Friday, October 30, 2009

Demanding a New British Foreign Policy

My article, "We Must Demand a New Foreign Policy", was published on The Guardian's website earlier this week.
The article set out to do three things:
First, to point out that at the next election the political system will not be offering us any alternative government that presents the clean break in UK foreign policy that the public desires, following the Blair-Bush years.
Second, to try and describe some of the main features of what a progressive transformation in Britain's relations with the rest of the world might look like.
Third, to encourage the public to get involved in activism that challenges current UK policy and aims to change it for the better.
You can read the article here.
Many comments were made by readers (I believe it was one of the top five most commented-upon pieces in the 24 hours it was prominent on the site, and the editors were kind enough to nominate it 'Thread of the Day'). Some of the input was good, some less so, as is always the way in these forums. One comment I thought particularly valuable was this from Paul Lambert in which he cites polling evidence backing up my point about the democratic deficit on foreign policy.
It was good to get the opportunity to publish in the Guardian and get some of these ideas out to a much wider audience than I get here (no offence to either of you, my faithful and valued readers). Hopefully this will be the shape of things to come.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Britain splits with Israel & US on Goldstone report

Its so rare that you see the British government standing up to Washington on any major foreign policy issue that when it happens its worth taking a look.

A UN report into Israel's recent assault on Gaza undertaken by Justice Richard Goldstone (who had served as the chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda), condemned both Israel and Hamas for committing war crimes during the conflict, but reserved its strongest criticism for Israel, accusing it of deliberately targeting and terrorising the civilian population of Gaza [Jamie Stern-Wiener provides a good summary of the report here].


Discussions are now ongoing at the United Nations to decide whether the UN Human Rights Council and the Security Council should endorse Goldstone's report (it has already been endorsed by leading human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch). If those UN bodies endorsed the report, they would also be endorsing its recommendation that should Hamas and Israel fail to conduct proper and thorough investigations into their alleged war crimes, both parties must then appear before the International Criminal Court to answer the charges there.

The administration of Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama leapt into action, pressuring UN members to vote against the report. Even the Palestinian delegation at the UN, led by the notoriously supine Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, was strongarmed by Washington into calling for a delay of any discussion of Goldstone's report. Palestinian society erupted in fury at this betrayal and, shaken by the extent to which his support base was evaporating, Abbas quickly backtracked.

Still the US and Israeli efforts to bury the report continue, and this is where the UK comes in. Britain plans, not to vote against the report alongside its American and Israeli allies, as one might expect, but to abstain, effectively lending tacit support to Goldstone's conclusions. Efforts by hard-right Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to reverse this decision are apparently being firmly rebuffed by London.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports:

"[A] conversation [between Netanyahu and] his British counterpart Gordon Brown, was said by a diplomat to have lasted 30 minutes. According to sources, the exchange was uneasy and full of disagreements. Netanyahu tried to convince Brown that the U.K. change its position from abstaining to opposing its adoption by the Human Rights Council.

Netanyahu also protested the fact that the U.K. supported taking the Goldstone Report seriously, and that Britain intends to abstain at the vote.
[Israeli] Minister of Defense Ehud Barak also spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton several times, asking her to act quickly in order to convince more countries to vote against the report's adoption. Clinton also focused her efforts on Britain, whose stance will affect that of other European Union countries.

Clinton asked British Foreign Minister David Miliband to alter his stance and vote against the adoption of the report. However, like Netanyahu, Clinton also failed to convince the British foreign minister.

Miliband explained that unless the report passes, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will suffer a serious political blow."

This last line is telling. We should be clear that Britain is not taking a moral but a pragmatic stance here. Britain has continued to arm and support Israel through all its worst atrocities, but while London's stance on the Israel-Palestine issue has often been grossly immoral, that does not mean it is necessarily misguided within the narrow terms of its own strategic goal (the service of Western power). Brown's government clearly understands that the West's best chance of getting the sort of peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians that it collectively favours - one in which the occupied Palestinians make all the substantive concessions and the Israeli occupier makes but a nominal few - is most likely to be delivered if the quisling Abbas remains at the helm. Another high-profile diplomatic defeat for the Palestinians would undermine Abbas further in the eyes of his own people, and perhaps pave the way for his being replaced by someone better able to stand up for Palestinian rights. Washington's zealous, reflexive support for Israel over the Goldstone report misses this broader picture, leaving it to London to spell out the point.

