Monday, July 31, 2006

From Qana to a Sustainable Peace in the Mideast

The continuous Israeli military offensive in southern Lebanon provoked by Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers has not stopped even though many countries in both Arab and non-Arab world have condemned the actions. This IDF military operation to “root out Hezbollah from Lebanon” has killed more than 500 civilians in Lebanon, injuring and displacing thousands others from the comfort of their homes. The latest and bloodiest attack occurred last Sunday when Israeli bombs reduced the buildings that housed refugees from other villages and cities in the village of Qana in southern Lebanon into ruble. Fifty-four civilians were reportedly killed, 37 of them children.

If the initial military offensive by Israel received mild and reluctant condemnation from the international community, this brutal killing of innocent civilians, mostly children who were asleep when the bombs landed, has received unequivocal condemnation and calls for immediate ceasefire from all corners of the globe but the USA. President Bush, speaking in Florida on Monday, said Israel had the right to defend itself and called on Iran and Syria to stop aiding Hezbollah. He further elaborated that there could be no cease-fire until Hezbollah was reined in and international borders respected, reiterating the U.S. stance on the conflict.

Israel, while regretting the loss of civilian lives, maintained that the Hezbollah fighters have used Qana to launch rocket attacks on northern Israel and that enough warning had been given to innocent civilians by way of air-dropped pamphlets. Thus they pleaded innocent and justified the attacks on Qana and blamed Hezbollah for this “accident”. Furthermore, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel would not agree to an immediate cease-fire and planned to expand military operations in Lebanon.

Reacting to this tragedy, Lebanese PM Fouad Siniora issued a statement describing the event as an “Israeli massacre”. He went even further by denying US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who was scheduled to arrive in Beirut on Sunday, from visiting Lebanon until the announcement of an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.

India, a country known to be having close relation with the region but which has so far been reluctant to strongly condemn the Israeli military operation in southern Lebanon because Tel Aviv claimed they were acting against sponsors of terrorism, issued its strongest statement of condemnation on the Qana tragedy. New Delhi slammed Israel’s Sunday massacre in Qana and termed it as “continued irresponsible and indiscriminate bombing of Lebanon by the Israeli military, ignoring calls for restraint”. If in its earlier statement India said to have only regretted Israel’s “disproportionate” reaction to Hezbollah’s attacks, it now called for “an immediate and unconditional ceasefire”.

In Indonesia, the government strongly condemned the Israeli airstrike on Qana in southern Lebanon. It further said that the tragedy has strengthened the urgent need for an immediate cease-fire in the region and the best way to stop this from happening again is for Israel to end its military operations.

Post Qana massacre, Israel announced a 48 hours halt to its aerial strike on Lebanon in order to conduct a probe on Sunday’s Qana tragedy and provide safe passage to stranded Lebanese in southern Lebanon to leave for safer place. The UNSC immediately held a meeting to discuss the possibility of setting up a new peacekeeping force in the region. But, less than 24 hours after the Qana bombing, Israel has resumed its military operation in southern Lebanon thus dimming the hope of any early solution to the crisis.

The quick turns of events in this Israel – Hezbollah conflict has definitely affected the possibility of creating a “sustainable” ceasefire in the region. The assurance by Ms. Rice that a resolution to the conflict could be reached by this week becomes meaningless when her boss in Washington and the Israeli government have insisted on reining in on Hezbollah first before any ceasefire could be called. At the same time, Hezbollah and its supporters would never let this scenario to happen and they will fight till the end.

This gloomy scenario is really disturbing. If the crisis continues many more civilians will be killed and peace in the region would become elusive. If only a “new Middle East” scripted by the US could be achieved, it would be very gloomy and bloody. Terrorism would escalate even further and civilians would suffer the most and become the victims in the conflicts. The current events in Iraq mirror the possible future in the region.

To avoid this worse case scenario, the international community must immediately work together through international organization like the UN to give a unified voice of concern and pressure to the US and Israel to end the crisis. The US can make or break any collaborative efforts to solve the crisis. The failure of Rome meeting last week was an example of US importance in this matter. At the same time, exclusion of Hezbollah in the meeting was a mistake.

Thus, to reach any meaningful result there should be some serious diplomatic engagement to all parties involve in the conflict. Once a common ground has been achieved, restraint and ceasefire that would lead to a long lasting, or sustainable peaceful agreement, could as well be achieved. Qana tragedy should become a grim reminder that a continuing crisis in the region will only kill more innocent civilians and instability.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Moral Responsibility and Tsunami

On Monday, 17 July 2006, tsunami struck the southern coastal lines of Java Island. After a 7.7 magnitude earthquake that centered in the seabed of the Indian Ocean rocked the capital city of Jakarta, a small but devastating tsunami struck the southern coastal lines of Java, killing more than 500 people and injuring many others as well as devastating the livelihood and properties of the people living in the areas.

