DAWN - Editorial; October 25, 2006

October 25, 2006


Killing of Palestinians

THE killing of seven Palestinians in Gaza on Monday is Israel’s ‘gift’ to all Muslims on the occasion of Eidul Fitr. At a time when all well-meaning people in the world are talking about the need for inter-faith harmony and a sustained dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews, the Israeli war machine did not hesitate to gun down six civilians so long as it was able to assassinate one militant — Atta al-Shimbari, a member of the Popular Resistance Committee. Atta’s organisation was allegedly involved in the June 25 military operation in which the Palestinian resistance killed two Israeli soldiers and took one prisoner. As a spokesman for the committee said, Atta was not planning a military operation. He was celebrating Eid at his home when the Israelis struck, killing besides him two of his brothers, a cousin, a nephew, a neighbour and another civilian. Rightly did Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas call it “a massacre” and appealed to the international community to “intervene as quickly as possible to stop the Israeli massacres, particularly in the Gaza strip”, while Prime Minister Ismail Haniye vowed retribution. While it was not for the first time that the Gaza strip was under siege, he said, this was “the first [siege] under which we will make no concessions; we will not fail”.

Israel has now vowed to spread more death and destruction in the occupied territories, especially Gaza. Western wire agencies say Israeli leaders are considering expanding the military operations. So far, Israel has killed 250 Palestinians since the two Israeli soldiers fell in battle and one was taken prisoner on June 25. This is in keeping with the old Israeli tactic of imposing heavy penalties on Palestinians. However, what the Israelis forget is that the Palestinians today are not what they used to be in 1948. Historians and Palestinian scholars now admit that the Dier Yassin massacre was wrongly handled by the Arab leadership, and that over-publicity led to panic and the mass flight of Palestinians. By a rough estimate, 800,000 Palestinians fled their homes and thus played into Israeli hands, for all their homes, farms and orchards were occupied by Jewish settlers. Today the situation is vastly different, for the Palestinians have learnt to live with their miseries — targeted killings, Israeli sieges, rocket attacks and tank fire on homes and apartment buildings, blackouts and joblessness. Yet they have no intention of fleeing a second time. As Mr Haniye told the people on Eidul Fitr, “We will not bend. We are dying, but we will not cede a step from Jerusalem, our rights or the right of return of refugees”.

In this there are obvious lessons for Israel to learn. How long does it think it can keep the West Bank and Gaza? And at what price? Israel is also suffering casualties, though they may not be as high as the Palestinian toll. Besides, Israeli society itself is divided, and there are powerful peace lobbies calling for a withdrawal from the occupied territories and for working seriously for a two-state solution. If America is serious about winning “Muslim hearts and minds”, it must make a determined move to revive the peace process with the aim of achieving the two-state solution to which President George Bush committed himself when he unveiled the roadmap in April 2003. Without the emergence of a sovereign Palestinian state, peace in the Middle East will remain a mirage.

Taliban in command?

EMBOLDENED, it seems, by the September 5 accord with the government, militants in North Waziristan are now institutionalising their authority over the tribal agency. There is now at least one Taliban ‘office’ in Miramshah, the regional headquarters, and there is no doubt as to who is calling the shots in terms of administration. The militants’ jurisdiction has lately been formalised by the Taliban council of advisers, with a clearly defined territory in and around Miramshah demarcated as an “area of operations” where criminal activities are banned. Here it is the Taliban, not the political administration, who will lay down the law for crimes ranging from theft to murder. Punishment is to be meted out in accordance with the Taliban’s peculiar interpretation of the Shariat, not the state law applicable to the tribal areas. Penalties include execution, imprisonment and fines. Taxes in the form of involuntary ‘donations’ have been imposed on petrol pumps as well as trucks entering the agency. The ragtag Khasadar force, meanwhile, is a mere bystander, unable to intervene in the affairs of the Taliban. With a parallel administration, judiciary, prison system and taxation regime taking shape, the writ of the state is conspicuous only by its absence.

The Taliban’s clampdown on ‘crime’ notwithstanding, these disturbing developments do not bode well for peace and stability in the region. They also appear to substantiate allegations that the September 5 agreement was, first and foremost, meant to guarantee that the militants would not attack the armed forces, and vice versa. Indeed, it is only this aspect of the deal that seems to hold the ground. As for the accord’s other clauses, no system has been put in place to monitor the conduct of foreign militants, nor — if Nato officials are to be believed — has there been any let-up in cross-border movement into Afghanistan. On this side of the Durand Line, ‘spies’ continue to be assassinated by the militants, in clear violation of the clause prohibiting targeted killings. This emergence of a state within a state needs to be looked into and checked forthwith. Since independence, the politics of expediency has prevented the integration of the tribal areas into the national mainstream. Historical mistakes must be rectified, not repeated.