But there is a wider issue here, which explains why this development is still an important one. It is becoming increasingly clear to Western policymakers and opinion formers that siding wholly with an extreme right-wing and rejectionist Israel against the Palestinians is a major strategic error, damaging Western interests in the broader Middle East. The settlement of the Israeli Palestinian conflict by Israel's withdrawal to its legal borders, handing back the illegally occupied Palestinian lands of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip (the latter no longer colonised but still under a crippling siege), is widely known to be the only sustainable peace deal possible. I would prefer it if the West endorsed that conclusion from moral grounds, but if it happens as a result of a pure calculation of power-interest then at least the result for the people who matter - the long-suffering Palestinians - would be roughly the same. If a bit of pragmatism (albeit cynical) on the part of London can help that process along, then that would be something. Obama's involvement in the "peace process" (such as it is) has been lamentable so far, but London does at least formally understand that a settlement along Israel's the legal borders is the only game in town. Any sign that the West collectively may be able to wake up to the pragmatic if not the moral case for abandoning its historic rejection of that settlement is to be welcomed.
London would doubtless favour the weakest version of the two-state solution possible and Washington a version that was weaker still. But any realisation that these are the lines along which a settlement must come opens rhetorical and political space for ourselves in civil society to push for a solution that is genuinely fair. We have to be realistic about the limitations to any apparent moderation in Western support for Israel, but that does not mean being blind to the openings such moderation offers us in terms of making the case for a genuinely just settlement to the conflict and for an end to the oppression of the Palestinian people.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Gaza Freedom March

video

I've heard of few activist projects more inspiring and worthwhile than the Gaza Freedom March; a coming non-violent attempt to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza strip and relieve the appalling humanitarian situation there. Israel has deliberately created a scene of abject misery and destitution for the innocent civilians of Gaza in recent times, while cynically trying to present itself as a civilised democratic nation seeking only to defend itself against ruthless extremists. But make no mistake, this is as clear a situation of oppressor and oppressed as Apartheid South Africa twenty years ago. And now, as then, something needs to be done.

We can help by participating in the march itself or by assisting in the equally crucial task of publicising the effort. There's plenty more information on the official website here, on Youtube and on Facebook. Here's Noam Chomksy giving his usual informed and perceptive analysis of the issue, and here's a rather more modest effort from me: one of my blog posts from during the Israeli assault of January this year which hopefully conveys some sense of the sheer cruelty with which Israel continues to treat the Palestinians, with the connivance of its allies in London and Washington.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Boycotting the Israeli occupation

video

Here's a report from The Real News Network on the boycott campaign against Israel's illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories, and here's an article by Naomi Klein on the same subject.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Israel defends itself against children's toys by arresting a Nobel Peace Prize Winner

The bravery of the Israeli armed forces reached new heights this week as a boat delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza - including medical supplies and children's toys - was captured and its passengers and crew - among them former Georgia congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, and 1977 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mairead Maguire - were arrested. They are still being detained in Israel.

The International Committee of the Red Cross earlier this week described the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza as people "trapped in despair" as a result of Israel's blockade. Obviously its vital for Israel's self-defence that Gazans don't get medical aid and their kids don't have toys.

More on the Free Gaza boat here.

Elsewhere, Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, has an excellent op-ed in the LA Times in which she cuts through some of the crap regarding the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" and locates the bottom line:

"The debate over Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories is often framed in terms of whether they should be “frozen” or allowed to grow “naturally.” But that is akin to asking whether a thief should be allowed merely to keep his ill-gotten gains or steal some more. It misses the most fundamental point: Under international law, all settlements on occupied territory are unlawful. And there is only one remedy: Israel should dismantle them, relocate the settlers within its recognized 1967 borders and compensate Palestinians for the losses the settlements have caused."

