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DAWN - Opinion; August 02, 2006

August 02, 2006


As Lebanon bleeds

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh

THE devastating bomb attack on Qana, a village that suffered a similar assault in 1996, highlights the ruthlessness of the Israeli air campaign against Lebanon. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was able to secure a pledge from the Israelis to halt air attacks for 48 hours to allow for an investigation into the Qana bombing and to enable civilians to leave the area.

The refusal of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to welcome her in Beirut until an unconditional ceasefire had been agreed upon, the strain that the current US policy is placing on relations with Europe and the anxiety of friendly Arab governments are some of the messages that she has taken back to Washington.

She also had to note that Israel followed its own interpretation of the temporary halt in attacks and that it recommenced aerial bombing within 24 hours on the grounds that it reserved the right to resume air action to support ground troops or stave off threats. The Israeli action belied what was generally perceived as Ms Rice’s one solid achievement in an otherwise fruitless Middle East visit. It may have made her realise that proteges very often develop ideas of their own and are prepared to disregard the demands of their mentors and benefactors. It is also possible, as much of the world is inclined to believe, that the Americans never wanted the Israelis to stop the bombing or to ease the ferocious assault.

Blind support for Israel has been an article of faith with the Bush administration. Had this not been so there would perhaps have been greater criticism of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose visit to the Al Aqsa mosque in September 2000 sparked the second Intifada and provided the excuse the Israelis needed to halt the Oslo accords and the roadmap.

Had this not been so the Bush administration would have pursued more assiduously the tentative agreement that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators reached in Taba in January 2001, shortly before Sharon took office as Israeli prime minister. The agreement called for Israel to vacate between 93 to 96 per cent of the occupied territories. The area that remained with Israel was to be compensated for by ceding Israeli territory elsewhere.

Resistance to such policies by the more sensible elements of the Washington foreign policy establishment was silenced by the traumatic events of 9/11. The neo-conservatives, who dominate the corridors of power in the Bush administration, argued that only Israel could protect American interests in the Middle East. This sort of reasoning was also helped by the growing strength of the Christian right. A 2003 Pew Research Centre poll found that 36 per cent of Americans believe that the creation of the state of Israel was a step towards the Second Coming of Jesus and that Israel must be supported if this was to occur.

Has such an attitude in Washington been encouraged by Arab actions? Martin Indyk, American ambassador in Israel under President Bill Clinton, maintained in a recent online discussion in the Washington Post that “for eight years, President Clinton and his peace team dedicated themselves to trying to achieve a just, comprehensive, and lasting peace that would have met the reasonable requirements of the Palestinians and the Syrians. Those deals included formal offers, accepted by Israeli governments, of all of the Golan Heights, all of Gaza, and 95-97 per cent of the West Bank (with territorial compensation for the rest)...We thought that’s what the Arabs wanted. That’s certainly what they told us they wanted. So I fail to understand the argument that we didn’t take their needs and requirements into account.”

Certainly there is exaggeration here. The Palestinians had not rejected these proposals as was evident from the tentative Taba agreement. There was minor disagreement on the territory and major differences on the issue of the “right of return” for the Palestinian diaspora. Once the Sharon government came into power and Bush had been elected, it became clear that implementation was virtually out of the question. There is no doubt, however, that fearful of their own extremists the Palestinians never expressed their unequivocal acceptance of such proposals.

In the present crisis, too, Hezbollah and Hamas are both now saying that the capture of Israeli soldiers played into Israeli hands. In an article in the Washington Post, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said, “The current Gaza invasion is only the latest effort to destroy the results of fair and free elections held early this year...The ‘kidnapped’ Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit is only a pretext for a job scheduled months ago.”

The Guardian reported on July 26 that “Mr Nasrallah said the US-Israeli ‘assessment’ had identified obstacles to their vision of a ‘new Middle East’ and had set out to eliminate them. He said Israel had been looking for a pretext to launch an offensive; the abduction of two of its soldiers two weeks ago gave it the perfect excuse”. There is no doubt that the Palestinians had legitimate grievances but did providing “the perfect excuse” to Israel resolve these grievances or give them a public relations victory?

