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Survey Charts Darfur Opinion for First Time

Those most affected by the crisis say they want Sudan's President Omar Hassan al Bashir prosecuted, are skeptical of chances for peace, and insist on reparations for crimes.

KHARTOUM—More than seven years into the crisis in Sudan's western region of Darfur, the first survey to systematically document the views of Darfuri refugees is being released Thursday.

The report, entitled "Darfurian Voices," offers a rare, direct insight into the mindset of those most affected by an ongoing conflict that the United Nations estimates has already left 300,000 dead and another 2.7 million displaced. 24 Hours for Darfur, a U.S.-based organization, interviewed more than 2,000 Darfuri refugees on the Chadian side of the Sudan-Chad border to compile the results.

The findings of the survey indicate that Darfuris remain skeptical of the prospects for peace, hugely supportive of indictments against the Sudanese leadership by the International Criminal Court, and adamant about the need for reparations (though not necessarily as a condition for peace). The report provides nuanced feedback on issues of peace, justice, and reconciliation to policymakers, journalists, and activists eager to bring the crisis to an end. It also raises questions about whether current international efforts are headed in the right direction.

The report couldn't come at a more opportune time. On the heels of local and national elections, Sudan is now headed full speed for a referendum in January 2011 that will offer the autonomous south of the country the opportunity to secede. The South is likely to vote for independence, and as such, international attention has shifted away from Darfur, preoccupied instead with sporadic violence along an oil-rich North-South border. Many international Sudan-watchers fear that if the vote does not proceed smoothly, the January referendum could spark a return to outright civil war.

But the survey is a potent and needed reminder that the situation in Darfur has not been resolved. No matter the outcome of the referendum, the Darfur crisis demands ongoing global attention. Two of the report's detailed findings -- that Darfuris want to see the Sudanese president prosecuted and are skeptical of peace talks -- seem particularly pertinent this week, emphasizing the importance of thoughtful international engagement with the situation.

On Monday, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a second arrest warrant for the Sudanese President, Omar Hassan Al Bashir, adding three counts of genocide to the list of seven crimes for which he is already indicted. The "Darfurian Voices" report indicates that Darfuris overwhelmingly support the Hague-based court, with 98 percent of those surveyed saying they want to see Bashir put on trial at the ICC. That comes in stark contrast to the view expressed by the African Union, which has repeatedly called Bashir's indictment "detrimental" to the pursuit of peace. When asked what development would most likely help peace to be achieved in Darfur, the refugees' most common response was the arrest and prosecution of Bashir.

Refugee opinion is also clear with respect to peace talks. Darfuris are despondent about the prospects of success from ongoing negotiations over power and wealth-sharing between the Sudanese government and several Darfuri rebel groups, now being held in Doha. Only 18 percent of Darfuri men and 38 percent of women surveyed believe the negotiations will lead to peace. This pessimism may be shaped by their perceptions of previous peace processes; in one of the report's more sobering statistics, an overwhelming 96 percent of respondents feel that the peace negotiations to date have failed to take into account their interests. (In other words, one might interpret this as a feeling among refugees that the peace talks have not fully addressed the reality of their situations on the ground.)

Officials here in Khartoum say privately they are confident they will soon reach a peace deal with those rebel groups now participating in the Doha talks. But refugees fear that even if an agreement is reached, Bashir will fail to uphold it. Moreover, survey respondents said that any meaningful agreement would require the involvement of all the different factions, including the two main rebel groups that remain outside the process.

Some aspects of the report present troubling views of Darfur's future. Only 23 percent of women surveyed from the refugee population could imagine themselves ever able to live peacefully with the ethnic groups most involved in the mass killing, rape, and displacement of civilians in Darfur as members of the Janjaweed militias.

Political reconciliation does not look easy. When asked to explain the root causes of the conflict, almost nine out of 10 respondents named either Bashir or his government. (Less than 1 percent suggested drought, desertification, or resource scarcity, which were the causes highlighted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in a 2007 Washington Post op-ed.)

The sobering results of the "Darfurian Voices" survey more than justify the pains taken to assemble it. After developing the questionnaire in consultation with academic experts and members of the Darfuri diaspora, Ethan Siller, research manager at 24 Hours for Darfur, says the team sought out interviewers who were fluent in local languages, had "extensive experience" working with displaced persons, and would administer the survey "in an objective manner." The three largest funders of the project were the U.S. State Department, Humanity United, and the Open Society Institute.

Of course, it's worth remembering that the report represents only the views of Darfuri refugees in Chad, which may differ from the views of displaced Darfuris still living in Darfur. The researchers say they would have liked to have conducted the survey inside Darfur, but believed it would not be feasible. The Sudanese government has consistently blocked access to the region, security concerns in Darfur persist, and researchers feared that respondents would not be comfortable answering sensitive questions freely.