Read the whole article here.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Mr Obama goes to Cairo

While British Politics has been consumed with petty intrigue, life in the rest of the world goes on. Last week, US President Barack Obama gave a keynote speech in Cairo addressed to 'the Muslim world'. You can watch the speech here, or read a transcript here. Obama's speech is important to us because, to a rather pathetic extent, US foreign policy is automatically British foreign policy. So we should listen to our master's voice, and hope he's at least a slight improvement on the last guy.

Before the speech was made the Washington Post ran a good article assessing the views of Obama's principle target audience, the people of the Middle East. The report found a chasm between the way American policymakers saw US actions in that region and the lived experience of the people most affected. On his blog, Time editor Tony Karon stressed that given this, it would take concrete actions, more than nice words, for Obama to salvage Washington's reputation in the Middle East.

After the speech, reaction was mixed. The best and most comprehensive analysis comes from
Noam Chomsky, who notes beneath the rhetoric substantive continuities between Obama's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (perhaps the central topic of the speech) and that of previous administrations. Egyptian commentator Ahdaf Soueif also saw the continuation of America's pursuit of its own narrow interests, despite the change in tone. On the other hand (though I don't think this necessarily contradicts Chomsky and Soueif's interpretations) Tony Karon, who before the speech had been clear on the importance of a decisive material change in US actions over any cosmetic rhetorical shift, felt in the end that the language Obama used had itself represented a material difference in approach, which may bode well in terms of more practical measures further down the line. For Karon, Obama had shifted the terms of debate on the Israeli-Palestinian issue; inadequately but still substantively and progressively.

In response to the speech, Hamas repeated its long-standing position of accepting a Palestinian state on the legal 1967 borders and pledging not to stand in the way of any international efforts to effect that solution. On the Israeli side, by contrast, shock and confusion reign at the realisation that when the Obama administration asks Israel to moderate their colonisation of the West Bank in some minor way, they - unlike previous administrations - actually mean it. And the next generation of American-Israeli colonists seem less than impressed with Obama's stance on their adoptive homeland.

That's the gap between the two sides: an end to illegal colonisation or a continuation of it. So is Obama merely going to tell the Israelis not to steal even more Palestinian land, but that they can keep what is already stolen, which is already so much as to render a Palestinian state unworkable? Or is he preparing to tell Israel further down the road to start dismantling a substantive amount of its
illegal settlements in order to effect a settlement that broadly accords with international law and the international consensus? Those are the key questions that will be answered over the next few months - a period which could prove seminal in the history of this conflict.

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Monday, June 01, 2009

Rethinking Economics (and other good reading material)

Here's some interesting stuff I've been reading over the last few days.

First, the economy. There are two good articles in today's Guardian on how to reassess our economic ideas in the wake of the financial crash and subsequent depression. Robert H Frank makes a few thought provoking observations on how economic policy can be informed by our understanding of how different elements of human nature and behavioural patters can affect market outcomes. In short, it turns out that the neo-Thatcherite/New Labour ethos of letting personal greed run riot can actually have some quite damaging results. Who knew?

Meanwhile, Larry Elliot laments the dearth of serious heavyweight economists alive in the present day to offer the empirical rather than theoretical analysis that the world economy desperately needs.

Also on economic matters, Alex Kroll gives a good breakdown of how the US financial bailout effectively rewards the authors of the banking crisis, at huge cost to the taxpayer, and in a way that sets the scene for repeated disasters further down the line. Barack Obama shares responsibility for these measures, incidentally. So much for putting the needs of Main Street before the needs of Wall Street.

And so much for new beginnings on US foreign policy. Tom Englehardt sets out here the ways in which the Obama White House is transplanting many of the worst crimes and misjudgements of the Bush era onto America's new "Af-Pak" (Afghanistan-Pakistan) war. Extrajudicial executions? Aerial bombing causing massive civilian casualties which in turn breeds further extremism? How many of those who voted for Obama signed up for more of this?

