bank and East Jerusalem want one state or two states, or do they want something else entirely?

Eid: At the moment, I think the Palestinians want a three-state solu-tion for two nations—Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel. Of course, there are still some disconnected Palestinians and Israelis who believe in a one-state solution. But I think that the Palestinians dream of creating our own independent, democratic, anti-Islamist country. And I think the Israelis want their own Jewish, Zionist country. I think both people have a right to their own states.

NS: What do you think the role should be of the Palestinian Diaspora, people in other parts of the region and other parts of the world?

Eid: That’s a really a big problem right now. I don’t believe that all the Palestinian refugees would like to come back. Israel will never open its doors to those refugees. The Palestinians shouldn’t have to continue sacrificing themselves for the right of return, a dream that will never be applicable on the ground. There are refugees around the world. All nations have refugees. This is an international problem. Refugees should be able to move to the West Bank or other countries. They should be more realistic about the situation.

NS: How are your ideas received by other Palestinians?

Eid: I don’t think that most Palestinians agree with me. And politi-cians are completely ignorant of my ideas because they don’t serve their political interests. We are a totally unstable society. Our opinions change ever day. Sometimes we feel powerful and energetic; some-times we feel tired and hopeless. I prefer talking to people when they are tired. Then they are more likely to listen to new ideas.

NS: What are your perceptions of Israeli human rights groups? Are they succeeding in their work?

Eid: I think they are doing a good job. We, the Palestinians, have learnt a lot from the Israeli organizations. There are Palestinians who are critical of the Israeli organizations, but mostly they are people who have no real idea of what is going on. I know what happens inside the Israeli organizations. I think that they are doing the maximum they can do to improve the daily lives of the Palestinians. If you go to the High Court, you will realize that most of the appeals made on behalf of Palestinians have been presented by Israeli groups and Israeli lawyers, not Palestinian ones.

NS: Are you able to monitor what’s going on in Gaza right now?

Eid: That’s very, very difficult. Don’t forget that we are living under a Taliban regime in the Gaza Strip. Our fieldworker hesitates before investigating cases there. The situation for human rights organizations sometimes reminds me of the Saddam Hussein regime. We can’t monitor the Gaza Strip the way we used to monitor it when it was PA territory. We are trying to collect data from newspapers and other organizations that operate in the area. We are in touch with some journalists there. But we face serious opposition and danger.

NS: What advice would you like to give to the Palestinians?

Eid: The best opportunity for us to make peace with Israel was probably in 1978 or 1979 when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat visited Israel. He suggested that Yasser Arafat join him, but Arafat refused.

The most important thing for us to do now is learn from the mis-takes we made between 1947 and today so that we don’t repeat them. We should put these mistakes on the table and study them well. After studying our mistakes, I think the solution will be very easy to create.

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Observations from an American in Iran

By Cindy D. Tan

Cindy D. Tan ’08 attends Harvard College and is a History of Art and Architecture concentrator in Eliot House.

Iranian police cars are recognizable by their clean, white bodies, cobalt blue strips and, most notably, the silver Mercedes medallions perched on their hoods. Often they sit in the shade of a string of tall, leaning pine trees, a few hundred meters behind a clearly marked sign in both Farsi and English announcing their presence. Traffic builds up on the single lane roads at these police roadblocks, and old Peugeots and Renaults wait impatiently to be checked for stashes of opium before being released. The enormous fleet of police cars guarding the roads is comprised of expensive, German-built cars that were purchased some years ago as a result of bloated state budgets and an expanded security program. However, after years of use, damage and deterio-ration, the police budget could no longer meet the cost of basic repair replacement parts. These “Iran super cars” as many locals sarcastically call them, are now used until they become dilapidated old jalopies and are then replaced with Iranian-made cars. There are even YouTube videos of now-censored Iranian TV talk shows that make fun of them. No one was scared of the police then. In fact, it seemed there was very little to be scared about. I was surprised to see how fearless many Iranians were about political and social issues. To an unimaginable degree, the Iranians I met were happy to discuss with me their thoughts and personal feelings on their way of life, their government’s policies and the future of their country.

With the support of an academic fellowship, I traveled to Iran this summer to conduct my senior thesis research on medieval Shi’ite tomb architecture. The nature of my project led me through the desert and mountains and into the most populous cities and remote villages. However, my reasons for traveling went beyond the scope of my academic research. I wanted to see how Iranians, whose country maintains a tenuous position between deep tension with the U.S. and international isolation, saw themselves in light of their country’s controversial stance. I imagined that Iranians were hideously misrep-resented in the media based on discussions I’ve had with my Iranian friends at Harvard who are dual citizens, and overwhelmingly, I found that to be true. Despite travel warnings and pleas by my friends and family not to travel, my month-long sojourn in Iran this summer was marked by the surprising hospitality and warmth with which I was received.

