December 29, 2008

The Middle East crisis

We're currently in Rio De Janeiro for the Christmas break. As a tumultuous year comes to a close - that witnessed a historic election in the U.S.A., Beijing 2008 Olympics spectacle, the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression, and the deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai - the global community would have preferred the year to end on some positive note instead of the developing crisis in the Middle East. What we've been watching on the BBC at our hotel over the last three days is shocking, to say the least. Israel on Saturday launched its deadliest attacks ever in Gaza against Hamas targets. The three days of heavy air attacks by Israeli warplanes have claimed over 300 lives, including dozens of innocent women and children.

A serious humanitarian crisis is emerging due to lack of medicine, doctors, food, and other necessary basic supplies that cannot reach the Palestinian refugees in Gaza caused by Israeli air strikes and blocked borders.

Photo Source: Alyson Hurt/NPR
Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with over 1.5M Palestinians living in this narrow strip of land bordering the Mediterranean Sea. It's therefore bound to result in heavy collateral damage in the face of such an indiscriminate, all-out Israeli air attacks. Israel claims it was provoked by Hamas rocket attacks into its territory, which came at the end of the six-month long ceasefire between the two parties. I however feel that the Israeli response to the Hamas rocket attacks, even if it's true, is extremely disproportionate.

Israel is defeating its own cause and inciting further terrorism by causing severe civilian casualties, that certain reporters are calling as "massacre." Hamas may be a terrorist organization for Israel, but they are freedom fighters against Israeli occupation for Palestinians. Keep in mind that Hamas won landslide victory in democratic elections in Gaza couple of years back. Similar Israeli military actions earlier against Hezbollah north of its borders emboldened that organization and made it stronger and more popular in Syria & Lebanon. Israel should learn from its past mistakes and modify its strategy. Same actions will bring in same results, and keep dragging this long conflict painfully further.

Israel has a right to protect its citizens by all means, but it is expected to act more responsibly and not buckle under populism demand of certain sections of its population. Such indiscriminate attack by one of the world's most sophisticated military powers against a defenseless group is only going to create more hatred and anger against Israel in Middle East and across the world. It'll also create cynicism towards Israel's claimed preference for a peaceful settlement to the Palestinian issue, which as we all know will only get resolved through diplomacy, rather than militarily.

Already there has been a strong outpouring of support for affected Palestinians by world leaders, who are demanding an immediate cease-fire by Israel.

There are strong parallels to the situation in Israel with that in Kashmir, where decades of armed conflict between India and Pakistan to control this border region has only resulted in loss of thousands of lives and misery for innocent civilians without any solution.

I made my first trip to Israel last year to meet digital media startups. It's amazing that a small country like Israel can be a hub for technology innovation on such a scale. I met over a dozen startups and maybe half a dozen VC firms in four days. I took some time off to also tour through the area, as I definitely needed an education to the region's absolutely fascinating history.

I took a guided tour of the walled city of Old Jerusalem (Old City), that is housed within the current Jerusalem. My guide was a Canadian Jew who had migrated and settled in Jerusalem. He was terrific. He gave me a lesson in history ranging back to the age of Abraham and the birth of Christianity, Judaism and Islam - the three main religions of the world - from this small city less than half a square mile large.

But I wanted the Palestinian view as well, in order to get a balanced perspective. I was lucky to find a Palestinian employee at the hotel concierge, who drove a taxi in his spare time. He agreed to be my guide for the whole of next day, and drive me back to Tel Aviv, from where I had to fly back to New York.

He told me that it's much more lucrative to be a guide for the historic Old City, but complained that it's virtually impossible for him to get that job - almost all those guides are Jews. Israel apparently wants to control the version of the history told to foreign tourists about the disputed land that is claimed by members of all the three religions.

I enjoyed the driving tour by my Palestinian guide almost as much, if not more, than the walking tour of the religiously-rich Old City. I drove through the north and east region immediately outside the Old City; saw the so called "Berlin Wall" around Jerusalem that is being built by Israel to control Palestinian movement into Jerusalem; visited Israeli settlements around Jerusalem and the West Bank; went up to Masada and heard its incredible story; saw the caves of the Dead Sea Scrolls; and took a dip in the salty waters of the Dead Sea.

It's extremely unfortunate that a region with such an amazing history has been mired in a protracted conflict that has lost so many lives. I hope better sense will prevail, and concerted efforts are made towards a speedy and peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the sentiments of which affect the entire region of Middle East.

I strongly feel that no solution to this conflict can be reached without an active mediation from the United States. The current Bush administration in this regard failed miserably during its eight years in office - they have no progress to show for. The ongoing conflict in Gaza will necessitate President-elect Obama to add Israel/Palestine peace process to his growing list of "urgent issue to address" once he takes the oath of Office on January 20th, if it was not already on his agenda.

I want to leave the readers with this picture that I took during my recent visit to Israel of the graffiti on the "Berlin Wall" that Israel has built around Jerusalem. It captures the sentiments of affected civilians and the unfortunate story of the region.

Photo Source: Sab Kanaujia

December 1, 2008

Quote of the day

"Washington will bail out those who shower before work, but not those who shower afterwards" - Leo Gerard, President, Steelworkers Union.

Gerard was commenting on U.S. Congress' seemingly double standard in providing massive Federal help to rich banks and its white collar employees while erecting stricter hurdles in order to help the Detroit auto industry that supports millions of blue collar workers.

Congress last week drove Detroit's Big Three CEOs out of Washington, D.C., ordering them not to return with their tin cups until they could guarantee that their auto companies will be viable if provided a $25 billion Federal bailout. In contrast, Citigroup was approved a $20 billion government loan just days later, within 48 hours of making that request to Federal officials. In October, the bank had already received its first $25 billion from the government, which this time also backed $306 billion worth of Citigroup's risky loans and securities.

Washington, D.C. is a white collar town. Several prominent figures in the banking industry - Citigroup's Robert Rubin, a former Secretary of the Treasury, and UBS's Phil Gramm, a former Texas Senator - previously worked in Washington and have the potential to influence its policies. It's not surprising that Congress is therefore seen more sympathetic to the cause of the banking industry compared to that of the auto industry in Detroit, a blue collar town, by contrast.