There does appear to be some small movement however on the Israeli-Palestinian question, with the Obama White House making US support for Israeli colonialism less than totally unequivocal as compared to the Bush approach. The changes in policy are actually fairly minor. Instead of mumbling that Israel's expansion of its illegal settlements on colonised Palestinian land is "unhelpful", and then continuing to fund it anyway, Obama and his administration are now saying strongly that expansion must cease. That's something. But note that we've yet to see what action the new White House is prepared to take to enforce this, if it comes to it, and note also that the problem is the extent of existing settlements, not merely the possibility that they might grow further. The existing settlements already preclude the viability of a Palestinian state, taking as they do the best land on the West Bank and cutting off East Jerusalem, the beating heart of Palestinian economic, religious and cultural life, from the other Palestinian population centres. These settlements are in any case 100 per cent illegal and allowing any of them to remain would be to reward aggression and theft on the international stage. Obama therefore has barely begun to deal with this issue properly, and nor can we assume that he will. But even so, these small moves have sent Israeli leaders into paroxysms, like spoilt children who suddenly realise the game is up. This dispite the fact that in reality, Israel is not being asked to concede anything that is more than symbolic, which in itself gives you a sense of the warped relationship of dependency and indulgence that it has with the US. Rami Khouri of Lebanon's Daily Star gives a fair assessment of the situation here. And in recent weeks I've also been enjoying the blog Mondoweiss, which gives a sensitive and intelligent account of the issue from a liberal Jewish-American perspective. That's updated at least once daily, and its a good way of following debates on the US-Israeli relationship.

Closer to home, Gareth Peirce writes in the London Review of Books on New Labour's complicity in torture under the war on terror. This unsettling article lays bare an altogether sinister side to the way our country is governed. If you think ID cards are a sign of creeping authoritarianism, Peirce's article will rather put that in perspective. Her earlier article on the severe pressures facing British Muslims in the current climate is a good companion piece.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gaza, Sri Lanka, and 'whataboutism'

Criticism of the well documented atrocities committed by Israel towards the Palestinians, most recently in Gaza early this year, is often greeted by a chorus of 'whataboutism' from the Israeli state's apologists. "You complain about Gaza, but what about Sri Lanka / what about Burma / what about ...." and so on.

'Whataboutism', as I understand it, was a propaganda tactic pioneered by the Soviet Union. You'd challenge a Kremlin official with the abuses carried out by the Red Army in Afghanistan, for example, and he'd pause for a moment, shuffle uncomfortably, and then say..."what about what the Americans are doing in Nicaragua?"

Its instructive that Israel, always keen to portray itself as a vibrant liberal democracy, uses the same propaganda tactics to divert attention from its abuses as one of the great dictatorial meat-grinders of the 20th century: the USSR.

When the alleged inconsistency of people talking less about Sri Lanka than they do about the assault on Gaza is raised, you get the strong sense that a form of consistency these people would be happy to see is us shutting up about both Israel and Sri Lanka, rather than talking about both. The main thing is that we shut up about Israel. The argument that Israel is the beleaguered peace-seeker, beset on all sides by demented brown savages, is one the Zionists are well on the way to losing in the Western world, and this is a huge inconvenience for them which they will try anything to get around. Hence, 'whataboutism'.

But how to answer this charge of inconsistency? Well, to begin with, it ought to be obvious that the main reason we need to focus on Israel-Palestine is because of our own responsibilities. Britain offers strong backing for Israeli atrocities, for example as I described here in the case of the Lebanon war of 2006. We're collectively responsible for what our government does whether we voted for it or not, campaigned against it or not, so by simple extention we bear a share of collective guilt for the plight of the Palestinians. That's the overriding reason for our involvement. We are not spectators. We are involved.

Another reason we need to campaign especially hard where Israel is concerned is that there's a massive amount of propaganda and disinformation to be dismantled around that issue before its even properly understood. Israel is served by a vast and well-funded PR operation in support of its crimes: PR that's both state-organised and freelance. So you can't just let that pass unchallenged.

