The Middle East Channel

Yemen’s quandary in Dammaj

After years of intermittent violence in the northern provinces of Yemen, political machinations are outpacing the state countermeasures that are mired in indifference and complacency. While the capital, Sanaa, claims to make headway through the National Dialogue, brutal attacks in Sadaa governorate between the Salafis and Houthis have left a significant death toll. The Yemeni government has chosen its usual modus operandi response to the protracted conflict through actively playing a part in the acrimonious disputes over territory and sphere of influence.

Sadaa has been an arena for political gamesmanship and power control since the Houthi rebellion started in 2004. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh sent the military to fight the Houthis while equipping them with artillery in order to prolong the conflict and weaken the forces of General Ali Mohsen in the Yemeni army. After the Arab Spring, the Houthi movement evolved from a rebellion against the former regime, into a conflict with political parties that are increasingly marred by sectarian divisions, regional meddling, and a complex tribal dimension. The intentions of all factions are clearer now than they have ever been. Political alliances are forming in a way that is increasing the onslaught on the Houthis in order to curb their expanding political influence in Yemen. 

While it is not entirely clear who the protagonist was in the recent violent events in the town of Dammaj, Yemeni officials have expediently assigned responsibility for the conflict to the Houthis, prior to launching any investigation. Such conspicuous political bias from the government is escalating the situation, leading to further disastrous reactions in Sadaa. This government-sponsored scenario of the conflict is purposefully constructed to stir national consciousness in favor of one side, the Salafis. The Dammaj students who were caught in the battle are exalted to martyrdom status, pictures of their dead are published in newspapers and websites, while there is almost nothing reported on the Houthis besides their violent role and support from Iran.

Although the Houthis have been demonized in this process, they are not the benevolent altruistic group either. Houthis claim that the Sadaa-based Dar al-Hadith institute in the city of Dammaj, which hosts unarmed Salafi scholars from all around the world, is heavily militarized. Furthermore, the institute recently benefitted from the protection of tribes and Islah party affiliates in the area, which have opted to respond belligerently to limit the Houthi's influence in Sadaa. In fact, these were not the first skirmishes around Dammaj. Salafis fighting alongside the government in the former six wars of Sadaa caught the attention of the Houthis and prompted retaliation. The Houthis sought to trammel the Salafis' influence in Dammaj in 2011 by laying siege to the entire area from October to December 2011 and cutting off food and medical access. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported more than 100 people killed in the conflict, including four children who died of starvation and three elderly men of lack of medication.

Sanaa, however, is intimidated by the rising Houthi influence and organized military ability. The Houthis' power in Sadaa and their independent governance structure have allowed them to negotiate border security agreements with their main adversary, Saudi Arabia. This is all causing further discomfort to the policymakers in Yemen, as they grow aware of the unexpected groundswell that the Houthis generated. The Houthis are now emerging with their own political party, which is becoming increasingly popular among the Yemeni youth.

The Houthis influence need not be underestimated. While ostensibly regressive, Houthis believe that ruling is a privilege for Zaidi sects of Hashemite origin. Zaidism was the order of the day in Yemen for more than a millennia, and the Zaidi imamate rule was removed in the 1962 revolution and is likely to see a resurgence amid the prevailing corrupt political culture in Yemen.

At the heart of the Houthis' allure to the Yemeni youth is the realization that the Arab Spring revolution did not reach its full potential. While the head of the regime is gone, elements of a remaining dysfunctional system threaten a relapse. As such, there are more youth than before who are supporting the Houthis for their unrelenting opposition to the former regime and its allies. Furthermore, the Houthi notion of state sovereignty appears to many to be far better than what is currently offered by the Yemeni state where infringement on Yemen's territory has taken place with the connivance of Yemeni officials.

Meanwhile, the Houthis do not invite international sympathy with their narrow vision, nor do they seek it. Their "death to America" slogan has been a recruiting factor for the radically inclined. But if the relationship between the United States and Iran changes positively, this will have implications on the Houthi movement, which could find itself reinventing its messages to suit the political winds of Iran. It is more likely, however, that the Houthis will remain one of Iran's cards to play in the region. As the Obama administration is tinkering with its Iranian counterparts, Yemeni politicians feel the urgency to stop the Houthi movement before it transforms into a political power that the current ruling alliances cannot face.

