In the glorious world of journalism, tanks always “roll” across borders. I’ve never in my life actually seen a tank roll, but you get the point. They don’t let anything stand in their way – or nothing is supposed to stand in their way.
Hence the Hong Kong Chinese should back off if the People’s Army come “rolling” across the border; the Syrian Kurds should stand aside if the Turkish army crosses their mutual border; the Muslims of Jammu and Kashmir must pay respect to the Indian army’s reinforcements; the Ukrainians or Russians hostile to Putin should not tangle with the Russian army on the Black Sea coast. Nor should the Palestinians protest when Israel’s army arrives to demolish their homes or steal more of their land.
Territorial acquisition is quite the thing these days. Whether it comes through fear of political infection – the Chinese government doesn’t want the contagion of civil chaos in Hong Kong to spread – or ethnic hatred or sectarian hatred, or nationalism, or just plain greed, we are growing dangerously accustomed to the sight of armies and paramilitary forces taking over other people’s property. Not since Saddam tried to gobble up Kuwait have we seen anything on this scale, when Iraq’s army was easily (and bloodily) sent packing.
Of course, when non-state armies try to take over the land we all collaborate to smash them, whatever the cost for innocent civilians. When Isis tried to set up a caliphate and grabbed much of Iraq and Syria – and assaulted the west – we all collaborated in bombing Fallujah, Mosul, Aleppo, Raqqa, you name it. Some truly evil empires are not allowed to get away with it, whoever gets blown to bits in the battle.
But today, you just have to claim that Hong Kong really is an integral part of China, that Crimea has always been Russian, that Jammu and Kashmir belong to Hindu-majority India and that the West Bank is in reality a place called Judea and Samaria. And hunky-dory, it’s all in the bag. Threatening to march on to other people’s property is kind of normal these days, isn’t it? And if you’re short of excuses, try “terrorism” – the biggest jargon word of the lot.
Hong Kong “terrorism”. Jammu and Kashmir (or Pakistani) “terrorism”. Ukrainian “terrorism”. Kurdish “terrorism”. And let’s not forget Palestinian “terrorism”. I wrote many times – and for the first time many years ago – that this pejorative, vicious expression would become an excuse for butchery anywhere in the world. And so today, it has come to pass. Talk about aggression, and the word “terrorism” will silence us. So the tanks can roll on.
Jigsaws are easiest when they have large pieces, and it’s not difficult to fit the bits together. The Russian state should never have given Crimea to the Ukraine, Hong Kong should never have been ceded to the British imperialists at the Treaty of Nanking – the same imperialists who divided India in 1947 after which Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir became an Indian state (courtesy, one must add, of Pakistan). The Kurds should never have been allowed to set up a mini-state in Syria. And as for the Palestinians – let’s forget all that nonsense about Oslo and the two-state solution – they should forget about the real Palestine and create “Palestine” in Jordan. I trust I make myself obscure.
It’s not easy, of course, to put a stop to these dreams and nightmares. Hong Kong does “belong” to China, whether we like it or not, and solemn agreements do not remain solemn for very long. If China now threatens to betray the freedoms of Hong Kong – the independent rule of law guaranteed under the 1984 autonomy agreement known as the Sino-British Joint Declaration – it can do so because, as China keeps reminding the UK government, Britain is no longer an imperial power. Besides, the UK prime minister is too busy tearing his own country apart to waste his time worrying about the freedom of long-abandoned imperial relics.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea was met with sanctions by the west but with silent acceptance by the Arab nations who have so vigorously opposed the Israeli annexation of Jerusalem and Syrian Golan, and who continue to denounce the occupation of the West Bank. Putin, however, can visit Tehran as a trusted friend, be taken to a Verdi performance at the Cairo opera house by Field Marshal-President al-Sisi of Egypt, bring Erdogan of Turkey to his knees with threats of an economic boycott and pose as the saviour (which he most certainly is) of the Assad regime in Syria.
But he is also Israel’s best friend, welcomes Netanyahu to the Kremlin, and has referred to the “brilliant political career” of the racist Israeli minister Avigdor Lieberman. He tells the Israelis not to go to war with Syria – and the Israelis obey. Putin welcomes King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. He welcomes the Qataris. He sells India the Russian S400 missile defence system and supports India’s takeover of Jammu and Kashmir on the grounds that this is “within the framework of the Indian constitution” – even though India has clearly torn up the legislative autonomy agreement with the region.