A third reason Israel demands special focus is that its repression of the Palestinians fits in to a much broader picture. Western backing of Israel is a component part of our general, harmful influence over the Middle East through autocratic client/allied governments in the region. This (1) results in widespread and severe injustice and repression, and (2) consequentially feeds anger and resentment that can boil over into conflict which affects both the people of the region and us in the West. When you factor in things like the invasion of Iraq, the danger of an attack on Iran, and the continued threat of terrorist reactions to our aggression towards the Middle East in general and the plight of the Palestinians in particular, then the importance of Israel as a major part of that broader picture becomes clear. Challenging Israeli crimes should always come as part of a broader critique of the West's bloody, corrupt and extremely dangerous approach to the Middle East as a whole. Bottom line: the importance of Israel-Palestine is not limited to events within former mandate Palestine.

Juan Cole, history professor at the University of Michigan, today points out a fourth element that distinguishes the plight of the Palestinians from the plight of the Tamils:

"[Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin] Netanyahu said [after yesterday's meeting with Barack Obama that] he did not want to rule the Palestinians. That is an evasion. If he won't give them a state, then they remain citizens of no state and inevitably Israel "rules" them in the sense of making the important decisions about how they live their lives. The Likud Party doesn't want the Palestinians, just their land and resources. That demand is actually what makes the Palestinian issue different and more horrific than other ethnic-national problems in the world. Sri Lanka, which claims to have just defeated the Tamil Tigers, was fighting to keep the minority Tamils (who speak a Dravidian language and are typically Hindus) as citizens of Sri Lanka, which is dominated by Sinhalese-speaking Buddhists. (The conflict is also in part about the wealthier Tamils wanting more autonomy from the poorer Sinhalese, and about a Marxist guerrilla group ironically representing this minority bourgeois demand; i.e. it isn't just ethno-religious. ) As brutal as the Sri Lankan campaign was, it does not leave the Tamils at the end of the day without basic rights of citizenship in a state, which is the condition of the Palestinians- - who are therefore the most oppressed people in the world."

So there's many good reasons for prioritising the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in our campaigning.
However, on the basis that we concern ourselves primarily with the things we're responsible for, you could argue that the British left should have engaged a bit more with what's been happening in Sri Lanka recently (I definitely include myself in this). Britain does after all help arm the Sri Lankan government.

This from Mark Curtis' report for Saferworld on UK arms exports:

"The Government has failed to effectively implement its own arms export criteria bypersistently permitting the export of arms when there is the risk that they may be used torepress human rights, for example to Colombia,Nepal,Russia and Sri Lanka"

"In 2006, open licences were granted to a variety of countries with poor human rightsrecords, such as Egypt, Indonesia,Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Turkey. Open licences toNigeria included armoured vehicles, and components for combat helicopters wereauthorised for export to Sri Lanka."

"In 2005 open licences for components for combat aircraft were issued to India, Pakistan,Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Turkey"

According to a recent article by Matt Foot:

"...between 2006 and 2008, £12 million worth of British arms were sold to Sri Lanka. This included components for military aircraft and machine guns"

Foot also describes Britain's historic role in the conflict, so his article's well worth reading.

The Saferworld report says that "the UK has licensed more than £110m of military equipment to Israel under Labour" (i.e. in the 9 years between 97 and 06 when the report was published). That's an average of £12m a year, twice as much as the yearly average sold to Sri Lanka in 06-08 but still, the amount sold to Sri Lanka is certainly not insignificant.

So while its clearly important for us to prioritise Israel-Palestine in our activism - and to recognise 'whataboutism' for the propaganda tactic that it is - I for my part at least think I could have said and done something more about Sri Lanka. And that's probably true of the broader left as well.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

email to the Foreign Secretary

Dear

The British government has in the past taken exception to the Iranian President's alleged threat to wipe Israel off the map. Tomorrow, in your capacity as British Foreign Secretary, you will shake hands with Israel's new Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a man who once advocated flooding and destroying the nation of Egypt by bombing the Aswan dam. In other words, a man who advocated genocide.


