Thursday, January 29, 2009

Gaza fallout: threats of a Middle East revolt

Two things have come to light that could have serious implications for the situation in the Middle East.
The US tends to reflexively veto any UN Security Council resolution critical of Israel. So why did it only abstain from the UNSC's call for a ceasefire towards the end of the recent Israeli assault on Gaza, and seemingly thereby withdraw its backing for Israel's actions? Apparently, reports Robert Dreyfuss, because it feared its embassies in the region would be overrun by angry mobs outraged by the slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza.
And in addition, Dreyfuss goes on to say, the US was not alone in its concern about a popular uprising in the Middle East. Its pet tyrants are also getting the jitters. So much so that a senior Saudi minister has threatened to sever or seriously downgrade his countries relationship with the US, and even respond favorably to a request from President Ahmadinejad to ally Sunni Saudi Arabia with Shia Iran against Israel if there is not a substantive change in US-Israeli behaviour toward the Palestinians. So much for the Sunni-Shia regional schism.
The question then arises: at what point does Washington become so fearful of its regional allies either turning against it or being toppled in domestic uprisings that it feels compelled to rein in the Israeli expansionism and military aggression that fuels popular discontent in the region? If this pressure from the Arab world continues and increases, the implications for the Middle East should not be underestimated.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, at a severe and entirely disproportional cost to the Palestinians, largely because the US has consistently backed Israeli colonialism and blocked a peaceful settlement to the conflict. But how useful is the Israeli alliance going to be to Washington if it loses the rest of the region altogether? The point of Israel, as far as Washington is concerned, is that as the regional military superpower it wields the club over the Middle Eastern oil-producing nations and keeps them in line. But if Israel's thuggish behaviour creates so much anger in the region that the oil-producing states begin terminating their own alliances with Washington then the equation changes drastically. Israel becomes a liability rather than an asset. And what then? Will the US clamp down on Israel, call a halt to its theft of Palestinian land, and allow the creation of a Palestinian state so as to keep its allies in the region on side? That would potentially be wonderful news for the Palestinians, whose current condition of impoverished and brutalised statelessness is akin to a form of slavery, as Juan Cole argues here.
So news of Washington losing its grip on the Arab world is potentially a very, very serious development. Remarkable in fact that the media has largely failed to pick up on it, as far as I'm aware. Clearly these are developments that need to be watched closely, and understood by us as activists.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Government minister says, Blair administration talked "bollocks" on terrorism

I love a good headline, don't you?
Britain's security and counter-terrorism minister, the unenviably named Lord West of Spithead, has broken with New Labour tradition and acknowledged the obvious.
"In an outspoken assessment of the terror risk facing Britain, Gordon Brown's security adviser was scathing about the assertion, made by Tony Blair when prime minister, that foreign policy did not alter the UK's risk of a terror attack.

"We never used to accept that our foreign policy ever had any effect on terrorism," he said. "Well, that was clearly bollocks."

He added: "They [the Blair administration] were very unwilling to have any debate about how our foreign policy impacted on radicalisation.""
As I wrote shortly after the bombings here in London on 7 July 2005, Blair's government government "deliberately and repeatedly ignor[ed] the advice of the UK’s intelligence services, departmental advisers and independent experts" that Britain's foreign policies, especially the invasion and occupation of Iraq, were increasing the threat of terrorist attacks being carried out on British soil.
Now when politicians swear blind that black is white, one of the questions that springs to mind is whether they can genuinely believe what they're saying, and if not, how they can consciously peddle what they know to be falsehoods while keeping straight faces. Does the last remark from the minister quoted above - that the Blair administration were unwilling to have any internal debate about how our foreign policy impacted on radicalisation - give us an insight into this? Did Blair and his advisers stick their fingers in their ears and shout "la la la" whenever someone suggested that blowback from their foreign policies was endangering the British public, because they genuinely believed it wasn't true? Or because they didn't want to allow what they knew was a pathetically flimsy position to be tested in serious debate?
At one level it doesn't matter. Britain has continued with substantively the same Middle East policies post-Blair; backing local tyrants, supporting Israeli expansionism and repression of the Palestinians, and playing spear-carrier to the United States' imperial role in the region. All this is music to the ears of AlQaeda's recruiting officers, who can fill their ranks with young Muslims and Arabs driven to violent rage by these injustices and unable to see credible non-violent outlets for that anger. It matters little whether the government acknowledges the fact of this dynamic's existence if it pursues substantively the same policies, since the results will be the same. Better PR by Western governments won't change that. But it's interesting to see how, within power-structures, debates takes place between rational pragmatists and true-believer dogmatists. Both will pursue policies that serve powerful interests to the exclusion of more moral concerns. But each will have differing takes on how best to formulate and present those policies.
Clearly this isn't just a matter of abstract interest. If you can understand the kind of thinking that leads people to start wars like the US-UK invasion of Iraq then you're better placed to challenge that thinking and maybe prevent those wars from taking place.

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Gaza: what the BBC doesn't want you to see

There's a grave humanitarian crisis in Gaza. I might have mentioned it previously.

The leading aid agencies report that "Over 1,300 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict, and many thousands have been injured, overwhelming local hospitals. The destruction has left people without homes and many children without schooling; power, food and water supplies are insufficient to cover the population’s needs".

