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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Monday, April 27, 2009

Rethinking Afghanistan

Filmmaker Robert Greenwald is producing a new documentary on the Afghanistan War and releasing it on-line. Here's the website where you can view the film, and access a wealth of information on the war - a fantastic resource.

Meanwhile over at TomDispatch, Tom Engelhardt reminds us that there's a bigger question to ask about the Afghanistan War than the tactical one of "can we win or not?" - i.e. the moral question of whether, in the interests of our security, its legitimate to destroy the security of others. The equivalent of several 9/11s-worth of innocent Afghan civilians have been killed since the invasion of 2001; the UN tallies 828 as killed by Western forces last year alone, in what is likely to be a serious underestimate. The US-NATO habit of applying massive firepower from the air is bound to cause extensive civilian casualties, and also as a result drive more enraged Afghans into the arms of the insurgency, and perhaps al-Qaeda itself.

In The Nation, Nick Turse reminds us that such scenarios are not new in imperial wars of pacification, with his award-winning exposé on Vietnam's "Operation Speedy Express"; an offensive which saw grotesque levels of civilian slaughter at the hands of the US military. Methods may have changed over the past 40 years, but the basic dynamics of powerful nations imposing their will on smaller ones through the application of mechanised violence remain essentially intact. We'd do well to remember that next time we're tempted to think of Afghanistan, in contrast to Iraq, as "The Good War".

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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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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Gaza: the aftermath

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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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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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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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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Monday, December 29, 2008

Gaza: the word you’re looking for is ‘massacre’

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Let's clarify five key points about Israel’s attacks on Gaza this weekend.

First, “self-defence” isn’t a catch-all justification for any act of violence one cares to perpetrate. Violence is permitted in self-defence – both in common morality and international law – strictly on the basis of proportionality: i.e. the minimum necessary to repel the attack.

Israel claims its bombardment of the Gaza strip is aimed at defending itself from rocket attacks by Palestinian militant groups. In the past eight years, Palestinian rockets fired from Gaza have killed around 18 people in southern Israel. Between the start of the recent Hamas-Israel truce in June this year until the start of the Israeli bombing campaign on Saturday, no Israelis were killed by Hamas. Since Saturday, Israel has killed more than 300 Palestinians, including scores of civilians, and since those attacks began two Israelis have been killed by Palestinian rockets.

Overall, since the start of the second intifada in September 2000, around 1,000 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians and around 5,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel, including 1,000 minors. That is to say that in just over the past forty-eight hours, Israel has killed a third as many Palestinians as Palestinians have killed Israelis in eight years. In a single weekend, Israel has increased the number of people it has killed since September 2000 by 6 per cent.

Therefore, since its actions are so grossly disproportionate to the threat they are said to be aimed at, Israel’s justification of self-defence plainly does not stand.

Second, while Israel claims to be targeting Palestinian militants, it is plainly not possible to “target” individuals in one of the most densely populated areas on the planet with the use of bombs and missiles fired from F-16 fighter jets. In fact, attacking Palestinian cities at 11:30 on a Saturday morning, when the streets were full, shows – shall we say – the direct opposite of an effort to avoid civilian casualties.

Israel claims that, unlike its enemies, it does not deliberately attack civilians. The distinction between targeting civilians and taking action that is absolutely certain to kill civilians, and which is totally disproportionate to the claimed purpose of the action, is not just a fine distinction. It is, in moral terms, no distinction.

Watch the video above; a news report from one of Gaza’s hospitals, already desperately short of medical supplies as a result of Israel’s blockade. Look at the infant child who appears towards the end of the report, clearly suffering from serious head injuries and in what appears to be a state of total shock. It’s an unbearable sight. Well, Israel and its apologists are claiming that those injuries were inflicted on that infant child - by an Israeli piloting a multi-million dollar, US-supplied fighter jet - in “self-defence”.

It doesn’t stand up, does it?

Thirdly, this is in no sense an Israeli “response”. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Palestinian territories, Richard Falk, noted earlier this month:

"the situation [has] worsened [since] the breakdown of a truce between Hamas and Israel that had been observed for several months by both sides. The truce was maintained by Hamas despite the failure of Israel to fulfil its obligation under the agreement to improve the living conditions of the people of Gaza. The recent upsurge of violence occurred after an Israeli incursion that killed several alleged Palestinian militants within Gaza."

Israel has maintained a blockade on the Gaza strip since early 2006, when the Palestinians committed the crime of voting the wrong way in an election. In the words of Israeli Government adviser Dov Weisglass, “the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet”, so as to encourage them to reconsider their choice of Hamas over the US/Israeli-backed Fatah. The blockade has been tightened in stages since then, most notably when Hamas foiled a US backed coup-attempt by Fatah in the summer of 2007 and seized control of Gaza.

As a result of the blockade, Gaza has been forced into appalling levels of deprivation. Even by September 2006, The Independent was reporting that some Palestinian mothers had been reduced to scouring rubbish dumps for just enough food to feed their children once a day, and the situation has deteriorated sharply since then, especially in recent weeks. The UN Special Rapporteur, along with all leading aid agencies and human rights organisations, has consistently condemned the blockade in the strongest terms, with Falk stating that “[s]uch a policy of collective punishment, initiated by Israel to punish Gazans for political developments within the Gaza strip, constitutes a continuing flagrant and massive violation of international humanitarian law as laid down in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention”.