The British government has also said that the Palestinian group Hamas can not be engaged with until it agrees to honour past peace agreements with Israel, renounce violence and recognise Israel's "right" to exist. (Indeed, your government was prepared to advance this position by backing a blockade of Hamas-run Gaza which in turn caused a crippling humanitarian crisis). Yet while Mr Lieberman holds past peace agreements in undisguised contempt, embraces indiscriminate violence against Arabs whenever possible, and vigorously denies the Palestinians' right to self-determination, you remain content to meet with him. And as far as I'm aware, no Israeli children will be going hungry as a result of a blockade of Israel, backed by Her Majesty's government, in response to Mr Lieberman's coming to office. Only Palestinian children can expect to be punished in this manner for the way their parents vote in free elections.

The three reasons for not meeting with Hamas have previously been described by UK government ministers as "principles". Plainly they were nothing of the sort.

I do not object to your meeting with Mr Lieberman, racist thug though he is. What I object to is your meeting with him as his ally and arms dealer.

If you were to use tomorrow's meeting to tell Mr Lieberman that the UK is prepared do everything it can to facilitate dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians' legitimate representatives in the interests of advancing a lasting peace deal - a deal in strong accordance with international law, especially in respect of Israel's relinquishing illegally occupied territory - and that the UK is prepared to impose punitive sanctions on Israel should it resist such efforts, not limited to a total cessation of all UK-to-Israel arms sales, then I would be positively in favour of your meeting going ahead. This could then - in the interests of fostering dialogue and advancing the prospects for peace - be followed by a meeting with Hamas, whose rejectionism, as you know, is far milder and more qualified than that of both Mr Lieberman and his Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Members of your government have appealed to the public to make a stand against the racist extreme right in the upcoming European elections. Perhaps you could lead by example and take a principled stand tomorrow against the racist, extreme right-wing Israeli Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Lieberman.

Best wishes

David Wearing
MPhil/PhD Student
School of Public Policy
University College London

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The perfect Muslim

"Somewhere out there is the Muslim that the British government seeks. Like all religious people he (the government is more likely to talk about Muslim women than to them) supports gay rights, racial equality, women's rights, tolerance and parliamentary democracy. He abhors the murder of innocent civilians without qualification - unless they are in Palestine, Afghanistan or Iraq. He wants to be treated as a regular British citizen - but not by the police, immigration or airport security. He wants the best for his children and if that means unemployment, racism and bad schools, then so be it.

He raises his daughters to be assertive: they can wear whatever they want so long as it's not a headscarf. He believes in free speech and the right to cause offence but understands that he has neither the right to be offended nor to speak out. Whatever an extremist is, on any given day, he is not it.

He regards himself as British - first, foremost and for ever. But whenever a bomb goes off he will happily answer for Islam. Even as he defends Britain's right to bomb and invade he will explain that Islam is a peaceful religion. Always prepared to condemn other Muslims and supportive of the government, he has credibility in his community not because he represents its interests to the government, but because he represents the government's interests to Muslims. He uses that credibility to preach restraint and good behaviour. Whatever a moderate is, on any given day, he is it."

Gary Younge - Where will we find the perfect Muslim for monocultural Britain? - Guardian, 30 March 2009

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Prospects for peace in the Israeli Palestinian conflict

A few weeks after Israel's brutal assault on the population of Gaza, in which appalling war crimes were committed in defiance of worldwide horror and protest, the formation of a new Israeli government of the hard right now appears close to an inevitability. Meanwhile, a recent study shows that Israeli public opinion is becoming increasingly extreme in respect of the conflict with the Palestinians, being "characterised by a sense of victimisation, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanisation of the Palestinians and insensitivity to their suffering" (quoting Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz's summary of the study). In these unpromising conditions, where Israel appears to have no interest in world opinion, international law, or commonly accepted standards of human decency in its relations with the Palestinian people, what are the prospects for peace? How do we get from a position of Israeli intransigence, rejectionism and extremism to the destination of a viable and sustainable peace settlement?

The Greek historian Thucydides famously said that "The strong do what they please while the weak suffer what they must." That remains as much a truism of politics and international relations today as it did at the time of the Peloponnesian War, of which Thucydides was writing.