Unlike ITN, Channel 4 and Channel 5, the BBC and Sky will not broadcast this appeal, on behalf of those aid agencies, because that would be biased against Israel, whose war of aggression on Gaza caused the crisis.

Yes, really.

You can donate here, and join the many thousands that have already complained to the BBC here.

Here's the complaint email I wrote.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

BBC obstructs Gaza relief effort

Complaint sent to the BBC. Please do the same.

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Dear Sir or Madam

I have just read on the Guardian's website that the BBC has chosen not to air an urgent appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee to raise money for the thousands of homeless and wounded in Gaza. I am genuinely taken aback by this extraordinary decision.

With $2bn of infrastructure destroyed by the recent attacks on Gaza, 84% of people there reporting having problems accessing food, 400,000 without water, and 35,000 left in UN shelters the situation for ordinary people in Gaza is desperate, even life-threatening, as your own reporting shows.

The Guardian quotes your spokesperson as saying: "The BBC decision was made because of question marks about the delivery of aid in a volatile situation and also to avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC's impartiality in the context of an ongoing news story".

Let me address the second of these justifications first. If two bar brawlers are taken to hospital, the doctors do not try to decide who was in the right before treating them. It is an objective fact that there are ordinary, innocent people in Gaza - people like you, me or our families - in desperate need of the basics for mere survival. Helping in the provision of aid so that an infant child can eat or receive medical care could only "compromise confidence in the BBC's impartiality" in the eyes of someone who was either heartless or insane. Is the BBC so keen not to offend such people that it is prepared to effectively obstruct the ability of aid agencies to provide relief in Gaza? Are these really the corporation's priorities?

The other justification given by your spokesperson is flatly contradicted by the DEC, an umbrella organisation for 13 of the world's leading aid agencies. It is hard to believe that the BBC really thinks it can judge the feasibility of relief-provision better than the experts in the field. That being the case, the second justification appears to be the real reason for this rare breach of the BBC's agreement with the aid agencies, while the first justification rather looks like padding. To refuse to assist in the aid effort for the people of Gaza is one thing. To palm them off with PR is something else.

The DEC's chief executive, Brendan Gormley, is quoted in the Guardian as saying that the decision could have a big impact on its appeal. "We are used to our appeal getting into every household and offering a safe and necessary way for people to respond. This time we will have to work a lot harder because we won't have the free airtime or the powerful impact of appearing on every TV and radio station."

It is shameful - chilling, in fact - that the BBC should be responsible for this. I demand that this decision is reversed immediately. Please do not provide me with a response explaining why the decision has not been reversed. Please instead do what I'm sure you know is the only decent thing. Air the appeal immediately.

David Wearing
PhD Candidate
School of Public Policy
University College London

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Israel revealed

“The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.”

Moshe Yaalon, Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, 2002

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Below is a report from the UK’s Channel 4 news last week on just one of the many atrocities perpetrated by Israel’s armed forces in Gaza.

Metres from an Israeli military position, four starving children too weak to stand, sat in the ruins of a house amongst at least twelve decomposing corpses, some of them the children’s mothers. For four days the Israelis prevented Red Cross ambulances from rescuing the children. Eventually, ambulances were allowed into the neighbourhood, but the Israelis would not clear a path so that they could access the scene itself. Red Cross medics then had to resort to removing the children by donkey cart, whilst the Israeli soldiers looked on.

In what looks like an effort to provide a dictionary definition of chutzpah, Israeli spokesperson Mark Regev tells Channel 4’s reporter Alex Thompson, when questioned about this, that Israel “wants to work closely” with the Red Cross who, he generously concedes, play “an important role”.

Watch this video, in particular, for Regev’s smirking defence of Israel’s actions. Thompson is clearly stunned by what the Red Cross has told him, and demands of Regev “in the name of humanity, what is Israel doing?”. It is moments like this when the mask slips, and the reality of Israel’s contempt for Palestinian life is laid bare. Remember Regev’s performance here next time you see an Israeli military spokesperson on the TV news, or read an newspaper op-ed by one of Israel’s many apologists in the Western political class. These people will say anything. No atrocity is too gruesome for them to defend.

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Since I’ve not posted for a week, lets just quickly remind ourselves of the basic facts regarding Israel’s attack on Gaza. Regular readers will excuse a bit of repetition from previous posts.

Israel claims that it is acting in self-defence, responding to rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. This is a flat-out lie.

There was a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas starting in mid June which Hamas maintained and Israel breached at the start of November, sparking the current round of violence. As Gareth Porter notes here, Hamas made moves to reinstate the ceasefire in mid-December, which were rejected by Israel.

“The interest of Hamas in a ceasefire agreement that would actually open the border crossings was acknowledged at a Dec. 21 Israeli cabinet meeting -- five days before the beginning of the Israeli military offensive -- by Yuval Diskin, the head of Israel's internal security agency, Shin Bet. "Make no mistake, Hamas is interested in maintaining the truce," Diskin was quoted by Y-net News agency as saying.”

Porter also describes how Israel entered into the original ceasefire in bad faith, never intending to honour its conditions in respect of easing the siege of Gaza even though it knew that this would probably lead to further violence. Hamas, by contrast, worked hard to keep the ceasefire in effect, until Israel finally sabotaged it with the attacks of 4 November.