Fourthly, a more fundamental point cannot pass without mention. The root cause of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is not Palestinian terrorism, however disgusting the attacks of Hamas and Islamic Jihad undoubtedly are. The state of Israel was created in 1948 by the violent ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, forcing them out into neighbouring states and territories, like Gaza, where they and their descendents continue to live – as stateless refugees – to this day. In the “Six Day War” of 1967, Israel seized further territories - Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank - which it then began to colonise, all in clear violation of international law which forbids both the acquisition of territory by force and the colonisation of such territories.

There is now a clear international consensus on the solution to this conflict: Israel should withdraw to its recognised borders, handing back the illegally occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, who would then build their own state there. Last month the UN General Assembly 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. And 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.

In other words, the conflict continues, to the extent that it does today, because Israel would sooner massacre innocent people in Gaza, if that’s what it takes, than hand back the land it has stolen and allow the Palestinians the right to have their own country and run their own affairs.

The fifth and final point is that Israel is able adopt this position because a few key states are prepared to provide strong backing for its rejectionist stance. As the leading international affairs scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have noted, Israel

“has been the largest annual recipient of direct economic and military assistance [from the US] since 1976 [receiving] roughly one-fifth of the foreign aid budget, and worth about $500 a year for every Israeli. [In addition] Washington also provides Israel with consistent diplomatic support. Since 1982, the US has vetoed 32 [UN] Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, more than the total number of vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members. It [also] played a key role in the negotiations that preceded and followed the 1993 Oslo Accords ... consistently support[ing] the Israeli position. One American participant at Camp David in 2000 later said: ‘Far too often, we functioned . . . as Israel’s lawyer.”

No words need be wasted on the stance adopted by the outgoing Bush administration, to the conflict in general or to these latest atrocities in particular. What is more noteworthy is the response from people we might have expected slightly better from. For President-elect Barack Obama, the “fierce urgency of now” appears to have been replaced over the weekend by the fierce urgency of “monitoring the situation”. One suspects that, if Hamas had butchered scores of Israelis in cold blood over the weekend, Obama would not be hiding behind the protocol of “one President at a time”. He would be falling over himself to make a strong moral statement, rightly, and just as he should be doing now.

Or take British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who called for “Gazan militants to cease all rocket attacks on Israel immediately”, but for Israel merely to “do everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties”. Why is it so hard for Britain to simply and unambiguously call for both sides to cease all fire immediately? Are we having a re-run of the summer of 2006, when Israel carried out weeks of indiscriminate bombing of Lebanon while Tony Blair’s government worked in the international diplomatic arena to block calls for a ceasefire? Why does Britain continue to sell arms to Israel, including key components for the fighter jets carrying out the current attacks? Is this what New Labour calls an enlightened, ethical foreign policy?

I’ll conclude by saying this. There is no law forcing people to just sit at home and shake their heads while their governments aid and abet Israel’s massacre of innocent civilians. Israel depends on international support or acquiescence for it to continue on this path, and our governments rely on our support or acquiescence to maintain their own wretched positions. You can change this equation. There are protests taking place all over Britain, today and later on this week, including one outside the Israeli embassy this afternoon. If you can attend one of these events, even for a short time, then please do. If not, it is the simplest thing to write a letter to your MP and MEPs. This website helps you to do it, via email, in a few minutes. Ask them what they personally are doing to end the Israeli atrocities. If you get a poor response, write again and demand a better one.

It was the accumulation of thousands of small individual acts like this that helped bring about an end to Apartheid. It was partly the strength of public revulsion at Blair’s role in the Israeli-Hezbollah war that hastened his own departure from office two years ago. When you see those horrific images on the news bulletins today remember, this is not something you have to accept.

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Update - thanks to Jamie SW for pointing out an error in the overall death toll above, now corrected (its 1,000 rather than 600 Israeli deaths since September 2008). Jamie's blog has some excellent and very well researched coverage of these events, which I recommend you check out.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Arundhati Roy: Mumbai was not our 9/11

"We've forfeited the rights to our own tragedies. As the carnage in Mumbai raged on, day after horrible day, our 24-hour news channels informed us that we were watching "India's 9/11". Like actors in a Bollywood rip-off of an old Hollywood film, we're expected to play our parts and say our lines, even though we know it's all been said and done before.

As tension in the region builds, US Senator John McCain has warned Pakistan that if it didn't act fast to arrest the "Bad Guys" he had personal information that India would launch air strikes on "terrorist camps" in Pakistan and that Washington could do nothing because Mumbai was India's 9/11.

But November isn't September, 2008 isn't 2001, Pakistan isn't Afghanistan and India isn't America. So perhaps we should reclaim our tragedy and pick through the debris with our own brains and our own broken hearts so that we can arrive at our own conclusions."

Arundhati Roy on the equation of the Mumbai attacks with 9/11. Read the whole article here. And see also good articles by William Dalrymple and Juan Cole.

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