Israel is able to do what it pleases because - as a regional power -
it is backed to a truly extraordinary extent by the greatest power on earth: the United States. Israel has received vast amounts of direct aid and military backing from the US for the better part of 4 decades, it gets an automatic veto against any UNSC resolutions against it, courtesy of Washington, and the "honest broker" in its "peace process" with Israeli-approved Palestinians is none other than its US patron (and, indeed, lawyer)

Because it is underwritten by the greatest military power of all time, Israel has almost no restraint on its actions, Talk of military threats to Israel - to its existence , no less - are palpably ludicrous. It can invade who it likes, kill who it likes, repress the Palestinians to its heart's content,
steal their land, starve their children and massacre them with total impunity. Other states attempting to indulge in such behaviour would soon meet the limits of their power. But because Israel's military, diplomatic and economic power is only limited by that of America, it is able to thumb its nose at the world, and do as it pleases.

The only threat Israel faces as the result of its 60 years of colonial aggression has been terrorist atrocities from Palestinian militants enraged by the theft of their homeland. But since Israel continues to behave in a way that all sane persons understand is guaranteed to create terrorists, we must conclude that it, and its US benefactor, have decided that terrorism is a price worth paying for strategic domination of the Levant, and the broader Middle East.

The answer to the question of 'what is to be done?' is therefore reasonably clear. It is for the US to make its support for Israel conditional on Israel's compliance with international law. For that to happen, a popular, grassroots political campaign will have to take place in the US to pressure Washington to alter its line. Recall that in the 1980s the US and UK were very reluctant to remove their backing from apartheid South Africa, which was playing a similar strategic role on behalf of the US in its own region. To the extent that this support was withdrawn or diluted, and to the extent that this in turn helped to precipitate the end of apartheid, this occured largely as the result of a political campaign got up by ordinary people.

The role of the concerned public in other countries is peripheral, but not insignificant. Britain should certainly end all military sales to Israel immediately, as
Amnesty International has urged, not least since complicity in Israeli war crimes has its own legal implications. Further action, beyond that minimal level will help raise the issue, globally, of how to restrain the rogue state Israel, and thus help those calling for a sane Israel policy in the United States.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, at root, not very complicated. It is a conflict between a nation built on ethnic cleansing - Israel - and a people - the Palestinians - who were ethnically cleansed from their homes when that nation was built and who are still denied their right to self determination by their tormentors. The solution is for Israel to hand back the land it illegally occupied in 1967 so that two states for the two peoples can be established, with any adjustments to those 1967 borders being mutual, very minor, and certainly not denying the Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem, the essential component part of any new Palestinian state.

Last autumn in the UN General Assembly the world's nations voted
164-7 in favour of a settlement based on this formula: i.e. on Israeli compliance with international law. In the rejectionist camp were Israel, the United States, Australia, and four South Pacific island nations. Iran was one of the 164 who voted in favour. The Arab states, including the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, have been pushing for a specific peace initiative on this formula for many years. Even Hamas, in May 2006, joined with the other Palestinian factions in signing up to a National Conciliation Document calling for a Palestinian state on the legal, 1967 borders, in accordance with the repeated statements of leading Hamas officials in recent years.

The likely basis for peace is therefore almost universally understood, and is available to be explored and built upon. Israeli rejectionism is underwritten and only made possible by US rejectionism. It is for the US public to try and change this, and for the rest of us to do what we can to help them.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Gaza: the aftermath

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Israel's "right" to exist

A commenter on my last post draws attention to the political platform of the Israeli Likud party, likely winners of next week’s legislative elections. According to information on the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) website (which I assume reflects the current position), Likud still opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Recall that when the Palestinians in the occupied territories elected Hamas to power in January 2006, Israel and its Western allies instituted a boycott against the territories on the basis that, amongst other pretexts, one cannot enter into dialogue with a group – Hamas - that doesn’t recognise the “right” of Israel to exist. That boycott turned into a blockade, condemned by leading aid agencies, which created a humanitarian disaster in the Gaza strip, with children becoming malnourished and people dying from lack of medical treatment. All because Hamas’ alleged extremism rendered it persona non grata at the high table of international diplomacy.