No Israelis were killed in the months leading up to the beginning of its all-out assault on Gaza, on 27 December 2008. In “response” to no deaths and a ceasefire, Israel launched a war of aggression in which it has, as of this morning, slaughtered (I use the word deliberately) 1038 Palestinians and wounded 4850. Of the dead, over 300 are children and 76 are women. Of the injured, 1,600 are children and 678 women. Many of the rest are ordinary police and municipal workers, not militants belonging to the armed wing of Hamas or any other group.

As a number of legal experts point out in this letter to The Sunday Times, and as George Bisharat, professor at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, writes here, Israel is not acting in a way that can be justified or legitimately described as self-defence. Israel is committing aggression, the gravest of all international crimes

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As I noted in earlier posts on the assault on Gaza, Israel has mounted a huge propaganda effort – through its ministries and embassies, but also through ostensibly independent advocacy groups and bloggers - to win the battle for global public opinion and secure the support or acquiescence of the world’s governments while it carries out its attacks. But this is now unravelling, as it was bound to. The dissonance between the pious ‘what-would-you-do?’ refrains of Israel’s apologists and the bloody reality of its actions is simply too wide to bridge.

Today, the Israel military attacked the compound of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), with white phosphorus shells. White phosphorus is a particularly nasty chemical weapon that burns the flesh down to the bone, and which Israel had already been dropping on the crowded refugee camps of Gaza. UN officials expressed outrage at the attack, and poured scorn on Israel’s defence of its actions. In my view, it is near-impossible to portray this as an Israeli mistake, given that the compound is a well-known location in Gaza clearly marked with blue UN flags. John Ging, the head of UN operations in Gaza, told al-Jazeera television: "This is going to burn down the entire warehouse … thousands and thousands of tonnes of food, medical supplies and other emergency assistance is there." Elsewhere, reports emerge of the Israeli military shooting at fleeing civilians, including those waving white flags.

The word you’re looking for is ‘sadistic’.

Serious moves may now be made the United Nations to bring Israel before the international legal system. There is talk of referring its recent actions to the International Court of Justice, or even for ad-hoc tribunals to be set up, similar to those that dealt with the large-scale crimes committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. The Lancet, one of the world's best-known and most respected medical journals, has published an editorial strongly condemning Israeli for committing "large and indiscriminate human atrocities".

The European Union, is backing off from moves to strengthen its ties with Israel, with the patience and ingulgence of the European political class being tested to the limit by Israel’s barbarity. Even Israel's closest friends in Europe are horrified by its actions. This from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

“A few days ago, I met a European ambassador stationed in Israel. The man, a great friend of Israel, launched an emotional monologue and spoke from the bottom of his heart.

"Make no mistake," he said. "I understand why you embarked on the operation in Gaza, and many of my colleagues also understand and even support it, but a few days ago you started to cross red lines."

The ambassador continued, reiterating his support and his love for Israel. "We too would like to damage Hamas, we too would not sit by quietly if they were firing rockets at us," he said. "It was clear to us that innocent people would be hurt in any operation in Gaza, and we were prepared to accept that up to certain limit, but in the past few days it seems that your action is getting out of control, and the harm to civilians is tremendous."

The straw that broke the camel's back for that ambassador was the Red Cross report from Gaza that small children had been found wounded, near the corpses of their mothers, under the ruins of their homes, and other reports of civilians on the verge of dying in places ambulances could not reach because of the fighting.

"The international organizations in Gaza are talking about 200 dead children," he said. "I don't know how to explain these things to myself, never mind to my government," added the ambassador. "Your action is brutal and you don't realize how much damage this is causing you in the world. This is not only short term. It's damage for years. Is this the Israel you want to be?"

A similar message also came across in a conversation that President Shimon Peres had with the delegation of European foreign ministers who came to Jerusalem a week ago. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Union Commissioner responsible for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy, said to Peres: "You have the right to self-defense, but what is happening in Gaza is beyond all proportion. I am telling you, Mr. President, Israel's image in the world has been destroyed."” [my emphasis]

A degree of anger was even expressed in a parliamentary debate here in London. Britain is one of Israel’s strongest supporters (and its role in this conflict is something I intend to write more about presently). Israel is also alienating Turkey, possibly its closest ally in the region. And even the US media, famous for its incredible bias in favour of Israel, is discovering an at times strongly critical voice.

Note that these are friends of the Israeli government, not its enemies or even its critics. Presumably the aim of Israel’s PR campaign over Gaza was to extend or at least consolidate support. In the event, not only is opposition ignited worldwide but pre-existing support is evaporating, for the simple reason that its very hard to spin your way out of responsibility for mass murder.

The fact is that for a great many people, the bloodshed of the past three weeks will have gone a considerable distance towards clarifying matters where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concerned. It is now plain, were it not already, that the problem is not Hamas or Islamic Jihad, represhensible though those groups are. The problem is Israel: its government, its military, its political class, and its transnational supporting cast of propagandists. It is Israel that is responsible for the vast majority of death and destruction in the conflict. Israel that is the aggressor. Israel whose limitlessly cruel and flagrantly illegal occupation of Palestinian land creates the conditions in which terrorism is bound to flourish. The case for Israel, of a peaceful state that goes to war only in self-defence, is now shot to bits. It has no credibility, and neither do those who peddle it, not least since these people have spent the past three weeks treating us to the ugly sight and sound of their apologias for the slaughter of innocent people (large numbers of children included).