Eid — a three-way split

ADHOCISM has been our national trait and it can often lead to confusing situations of the kind we are witnessing this Eid. The festival is being celebrated on three different days by people in various regions of the country. Instead of uniting the nation, Eid this year has divided it because of our holding fast to the orthodox method of moon-sighting. The lunar month is to begin only after the heralding new moon has been sighted with naked eyes. To give the process some credibility, the government sets up Ruet-i-Hilal committees that go through the exercise of ‘sighting’, collecting information, etc, before making a formal announcement. This, however, does not always reflect a national consensus and this year too the Peshawar committee declared Eid to be on Monday while the rest of the country celebrates it today, with some areas opting for Tuesday.

Do we have to live through this confusion and uncertainty every year? On Sunday the dilemma was plain. The Met Office issued a press release suggesting that astronomical calculations indicated that the new moon would be visible on Monday in the coastal areas for a short spell. But cloudy weather affected visibility and the Ruet’s chairman declared Wednesday to be Eid day. Such are the uncertainties of the lunar calendar. But it is difficult to understand why science cannot be combined with religion. When there are astronomical methods to calculate the appearance of the new moon — this can be done for years in advance with absolute accuracy — why can’t we use them for determining the start of every lunar month and avoid the confusion and split verdict that often grips the nation, especially in the case of Ramazan and Eidul Fitr?

Unrest in Budapest, then and now

By Mahir Ali

LAST month, protests erupted in Budapest after an extraordinary speech by Hungary’s prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, was leaked to the press some four months after it was delivered. In April, Gyurcsany led the coalition between his Socialist Party and the Free Democrats to a second successive electoral triumph, unprecedented in post-communist Hungary.

In the expletive-ridden speech, made the following month at a private party meeting, he confessed that the election victory was built on a plethora of lies.

“No country in Europe,” he said, “has screwed up as much as we have ... We have obviously lied throughout the past 18 to 24 months. It was perfectly clear that what we were saying was not true ... If we have to give an account of what we have done in four years, what are we going to say?

“... I almost perished because I had to pretend for 18 months that we were governing. Instead, we lied morning, noon and night. I do not want to carry on with this.”

The lies related mainly to the state of Hungary’s economy and the tough austerity measures deemed necessary to qualify the country for membership of the eurozone. Gyurcsany was hardly in a position to deny the contents of the speech, given that it had surfaced in the shape of an audio recording. Instead, he took the unusual step of posting the text on his official blog site, prompting speculation that he may have orchestrated the leak himself as a means of declaring himself uncomfortable with political dishonesty as well as warning Hungarians about the belt-tightening that lay ahead.

If that is indeed the case, the ploy appears to have backfired. Apart from the predictable protests, the ruling coalition floundered badly in local council elections a couple of weeks after the revelations, and earlier this month Gyurcsany was compelled to seek a parliamentary vote of confidence. He won, but remains under considerable pressure as Hungary this week marks the 50th anniversary of an uprising that tantalisingly took the nation to the brink of a second liberation only a dozen years after the end of the German occupation. In one of the foremost tragic ironies of 20th-century history, in 1956 the popular urge for greater freedom was extinguished by the same Red Army that had delivered Hungary from the Nazi scourge in 1944.

Renewed violence on the streets of Budapest this week followed a decision by the conservative opposition as well as some of the veterans of 1956 to boycott any commemorative event attended by the prime minister, who is playing host to several heads of state and government. The repulsion towards Gyurcsany is related to his confessions, but also has much to do with his past as a leader of the Communist Youth League. Following the demise of communism, he — like many other ex-apparatchiks — went into business, dabbling in the property market and, evidently, making a killing. By the time he returned to politics in 2002, he was reputed to be one of Hungary’s richest men.

The vehicle for his return was the Socialist Party, which is considered a successor of sorts to the Communist Party of yore — a fact that irks many of its opponents, even though the organisation’s nomenclature bears little relation to its ideology. That tendency isn’t exclusive to Hungary, of course: throughout Europe, parties that call themselves socialist or social-democratic are enthusiastic “reformers”, devoted to removing the few remaining safeguards that offer ordinary folk a measure of protection against the vagaries of market forces. Gyurcsany’s government has been particularly concerned about the repercussions of introducing full-cost university fees and health-care charges, and justifiably so.

One of the problems with democracies, old and new, these days is the strictly limited choice between ostensible political “alternatives”; there are exceptions, but they appear to be concentrated in Latin America for the time being. Remarkably or otherwise, the popular revolt in Hungary half a century ago also had a great deal to do with the absence of choice.