As for Israel and India, their love affair has been evident ever since the late Ariel Sharon signed an agreement with New Delhi in 2003, saying that the two countries were “strategic partners”. India was once an emotional supporter of the Palestinians. Ghandi himself has often been quoted as claiming that “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French.” Yet now, the Indian army is itself anxious to emulate Israel’s own military tactics.
Here is US journalist Carol Schaeffer’s account of the army’s thoughts on the killing of innocents in air strikes. In November last year, speaking to a roomful of India’s most highly regarded defence strategists, General Bipin Rawat, the chief of staff of the Indian army, urged his country to shed their concerns about “collateral damage”. “When you talk of drone strikes, how does the Israeli strike the Hezbollah…” Rawat rhetorically asks, according to Schaeffer. “God help you if you’re in the following vehicle – you’re also gone.” In Israel, Rawat said, “this kind of thing is possible in that area – in that country”. In India, drones may also cost the lives of the bystanders, Rawat added. One had to “accept it”.
But with both Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, and Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, campaigning in their respective countries as opponents of “Muslim extremism”, there is now an ideological alliance to support Israel’s extraordinary arms sales to India.
Latest figures show that 46 per cent of all Israeli weapons sales (not including small arms) go to India at a cost to New Delhi of about $1bn every year. Major General Yaacov Barak visited Indian troops in Jammu and Kashmir in 2017. Indian air force units have trained with Israeli “special forces”. Last year, 75 Indian police officers were sent for training in Jerusalem. So when Muslim activists in Jammu and Kashmir say they have identified profound similarities between India’s tactics in the province and Israel’s behaviour in occupied Palestinian land, they are quite correct.
So does territorial aggrandizement feed on the precedence of others? Surely, the taking, seizing, the keeping and stealing of lands which belong to others creates a kind of violent legitimacy. If Recep Tayyip Erdogan can present his struggle against the Kurds as part of the world struggle against international terror – ignoring the proven connections between Turkey’s security forces and Islamist fighters in Syria – there are few (save for the poor old Kurds) who want to condemn him. What is the difference between a bomb in southeastern Turkey and a bomb in Jerusalem or attacks in Srinagar?
Whether it is Putin “recovering” the Crimea, India fully “recovering” Jammu and Kashmir, or Israel colonising Arab land in the West Bank, or even of China perhaps “restoring law and order” in Hong Kong over the next few days, there are few who stand against these acts of aggression. Why should not Turkey “defend” itself and prevent the creation of a Kurdistan, which theoretically exists both inside and outside the Turkish state?
Of course, it’s not difficult to see how our own lamentable precedents have helped to sanctify these illegal acts. After invading Iraq under totally false pretences in 2003, who are we to lecture others on the unacceptability of killing the innocent or the right of minorities to be protected? Or the illegitimacy of seizing territory through violence?
From time to time, yes, we can spot a ghostly relic of Nazi-style oppression. When Erdogan’s own education minister boasts of a mass book burning – 301,878 volumes, to be precise – in an attempt to expunge the thoughts or ideas or even the memory of “terrorist” Fethullah Gulen – our minds must surely return to other book-burnings 86 years ago. Turkish nationalists have been burning Kurdish-language books for far longer. Is ethnic or political purity what all this is about?
These are questions we should try to answer in a new age of aggression. Moral political leadership is declining, and the Trumps and Bolsonaros and the Putins and the Netanyahus and the Modis and the Erdogans and the Chinese politburo – and, yes, the Johnsons – are, in one sense, all culpable.
The lower our standards, the more we help to lower those of others. It spreads outwards, this palpable sense of ease with which we enable others to commit atrocities, war crimes and invasions. If we could bomb civilian targets in Iraq or Serbia, why should we complain when Israel bombs Gaza? If the Americans can blow a wedding party to pieces in Afghanistan, how can we condemn the Saudis when they blow a wedding party to pieces in Yemen?
So what advice should we give to the innocent when the tanks come “rolling” down their streets? Stand aside, I guess. And good luck. Because whatever else you do, don’t expect any help from us.