The National Interest Foundation Newsletter
Issue 197, July 7, 2023
Welcome to our NIF Newsletter. In this week’s headlines: we analyze the historical factors influencing the riots in France, analyze the effects of the recent Israeli raids into Jenin, and consider the implications of closing the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Syria.
Written by Jacob Van Veldhuizen and Toni JeBailey
Riots in France
Last week, Nahel, a 17-year-old boy of Algerian descent, was killed by French police during a traffic stop in Nanterre, a Paris suburb. The killing sparked days of riots in which hundreds of cars and buildings were set on fire. The murder of Nahel set off the protests, but there are also many underlying causes. The incident not only highlights the need for France to reform its policing practices, but also shows the need for France as a whole to address the social, economic, and historical tensions affecting racial minorities in France.
Riots and protests have a long history in France. Just this year there have been numerous extended strikes, protests, and riots over the passage of a pension reform law that raised the retirement age from 62 to 64. In 2018, the Yellow Jacket protests gained international attention for their advocacy for economic and political reform. The most recent large-scale riot related to race was in 2005 after 2 teens were electrocuted while hiding from the police in an electrical substation. Protests and riots calling for reformed policing practices and better treatment of minorities are very common throughout French history. The French police have long faced allegations of systematic racial profiling and there are numbers to back this up. According to Defenders of Rights, a France-based organization, 80% of young French men perceived as Black, North African, or Arab reported being stopped by the police in the last five years compared to just 16% of the population as a whole. Other countries across the world, particularly the United States and Great Britain, have also had issues with racial profiling in their police forces, but after these incidents, there was at least discussions on police reform. None of the protests or riots ever led to a discussion about systemic racism in the police force. The country has failed to pass any police reforms in the past 40 years despite an obvious need for them.
Some news outlets have compared this incident to the killing of George Floyd in 2020. On a surface level, the two events seem similar. Both murders were committed by law enforcement officers, filmed and broadcast almost immediately after they happened, and involved a member of a systemically marginalized community. This is where the similarities end. France’s past can’t be ignored while analyzing these protests. Racial prejudice in France, particularly against those of African and sub-Saharan descent, has deep roots in its colonial past. The European nations have a long history of colonization, suppression, massacres, and human rights abuses that it rarely acknowledges. In the then-French colony of Algeria, these abuses were particularly egregious. For 132 years, the French used torture, conducted summary executions, and tested 17 nuclear bombs in the country. In May 1945, Algerian civilians staged protests demanding an end to colonial rule. The French responded by killing an estimated 45,000 civilians. Again, in 1961, a peaceful demonstration was held in Paris calling for an end to colonial rule. This demonstration ended in the killing of an estimated 300 Algerians. It is estimated that as many as 1.5 million Algerians were killed in the French suppression of Algeria. These massacres are still fresh in the minds of many Algerians. France has never fully acknowledged or apologized for what it did. The lack of acknowledgment continues to affect the social dynamic today, as can be seen with the protests. The continued suppression and systemic disadvantages racial minorities face in France contribute to their feelings of anger and frustration.
France has also failed to integrate migrants into the country. A disproportionate number of racial minorities live in what are known as banlieues, areas where poverty-stricken working-class neighborhoods ring many French cities. Many migrants have difficulty finding a job because of their last names. Rising costs related to the war in Ukraine and the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic make economic hardship worse. With all of these obstacles, non-whites in France have little chance for upward mobility. The systemic disadvantages minorities face in France have made them, in effect, second-class citizens.
Another facet contributing to the intensity of the riots was the use of social media. A video of the incident was almost immediately uploaded to the internet. Apps like TikTok and Snapchat were used to organize the riots. Many people feel like without these tools, Nahel would have become another statistic and the officer involved would have gone unpunished.
All of these factors contributed to Nahel’s murder and the subsequent intensity of the riots. France must work to address the underlying racism in both their policing and society and work to improve the lives of the racial minorities living there. The first step to do this is to acknowledge the discrimination minorities face. Currently, France follows an official policy of color blindness, with strict limits on data that can be collected. This policy has left the government oblivious to the discrimination. Acknowledging the issues in French society will lead to a discussion about change and reform. Without change, it is only a matter of time before riots erupt again.
Despite the differences in historical context, both the United States and France need to address and rectify the institutional racism present in their societies. It is important to contextualize the underlying influences of racial discrimination wherever it takes place. There is no blanket solution, but exploring the root causes is a surefire way to begin the process of addressing racial inequality. The killing of Nahel must galvanize our commitment to fighting racism and spur a new effort to combat all kinds of discrimination around the world.
Raid in Jenin
With Israel’s chief military spokesman, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, announcement that Israel has withdrawn from the West Bank city of Jenin this past Wednesday, the violent raid came to an end. The army operation resulted in the death of 12 Palestinians, and one Israeli soldier, and the displacement of thousands from their homes. The attacks in Jenin are indicative of a more significant trend of large-scale violence against Palestinians this year, with the United Nations tracking 2023 as the deadliest year for Palestinians since their record-keeping began in 2005. As initial raids in the city date back to January 26th of this year, the most recent attacks of this past week demonstrate the significant escalation of conflict in both magnitude and measures. The United States’ refusal to condemn the invasion will only help begin a new, deadlier stage of conflict.
