The Missile War

An Iranian Zelzal missile being test-fired

A sobering thought from veteran reporter David Hirst, whose latest book details the tumultuous history of Lebanon and the modern Middle East.

In the final chapter of Beware of Small States he warns that the next Arab-Israeli war could engulf the entire region, involving Syria, Iran and Hamas in what he calls a “Hizbullah-style ‘missile war’ writ large”.

Tensions in the region are simmering away. The Israeli cabinet has reportedly met to discuss the possibility of a Hezbollah coup in Lebanon following explosive reports that the Special Tribunal established to investigate the murder of the country’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, will indict members of the Iranian-sponsored Shia militia.

Anywhere one looks – be it towards the ailing Israeli-Palestinian peace process or the Iranian nuclear impasse – there seems to be little in the way of moderation.

Conventional wisdom dictates that the only thing which could lead to a final peace settlement in the region is a complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories seized during the Six Day War and the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state.

But speaking to the people who will have to accept this new reality in their midst, one wonders whether many Arabs will ever be able to accommodate Israel.

Take Lina, an educated, middle-aged English teacher from Damascus. Sitting down in her violet woollen cardigan, with matching eye-liner and resting a brown leather handbag on her knees, she looks the picture of what some Western politicians might call Arab moderation.

How does she hope a Middle East peace might be achieved?

“I think we need to get rid of Israel and drive the people out,” she says.

Asked what would happen to the Israelis she admits she does not know, then laughs and says: “Maybe we should send them back to Europe.”

She is not being entirely disingenuous. For Lina, and many people like her, there can never be a rapprochement with the Jewish State.

Speak to many Syrians they often take a long-term view of the current situation in Palestine – this region has seen its fair share of imperial imposters over the centuries, they think. They came and went, and Israel will be no different.

There will be many in the West who hope their analysis of history does not prove to be correct.


The Exodus Industry

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It was clear from the outset that this climb would be a little different.

If Mount Sinai is not the only world-famous peak with a walk-through metal detector at the base, then it certainly flaunts  its exceptionalism in a number of other ways.

The hike began, like many on this Biblical mountain, very early in the morning.

At around 2am, with a crisp chill in the Sinai Desert air, we set off behind our Bedouin guide Mohammed in a bid to catch sunrise from the summit.

Wrapped-up in his ankle-length jalabiya and a tightly wound headscarf, Mohammed began the steady trudge along our scree-scattered path with a disarming degree of insouciance.

Both hands behind his back and planting one foot in front of the other like a clockwork soldier, he picked his way through the rocks and pebbles with the carefree manner of a man who had shepherded tourists along this route countless times.

This being Sinai, the way ahead was already lit-up with a luminescent ribbon from a thousand different torchlights. It tapered-out hundreds of feet above our heads as the first of the climbers rounded the eastern face of the mountain to make their final ascent in the pitch black.

It may have been early in the morning, but Sinai is a tickbox mountain; climbers rarely have it to themselves.

The procession wound ever onwards, a motley collection of  summit-fever dawn junkies, Sinai sun-hoppers, earnest pilgrims and Gore-tex teeth-gritters.

Looming, faceless crags were silhouetted against the glow of a full-moon, while the star-filled sky shimmered like a diamond mine. Every now and then a camel appeared out of the darkness, snorting insolently as its Bedouin master towed him down the mountain.

And in case anyone clambering up this barren peak needed a bite to eat, ramshackle huts along the way provided everything from Mars bars to instant coffee with powder milk.

If Moses did not have the luxury of these refreshments when, according to the Book of Exodus, he made his own ascent to receive the Ten Commandments, then his 21st Century followers would suffer no such hardship.

The final stretch took the walkers up a steep section of 750 stone steps called the Stairway of Repentance, actually the closing leg of an alternative route consisting of 3,750 steps which leads down to St Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of the mountain, the ancient 6th Century building erected on the site where the Bible says God spoke to Moses from a burning bush.

The first light of dawn was beginning to creep up over the jagged peaks in the eastern Sinai, and some of the more exhausted climbers had fallen by the wayside – repenting, perhaps, for their ill-advised decision to climb up a mountain in the dead of night.

After the final leg came the summit, a prize rendered a little less beguiling given the scramble to find a spot on the floor among the scores of other ashen-faced walkers. Nestled in among them at around 5am, next to a mosque and Greek Orthodox chapel erected in 1934, it was a little difficult to imagine the scene when God supposedly handed Moses the stone tablets which have shaped the course of Western civilisation.

Yet at 2,285 metres above sea level, nothing can detract from the experience of watching the rising sun breathe fire into the Sinai peninsula as it begins its relentless climb into the early morning sky.

Perhaps this is what Moses saw when he spent his 40 nights on top of the mountain. Perhaps, if you subscribe to the iconoclasm that Sinai could just as well be in Saudi Arabia as Egypt, it is not.

Either way, with dawns like these there is little chance the sun will ever set on Mount Sinai’s Exodus Industry.


UK’s “Abu Ghraib”

A photo of British detention methods which emerged during a previous trial of UK troops

Here is a piece from the UK’s Guardian newspaper about a high court action being brought by hundreds of Iraqis who say they were abused by British troops in a secret interrogation centre near Basra.

The government is refusing calls for a public inquiry and has said the Ministry of Defence will pursue its own internal investigation instead. A full-scale probe would be too costly apparently (and naturally an in-house MoD investigation would be far less inclined to reveal unpalatable truths about, well, the MoD)

The Guardian seems to be the only UK paper going for this story – hardly surprising really. The more febrile elements of Britain’s fourth estate rarely miss a chance to portray Muslims or the Middle East in sensationally disparaging terms, yet seem less inclined to investigate the shortcomings of our much-vaunted armed forces and their conduct in a war which all of the right-wing press supported.