20 December 2018
“And on earth peace”
Sing, angels, sing!
By Neil Tidmarsh
This year’s Nativity play at a primary school in Gela, Sicily, was abandoned when a fight broke out between two women over the best seat in the front row from which to film the children. And they weren’t even the mothers but merely the aunts of the performers. The respective grandmothers joined in there and then, but at least the husbands had the decency to leave the room before engaging in a punch-up with each other. The police were called and the two women were carted off to the local station.
Perhaps the children playing “the multitude of the heavenly host” hadn’t sung their “and on earth peace, goodwill toward men” bit yet, or perhaps they didn’t sing loud enough, or perhaps the women were too busy filming with their smart phones to listen.
But have the angels found a more attentive audience for their message elsewhere in the world this Christmas-tide?
Well, things are beginning to look promising in Yemen, at last. First of all, the US Senate passed a resolution to withdraw military assistance to Saudi Arabia in its war against the Houthi rebels. The resolution won’t come into force unless the House of Representatives and the President also agree on it, but it sends a clear message to Saudi Arabia and increases the pressure on Riyadh to take peace talks seriously. It was passed side by side with a unanimous vote blaming the Crown Prince for the death of Jamal Khashoggi; having wrong-footed the Prince, the international outrage over the journalist’s tragic disappearance has at least granted leverage to those who are encouraging Saudi Arabia to reconsider its policy on Yemen.
Secondly, the first round of peace talks in Sweden ended with leaders of the forces supporting the government of Yemen and the leaders of the rebel forces shaking hands for the first time. Moreover, they agreed on a ceasefire and on the withdrawal of troops from Hodeidah, the rebel-held port which has been under siege by pro-government forces for the last two months. Hodeidah is of crucial strategic importance, not just militarily but more importantly as the main route into the stricken country for food and aid. Warfare – particularly the heavy bombing by the Saudi-led coalition – has produced what is currently the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Starvation (three quarters of the population – 20 million people – are going hungry) and disease (including cholera epidemics) are rife. Following the agreement, however, the UN will now control the port; so food and medical aid will find its way into the country again if that ceasefire holds and if the troop withdrawal does take place.
The angels’ song was also heard in the United Arab Emirates, where a meeting between US officials and representatives of the Afghan Taliban took place. They began talks which might possibly end the conflict in Afghanistan which has been going on for almost twenty years. Representatives from Pakistan also took part; it’s hoped that they can bring about a meeting between the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government.
The song was also heard in Iraq: the Green Zone in the capital Baghdad was opened to the public for the first time in fifteen years. The opening of this ultra-secure, heavily-protected international zone was an indication that the conflicts which followed the US invasion of 2003 – civil war, terrorism, Isis – might at last be over. Isis has been defeated on the battlefield and even its suicide bombers are on the back-foot. Attacks are infrequent and becoming less and less deadly. There were fewer civilian casualties last month than in any month in the last six years.
Alas, the news this week had little else to offer in the way of “good tidings of great joy” from the Middle East, where we’re told those angels sang two thousand years ago. In Syria, the rebel forces are bottled up in Idlib and the regime forces are deciding whether to commence a last push against them or to simply wait and let them kill each other in internecine warfare while innocent civilians continue to suffer the usual horrors of bombardment, displacement, hunger and sickness. Turkey is about to launch an attack on Kurdish-held territory in north-eastern Syria; Erdogan has deployed troops and tanks along the border and redirected 15,000 Syrian rebel soldiers from the fight against Isis in preparation for an assault on Kurdish-held Manbij in Syria. US special forces are embedded with the Kurds, so the attack could escalate into an international conflict. Turkish planes bombed Kurdish positions in Iraq and a car bomb killed nine people in the Turkish-held city of Afrin in northern Syria.
This week, a Palestinian gunman wounded seven people (including a pregnant woman who subsequently lost her baby) at Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank. Then Israeli commandos killed the gunman and one other Palestinian (who was wanted for killing two people two months ago). Then another Palestinian gunman killed two Israelis and wounded two others, also at Ramallah. Then a man with a knife stabbed two Israeli policemen in East Jerusalem. Then other policemen shot him dead. Then…
Louder, angels, sing louder! They can’t hear you! Louder still! Turn the volume right up!