Condemnations of Hamas and attempts to divert the blame for the conflict onto the Palestinians will ring increasingly hollow as the public mind recalls the sight of dying children on the TV news, of attacks on aid facilities, of the indiscriminate bombardment of a million and a half people trapped in an open air prison. To those remaining few who could not see it, Israel has now revealed itself. The callous, racist mindset that conceives of these atrocities is the mindset that the Palestinians have been up against for over 60 years; something that may now be a little better understood. I suspect that the Israeli government has made a profound impression on world opinion since 27 December 2008, but perhaps not the one it was aiming for.

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For more analysis, I could make no better recommendation than Professor Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; by far the most informed and insightful analyst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past several decades. Follow this link to hear him speaking about the current situation.

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I’ll finish by reiterating a point I've made several times previously (so again, apologies to regular readers). You’re not obliged to simply watch these events unfold. There are practical, small things you can do which, when combined with the individual efforts of many others, add up to something significant. The first of those is donating money to the relief effort. This is one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world, and its entirely man-made. The world’s top aid agencies are trying to get food and medical supplies to the victims of Israel’s bombing, and you can rely on them to make best use of whatever amount you can afford to give. You can donate to Oxfam, Christian Aid, Save the Children, CAFOD, or any aid agency you prefer. Those NGOs are also good sources of information on the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

The other thing you can do is protest. Israel is making every effort to win the PR war, and public protest can undermine that, thus increasing pressure on Israel to bring its murderous actions to an end.
Demonstrations large and small continue throughout the UK - there may well be one near you - and, if you’re not resident in Britain, I’m sure the anti-war groups in your country have their own campaigns in action.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

"You're shooting at kids, don't you understand that?"

War is the enabler of humanity's darkest instincts; a force of nature that cruelly exposes the depths to which we're capable of sinking. But occasionally, it allows us a glimpse of the best of humanity as well; its challenges met by the bravery of at least some of us.

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The footage above, from Korean television, shows Palestinians on the West Bank demonstrating against the assault on Gaza clashing with Israeli troops. The heroic young woman who stands between the Israeli guns and the Palestinians - imploring "you're shooting at kids, don't you understand that?" - is Huweida Arraf, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement. Her actions are reminiscent of those of the unknown Chinese man who placed himself in front of a column of tanks during the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, 1989.

For every Israeli soldier, Hamas miliant, armchair apologist for Israeli massacres or international statesperson working to block a ceasefire until Israel has achieved its military objectives, there's an aid worker, an ISM volunteer, a person documenting abuses for a human rights organisation, an Israeli who refused to fight with the IDF on moral grounds, and activist, a protester, and so on and so on. Even war offers no excuse for cynicism, provided we're prepared to look squarely at the whole picture. The correct response to the bloodletting of the past fortnight is not cynicism about our fellow human beings but a question, "what am I doing to help?"

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Amnesty International now says explicitly that the Israeli military is targeting civilians:

"..civilians – particularly the 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in Gaza – continue to both be targeted and suffer disproportionately in this conflict".

Remember that generous daily three-hour ceasefire that Israel is introducing, so that the Palestinians can get "whatever they need"? Save the Children says its "completely inadequate". Such ingratitude. I mean, what's Israel got to do? Stop killing innocent people for the other 21 hours in the day as well?

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Wednesday evening, the Telegraph reported:

"Growing evidence emerged today of the bloodiest single incident of the Gaza conflict when around 70 corpses were found by a Palestinian paramedic near a bombed-out house. Concerns had been growing that Zeitoun had witnessed massive civilian casualties after surviving members of the Samouni clan reached Gaza City three days ago."

"They said that after the Israeli army first took the town on Saturday night soldiers had ordered about 100 members of the clan to gather in a single house owned by Wael Samouni around dawn on Sunday. "

"At 6.35am on Monday the house was repeatedly shelled with appalling loss of civilian life."

"Convoys of ambulances twice headed to the area to look for wounded but they were driven back by Israeli shooting."

The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem has more on this.

A press release from the International Committee of the Red Cross begins:

"On the afternoon of 7 January, four Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) ambulances and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) managed to obtain access for the first time to several houses in the Zaytun neighbourhood of Gaza City that had been affected by Israeli shelling."

"The ICRC had requested safe passage for ambulances to access this neighbourhood since 3 January but it only received permission to do so from the Israel Defense Forces during the afternoon of 7 January. "

"The ICRC/PRCS team found four small children next to their dead mothers in one of the houses. "

"They were too weak to stand up on their own. One man was also found alive, too weak to stand up. In all there were at least 12 corpses lying on mattresses. "

"In another house, the ICRC/PRCS rescue team found 15 other survivors of this attack including several wounded. In yet another house, they found an additional three corpses. Israeli soldiers posted at a military position some 80 meters away from this house ordered the rescue team to leave the area which they refused to do. There were several other positions of the Israel Defense Forces nearby as well as two tanks. "

""This is a shocking incident," said Pierre Wettach, the ICRC's head of delegation for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. "The Israeli military must have been aware of the situation but did not assist the wounded. Neither did they make it possible for us or the Palestine Red Crescent to assist the wounded.""

