Two astronomers. Separated by only 22 degrees, 58 minutes of latitude, 33 degrees, 29 minutes of longitude, yet seemingly worlds apart. Their common goal: figure out the very nature of the Universe and its womenfolk.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Darfurian Refugees

Its odd seeing thin, black, subsaharan africans in Tel Aviv. They are simply out of place in a country dominated by european looking faces. Despite feeling a world a way, the civil war in Darfur has direct implications for this country. Darfurian refugees sneak into egypt and then find their way across the sinai to the negev dessert, where they attempt to enter israel. The egyptian border guards - under pressure to protect the border from militants smuggling bombs, weapons, etc - have already been accused of shooting and killing sudanese refugees trying to sneak into israel. Once in Israel, the refugees need to lay low for 24 hours. If apprehended within the first 24 hours, international law dictates that they can be sent back to their point of entry (ie egypt). IF they can avoid being apprehended for the first 24 hour period they will stay in israel. The "lucky" ones will be arrested and put in jail. And there they will languish ad infinitum. They cannot be repartriated or deported because they have no passports. They can not obtain new passports because Sudan doesn't recognize israel hence they have no consular protection. Their home country which sees them as triators seeking refuge in an enemy state, says "good ridence". Israel of course, plays this game as well: despite having committed no crime, and despite fleeing a genocide, and despite being no threat in any way to the country and despite simply needing basic humanitarian aid, israel locks them up. And those are the lucky ones. The unlucky darfurian refugees are coralled by the police and summarily dumped somewhere: like Be'ersheba, or some outskrits of jerusalem. They cannot eat, they cannot work, thay have inadequate shelter. Some grass roots organizations have sprouted up in a bid to house and employ the refugees in kibutzim, but its all too little.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Monthly entry

Part of my once-a-month blog recalcitrance can be squarely laid on my inability (due to lack of motivation) to post the photos of my trip to Jordan. I have been telling myself that my next blog would be this beautiful photo album showing pictures of lnglost land: petra, camels, sheesha, and desert. Since I have essentially failed in my duties to provide a descriptive account of life in the holy land for the past month, Ill try and summarize.

Politically speaking the notable quiet with respect to the palestinians should not be interpretted as lull in political activity at home. For one, Israel now has a new president: the vetran labor leader turned kadima deputy PM Shimon Peres. His resume includes being PM twice (once in the 90s once in the 80s), and countless posts as Defense Ministser and leader of the opposition. But his tenure wasnt greeted with the fanfare it deserved, mostly due to the bad taste israelis have in their mouth from Katsav's, Peres' predesessor, resignation. As mentioned here a few posts earlier, Katsav resigned amidst acusations of rape. Recently the Attorney General (who had been, up untill now, respected as an Eliot Ness character) struck a plea bargain with him wherein the rape charges were dropped and he admitted to harassment (turning the image of the AG into something of a quisling). Womens groups and the israeli street were up in arms over the fact that a rapist would walk free, without even spending a day in prison.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Lyke Wake Walk - Training!

I finally did some belated training for Friday's Lyke Wake Walk! There are some details and photos of Greg, Nozbo and I over at my web page.

Homus and Feta

Sometimes this online journal of mine gets ignored, and just like the Homus and Feta in my fridge, when left alone for too long new cultures start to form. And so it is in the middle east. The political landscape in the occupied territories and israel has vehemently changed - probably for the worse. The tit-for-tat attacks between Hamas and Fatah culminated in an out-right mini civil war. Fatah, the party of the palestinian uniter Yasser Arafat has been vanquished from the gaza strip and Hamas, the islamist caliphate seeking movement has been expelled from the west bank. Not since the 1964 formation of the PLO - an organization meant to serve as an umbrella group uniting all armed palestinian factions in their aimto destroy Israel - has the palestinian cause been so divided. Now, in effect, there are two "occupied territories": one in the West Bank and one in Gaza. The poor people in Gaza, who already live in penury and amidst dialy violence perpetrated by Israel as well as the multplicity of armed gangs, will undoutedly suffer even more as the all the PA money is invested in the West Bank. My prediction for the future is one where west bank arabs obtain more and more autonomy, public services and quality of life, while their bretheren in Gaza starve. Eventually Hamas will lose control in Gaza and the strip will become dominated by the many tribal families which already exert considerable influence. This division may harden to the point that Israel might even be able to make peace with fatah in the west bank but not with the gazans.