Undoubtedly, Dammaj has tested the sincerity and commitment of the Yemeni government in its ability to protect all Yemeni citizens and contain a crisis. As the government falters, the political parties grow more confrontational. All sides of this conflict appear to be deliberately drawing more attention to themselves in a conspicuous effort to garner additional financing and recruits while the Yemeni government assumes the role of a victim, rather than an interceptor of the violence which has further inflamed the situation in the north.

Furthermore, communities in the south are watching this tragedy with fear that it could repeat itself in their neighborhoods. Southern political parties and media have tilted toward the Houthis in their reporting. The Houthis-Southern alliance, which intensified after the Arab revolution and southerners' call for session, is starting to become a nuisance for the policymakers in the capital who were used to conducting their business the "Saleh" way.

Events in Dammaj have also prompted the Group of Ten Ambassadors of the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council, the GCC, and the European Union to issue a statement that called upon all sides to stop fighting and defuse the tensions. But most importantly, they called on the Yemeni government to resume its mediation attempts and to take whatever measures are necessary to restore security and the state's presence. The government sent a presidential committee to investigate the situation on November 6 but this came after the death toll surpassed 200 people. The question for international partners is if they are willing to be creative enough to find complementary ways to support Yemen's near-ending transitional process while helping the government address urgent needs of the community.

The current security threats in the north and the antipathetic responses by the state challenge assurances that the Yemeni government is on the right track. The effort to sustain peace should be long term, as Yemen cannot afford to have the same military conflicts experienced during the Saleh regime. Recognizing that Sadaa has some degree of autonomy and a unique culture that needs to be preserved peacefully is the first step toward real integration. But most importantly, bearing the responsibility to protect the people in Sadaa, just as much as the people in Dammaj, is crucial if the state wants to gain respect and influence.

Fatima Abo Alasrar is an independent Middle East policy analyst from Yemen and a former OSI International Policy Fellow. She blogs at


The Middle East Channel

Can Palestinians advance their rights through UNESCO?

Fully engaged in U.S.-sponsored peace talks with Israel, the Palestinians have sidelined alternative strategies to achieve their rights, including their right to self-determination. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has recently affirmed, Palestinian negotiators have pledged not to contest the Israeli occupation through the United Nations during the period of negotiations. However, not all roads are blocked. By leveraging Palestine's existing, hard-won membership in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Palestinians could take action to combat the Israeli occupation and expanding settlement enterprise. Their task may be facilitated by the United States and Israel's recent loss of voting rights in the UNESCO General Conference -- a development stemming from the two countries' refusal to pay membership dues since Palestine became a member in October 2011.

The question, then, is to what extent does UNESCO offer a strategic platform for Palestinians especially as international law has proved toothless on the question of Palestine? On numerous occasions in the past, states have successfully leveraged UNESCO memberships to assert their sovereignty and defend their territorial rights. Now, the Palestinians can do the same. 

For example, having ratified UNESCO's World Heritage Convention, the Palestinians can effectively challenge Israel's wrongful claims to Palestinian cultural and historical sites, some of which Israel has illegally included on its national heritage list, by listing them on the internationally-recognized UNESCO Heritage List. The Palestinians have already successfully listed the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on the World Heritage List in June 2012 despite U.S. opposition. Twelve other sites remain on its tentative list.

Similarly, the Palestinians could petition UNESCO, and individual member states, to condition Israel's UNESCO membership privileges on compliance with its international legal obligations under various UNESCO conventions. If Israel does not meet these legal obligations, it would face a reduction of funding for UNESCO-sponsored cultural, scientific, and educational programs and possibly suspension from the organization. A precedent was set in 1974, when Israel's unlawful excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem led to the suspension of UNESCO aid to Israel. Palestinians can also call on UNESCO to require Israel to provide reparations, including restitution and compensation, to individuals affected by Israel's illegal actions.