The US ambassador to the UN told the media this week that absolutely no "equivalence" could be drawn between the Israeli military and Hamas. I agree. Whether Hamas wanted to or not, it simply does not have the means to cause anything remotely like the bloodbath we have seen over the past fortnight in the Gaza strip. Israelis have never suffered at the hands of Palestinian groups anything resembling the horrors we are witnessing now. Overall, in the eight years since the second intifada began, 1,000 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians. Israel has killed more than three quarters that number of Palestinians in just under two weeks. 5,000 Palestinians had been killed by Israel between September 2000 and November 2008 - that number has been swelled by 15 per cent less than a fortnight. In fact, given that Israel is preventing both medics and journalists from properly accessing Gaza, the currently cited death toll of 770 may be a serious underestimate.

So yes, there is no "equivalence".

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The above three stories come via Jamie Stern-Weiner's blog The Heathlander, which has been very impressive over the last two weeks in compiling information and analysis on the attack on Gaza. Bookmark it and visit often. Another good source is Middle East historian, Juan Cole.

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At TheRealNews, Phyllis Bennis, a Senior Analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC., gives a good, clear assessment of a number of important factors: the background to current events, the US role, the legal status of Israel's actions and the problems faced by the United Nations in bringing the crisis to an end.

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More from me soon

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Gaza: another shameful day for Israel

Here’s Norweigan doctor Mads Gilbert, interviewed on the scene in Gaza by the BBC (I posted an earlier interview of his with CBS yesterday). According to Gilbert, Gaza's hospitals are completely overwhelmed with casualties, almost all of whom are civilians.

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Avi Shlaim, a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford who served in the Israeli army in the mid-1960s, today delivers possibly the best analysis of Israel's assault on Gaza that I have seen so far, giving the essential factual background and context in which these events should be understood. If you read nothing else about what's been happening over the past two weeks, read this.

A quote:

"
The brutality of Israel's soldiers is fully matched by the mendacity of its spokesmen. Eight months before launching the current war on Gaza, Israel established a National Information Directorate. The core messages of this directorate to the media are that Hamas broke the ceasefire agreements; that Israel's objective is the defence of its population; and that Israel's forces are taking the utmost care not to hurt innocent civilians. Israel's spin doctors have been remarkably successful in getting this message across. But, in essence, their propaganda is a pack of lies."

"A wide gap separates the reality of Israel's actions from the rhetoric of its spokesmen. It was not Hamas but the IDF that broke the ceasefire. It did so by a raid into Gaza on 4 November that killed six Hamas men. Israel's objective is not just the defence of its population but the eventual overthrow of the Hamas government in Gaza by turning the people against their rulers. And far from taking care to spare civilians, Israel is guilty of indiscriminate bombing and of a three-year-old blockade that has brought the inhabitants of Gaza, now 1.5 million, to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe."

"The problem with Israel's concept of security is that it denies even the most elementary security to the other community. The only way for Israel to achieve security is not through shooting but through talks with Hamas, which has repeatedly declared its readiness to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with the Jewish state within its pre-1967 borders for 20, 30, or even 50 years. Israel has rejected this offer for the same reason it spurned the Arab League peace plan of 2002, which is still on the table: it involves concessions and compromises.
"

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This morning the Guardian reports that, “Israel's assault on Gaza has exacted the bloodiest toll of civilian lives yet, when the bombing of UN schools being used as refugee centres and of housing killed more than 50 people, including an entire family of seven young children.”

“The UN was particularly incensed over targeting of the schools, because Israeli forces knew they were packed with families as they had ordered them to get out of their homes with leaflet drops and loudspeakers. It said it had identified the schools as refugee centres to the Israeli military and provided GPS coordinates.”

“Explaining its attack on al-Fahora school, the Israeli military claimed that a mortar was fired from the playground, and it responded with a single shell which killed known Hamas fighters; the resulting explosion was compounded because Hamas "booby-trapped the school". Two Hamas militants were among the dead, both part of a rocket-launching cell.

As a former British intelligence analyst notes here, the Israeli military has a long history of lying about these sorts of incidents. But lets - for a moment - give them the entirely unearned benefit of the doubt and say their claims are right. What then? Well we can simply recall that – as Avi Shlaim notes in the article mentioned above (and more of this below) – the current round of violence started when, on 4 November, Israel decisively broke a ceasefire whose terms Hamas had basically adhered to but which Israel had not respected. Even the US media, some of the most dogmatically pro-Israel in the world, are being forced to accept this now.

The upshot? Israel is claiming is that it shelled these civilians in self-defence….in a conflict which it itself initiated. That is the absurd interpretation it is now trying to peddle. A less demented way of looking at it might be to say that the best method of self defence for Israel would have been not break the ceasefire in the first place. After all, there were zero Israeli deaths in the six months before the start of its all-out attack on Gaza on 27 December 2008, which by now has claimed over 600 Palestinian lives. Also, a great way of avoiding shelling civilians would be not to start a war to begin with (or, even then, to...er...just not shell civilians).

But that’s giving Israel the benefit of the doubt. In fact, John Ging, the director of operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, has said "I can tell you categorically that there was no militant activity in that school at the time of that tragedy...We have established beyond any doubt that the school was not being used by any militants...They were innocent people".