Added to this crisis is another one brewing to the north. As the weak Lebanese government struggles to eradicate (albeit unsuccessfully) militant palestinian gunmen in the north of the country, the south of Lebanon is still controlled by enlarge by Hizbullah. Yesterday saw the unwelcome development of 2 rockets being fired from Lebanon into Israel in an unprovoked attack reminscent of the trigger of last summer's war. Hizbullah has denied commiting the violation of the ceasefire signed last August, and the blame for yesterday's attack has been laid on "unnamed" palestinian groups (ie the Al-Fatah, the group fighting the Lebanese army in the north). This pundit is not fully convinced of Hizbullah's innocence. But regardless of who actually perpetrated the attack, the attack itself is inidcative of how hot the tensions are running and how lawless Lebanon is. PM Olmert is able to sit back and say "we will not be dragged into another war with Lebanon" now, but if more rockets fall on Israel the public will demand a response. The defense minister during the last war (Peretz) is gone (after admitting failure in last year's war) and has been replaced by former PM Ehud Barak who commands significantly more respect in military circles. (Note that Barak was the PM who withdrew from Lebanon in 2003. It would be typical of middle-eastern political irony if he were charged with re-invading the country).

The only way out of this situation is to stabalize Lebanon. This cannot happen without the direct cooperation of Syria which will never do so until the Golan heights are returned. Perhaps Israel can kill two birds with one stone: by returning the Golan they may be able to achieve peace with BOTH Lebanon and Syria. By re-posturing themselves to the PA they may be able o make peace with the West Bank which would leave only Gaza left to come in from the cold.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Act II, scene I

Sometimes events in the Middle East are more predictable than an old play book. Like trying for a field goal with 3 seconds left on the clock. Certain situations will always result in the same course of action - so long as your leaders lack vision. Here, measures and counter measures are routine - and routinely repeated with an almost mathematical periodicity. Time seems to move cyclically and opening a newspaper today was like opening one a year ago. Take the latest bout of war being waged a mere 50km away from my house. It all started about 2 weeks ago when the palestinian "unity" government (in name only) started to morph into a civil war. The problem in Gaza is that Hamas assumes far more power than it constitutionally has (ie establishing a private army, etc) while fatah never quite accepted that their corrupt political leaders led their country to ruin and lost the election 18 months ago. Hence the power struggle in gaza. As factional fighting becomes more and more tribal (less and less about actual policies or politics), it looked like the bottomless pit the Palestinian Authority was falling into would engulf them forever. But no. Enter the inspiration of al-qaeda, the nihilistic caliphate seeking anti-semitic Islamic Jihad. These guys have predominantly one goal: the destruction of Israel (or any state that is not a sunni caliphate). As they looked out of the Gazan windows and saw their own people fighting amongst themselves, they figured - and were right - that the best way to stop Hamas and Fatah from digging eachothers graves is to rocket israel and get them involved in the mix. After all why fight your fellow palestinian when the great satans puppet master is at your doorstep? So last week as the death toll the civil war in gaza reached 40 in 7 days, rockets started to fall on israel. the first few went un-noticed (to everyone but the residents of Sderot). As the barrage intensified, the PM was forced to act, and act according to the well defined script of middle east conflict. Before you know it PM Olmert is ordering the bombing of hamas and islamic jihad cells in gaza, the devisive palestinain infighting is over, and israel is locked into a "you started it" fight with the rocketeers. Not to mention the victims of this war: hamas militants, israeli and palestinian civilians. Hamas catagorically states that they will not stop islamic jihad from attacking israel until israel stops bombing hamas. Israel, demands calm befor its military operations will cease. If I know this script, in a few months time, truce will be reached, then palaestinain infighting will again cause rockets to land in israel, and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera ...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

How far? FORTY miles? Me? No....oh...ok then.

So, as most people around the ICC are aware, I'm been roped into something daft. The Lyke Wake Walk. Now I'm not really one for hiking - I prefer sitting in the pub or watching the Grand Prix or cricket on a weekend - but severe guilt trips from my sister have forced my hand. So I'm trying to raise some money for the charity Heartlink, who did a sterling job of looking after my sister and her husband whilst my nephew Leo was critically ill a couple of years back. So I'm sure you can see this coming:

*** Please sponsor me ***

I know we all get harrassed to give to charity regularly (I got completely nailed by a Christian Aid woman at my front door the other day), but I can vouch for Heartlink's work and in addition thhey have a well defined target of £160,000 to raise in order to buy a 4D scanner, which sounds like a pretty cool piece of life-saving technology. In addition your money will force me into a position of no return - I'll have to do this thing.