Many of the protesters who have been out in force in Budapest and elsewhere in recent weeks have indeed been provoked by their prime minister’s self-incrimination. They might benefit from a reality check: were telling lies to become a strictly enforced disqualification for holding public office, most nations across the globe would be rendered leaderless. False promises, prevarication and spin are intrinsic to politics almost everywhere.

However, the ranks of indignant Hungarians have been swelled — and in some instances even dominated — by right-wing nationalists, football hooligans and outright fascists. Their ideal state is an insular, quite possibly authoritarian Hungary, relatively isolated from Europe and the rest of the world. They have very little in common with the Hungarians who took to the streets 50 years ago: although the charge of far-Right sympathies was commonly bandied about in those days, it bore little resemblance to reality.

The overwhelming majority of those who spontaneously stepped out of their comfort zone on October 23, 1956, did so in order to demand the reinstatement as prime minister of Imre Nagy, a liberal reformist (in that context, the connotations of “reform” were rather different from what they are today) who had been deposed the previous year and expelled from the Hungarian Workers’ Party. They had been encouraged by recent events in Poland, where a revolt had led to the reinstallation of Wladyslaw Gomulka, who had a reformist reputation, as the first secretary of the Communist Party.

The popular surge in favour of far-reaching changes in Eastern Europe followed Soviet Communist Party chief Nikita Khrushchev’s stinging indictment of his predecessor, Josef Stalin, at a closed session of the 20th party congress earlier that year. Although, in the wake of Stalin’s death three years earlier, an uprising by workers in Berlin had been crudely crushed, Khrushchev’s speech appeared to signal a change of course. After the Poles, the Hungarians — students, workers and even soldiers — were willing to test the waters.

All too briefly, they were allowed to believe that their efforts had been crowned with success. On October 24, a panicky ruling party invited Nagy to form a government. When hundreds of demonstrators were mowed down by Soviet tanks the following day, the party replaced its hardline leader, Erno Gero, with Janos Kadar, who had served time in prison for dissidence. The Hungarian tricolour, with the hammer and sickle cut out from its centre, became the symbol of the day. The slogan was “Ruszki haza!” — Russians go home. Nagy demanded the withdrawal of Soviet forces and entered into negotiations with Moscow’s representatives. By the end of the month, Soviet troops appeared to be pulling out and political prisoners were being set free.

On November 1, Nagy proclaimed Hungary’s neutrality and its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. By then there were reports that the Russians were poised to return. Overnight, Khrushchev had changed his mind. The Poles, it is believed, got away with their act of defiance because they had agreed to remain in the Warsaw Pact. Outside Eastern Europe, international attention was riveted by the unfolding Suez crisis, with Israel, Britain and France engaged in aggression against Egypt.

The available distraction may have encouraged Moscow but, contrary to what has until recently been the received wisdom, it had little to do with Washington’s inaction. Although West Germany-based Radio Liberty had been encouraging the Hungarians and providing recipes for molotov cocktails, the Eisenhower administration’s stance was perhaps best summed up by Vice-President Richard Nixon, who had declared at a meeting of the US National Security Council earlier that year: “It wouldn’t be an unmixed evil, from the point of view of US interest, if the Soviet iron fist were to come down again on the Soviet bloc.”

Come down it certainly did. By November 4, Soviet tanks were back on the streets of Budapest, in much greater force than before, and this time they weren’t taking orders from the Hungarian authorities. It took them six days to completely crush the revolution. Up to 3,000 Hungarians died trying to defend their homeland. The Russian toll was closer to 700, and reportedly included at least a handful of soldiers shot for refusing to follow orders.

Nagy was kidnapped by the Russians and, two years later, executed as a traitor. It wasn’t until more than 30 years later that he was reburied with honour. For most of that period, Hungary was ruled by Kadar, who had chosen to betray the revolution and seek accommodation with Moscow.

In any tally of the USSR’s international outrages (which, mind you, requires a considerably smaller ledger than a catalogue of comparable actions by the US), the ruthless suppression of the Hungarian revolution belongs near the top of the list. It was followed 12 years later by similar criminal folly in Prague. And then, of course, there was Afghanistan.

The consequences of the Kremlin’s decisions were not only a monumental calamity for Hungary but also a self-inflicted body blow from which the international communist movement never quite recovered. The brutal reminder that Stalinism hadn’t quite been exorcised led to an exodus from communist parties, particularly in the West. And it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to contend that some of the seeds of the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991 were sown in 1956.

It’s hard to say whether an alternative, democratic socialist model would have bloomed in Hungary had Khrushchev and his colleagues had resisted the imperialist temptation. Perhaps the profoundest aspect of the tragedy is that we shall never know for certain.