Immediately after learning about this natural disaster from various media, I wrote in my weblog that "... the authority immediately issued a tsunami warning to the people in the coastal areas, asking them to leave their homes for higher ground for any eventual tsunami."

However, I made a mistake when I wrote about this government's immediate response about any eventual tsunami that might strike the coastal areas after the earthquake that reached as far as the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. The fact is that it was the Indonesian Transport Minister, Hatta Rajasa, who issued an instruction to the people in the coastal areas already being hit by the tsunami to retreat to higher ground for their safety.

Neither he nor the Indonesian government issued this instruction before the tsunami occurred. Instead, his instruction came when a tsunami has already hit the southern coastal areas of Java and has taken the lives and properties of the people there.

Two days later, it was reported in various media that the warning about any possible tsunami issued by the Japanese Meteorological Department and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii soon after the 7.7 magnitude quake had actually come to be known by the Minister of Research and Technology, Kusmayanto Kadiman, through an SMS 20 minutes well before the actual tsunami occurred. However, upon receiving this message chose to remain silent and played down the threat. He only publicly revealed about the SMS and the warning he received well after the tragedy had struck.

The government knew about the danger but chose to remain silent. No official warning issued to the public. The officials said that they were too busy monitoring the aftershocks of this 7.7 magnitude quake.

For the record, no tsunami warning system has been set up for the southern coast of Java. An Indonesian warning system was supposed to be up and running by now after the 2004 tsunami, the worst on record, but it has stalled. No clear reason given by the government.

Had there been a tsunami warning system running in the areas hit by the quake, and had the Indonesian Minister who knew about the danger of tsunami informed the public and asked them to immediately leave for higher ground for their safety, the huge human and material loss due to this natural disaster could have been avoided.

Similarly, upon answering reporters' questions as to why no warning was issued on Monday, Vice President Jusuf Kalla claimed there was no need to issue such warning because most people had fled inland after the earthquake, fearing a tsunami. On the contrary, the strong quake felt in Jakarta was relatively negligible in these regions. Reports in various media say that only several persons in the coastal areas felt a slight tremor.

Furthermore, no one in the southern coastal region said that there was a mass movement of people to higher ground before the tsunami. Only some residents and tourists in the area recognized the signs of tsunami when the sea level receded suddenly and the wall of water approaching. They immediately fled to higher ground for safety. It was a purely natural instinct of saving oneself from danger and not from any tsunami warning issued by the government that minimized the number of the victims. But yet this natural signs and human instinct failed to save many others.

This government’s inaction and reluctance to inform the public about the imminent danger of tsunami, in my opinion, makes the government highly and morally responsible for this natural disaster. Aceh’s tsunami should have become the best teacher and experience to avoid similar catastrophe in the archipelago. But it seemed that the government is very slow to react. They played down the warning of an imminent danger of tsunami by “being busy monitoring the aftershocks” and claiming that “there was no need to inform the public believing that most people had fled inland after the earthquake, fearing a tsunami”.

Thus, in my opinion, the Research and Technology Minister, or even the Vice President Kalla, should willingly resign on moral ground. He failed to do his job and the public had to pay for it with their lives and the loss of properties. Had the government acted immediately and responsibly, the huge loss of human lives and properties caused by the tsunami could have been minimized. The government as a whole has to be held morally responsible for this tsunami disaster.

This post was published with some cuts and editings in The Jakarta Post on Saturday, 22 July 2006. The title of the published form was "Govt at Fault in Tsunami".

Friday, July 07, 2006

Sport, Business and Israel

The unjustified ‘collective punishment’ by Israel to the Palestinian people seems to have evoked contradicting responses in Indonesia. Being a staunch supporter of Palestinian cause and statehood, Indonesian leaders think that Indonesia needs to show her sympathy and solidarity to the Palestinian people. But sport and business in Indonesia seem to have different take on this Israel – Palestine political conflict. Let’s take a closer look to the latest incidents related to this ongoing conflict.

First is the decision by the Indonesian government not to send the Indonesian Fed Cup team scheduled to play a playoff tie with the Israeli team for the World Group II in Tel Aviv later this month. Having worked so hard to reach the world group, this decision is a big blow to the Indonesian Fed Cup team: demotion from the World Group, inability to qualify for the World Group II next year and will face a host of penalties from the ITF.