So what is this walk? Forty non-stop miles of cross-country pain, starting at 9pm on Friday 22nd June and hopefully concluding around 4pm the following day. Check the details here - and note that:
a) their logo is a coffin, how reassuring, and
b) the walk is famous enough to have its own folk song (versions by Pentangle and Steeleye Span!)

I don't have the official sponsor forms yet but an email pledge would boost my morale as I sit here in fear of the moors....

Monday, May 14, 2007


On friday night, C ordered brain. It was served chilled. It tasted like foie gras but a little more "organ"-ny

The weekend came and went filled with high flying young diplomats partying around me. The party on friday night was a great source of anecdotes however, as I dont want anyone to lose their job over the fact that they didnt know who was in charge of their country, I hesitate to publish these amusing stories here. Suffice it to say that if you are a young diplomat representing a country with mild political problems, at 3 am and after a couple of drinks you may not remember the exact name of the general who actually runs the show in your home capital. That said, diplomats from stable democracies can suffer from similar embarassment as their myopiea excludes the bigger picture. Ultimately, many (NGO, HRO, IGO, UNO, embassy staff, etc) expatriates here are sycophants, "sucking off the nipple of the conflict", which usually means that my proffession is greated with particular relief. People at these events will often ask me "Which organization do you work for"? To which I reply "I was posted in the UK for four years with the ICC before coming to the middle east, but I left after I could feel that I could no longer grow there. Now I work at the HU in the research department." When asked to explain who the "ICC" and "HU" are, I tell them astrophysics which ellicits the usual wide eye gazing ("wait your a scientist AND your not socially awkward?").

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

One political crisis and a side of resignations, please.

The interim Winograd report - a kind of "public enquiry" into last summer's second lebanon war - was released and the tremors caused by this political earthquake are still being felt. Leaks and the interim report itself (the full report is expected out in the summer) indicated that although not asked to resign, PM Olmert and Defense Minister Peretz would be heavily criticized for their inept handling of the 34 day conflict. True to form both recieved harsh criticism. The report highlighted the PM's failures to criticize the military's planning, his failure to set realistic goals, the Defense minister's inexperience in handling military conflict (for a country where everyone goes to the army it is particulalry noteworthy that Peretz had no military experience), and the governments mistakes in calling up reserve duty troops (which appearently was not demanded by the military). All in all it was a resounding "F". The war was essentially commanded by the Head of the Joint Chiefs - Dan Halutz (the first ever Air Force officer in this position) and the report criticizes his reliance on air power and reluctance to go in on the ground until too late (Dan Halutz already resigned a few months ago). The PM responded by saying "lessons have been learned" and that he intends to "quickly implement all of the reports suggestions" (just how Mr. PM do you intend to that now that the war is over?)

Many politicians in Israel are calling on the PM (and his government) to resign. Even his foriegn minister Tzipi Livni is rumored to make a statement to this effect today. Of course Olmert and Peretz emphasize the fact that Winograd didnt explicitely ask for their heads to roll. But on the day the report came out Olmert's approval rating was: 0%. Today, 40% of the public want new elections, 70% want the resignation of their leader. The feeling is that Israel's deterent was weakend by the war which achieved little. In reallity Hezbollah will probably think twice about striking Israel again and UNIFIL (the inpotent yet visible UN force deployed in south lebanon) is more or less trying to ensure a Hezbollah free zone in southern lebannon. I think the people of lebanon dont feel like they won this war: with around 1000 people killed and 7000 buildings destroyed (versus around 150 israels killed and 3000 rockets hitting northern israel of which a small fraction caused real damage) Hezbollah is weaker in lebannon. In fact their attempt at forcing the democratically elected government in Lebanon to fall via general strikes and protest, has failed as PM Sinora holds on to power. A paradoxical state of affairs: Hezbollah is weaker in the eyes of lebanese people who i think felt hijacked by last years war, but stronger in the eyes of islamic militias and the israeli public.

So what will happen politically in Israel? As more and more senior MK's resign from the govenrment and call for the heads of the PM and DM, momentum will most likely force Olmert from power. If an election is held today, Likud (Netanyahus party) will most likely sweep to power as the left wing voters bloc is frustrated with their party's leaders. No one really knows if the old guard can cling on to power for that much longer and when (if ever) Olmert will fall on his sword. In today's world there is no longer honor in resignations. Politicians would rather pervert themselves than own up to the public's feeling. My feeling is that its not a question of "if" but a question of "when" and an answer of "soon".