For Darfur -- a situation that has captured international attention in a way that African crises rarely do -- it seems surprising that Darfurian Voices is the first truly systematic effort to sample the views of a large group of those most directly impacted. In part, this can be attributed to the sheer technical and logistical difficulty of conducting such a project. But seven years into the crisis, the failure by the policy and advocacy communities to obtain this kind of information is troubling. There is a dangerous tendency for those outside a situation as complex as Darfur to believe they can generate solutions absent the input of those directly affected. Of course, late is better than never. It's about time we heard the views of Darfuris themselves. 

Christopher Farber

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Unsettled

Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu may manage to paper over their differences next week, but deep disagreements remain -- Israel's settlements foremost among them.

Just days before a scheduled fence-mending visit to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, I received an email from the Jerusalem Post that invited me to move to territory that most of the world considers occupied Arab land.

The email, titled "Enhanced financial assistance for Aliyah to Israel's North in 2010," promised up to $14,000 in cash and numerous other benefits ("aliyah" is the term for when Diaspora Jews move to Israel). The email showed a smiling young mother and daughter looking out over a vista of red tile-roofed houses, rolling green hills, and a large lake.

A few clicks revealed that the Golan Heights -- which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war -- is among the "northern" communities seeking prospective immigrants.

Elsewhere on the site of Nefesh B'Nefesh -- which means "Soul-to-Soul" and is the Israeli organization promoting the initiative -- was a map that linked to numerous settlements in the West Bank that are also available for newcomers. Rather like old Palestinian maps that did not acknowledge the state of Israel, the Nefesh B'Nefesh illustration omits Israel's pre-1967 "Green Line" border and any reference to the Golan Heights, West Bank, or Gaza.

Settlements were the cause of the Obama administration's last big blowup with the Netanyahu government, during Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Israel in February, and are likely to remain the biggest obstacle to restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Netanyahu, due to meet with President Barack Obama July 6 to make up for a session canceled after the May 31 Gaza-bound flotilla fiasco, announced a 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction last November in large part due to U.S. pressure. But the moratorium permits completion of projects already started as of Nov. 25 and excludes the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, both of which Israel has annexed but whose status in international law remains that of land occupied during a war. According to a report by Peace Now and its American sister organization, Americans for Peace Now, there was a "33% spike in building starts" in occupied territories on the eve of the moratorium, "effectively inoculating the settlers in advance so that they would feel little or no effect."

Unless the moratorium is extended beyond its scheduled expiration on Sept. 26, Peace Now states, "these past 10 months will have had no significance on the ground -- either in terms of settlement construction (which never stopped) or political impact.... Worse still, the moratorium may actually end up having laid the groundwork for a major increase in settlement construction, with settlers working hard, in advance of the expiration, to gain approval for new projects to be implemented as soon as the moratorium ends."

Michael Herzog, a retiring brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces, says Netanyahu will not extend the moratorium -- even with all its loopholes -- unless the Palestinians agree to move to direct negotiations from the proximity talks begun in May by U.S. envoy George Mitchell.

A veteran of failed negotiations in 2000 and at Annapolis in 2007, Herzog wants new talks to begin and succeed. "We cannot afford a third failure," he told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on July 1.

Palestinian leaders say they have little incentive to begin direct negotiations while Israel continues to subsidize settlement growth. Given the choppy pattern of U.S.-Israel relations under Obama and the dynamics of Netanyahu's right-wing coalition, it wouldn't be a surprise if Israel announced some new housing activity just before, during, or after the Obama-Netanyahu meeting: perhaps some digging around the old Shepherd Hotel in East Jerusalem. Plans to demolish the hotel and build Jewish housing in its place are particularly controversial because it would be the first time since 1967 that such construction would occur in Sheikh Jarrah, a predominantly Arab neighborhood north of the Old City.

"It seems as though Bibi [Netanyahu] believes it is easier and less costly to fight with Obama than his [Netanyahu's] interior minister or the mayor of Jerusalem," says Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now.

Stephen Hadley, a former national security advisor under George W. Bush and now part of a Middle East study group at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says he thinks the Obama-Netanyahu summit will go relatively smoothly after months of friction.

"This visit is doomed to succeed," Hadley told the Washington Institute crowd. But that doesn't mean all is roses. "The crunch time will come in September" when the settlement moratorium and Arab League approval for proximity talks both expire, he said.

Meanwhile, a host of benefits beckons for American Jews who decide to move to Israel at a time of high unemployment in the United States.

Nefesh B'Nefesh, which receives one-third of its aliyah budget from the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, promises employment coaching and white-collar job opportunities. In the "North," its website says, "there is demand for grant writers, fundraisers, marketing and communications professionals and international sales people. The North is also ripe for entrepreneurship, and there are resources available to assist those who are interested in opening a business in the area."

As to the possibility that these homes and businesses might someday have to be relinquished in the cause of peace, the website has nothing to say. The Israeli Embassy in Washington declined comment on the issue.