Besides a possible fine of US$50,000 from the ITF and reimbursement of the Israeli association's expenses for hosting the tie for defaulting the tie, the players could also face suspension from international tournaments. And should the suspension last two years, it means Indonesia will miss the chance to play in the 2008 Olympic Game in Beijing. This is a very huge loss to the Indonesian tennis development.

Second, on June 25-29 a delegation from the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin) was in Israel and concluded an economic agreement with the Manufacturers Associations of Israel (MAI) in an effort to seek closer business relations and assistance for Indonesia's economy. Under the deal, the two groups will work to exchange business information, forming joint business projects, and assist Indonesian and Israel businesspeople in their activities in the two countries.

Kadin Chairman Mohammad Hidayat said that the Kadin’s delegation visit to Israel and the subsequent agreement signed between Kadin and MAI was conducted in the capacity of Kadin as an independent business association and purely for business purposes. He reiterated that there is no diplomatic or political issues involved in it and the challenges now are to realize the cooperation for Indonesia’s benefit without resulting in any political implications.

According to Kadin, two-way trade between Indonesia and Israel was valued at around US$160 million last year, up from $120 million in 2004. Indonesia mostly imported chemicals and electronic components valued at some $14 million from Israel last year, and predominantly exported electronic products, plastics and rubber. The new agreement would permit the exploration of more business opportunities from Israel in the fields of agriculture, horticulture, information technology and advance technology equipment. A pilot project in agriculture and horticulture is soon to be launched in Indonesia and more Israeli investment will be available soon in Indonesia.

In the first incident, the Indonesian government insisted that the Indonesian Tennis Association (Pelti) not to send the Fed Cup team to Israel as a show of solidarity and sympathy to the Palestinian people. Even though the invitation to play in Tel Avis was extended by the Israeli Tennis Association, an independent tennis body, and not by the invitation of the Israeli government, the current event in Palestine seems to have forced the Indonesian government to reconsider its previous stance to give the team a green light to go to Israel. The reason: the Indonesian government can no longer tolerate what Israel has done to Palestine.

On the contrary, Kadin insisted that its engagement with MAI is solely for business purposes and not related to any political or diplomatic cooperation. For the sake of business investment and economic development in Indonesia, Kadin insisted on giving the green light to the implementation of the recently signed agreement. Kadin had never officially informed the government about the visit nor sought any permission for it. The Israeli Embassy in Singapore was involved in arranging the trip while several Indonesian government officials knew about it beforehand. Until now, Indonesia and Israel do not have any bilateral diplomatic ties.

Politically speaking, the Indonesian tennis team should have gone ahead with the schedule and go to Tel Aviv to play against the Israeli team there. The team is invited by an independent organization, the Israeli Tennis Association, to play there and not by the Israeli government. If Kadin could visit Tel Aviv and go ahead with its plan of more intense bilateral relation between Indonesia and Israel in business and investment without prior blessing of the government, why can’t Pelti take similar, independent stand in this matter? Tennis is a sport, politics is wholly different matter. The two should be separated as far as possible. Let the players play the game of tennis, and the politicians play the game of politics.

Witnessing the heroic struggle of the Indonesian Fed Cup team to qualify into the World Group two years ago in New Delhi was a delight and a historic personal experience. Knowing that the team I have supported wholeheartedly to be demoted to a lesser degree due to political pressure is disheartening.

Showing sympathy and solidarity to the Palestinian people does not mean that we have to sacrifice our national interests. Kadin has given this example. Being able to play more active role in international forums to pressurize Israel to solve the conflict in the region peacefully is more important for Indonesia than boycotting a tennis tournament.

If India, another staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, can work hand in hand and even opened up a diplomatic tie with the Jewish state without lessening its support to Palestine and the Palestinian people, why Indonesia can’t do the same? Kadin’s decision to go ahead with its business cooperation with MAI is, in my opinion, a big step forward to improve the economic condition and investment opportunities in Indonesia. Let’s play the game of tennis.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Dragging Israel to ICJ?

In late January 2006, Hamas won a landslide victory in democratically administered elections in Palestine. As a hard line Islamic group, Hamas took over the baton of leadership in Palestine from the Fatah faction and its victory has evoked mixed responses from different quarters. In Muslim world and young democracy like Indonesia in which the majority of its population is Muslim, the victory means that Islam does not contradict with democracy and instead it is a sign of an advance towards a democratic setup in Muslim world.