I mention the contribution of Arab elements to the crisis because a day after my last article appeared, a senior colleague, whose capacity for dispassionate analysis I had long admired, telephoned to say that he felt my article had been too “soft” on Israel and had not highlighted enough the Israeli role in creating the crisis while focusing on what the Hamas and Hezbollah had done to precipitate the crisis.

I am not sure whether I was able to convince him of the validity of my thesis that given the current correlation of forces it was a major miscalculation on the part of Hezbollah and Hamas leaders if the purpose was to further the Palestinian cause, and highly irresponsible if the purpose was to protect the interests of individual leaders or groups. I sensed I was being told that Khalid Meshal and Hasan Nasrallah had no choice but to do what they did because in the face of Israeli intransigence and American support there was no hope of any just solution emerging.

This is a point that the Americans will need to ponder. In their view, encouraging and abetting the Israelis in the destruction of Hezbollah, with no regard for the colossal damage done to Lebanon, is “a draining of the swamp”, an obliteration of a terrorist group and the destruction of a strategic weapon that “terrorist Iran” could wield against Israeli and American interests in the Middle East.

The reality, however, is that all they succeeded in doing is to convince even their most ardent supporters in the Muslim world and ordinarily dispassionate analysts that no justice can be expected, that no Muslim life is precious and that no Muslim property worth saving.

The Americans know that on this issue they are isolated not only from their Arab friends but also from the Europeans with whom they had been seeking to build bridges after the serious split that Iraq occasioned. The Sunni Arab states may have misgivings about the growth of Shia power but that is subsumed by their outrage at the destruction of Lebanon and the growing perception that Israel, with American support, is intent on destabilising all countries in the Middle East.

From the perspective of the international community, the Americans are not eliminating a terrorist threat but merely ensuring that the ranks of the extremists in the Islamic world will grow and that further centres of terrorism like the one created in Iraq and the one that is now gaining strength in Afghanistan will sprout in other parts of the world. With American assistance the Israelis can destroy Hezbollah’s military power and with it Lebanon. But the movement will live on and will find many new recruits not only from the Shia population of southern Lebanon but from further afield.

Rejecting a ceasefire until it can be made “sustainable” is clearly a delaying tactic designed to give Israel time to destroy Hezbollah. It is nonsensical to believe, given the experience with the deployment of Nato in Afghanistan, that such a force can be assembled and provided with an agreed mandate and agreed rules of engagement in a week’s time. Nato took months to work out the mandate and to agree that different national units would have different rules of engagement in Afghanistan. Many countries insisted that such deployment be debated by the elected representatives before the forces went out.

Why should it take less time now? It is also nonsensical to believe that a sustainable ceasefire can be brought about by the injection of an international force. What will be the mandate of such a force? Will it be to help the Lebanese army to prevent the rearming of Hezbollah? How? The Lebanese army is almost one third Shia and its loyalties will lie at least in part with their co-religionists in Hezbollah. Will it be to wave a magic wand and solve the difficulties that have bedevilled Israel-Lebanon relations over the last many years?

Clearly, these problems need to be negotiated between Israel and Lebanon with the active but neutral assistance of the international community and the Americans, primarily the latter. This requires, as the international community has been demanding, an unconditional ceasefire and the commencement of negotiations.

If this does not happen, Hezbollah will become along with a Hamas led by Khalid Meshal the new symbol of Arab resistance. President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Haniyeh in Palestine and moderate Lebanese leaders like Prime Minister Siniora and Saad Hariri in Lebanon will be eclipsed.

All the “moderate” governments already condemned by the Arab masses as supine and subservient to America will cower and look desperately for ways to maintain their hold on power, becoming not more democratic but more dictatorial. As one observer put it, Al Qaeda will run out of enrolment forms as angry Arabs and Muslims flock to their recruitment centres.