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Israel today began what it said will be a daily three hour ceasefire to allow Gazans to "get medical attention, get supplies... whatever they need". Wow, these guys are like saints, aren’t they? For every 21 hours of murdering innocent people there’ll now be 3 hours of not murdering innocent people, so the innocent people can get “whatever they need”, before they start getting murdered again.

Don't forget that Israel is defending Western civilisation against the barbarians, will you?

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Lets go back to that ceasefire that Israel broke. Nancy Kanwisher of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology presents an important piece of empirical analysis in an article for The Huffington Post, showing that (a), yes, Hamas held the ceasefire and Israel broke it, and (b) that since the second intifada began eight years ago, the side that breaches periods of calm with new attacks has overwhelmingly been Israel. Not only that, but the longer the period of calm, the more likely it is that Israel will break it by launching a new attack, to the point where “it is virtually always Israel that kills first after a lull lasting more than a week”.

“79% of all conflict pauses were interrupted when Israel killed a Palestinian… of the 25 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than a week, Israel unilaterally interrupted 24, or 96%, and it unilaterally interrupted 100% of the 14 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than 9 days

Lets be clear about the importance of finding (b). In conflict situations, periods of peace provide something to build on; space for anger to subside, for dialogue to take place, even for levels of mutual trust to emerge. The longer a period of peace continues, the greater the chances of the cycle of violence being broken in a more substantive way. According to Kanwisher’s analysis, the greater the window of opportunity for peace that opens in this conflict, the greater the likelihood that Israel will slam that window shut, while it is hardly ever the Palestinians that do so.

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Finally today, a look at the longer term consequences of Israel’s aggression. The Guardian talks to “Gaza's leading child psychiatrist, Dr Abdel Aziz Mousa Thabet, who has studied the effects of violence and trauma on children for 20 years, [and says that] about 65% of young people in the enclave suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.”

““There are many other traumatic symptoms, like headaches and abdominal pain and vomiting. There's an inability to concentrate, panic, anxiety, irritability," he said. "I've observed much change in the children. They are more anxious, more fearful. Children are panicky because of the explosions. Children want to leave. You hear it. They feel there is no hope, that the world can't do anything for them and they can't do anything for themselves."”

“Thabet says the impact of trauma on older children combines with other experiences to push them to extremes.”

“The perpetual killing has also drawn many children into the cult of the "martyr" and led them to expect an early death.”

“Thabet said the traumatizing of children was having a profound effect on Gaza's future. The children he studied in the early 1990s are now adults.”

“"They become fighters. I warned about this 15 years ago, that in 15 years these traumatized children will be more aggressive, they will want to fight, there will be more violence in the community. You saw it in the factional fighting in Gaza in 2007," he said.”

“"So now we will have another generation of more aggressive behaviour. They will go to more extremes because they have no future. This is a problem. I've been warning people of this but nobody was listening. It's a cycle of aggression.””

“"Children see their parents killed in front of them. What do you expect?"

Juan Cole, professor of Middle East History at the University of Michigan, has a good post on his blog today describing how previous Israeli atrocities have led to vicious terrorist reprisals. He notes that Israeli politicians are well aware that this will be one of the consequences of their actions.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, “predicted that the Israeli invasion of Gaza would see "extremists try to radicalise individuals for their own purposes". Research had shown "no single path" on the way to violent extremism, but foreign policy was certainly one factor, along with economic, social, and personal circumstances.

So if it comes to light that Gordon Brown really has had our diplomats at the UN working in secret to block calls for a ceasefire, then not only will he have been assisting in the slaughter of innocent people in Gaza, he will also be responsible for creating what are known to be the conditions for an increased likelihood of deadly terrorist attacks in the UK. (In this regard, it seems Brown’s odious predecessor has also been busy recently)

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Gaza: Israeli PR vs bloody reality

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As I've noted in previous posts, Israel's attack on Gaza is being accompanied by a massive propaganda effort – through its ministries and embassies, but also through ostensibly independent advocacy groups and bloggers - to win the battle for global public opinion and secure the support or acquiescence the world’s governments while the assault continues.

But any PR campaign of this sort will run into serious credibility problems when its claims are so palpably contrary to the obvious facts.

So take the big lie, that Hamas broke its ceasefire with Israel and Israel then had to act militarily to defend its population from Hamas rockets. This is a straightforward inversion of reality. Hamas maintained the ceasefire for four months. It was Israel which broke it on the 5 November with an incursion into Gaza that killed 6 militants. Rocket fire, predictably, resumed after this point. But no Israelis were killed - none - during the six months leading up to the start of Israel's current assault, which has now taken over 550 Palestinian lives.

Or take the second big lie, that Israel is targeting Hamas and making every effort to avoid civilian casualties. It has by now been copiously documented by the world's most respected aid agencies, human rights organisations and NGOs (see here for an excellent summary) that Israel's claims in this regard are flat-out false. Amongst the "Hamas targets" and "terrorist infrastructure" struck by the Israeli military - as documented by the NGOs - are hospitals, ambulances and medical workers, mosques, schools, government buildings and civil policemen, news media, general civilian infrastructure and civilians themselves including, of course, the children that make up 56 per cent of Gaza's population. AFP now reports that "More than a quarter of the hundreds of dead from the Gaza conflict are children and aid groups say the survivors will suffer physical and psychological scars for the rest of their lives....Aid workers believe just about every Gaza child has been traumatised by the incessant bombardment.."