Certainly, people looked on curiously as I walked by, mainly be-cause of my ridiculous ensemble. I wore a heavy raincoat and a thick, black pashmina wrapped tightly around my face. Embarrassingly, I knew that many of the women on the street, by whom I was dread-fully outclassed, stared in wonder at my hot struggle with a constantly slipping headscarf. Fortunately, water was constantly available at mosques and it was common practice to stop on the street and take a sip from tin cups chained to the side of communal fountains. At first I was concerned about how potable the water would be, but I soon I learned to trust the tea and water I was given. I received many invita-tions to have tea and biscuits in the homes of kind strangers. Seeing how exhausted and sunburned I was, Iranians were deeply sympa-thetic; it was an expression of the natural hospitality I found common to Iranians. With each positive experience, my preconceptions of Iranian life were gradually transformed.

State authorities never singled me out for being an American. However, on the streets, my presence often caused a great commotion. When I arrived in the village of Nayriz, it was already twilight and the air had begun to cool. The rounded roofs of the small adobe houses glowed in the warm sunlight and children played in the streets. The afternoon siesta had just ended and life had revived with bustling activity. The shops were open, women bargained for groceries, and old men played chess on the sidewalks. Many families sat on carpets and blankets under the shade of trees and drank tea. It made me happy to see these rich scenes of provincial desert life. I felt fortunate to be among so many people as I passed by brightly colored shops and fragrant bakeries.

My work for the day was near its end and the last site I visited was a dilapidated mosque dating back to the 11th century. The front doors were bolted and I followed a dirt path around the mudbrick structure. I saw a group of young boys playing soccer in the adjoining open lot and as soon as they saw me, they ran up and excitedly shouted, “What’s up? What’s up?” Their greeting, translated from a sitcom on Iranian television, must have been the only English they knew. They all wore short-sleeved button-down shirts, khaki shorts and rubber sandals. The eldest boy pointed to my camera and demanded to know what I was doing in their town. Though my guide explained that I was an American researcher, they kept asking me to take their pictures so they could be in the movies. I asked about the mosque and a few of the youngest boys guided me through a collapsed entrance into the courtyard, where a majestic cypress tree stood at least four stories tall. They were all too excited about having their faces in Hollywood movies to appreciate my own curiosity and I soon resumed taking their pictures, which I promised would make it to the U.S. for many people to see.

My encounters with women never lasted as long. Young Iranian women are fashionable and carry themselves with confidence. They do not wear full burkas or cover their faces. They wear heavy makeup and let carefully placed strands of dyed hair frame their faces. Every young woman I met smiled easily and spoke with a bright voice that rung with lyrical clarity. Many were university students studying architecture, though some were training to become doctors, nurses, and officers in government agencies. While many women wore long black chadors, others dressed in fitted jackets and colorful silk scarves. At the trendier cafes in Isfahan, particularly in the Armenian quarter known as the hip part of the city, women smoked cigarettes and drank espressos. The Beatles’ “Come Together” played in the background, as the women nodded indifferently to the beat of the song.

The general apathy toward authority in Iran does not carry a defi-ant tone. The modes of resistance to the imposed behavioral laws were passive but visible. Alcohol and pop music were readily available but no one talked about such things publicly. Little girls rode on bicycles and men wore short-sleeves. The rural areas are unsurprisingly more conservative, but even in these areas the most educated people we spoke with were not afraid to offer their opinions on their quality of life.

One woman I spoke with kindly invited me to her home for tea. A delicate woman in her thirties, she lived in a rented two-room mud-brick house with her mother and her two children. She never told us the whereabouts of the children’s father but she insinuated that he was not a part of their lives. She spent her time weaving carpets that are sold in the western parts of the Middle East and, although she did not know their selling prices, she imagined they went for much more than the pittance she received. She expressed how difficult it was for a woman to find work and she explained that her only two options were to live at home and weave or work in a factory, because she could not afford the vocational training necessary for finding a different job. She also explained that she could not leave her town easily and that Iranians often raise their families and live their whole lives in the place where they are born. She never expressed resentment towards her government, but she did express the belief that life is harder now than it was for her when she was a child, perhaps a subtle comment about what life was like under a different regime.

Almost everyone is poor. The Iranians I spoke to recognize the reality of their circumstances and know that the world is watching. However, the media attention that Iranians receive does not directly affect their everyday life. Iranians don’t believe the international community will intervene on the behalf of dissidents. There is little movement towards change, mainly because Iranians struggle to achieve minimal stability and fear the consequences of escalating internal conflict. Once, I was surprised to see a small bumper sticker of the Swedish flag on a cargo truck. I soon spotted these small flags on many trucks. To many Iranians, Sweden, not America, is the land of freedom. The U.S. and its policies were frustrating to the Iranians I met who could not understand why they were being targeted for evildoing. If anything, Iranians consider themselves among the most peaceful people in the world, albeit only when disassociated from their government. The Iranians I spoke to have a powerful sense that they lack political representation and they have the suspicion that Americans are given an inaccurate view of their country. Many of the people I met felt surprised that there was any U.S. antagonism at all. They could not comprehend why they were being judged based only on the words of their president.

