The adversarial relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two great powers of this era, is key to understanding Washington’s and Moscow’s policies in the Middle East. In the Persian Gulf, for instance, Washington’s secret arms sales to Iran and subsequent naval buildup were both prompted by the Reagan administration’s fear of Soviet political advances in the region. And Washington’s strategic interest in the Middle East goes beyond oil and markets, as successive administrations have used war and turmoil there to construct a base structure capable of supporting US military operations in and around the southern part of the Soviet Union.
Much of what passes for US policy in the Middle East — from Afghanistan to the Gulf to the Arab-Israeli arena — derives from a portrait of the USSR as an aggressive, expansionist power. Such a picture depends more than a little on attributing all manner of unwanted change in the status quo to Soviet designs and machinations. There is in Washington and its hinterland a ready circuit of intellectual servants of the state who unfailingly reproduce this perspective on demand, whatever or wherever the circumstance.
Our purpose in this issue is to challenge this perspective by examining some core aspects of the Middle East policies and strategies of the two great powers, and especially the Soviet Union. Roderic Pitty’s discussion of Soviet attitudes toward Iraq and Fred Halliday’s account of Moscow’s involvement in South Yemen’s political upheaval provide insights into Soviet policies and talk about Moscow’s involvement in the region in terms that are neither condemnatory nor apologetic. They certainly represent refreshing alternatives to the incantatory clatter that passes for commentary in this country.
Michael MccGwire tackles a broader theme: Soviet military strategy toward the Middle East. MccGwire likewise illuminates a topic that seldom attracts dispassionate consideration. Cold warriors see menace in any indication of Soviet military planning or capability, while peace activists are sometimes reluctant to acknowledge that Moscow may indeed have interests and intentions with a military dimension. MccGwire’s concern is to understand Soviet military planning on its own terms. Anyone who has spoken out publicly on issues of war and peace and intervention in the area will find in MccGwire’s article a coherent and credible reference on the subject.
In our last issue, “Human Rights and the Palestine Conflict,” we observed here that it was a “dangerous delusion” to imagine that the question of Palestine had been eclipsed by the Gulf War, or that Palestinian resistance to occupation could be submerged into the pattern of Muslim revivalism in the region. The current uprising in Gaza and the West Bank had just begun as we composed those words. Now, two months later, the eclipse has given way to a glaringly public spectacle: dozens of Palestinians shot dead by Israeli troops, hundreds maimed under the bone-crushing blows of the soldiers, thousands imprisoned and nearly half a million under prolonged curfew.
On the night of January 10th, Israeli troops broke into the home of MERIP Contributing Editor Anita Vitullo, her husband Sam’an Khouri and their two small children. The soldiers ransacked the apartment, seized papers and letters, shackled Khouri and took him off for interrogation. Khouri, who files for Agence France Presse from Jerusalem and is on the board of the Arab Journalists’ Association, is being held without charges and without trial under a six-month (renewable) administrative detention order. When one of our colleagues called the human rights desk at the State Department to file a complaint over Khouri’s arrest, she was told that she was wasting her time: since Khouri was seized in Israel and not in Afghanistan or Cuba or Nicaragua, this was not a human rights violation and the Department would take no action.
The human cost of this struggle has been terrible. In Ramallah, there is a wall stained with the blood of Palestinians seized and dragged to this public beating ground. But clearly these events constitute an unprecedented affirmation of Palestinian national purpose, a breakthrough of historic proportions. First, the breadth of the uprising, the sheer numbers of Palestinians who are actively supporting it, sets it apart from earlier episodes of mass resistance. This uprising began in Gaza and spread immediately to the West Bank and even engaged the Palestinian Arabs living in Israel. Defiance and identity have merged the Palestinians under Israeli rule in a new way. This geographical breadth is matched by the extent to which the uprising has been sustained by virtually all levels of Palestinian society. To observers from afar, the most visible component has been the youths whose rage and daring sparked the revolt and carry it back into the streets day after day. But equally remarkable has been the engagement of other sectors as well. Palestinian workers refused to work; they stayed home in vast numbers for weeks. The merchants, too, have been conspicuously involved, which may account for the anger of the young Israeli soldiers who arrive morning after morning to smash the locks and shutters of the shops, to insult and beat the proprietors, furious that their powerful military machine cannot control even this normally subdued and self-interested class.
The third characteristic that sets this uprising apart is the central role of the people living in the refugee camps. In the past, the towns have provided the key cadre and mass base for resistance campaigns. Now it is the people of places like Dheisheh, Balata and Rafah camps who have been in the vanguard of mobilization and confrontation, even for a time creating zones into which the occupier dared not enter.
Finally, the uprising displayed a spontaneity that defied and challenged the calculations of Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians alike. The Israeli state first tried to dismiss this new phenomenon as a product of “Islamic fundamentalism,” with all the attendant connotations of an ignorant and malevolent contagion. The passing weeks have shown conclusively the overwhelmingly nationalist character of this mass movement. Its spontaneity and independent origin implies no secession from the established leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Rather it testifies to an important new dynamic within the Palestinian political universe, one that clearly marks a new era in the struggle for Palestinian rights.