In the interview with CBS television at the top of this post, a Norweigan doctor on the scene in Gaza, Mads Gilbert, said “anyone who tries to portray this as sort of a clean war against another army are lying. This is an all-out war against the civilian Palestinian population in Gaza”.

So when, in the face of all this, Israel's Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni asserts that there is “no humanitarian crisis” in Gaza, its not just that people know she’s lying. Its what she’s lying about that is bound to shock the ordinary person. Because where, in the end, are one’s sympathies most likely to fall? With the Palestinian father weeping in anguish over the lifeless bodies of his three infant children – the picture on the front of today’s Guardian – or with the person who approved the military campaign which killed those children and who now jets round the world giving press conferences pretending that the consequences of her actions do not exist? After performances like Livni’s, Israel can almost say what it likes. I suspect many people who watched the CBS interview above will be deaf to Israeli PR campaigns from now on.

Given this chasm between Israel’s PR and the known reality, it is reasonable to predict that the propadanda campaign will not only fail, but backfire disastrously. The offence caused by the sight of the atrocities Israel is committing will only be compounded by the cynicism and apparent inhumanity of those who are clearly prepared to say anything to defend these attacks.

There are, as far as I’m aware, no polls as yet on world public reaction to events in Gaza. But I think we can expect widespread opposition of the kind that met Israel’s war on Lebanon two years ago. There are a couple of hints toward that hypothesis. US public opinion – which to an extent not true of other populations is relentlessly bombarded with pro-Israel propaganda from its news media and pundit class – is still ‘closely divided’ on whether Israel’s recent actions are justified. One would therefore expect countries where the coverage of the situation is less unbalanced to show greater levels of opposition to Israel’s actions, as was indeed the case two years ago.

Then take this editorial in the Financial Times, which comes out strongly against Israel. A Financial Times editorial is a good indicator of the thinking of socio-economic and political elites (consider who those articles are written by and written for). And its also true that such elites tend to be to the right of the public (see, for example, the gaps between the US public and its political class on foreign policy).

So if the US public and the Financial Times editorial writers, where we would perhaps least expect opposition to Israel’s actions, are either split or opposed to the attack on Gaza, then that does not bode well for Israel in terms of how more liberal sectors (e.g. public opinion in the rest of the world or political opinion in Europe) will react.

In a great piece of analysis here, Juan Cole, Professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan and a prominent commentator on US policy towards the region, speculates that Israel’s propaganda effort may fail partly because people are now well used to seeing these sorts of lies, half-truths and distortions from the Bush White House, and so are less likely to fall for it again.

One more thing. When Israel attacked Lebanon two years ago Tony Blair suffered significant political damage for leading his government in supporting Israel’s assault and blocking calls for a ceasefire. Gordon Brown has apparently taken a different stance, calling for an immediate ceasefire. Or has he? According to Craig Murray - former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who lost his job after speaking out against the human rights abuses of the Tashkent regime - the British position on Gaza is not what it appears.

Murray says: “Brown is appeasing domestic horror at the Israeli massacre in Gaza by calling for a ceasefire. Meanwhile British diplomats on the United Nations Security Council are under direct instructions to offer “tacit support” to United States’ efforts to block a ceasefire. I have been told this directly by a former colleague in the UK Mission to the United Nations.” [Here’s the link. I’d warn the faint hearted that some understandably strong language is used by the former ambassador]

We can’t say for 100% certain whether Murray’s information is accurate, but I would view it as being likely to be true given the connections he must have. If it is true, it will count as the darkest and most disgraceful episode in Brown’s premiership to date. One hopes that any pretence on the part of Brown - to be trying to end the killing when in fact he is trying to prolong it - will be exposed in the same way that Israel’s propaganda about the atrocities it is committing are being exposed, daily, to people all over the world.

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

Gaza: roundup of analysis

Perhaps the hardest thing about watching these news reports showing families in Gaza trembling under Israeli bombardment is the thought that some of the mothers, fathers and children we see in these pictures may not survive the next few days and weeks. What we see here could be their last moments; indeed, by the time these reports reach us they may already have been killed, or be lying in the makeshift emergency ward of a broken-down and overwhelmed Gazan hospital. The fact is, we’ll probably never know.

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With its air force having softened Gaza up with a week of bombing that has killed almost 500 people and injured over two thousand (Gaza has no anti-aircraft defences of course), Israel has now launched its ground invasion, sending tanks into the small coastal strip that is home to 1.5 million Palestinian people (many of them refugees driven from their former homes in the very parts of Israel from which those tanks now come). The United States has blocked a UN Security Council statement that would have called for an immediate ceasefire.

Today I’d like to recommend a few comment and analysis articles I’ve read on the past week’s events.

Chris McGreal is one of the Guardian/Observer’s finest correspondents, and his piece in this morning’s Observer is an excellent work of analytical journalism. McGreal describes the huge propaganda effort that Israel is undertaking – through its ministries and embassies, but also through ostensibly independent advocacy groups and bloggers - to win the battle for global public opinion and secure the support or acquiescence the world’s governments while it carries out its attacks. He then examines the content of Israel’s PR effort and the justifications it is offering for its actions, finding – surprise surprise – that the Israeli case is essentially bogus. So I place this article at the top of my list and recommend it highly.