As initial raids in Jenin date back to January of this year, the continued perpetuation of violence against Palestinians within the West Bank has only aided the escalation to this current point. Following the killing of nine Palestinians and wounding of 19 others on January 26th, what was at the time the deadliest West Bank operation in 20 years signaled a larger pattern of Israeli military presence and violence to continue. With two separate refugee camp raids in March, further casualties were added to the initial toll caused by Israeli forces. The Israeli armed forces attempted to justify their increasingly brutal attacks by claiming they are “apprehending terrorists.” The most recent raid before this week occurred on June 19th, with Israeli forces dispatching a helicopter to rescue injured troops, which has not been done for decades. Yet none of these previous raids rivaled the military escalation demonstrated this past week, as starting July 3rd, over 1,000 Israeli soldiers, in addition to drone strikes and the use of an attack helicopter, were utilized to seize the entire city of Jenin. With the intent of this operation being the acquisition of an “operational command center,” as well as driving out armed Palestinians in retribution for earlier attacks this year, the goal of destabilizing Palestinian militant groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas resulted in greater violence and displacement. Gun battles continued through Tuesday evenings, with Israeli troops withdrawing the next day.
Jenin has long been a symbol of Palestinian resistance within the West Bank, cementing this legacy in 2002 after the 10-day battle during the second intifada, in which Jenin was even colloquially referred to as Jeningrad in reference to the Battle of Stalingrad. This conflict resulted in 52 Palestinian deaths and a permanent attachment of Palestinian resistance to the refugee camp. Today it remains the center of Palestinian resistance forces as it is a stronghold site for both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. It is also home to over 14,000 refugees within the camp. The recent escalation of violence within Jenin spans further than retaliation from the Israeli forces but rather a larger shifting political scheme within Israel. With the increasingly extremist right-wing and Jewish-supremacist government coming into power early this year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made the persecution of Palestinians a foremost priority to appease those in his government. This, combined with the Palestinian Authority’s increasingly limited capabilities and general dissatisfaction amongst Palestinians, has resulted in the perfect pretenses for the escalation demonstrated within Jenin.
The increasingly brutal attacks will likely continue. The Israeli government seems to be probing for a red line to see how far they can go. The sad reality may be that there is no red line. The lack of condemnation from the United States coupled with the growing economic ties between some Middle Eastern states and Israel have created a general sense of apathy towards the Palestinian plight among government officials in these countries. The United Nations is one of the only governing institutions that has been consistent in its condemnation of the excessive force used by Israel. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres denounced the recent raid on Jenin, calling on Israel “to abide by its obligations under international law”, exercise restraint and use only proportional force. “The use of airstrikes is inconsistent with the conduct of law enforcement operations,” he said. Guterres reminded Israel that “as the occupying power, it has a responsibility to ensure that the civilian population is protected against all acts of violence”.
Israel claims these attacks are for its own defense. In reality, these attacks only create more recruits for Hamas and Islamic Jihad and destroy any chance of peace. The two-state solution is no longer possible as long as Israel continues to escalate their attacks. The United States must reevaluate its support of Israel if it ever wants to secure the lofty goal of peace in the Middle East. Israel is the main obstacle towards this goal, and continued support will only work against American interests in the region. Without this shift, Israel will continue to escalate the situation into another full-blown war.
Turkish-Syrian Border Crossing
As the six-month extension approved by the UN Security Council to maintain the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey for aid deliveries is set to expire this upcoming Monday, both the UN and Syrian communities have publicly urged to keep the crossing open. With the Bab al-Hawa border being the sole locality of aid from the UN for Syria since 2014, it has allowed resources to reach opposition-controlled areas in Northern Syria without approval from the Syrian government. A UN delegation led by David Carden recently visited Idlib, a city in Northwest Syria that receives almost 80% of aid, to highlight the region’s dependency on the little assistance provided by the United Nations and urge action on behalf of the Security Council. Idlib hosts a population of approximately 4 million people, many of those being displaced refugees throughout the 12-year conflict within Syria. The goal of extending the border operations for upwards of a year is to help facilitate more aid sent and begin long-term infrastructure and housing projects to benefit those living in the region directly, in addition to helping to remedy the effects of an earthquake this past February to both the Bab al-Hawa border and Northwest Syrian Region. The quake left 4,500 dead in northwestern Syria and around 855,000 people displaced due to the destruction, with assistance being more necessary than ever. Two alternative borders were opened for aid transfer to help immediately after the disaster and later extended for a further three months, with these borders also hanging in the balance of the UN Security Council decision. The transmission of aid through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing did not resume until mid-June of this year due to the extent of earthquake damage.
Significant opposition to the border extension comes from the Syrian government and Russia. Russia is the primary financial backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia remains a permanent member of the UN Security Council and directly impacts the decision made regarding the border. With previous threats to veto or abstain from border renewals, Russia and the Syrian government want all aid to be imported through Damascus, the state’s capital. Russian entities claim that the Bab al-Hawa border impedes state sovereignty as it allows for trade and transfer to occur outside the scope of government power and with accessibility to the international community. Russia has been a long ally of Assad. Seeing him take full control of Syria would be of great strategic importance to Russia. With Idlib remaining as one of the last stronghold opposition forces against Assad, groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham hold extreme power within the region, with the repercussions of this conflict directly felt by the citizens residing there. Multiple access points for aid delivery to Syria were initially dispersed across various opposition-controlled areas. Yet, efforts from both Russia and China have reduced these points to one sole remainder, Bab al-Hawa.
With the effects of the earthquake compounding the pre-existing conditions in Northwest Syria leaving the region extremely vulnerable, UN aid is considered necessary for sustainment despite the limited initial resources. Additionally, many Syrian NGOs rely on funding from the UN for groundwork efforts within cities such as Idlib, with the future of this also remaining uncertain as the renewal vote approaches. Yet, what remains consistent is the need for assistance on behalf of Syrians living in the region, who fear what a future without aid would look like amidst continued conflict. With the $5.4 billion UN aid appeal for Syria remaining less than 12% funded, the potential closure of the Bab al-Hawa border could mean devastating effects for the region. As the UN Security Council is set to vote within the upcoming week, keeping the crossing open to preserve the human rights of citizens of Syria.