The books under review are a chronicle of the instabilities and death and destruction that have plagued the wider West Asian region in the recent past. Vijay Prashad brings to note the ‘slow political death of the idea of Arab nationalism’ by highlighting the chaos engulfing Iraq, Syria and Libya and the destructive role of regional players (p. 6). The author critically analyses the socio-political churning that is taking place across the region, combining his analysis often with first-hand accounts from the ground. In Egypt for instance, the author finds that divisions within society run deep and opinions are divided whether the military rule of General al Sisi was good for the country in the long term. Across the region, terrorism provides a convenient alibi for the rulers to crackdown on every form of dissent.
Prashad notes that the ingredients fuelling the discontent that led to the uprisings in the Arab world beginning from 2011 were widespread across the region, the first and foremost being the majority of the population under 30 years not gainfully employed (p. 93). The decline of living standards across the Arab world led to the revival of ‘working class’ politics, most prominently seen with the mobilization of textile workers in Egypt and those working in phosphate mines in Tunisia. Political Islam was the go-to philosophy to address socio-political-economic deficits, given that it had a dedicated cadre and a presence in neighbourhood mosques. This made it difficult for the authorities to suppress it. However, Prashad notes that political Islam does not have an economic solution to the enormous developmental challenges plaguing the Arab world (p. 42).
Prashad says that the genesis of the Islamic State lay on the plank of western military interventions and longstanding economic, philosophical as well as military support to radicals fighting the occupation of ‘Islamic lands’ by countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The politicization of sectarian faultlines has deepened on account of the geo-political fight for regional hegemony between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Sectarian and religious minorities like the Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria have become even more vulnerable and have been viciously uprooted from their ancestral lands.
Prashad nevertheless remains optimistic about the final outcomes. He notes that it would be premature to write the obituary of the Arab uprising as in his view revolutions take time to mature and go their full distance.
Blumenthal’s is a searing account of the July-August 2014 Israeli military intervention in the Gaza Strip. The 51 Day War led to the death of over 2,200 Palestinians—a majority of whom were civilians, accompanied by large-scale destruction. The author notes that over 18,000 homes were destroyed and 100,000 rendered homeless. Blumenthal asserts that Israel ‘hyped the threat posed by Gaza’ rockets and that it was ‘hard-pressed to highlight any substantial damage done by rockets’ (p. 131). Israel however contends that as a result of the Palestinian rocket barrages during ‘Operation Protective Edge’, more than 10,000 Israelis had to be evacuated from their homes (Ministry of Foreign Affairs website). The Israel Defense Force (IDF) on its part states that over 11,000 rockets (till July 2014) have been fired from the Gaza Strip since Israel’s disengagement in 2005. While Blumenthal pegs the loss of infrastructure in the Gaza Strip at over $7 billion (p. 197), Israel pegs the economic impact of the military operation at over $1 billion (Ministry of Foreign Affairs website).
Blumenthal’s first-hand account of the war is a severe critique of the tactics and strategies adopted by Israel in its prosecution of the hostilities. The book highlights the targeting of buildings housing the media and middle class professionals and the plight of the Gazan fishermen who have to restrict their activities to only within six miles of the coast (from the previous limitation of three miles) even after the cessation of fighting. The role of Egypt under Gen. Sisi comes in for special scrutiny, and the author lays equal blame on the Sisi regime for the extant situation in Gaza.
Blumenthal seems to extol the ‘defiance in the rubble’ (p. 169) when he covers the ‘celebrations’ indulged in by the remnants of the armed fighters belonging to different factions in the aftermath of the August 26 ceasefire. By highlighting a single raid by the Al Qassam brigades at the Nahal Oz crossings that led to the death of five Israeli soldiers, the author dangerously lends his support to the contention that the Israeli Army had ‘atrophied’ and that it had ‘proven incapable of fighting armed factions in Gaza …’ (p. 123). To belittle the IDF which inflicted such enormous death and destruction in repeated military interventions in the Gaza Strip post 2005 would only unfortunately feed the cycle of violence at the expense of even more Palestinian blood.
Vijay Prashad in his ‘Introduction’ to the Indian edition of The 51 Day War critiques the Indian positions regarding the Gaza conflicts and charges that the Indian government has ‘tilted towards the Israeli narrative of security’ (p. xiii). Such charges are however open to contention. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) for instance has been critical of the ‘disproportionate’ use of force by Israel simultaneously acknowledging the ‘cross-border provocations’ that preceded Israeli responses. His charge that India ‘underwrites the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians’ by being the largest buyer of Israeli weaponry (p. xv) is not credible to say the least.
While Prashad is correct to note the disjunction between India’s long-stated positions on Palestinian statehood vis-à-vis extant Israeli policies, his call for pressure to be applied by BRICS, Gulf Arab states and Iran on India for a change in its Israel/Palestine policy is strange. For a start, such an articulation fails to recognize the divergences among these groups of countries on the Palestinian issue and the negative role some of these countries have played by taking sides in the intra-Palestinian faction feuds. As for the BRICS countries, during ‘Protective Edge’ for instance, only Brazil recalled its Ambassador while South Africa summoned the Israeli Envoy to protest Israeli actions. Prashad ignores the complex dynamics underpinning China’s position vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians—including its wide-ranging interests in the Arab world, its anti-Americanism, among other factors, while highlighting Beijing’s positive vote at the UNHRC in July 2015 on the Davis Report on the July-August 2014 conflict (on which India abstained).
Israeli military interventions since 2005 have resulted in the loss of nearly 4,000 Palestinian lives, while more than 1,200 Israelis have lost their lives since 2000 due to the terror campaign by Palestinian armed groups. As long as Israel continues to justify its use of a heavy hand to counter provocations from Palestinian armed groups, the next burst of violence will unfortunately remain just around the corner. Intra-Palestinian divisions meanwhile continue to aid rather than hinder such a possibility. The books at the least though hold a mirror to the enormity of the challenges plaguing the conflict-afflicted region.
Samuel C. Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.