Another good examination and deconstruction of Israel’s case for attacking Gaza is provided by Tony Karon, a senior editor at Time.com and - especially in his personal capacity as a blogger - a very smart and perceptive analyst of the politics of Middle East.

Sara Roy, a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University, provides this timely and thoughtful article on how repression and violence rely on the suspension of empathy and the denial of the humanity of one’s victims. Gideon Levy, one of Israel’s best journalists, writes powerfully on that same theme in this article.

Neve Gordon and Jeff Halper note that many of those on the pro-Israeli government side who attacked the proposed boycott of Israeli universities on grounds of academic freedom were strangely quiet when Israel bombed a university in Gaza last week. Apparently, while boycotting Israeli universities is bad, bombing Palestinian universities is nothing to get steamed up about.

(To note: the argument in favour of an academic boycott has been that Israeli universities are often complicit in the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, at least at some level, and that boycotts and divestment can be an important means of pressuring a government to change unjust policies, as was the case with Apartheid South Africa. I don’t agree with the idea myself (and nor did many others who are concerned for the plight of the Palestinians). I think an arms boycott (for one thing) would be a better targeted action. But I absolutely do not stand with the critics of the proposed boycott from the pro-Israeli government side; people who seem to care remarkably little for the Palestinians and who certainly need to get their facts and their arguments straight)

On the liberal US political website The Huffington Post, Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouthi provides his own refutation of the key myths of the Israeli propaganda effort. Barghouthi is a secular liberal who advocates non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation and his account of the past week’s events is rooted in the factual record. Yet still the Huffington Post, as is typical of the moral cowardice that afflicts many US liberals where Israel is concerned, sees fit to handle his opinions with rubber gloves, inserting the weasel words that his “views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Huffington Post”, a disclaimer that apparently no other Post contributor requires. Well, at least they published it.

If you want some deeper background, I can recommend, for one thing, Khaled Hroub's "Hamas: A Beginner's Guide". It’s a good, solid introduction to the subject. Highly informed, readable, and benefitting from some thoughtful and balanced analysis, its probably the best of the books available on Hamas. More good information on the group can be found at Conflicts Forum.

I’ll finish by reiterating a point I made earlier in the week. You’re not obliged to simply watch these events unfold. There are practical, small things you can do which, when combined with the small individual efforts of many others, add up to something significant. The first of those is donating money to the relief effort. The world’s top aid agencies are trying to get humanitarian supplies to the victims of Israel’s bombing, and you can rely on them to make best use of whatever amount you can afford to give. You can donate to Oxfam, Christian Aid, Save the Children, CAFOD, or any aid agency you prefer.

The other thing you can do is protest. Israel is making every effort to win the PR war, and public protest can undermine that, thus increasing pressure on Israel to bring its murderous actions to an end. There are demonstrations planned in the UK throughout this week and, if you’re not resident in Britain, I’m sure the anti-war groups in your country have their own campaigns in action.

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Terrorism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: some remarks from an informed observer

John Dugard is a South African professor of international law who has written extensively on South African apartheid. He has served as Judge ad hoc on the International Court of Justice and as a Special Rapporteur for both the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the International Law Commission.

Almost exactly a year ago, Dugard delivered his final report in his capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories. In that report he made the following remarks on the subject of terrorism which, given the events of the past few days, are worth reminding ourselves of and quoting in full.

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"Terrorism is a scourge, a serious violation of human rights and international humanitarian law. No attempt is made in the reports to minimize the pain and suffering it causes to victims, their families and the broader community. Palestinians are guilty of terrorizing innocent Israeli civilians by means of suicide bombs and Qassam rockets. Likewise the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are guilty of terrorizing innocent Palestinian civilians by military incursions, targeted killings and sonic booms that fail to distinguish between military targets and civilians. All these acts must be condemned and have been condemned. Common sense, however, dictates that a distinction must be drawn between acts of mindless terror, such as acts committed by Al Qaeda, and acts committed in the course of a war of national liberation against colonialism, apartheid or military occupation. While such acts cannot be justified, they must be understood as being a painful but inevitable consequence of colonialism, apartheid or occupation. History is replete with examples of military occupation that have been resisted by violence - acts of terror. The German occupation was resisted by many European countries in the Second World War; the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) resisted South Africa’s occupation of Namibia; and Jewish groups resisted British occupation of Palestine - inter alia, by the blowing up of the King David Hotel in 1946 with heavy loss of life, by a group masterminded by Menachem Begin, who later became Prime Minister of Israel. Acts of terror against military occupation must be seen in historical context. This is why every effort should be made to bring the occupation to a speedy end. Until this is done peace cannot be expected, and violence will continue. In other situations, for example Namibia, peace has been achieved by the ending of occupation, without setting the end of resistance as a precondition. Israel cannot expect perfect peace and the end of violence as a precondition for the ending of the occupation."

"A further comment on terrorism is called for. In the present international climate it is easy for a State to justify its repressive measures as a response to terrorism - and to expect a sympathetic hearing. Israel exploits the present international fear of terrorism to the full. But this will not solve the Palestinian problem. Israel must address the occupation and the violation of human rights and international humanitarian law it engenders, and not invoke the justification of terrorism as a distraction, as a pretext for failure to confront the root cause of Palestinian violence - the occupation."

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