If the past is any guide the first victims of the new situation will be the Muslim countries where “peaceful demonstrations” will turn violent. The next will be Muslims in the West as increasingly provocative statements fan fears of terrorist attacks in Europe and America and bring resident Muslims under greater suspicion.

The American way of life, already under threat from the measures taken by the Department of Homeland Security, CIA and the National Security Agency, will be further jeopardised as new sources of terrorist attacks arise and as oil prices increase.

Is this what America wants? Is there no lesson the neo-conservatives are prepared to learn from the current chaos in Iraq and the threatening one in Afghanistan? It may be hard to achieve in an election year and at a time when influential people see Israeli and American interests as congruent but one hopes against hope that saner counsel will prevail and that the Americans will move the world back from the brink of the abyss on which it now stands.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Beneficiaries of family planning

By Zubeida Mustafa

POPULATION control — or population welfare, if you want to be genteel — is the buzzword today. The focus has been on the economic impact of a rapidly growing population and its implications for employment.

Some scholars have been concerned with the religious dimension since the general impression is that Islamic leaders are opposed to contraception on religious grounds, and so people are reluctant to limit their family size.

But the reality is far from this. If this had been the case, we would not have had a big unmet need of 34 per cent among women which is much larger than the percentage of users (23 per cent). This means that nearly a third of married women in the reproductive age group want to prevent a birth but cannot do so. Most say that opposition from their husbands deters them from using contraceptives. Others believe that the unavailability of the required services hampers them.

Why should many husbands want large families? It is not so much the family size as the gender factor that is the crucial determinant of the number of children desired by the parents. In the patriarchal set-up that exists today, no family is generally considered to be complete without a son — preferably two sons. Family planning workers have observed that women with a number of daughters continue to give birth to children until the desired number of sons have been born. Men are even known to abandon their wives and marry another woman in the hope that she will give birth to a son.

This perception is confirmed by the ratio of men to women in Pakistan. Here males have always outnumbered the females, although in societies where unnatural phenomena like wars/epidemics do not upset the biological growth rate, women constitute the bigger segment of the population. Today, Pakistan is estimated to have 72.6 million women as against 78.8 million men. This ratio reflects the higher mortality rate in women who do not receive the same healthcare and nutrition as the men. Daughters are still discriminated against compared to their brothers.

It is the low status of women that determines social attitudes towards the girl child. Mercifully, opinion is now changing and a daughter is not always rejected as she was before. Nevertheless, she cannot take the place of a boy when it comes to carrying on the family name, protecting the family property/business and providing support to the parents in old age. So the aims of the family planning advocates are defeated if the first-born is not a boy.

What has not received enough emphasis is the role of birth control in the reproductive health of women. Given the unreliable statistical base we have, one cannot be too certain about some of the data given. When it comes to women, even the more optimistic figures are really not so rosy, especially when we remember that we are low down on the list. For instance, 500 women per 100,000 births die of pregnancy related causes while infant mortality is a high 74 per 1,000 live births, the highest in South Asia.

One major cause of the high mortality rate is not simply lack of pre-natal healthcare which leads to many women becoming victims of tetanus or haemorrhaging to death because iron deficiency has made them anaemic. Multiple pregnancies also weaken many women as well as their infants. Even a child, who survives when his mother dies, has relatively few chances of living very long. The men who insist on their wives bearing more children in spite of the risks frequent pregnancies incur for many women betray an uncaring attitude towards their spouses. Of course, poverty compounds the situation.

Unfortunately, the government’s population welfare programme also reflects this bias and apathy although it should be in the lead in setting a direction for the small family norm and a pro-woman approach. In the public-private partnership scheme of things, it has been left to the NGOs to carry on the job — which many of them are doing excellently — but within the limits of their meagre resources. As has been the trend in other social sectors the government has gradually been disengaging itself from the field of population welfare. The public sector does not have much to show by way of performance. As a result, the Pakistan Economic Survey, 2005-06 does not even record any statistics to show the categories and quantity of contraceptives dispensed as was the practice several years ago.