The feeling of awe I first felt when I arrived was soon mingled with a sense of consternation. Here was a vast, peaceful country in which the people, who are more educated than many of their neigh-bors in the region, take a largely passive stance towards a government they do not support. Instead, to circumvent government censorship, many Iranians use American IP addresses to connect to the internet. One Iranian told me that if his government mobilized the army for war no Iranian man would stand up and volunteer to fight. He said that maybe Iran should declare war and then the world could see how peaceful Iranians actually are.

Verses of the Qur’an are painted in enormous white letters on the sides of hills and mountains so that they will be visible from the highway and nearby villages. The highway is also dotted with signs that remind pious Muslims of proper behavior and proclaim praise for the Prophet and the coming of the Twelfth Imam. In my early days in Iran, feeling that I was a witness to spiritual communication, I concen-trated on each message I passed. When I learned that industrial corporations also use mountains to advertise their products, I discov-ered that I was often staring not at a message from the Prophet but at an advertisement to purchase bulk steel at low prices. Here was a small intrusion of secular life into the world of religious proselytizing.

While Islam pervades all aspects of life, there exists an equally pervasive secular way of life rooted in Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage. Every Iranian I met was proud of the country and its history. But I was fascinated to learn how deeply Iranians revered the memory of pre-Islamic Persia. The guides or curators I met at museums and historical sites always referred to pre-Islamic building practices and Achaeme-nian kings in explaining the influences on more recent constructions. (It is also worth noting that the Achaemenian king, Cyrus the Great, who ruled over 2,500 years ago, issued one of the world’s first declara-tions of individual rights, including the right to freedom of religion.) In the teahouses and restaurants, I was told which foods and spices existed before the introduction of Islam and I observed young men and women holding hands in the bazaars where the mosques were mostly locked. There was no clear dividing line between the religious and the secular. They seemed intertwined and Iranians traversed these fine lines at their convenience.

I was fortunate enough to be present for a three-day national holi-day celebrating the birthday of the Twelfth Imam, al-Mahdi, and I saw the country burst into excited celebration. Islam unified the country and on those three days, everyone was a believer. Mosques, lavishly decorated in ribbons, flowers and posters of Imam Khomeini and Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, were attended in unprecedented num-bers. Elderly men came up to my guide and me to offer us sweets and invite us to join their prayers and celebrations. Food and brightly colored syrup drinks were handed out along the road and streamers hung from every tree. The typically quiet streets were flooded with people shouting happy greetings to one another. Even then, in the midst of that chaos, I never felt unsafe as a female traveler, but walked easily in the streets among the cheering people who were queuing for food handouts. Despite our enjoyment, both my guide and I recog-nized something sad in this. We had met so many independent-minded, generous people desperate for more freedoms and greater knowledge of their world, but here they were, standing in line, jostling each other for a free meal.

Perhaps it was a sign of the cultural divide that I could not appre-ciate the full import of that momentous holiday. The serious human rights violations, torture, and suppression of free speech that I read about before coming to Iran were a constant thought in my mind. Yet what I saw before me was the momentary relaxation of cultural restrictions and the appearance that people enjoyed life and were content with their circumstances. Every experience I had in Iran confirmed this new observation, however incongruous it was with the presentation of the country I received in the media.

It greatly surprised me that, in the course of my experience in Iran, I found myself feeling safe, welcome and comfortable. Once in the company of locals, I was embraced. It is a horrible shame that Ameri-cans are presented such a dark view of Iran. What little I saw of it in a month demonstrated to me that this was a country with deep-rooted, vibrant traditions to which people cling, either to maintain a sense of national pride or because, in the face of serious criticisms by other nations, there was little else to hold the country together. An artist I met in Isfahan expressed his frustration that a country as hypocritical and corrupt as the U.S. could judge his country. This level of national-ism seemed prevalent and might have altered how Iranians ap-proached me. Women pride themselves on the freedoms they enjoy, however limited they may appear to us. Young urbanites consider themselves fashionable and rebellious. The cities move at a pace that reminds me of home, and the countryside, beset with poverty, reveals immense faith and an appreciation for a traditional way of life.

I left Iran feeling sad to go and treasuring the memories of all the things I had seen. The sun sets with an orange intensity that makes the entire desert look like it is on fire. In the cities, the mudbrick houses begin to cool and the colossal domes of the mosques emerge with splendor, glittering in the fading light.

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