On the contrary, the West, especially the US, Israel, and their allies in Europe, rejected this victory and immediately distanced itself from the possibility of dealing with a Hamas led government in Palestine. They even went further by cutting off all financial aids and banking channels to the Palestinian Authority, an important lifeline for the functioning of any government in Palestine, once Hamas formed a new government. The seemingly pragmatist stance taken lately as well as the unilateral ceasefire by Hamas did not give any effect to their stance. Their reasons: Hamas is a terrorist group who refuses to recognize Israel and does not want to foreswear the use of violence in their struggle to establish an independent Palestine state. The boycott and closure of financial aids and banking channels have crippled the functioning of the new government in Palestine.

At the same time, the change of guard in Israel in late March 2006 from Ariel Sharon to Ehud Olmert seemed to have hardened the decision by the Israeli government to unilaterally define its national border. Having secured majority support in the Knesset, Olmert vowed not to conduct any negotiation with a ‘terror group’ (Hamas). He stubbornly continued Sharon’s effort to unilaterally define Israel’s national border regardless of any objection from the Palestinian Authority.

And when the atmosphere of hostility between Israel and Palestine seemed to start winding down, mostly due to the unilateral decision by Hamas not to conduct any attack to Israel and the changing attitude by its leadership towards Israel in which Hamas leadership seemed to be ready to take a pragmatic stance for the sake of the Palestinian people, Israel triggered a new conflict with Palestine. Not satisfied with its political and economic stranglehold on Palestine, Israel is now trying to grab more territory from the Palestinian Authority. PM Olmert has announced recently in Washington that a Greater Israel will be created by 2010 as a final settlement of the Palestinian issue. The Israeli state plans to annex formally the whole of Jerusalem and significant portions of the West Bank, including those already gobbled up by the ‘apartheid wall’, which Israel is constructing at breakneck speed.

Israel started its grandiose plan with an attack to innocent holiday-makers in Gaza beach, killing 10 innocent Palestinians and injuring many others to instigate a reaction from the Palestinians. It went even further by recently conducting series of air strikes in Gaza in which more innocent civilians have been killed and public infrastructure damaged, besides the illegal arrest of Hamas legislators, in brutal search of Corporal Gilad Shalit that has been held captive by Palestinian militants in Gaza. These attacks surely could precipitate another unavoidable intifada in Palestine and formally ended the ceasefire between Hamas and the Israel state.

Regardless of the status of Hamas in the eyes of Israel and its allies, they are the legitimate elected representatives of the Palestinians to rule the Palestinian Authority. On the contrary, the grandiose plan of PM Olmert to create a Greater Israel and the recent attack by Israeli forces on innocent civilians and public infrastructure in Palestine in which power and water stations and government buildings in the Gaza Strip were destroyed have violated international law. The attack has engendered humanitarian crisis in the region and has sent levels of stress and trauma higher among civilians.

In response to this heinous attack on innocent civilians, the Hamas-led Palestinian authority wants to take a legal route by planning to file a petition against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at Hague, accusing it of committing “war crimes against Palestinians”. The plan has an echo in Switzerland, a nation usually known for its political neutrality, in which it condemned this ‘collective punishment’ imposed on Palestinians, calling it a breach of the Geneva Conventions.

Palestinian Authority’s Justice Minister Ahmad Al Khalidi said recently that if the court fails to stop Israel’s aggression against the Palestinians, Hamas would have no choice but to use violence in order to protect the Palestinian people. Furthermore, he said that suing Israel in the ICJ is a test for international institutions. If they deny the rights of Palestinians, then the international community has to act responsibly when it comes to blocking the legal channels to the Palestinians, forcing them to use violence to defend themselves.

Surely, if this process goes successfully, it is a test for international institution and international community to react positively and use the common sense and do justice to those people that have been the victims of injustices. Bringing the matter of Israel and Palestine to the ICJ can also be used as a legal, middle way process to settle the conflict in the region once and for all.

If the international community could justify the establishment of Israel state in the bank of River Jordan in the post-Holocaust tragedy in Europe by the Nazi German, they must justify the basic rights of the Palestinians to live a life of dignity and peace in their own homeland. If justice can be done to the people of Palestine, violence and humanitarian crisis in the region could be well avoided. But if the bias and partiality in judgment prevail, the crisis would only plunge even deeper and violence would escalate further. The current Israeli offensives have enough force to trigger a third intifada by the militant groups in Palestine.