Only the institutions have been listed and they do not inspire much hope. The number of family welfare centres, supposedly the linchpin of the programme, have increased from 1,777 in December 2003 to 2,206 in March 2006 which works out to an increase of 24 per cent in three years. The reproductive health A centres, which perform sterilisation procedures, have gone up from 108 to 204 in the same period which is a more impressive increase of 88 per cent. But the number of the mobile service units declined from 146 to 118 in 2003-2006 (a decrease of 19 per cent).

As for the funds allocated for the programme, they have consistently been on the decline. Population welfare is essentially a provincial subject and managed by the provincial governments. While the Sindh budget for 2006-07 shows the amount allocated under this head as nil, the NWFP has given it five million rupees, Balochistan gives it Rs 11.8 million and Punjab has earmarked Rs 18.5 million. The federal budget shows a bigger sum for the population sector — Rs 172 million for 2006-07.

What is surprising is that the development budget for the current year runs into billions for the federal programme (Rs 4.3 billion) and Punjab (Rs 1.7 billion). Sindh and Balochistan show a more hefty sum for the development expenditure on population compared to the revenue budget. In the NWFP, the ADP for population is Rs 47 million and Rs 6.8 million for the current expenditure. How are the development funds to be used? How will a meagre revenue budget sustain a massive project presumably envisaged by the annual development programme?

There are 264 NGOs with 479 outlets reporting to the National Trust for Population Welfare playing an “innovative” — to use the government’s words — role in this field. But their resources are limited and the flow of funds from NATPOW is not always steady and assured. The 58,000 outlets of social marketing projects make contraceptive services available at a subsidised rate.

Instead of transparency what we have is a clouded picture of the population programme making it difficult to assess the strategy that has been adopted. This ambiguity militates against the success of the programme. This hardly promotes the women’s cause. Dr Akhter Hameed Khan, the great social activist and founder of the Orangi Pilot Project, once said in an interview in 1986, “Actually economic forces have undermined the traditional perception of Islam. Inflation, urbanisation (which has led to the breakup of the joint family system) and the compulsion for female employment have brought about changes in attitudes. Now women with many children feel distressed ... The official programme is in no way responsible for this change in attitude... Family planning is closely related to the emancipation of women. But the government does not see it that way.” Neither do many others.

The thieves of Dhaka

By Hafizur Rahman

“HONOUR among thieves” is a time-worn adage, although with the prevailing decline in noble qualities and the general lowering of moral standards all over the world, it may be difficult to discern the attribute of honour among thieves these days. All of us pine for the “good old days” and old-timers like me remember with nostalgia when thieves were thieves and not crooks and hoodlums.

Thievery used to be a wholetime vocation and was confined to persons who were devoted to it heart and soul. Apart from occasional (and unfortunate) stints in jail they continued on the job day and night — mostly at night — and no honest thief ever thought of changing his profession. Now of course every Tom, Dick and Harry is taking to thieving as a sideline as if it were a hobby like stamp collecting.

Industrialists in Pakistan who can very well afford to have power plants of their own are stealing electricity from Wapda. Traders steal the sales tax they owe to the state and billionaire politicians with clout do the same with income tax. Government officers steal secrets from office files and sell them to whoever is interested. Teachers steal question papers of university and board exams and make money out of them. Lawyers egg on all these amateur part-time thieves in order to promote their business of saving crooks. And maulvis try to get for free whatever they can lay their pious hands upon. It’s all over the place all the time.

I am sure it must be the same with Bangladeshis, for didn’t they steal a whole country from us? Apparently they are not content with that, for their wholetime thieves at least want to retain the purity of the profession and rid it of politics and national considerations.

Witness these excerpts from a Dhaka report circulated some time ago by a foreign news agency.