Put aside the fact that Hamas has long accepted the reality of Israel’s existence, dismissing the idea of doing otherwise as “infantile”. Put aside the fact that for Palestinians to go further than merely accepting Israel’s existence - for them to say that Israel has the “right” to exist - would mean them accepting that it was “right” for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to have been subjected to the brutal ethnic cleansing operation that brought the creation of the Israeli state on the ashes of the former Palestinian homeland.

Put all that aside and just consider the sheer, rampant hypocrisy. Israeli leaders (not just Likud) have consistently denied Palestine's "right to exist" as an equal state alongside Israel, not just in word but - crucially, given the vast power-imbalance - in deed. Despite this, no supporter of Palestinian national rights would argue that the Palestinians should refuse to negotiate and agree a peaceful settlement with the elected Israeli government. This illustrates pretty clearly, I think, which side of this debate has a genuine interest in peace and which side clings to flimsy excuses to avoid it.

Its worth saying something else about the "right to exist". Israel does not have the right to exist, and neither does Palestine. Things do not have rights, people have rights. My laptop, my biro, my tea cup, do not have rights. They, like states, have uses which they either do or do not serve successfully.

Jews and Arabs have the equal right as human beings to live in peace and security and with full self-determination. Whatever set-up you have in former Mandate Palestine - a Jewish and an Arab state side by side, a single democratic state for both peoples – is only justified in so far as it serves the purpose of safeguarding those human rights. The current set-up – an Israeli state that confers racial privilege on its Jewish over its Arab inhabitants, with the rest of the Palestinians either locked into dungeon-like conditions in modern day Indian reservations, or exiled altogether – has no justification in terms of any recognisable concept of “rights”.

Those who talk about Israel’s “right” to exist have forgotten a principle – that states are entirely subordinate to human rights – which has been understood by democrats for centuries.

Over two hundred years ago, the American founding fathers, when articulating the fundamental principles of democracy, said that:

"We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying it's foundation on such principles and organising it's powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness." [my emphasis]

According to these principles, it is quite legitimate to consider the abolition of the state of Israel, if that is what “shall seem most likely to effect [the] safety and happiness” of the Jews and Arabs of the region. There is no “right” for a state to persist in circumstances where it presents an obstacle to the honouring of basic human rights. As it happens, I don’t support calls for the abolition of the state of Israel. But the principles at work here need to be understood.

The idea that a state has the "right to exist" directly contradicts the principles set forth by the early democrats in their struggles against the monarchical tyrannies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The man who led the intellectual counter-charge against democracy, Edmund Burke, said:

"The occupation of the hairdresser or of a working tallow-chandler cannot be a matter of honour to any person...Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression if such as they ... are permitted to rule" (Simon Schama's "History of Britain III", pg 43)

Consider the value-system set out here by Burke. The danger of the state oppressing the population must be balanced against the danger of the population oppressing the state.

Those who reject negotiations with Hamas to help end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on the basis that Hamas rejects Israel's "right" to exist, are - in moral terms - taking the same backward, anti-democratic position as Edmund Burke two-hundred years ago, when he defended the old monarchies of Europe against the threat of the “swinish multitude”. The rights of people are subordinated to the alleged "rights" of the state. The right of the Palestinians for their desperate situation to be resolved, so they can live decent lives free from hunger, poverty and violence, is subordinated to the "right" of the Israeli state to exist in whatever form it chooses, whatever the human cost, and to have that "right" affirmed by its victims. Until the Palestinians bow down before the fake "rights" of the Israeli state, their actual rights will continue to be denied to them.

Israel likes to present itself as a bulwark of enlightened Western democracy, resisting the advances of the swarthy Islamic hordes. In reality, the Israeli state, and those who would see Palestinian lives sacrificed on the alter of its “right” to exist, are the moral equivalent of the pre-Enlightenment reactionaries of monarchical 18th century Europe. The barbarism of Israel’s recent massacres in Gaza is partially an outcome of the perverse morality that subordinates the rights of human beings to the “rights” of a state.

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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

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

video

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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.

video


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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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