The Palestinians have also ratified eight UNESCO conventions, including the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict, which assigns individual criminal responsibility for any breach of the Convention, including the removal of cultural properties from the occupied territory for display in Israel or third countries.

While accountability for unlawful settlement activity at the International Criminal Court is currently blocked, under the Hague Convention's 1999 Second Protocol, the Palestinians are now positioned to demand that other states exercise universal jurisdiction and prosecute individuals for destroying or appropriating cultural property, or conducting excavations in occupied territory.

Notably, Palestine's status within UNESCO and the treaty system grants it standing under various member states' domestic laws. The case of Canada is instructive. In 2010 the Israel Antiquities Authority loaned the Dead Sea Scrolls, which the Israeli military had unlawfully removed from the Palestine Archaeological Museum in East Jerusalem in 1967, to the Royal Ontario Museum for exhibition. Although international law required Canada to designate the Scrolls as illegally imported and seize them, it refused based on a Canadian legal requirement that only a UNESCO member state can seek a court order to enforce seizure.

Today, the situation is different. Palestine's UNESCO member status permits Palestinians to request that member states such as Canada seize artifacts of Palestinian origin and prevent their export or exhibition. 

The right of Palestinians to assert control over their territory is not limited to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Under the 2001 Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, which the Palestinians ratified in 2011, states are empowered to regulate any exploration activities within their borders, including protecting cultural heritage in their exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. 

Thus, the Palestinians can challenge Israel's naval blockade of Gaza by asserting sovereign control over territorial waters and contiguous zone (waters up to 24 nautical miles off the Gaza coast) and over Gaza's exclusive economic zone (another area of up to 200 nautical miles). The Palestinians could follow the example of the Netherlands, which established a contiguous zone in 2005 and extended its monuments legislation to prevent the infringement of its cultural heritage rights in 2007.

Nonetheless, political pressure has undermined the Palestinians' ability to activate these new opportunities. In June 2013, Palestinian representatives succumbed to Israeli and U.S. pressure to drop a bid to include some 400 kilometers of landscape terraces in Battir village on the List of World Heritage in Danger. But Palestinians fought back. Last month, Battir was granted "at risk" recognition by being placed on the World Monument Fund's 2014 Watch List.

There are precedents of other ways to legally challenge Israel's violations. For instance, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's construction of the Museum of Tolerance in West Jerusalem -- where Israel's sovereignty is not internationally recognized -- has entailed the exhumation of hundreds of graves at the ancient Muslim cemetery known as "Mamilla." These acts of destruction are being legally challenged.

Israel has buttressed its settlement strategy with destructive archaeological excavations, claims to cultural heritage, and other unlawful actions that infringe on Palestinian territorial rights. Israeli sources estimate that between 1967 and 1992 about 200,000 artifacts were annually removed from the occupied Palestinian territory, and another 120,000 or so were removed each year since 1995. In occupied East Jerusalem, ongoing Israeli archaeological projects include the settler-operated "City of David" park. These contested actions amount to de facto claims of sovereignty in occupied territory.

If pursued, a strategy based on Palestine's UNESCO membership would strengthen the Palestinian negotiating position and ability to control and protect cultural heritage sites. More important, it would help establish the Palestinians' territorial sovereignty and further their ability to control and protect their cultural heritage.

To activate a UNESCO strategy, the Palestinians need to demonstrate a good faith commitment to UNESCO's protection framework by adopting and enforcing the necessary legal and administrative measures. In particular, the Palestinians must implement their domestic obligations under UNESCO conventions by providing adequate protection for cultural heritage sites and enforcing sanctions for their violation. The Palestinians should also create a national inventory of transferred artifacts and site excavations.

Adequate legal protection of cultural heritage sites at the national level will support the Palestinians' international efforts to reclaim possession of stolen cultural properties and regain control over occupied territory. Despite UNESCO's politicization, and resultant budgetary cuts, Palestinian leaders should exercise their UNESCO membership to advance territorial rights and challenge Israel's efforts to occupy and expropriate Palestinian land.

Valentina Azarov and Nidal Sliman are, respectively, Guest Author and Policy Member of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network. For further analysis of this issue, see their recent policy brief.