“About 10,000 thieves have formed an association here and are offering courses to newcomers in this ancient occupation... It has a training school with 2,000 members including pickpockets... Hijackers cannot become members, according to spokesman Ali Hossain... The association earns about 6,000 dollars monthly from fifteen areas of Dhaka which has more than eight million residents.”

I wish I could meet Ali Hossain and ask him a few things. I should first want to know out of sheer curiosity, of course, to which branch of thievery he himself belongs — whether he is a cat burglar or steals valuables from people’s houses by posing as a meter reader, or, if that is permitted, is a reformed hijacker. All these are minor points and would be meant to build up an air of chumminess between us. The real questions are the serious ones.

For instance, my main and most important query would be about the non-professional breeds of thieves mentioned by me in the third paragraph of this piece. Bangladesh too must abound in them, since the Bengalis and we were together for 24 years and were brought up in the same atmosphere of Ioot and plunder. My chief question to Ali Hossain would be, “Since you have formed an association of thieves, why keep these chaps out of it?”

Is it that he doesn’t consider them genuine thieves because they have not taken to thievery for a living, to make both ends meet and to be able to afford at least one square meal a day, but merely to boost their already substantial incomes by unfair means? Does he consider them lowly pariahs because of this chink in their armour this social weakness, which makes them unfit to sit with self-respecting veteran thieves? What is it?

I should also like to be informed about some incidental matters. For example, how many courses, and of what duration, does the association run? After graduating and becoming full-fledged members what does one pay to keep one’s membership alive?

If a chap is unable at all to make money by thieving, is there a system to keep him on the dole out of a welfare fund? If he dies on duty, is his family looked after and his sons given free tuition in the training institute? I have always been interested in educational issues.

It is a pity that no one among the thieving community of Pakistan has ever thought of instituting a regulatry system of educating its young and incipient members. All of them have to learn the ropes through in-service training or through self-education based on their own spirit of enterprise. In some cases they take lessons from some elders of the family who are already in business and don’t want their sons and nephews and sons-in-law to miss out on vital points and thereby cause a loss to the family concerned.

I was wondering if there was scope for cooperation between the hoarders, profiteers and black marketeers of Pakistan and the thieves’ association of Dhaka.

The former are no doubt ambitious people who would be ready to avail themselves of a refresher course if the association would agree to organise it. But the trouble is that, though both are in the same business, there is a fundamental difference between the two.

Our people may not find the methods taught to Dhaka thieves sophisticated enough. They’ll say this is what we teach our little boys when they are still in school.

On the other hand, if the association were to send a batch of trainees to Lahore or Islamabad, and particularly to Karachi, they may not want to go back. The prospect of becoming instant millionaires would be too tempting for indigent Bangladeshi thieves to give up, accustomed as they are to earning just a few hundred measly takes in a whole day.

Not that anyone is going to take my suggestion seriously about cooperation between the top grasping class of Pakistan and the down-to-earth members of the Dhaka brigade. I only put it forward because I sincerely want more contacts between our two countries. But I suppose you can’t have any kind of understanding.

Solar power

WITH unfortunate timing Britain’s skies began to cloud over on Monday, just as one of the country’s biggest electrical retailers announced it was to start selling solar panels. A country used to lots of rain, long winter nights and the comforts of mains gas and electricity has been slow to recognise that solar power can work in grey northern Europe as well as sunny California.

But the news that Currys thinks there is a market for the photovoltaic panels suggests Britain is beginning to catch up. For now, the chain is only dipping its toe into the market, putting the equipment on sale in three stores from today. Most consumers will still turn to specialist installers and no one claims the systems are cheap: up to 9,000 pounds per house. But the technology (much of it made in north Wales) is improving and costs are coming down.

David Cameron’s rooftop wind turbine has got lots of attention, but Britain’s solar pioneers are arguably doing more to combat climate change and limit the sort of blackouts that hit central London last week on one of the sunniest days of the year. Chesterfield, where the roof of the local leisure centre is covered in solar panels, is in the vanguard of change.

—The Guardian, London