Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Venezuela: Inside the Revolution

My review of the documentary film "Inside the Revolution", a look at recent political trends in Venezuela, is published by The Samosa.

An exerpt:

"What is the nature of the political change that has been taking shape in Venezuela since the election of President Hugo Chavez in 1998? This has become one of the central questions in world politics over the past decade. Why? Because events in that South American country have direct relevance to the key global trends of the moment: the waning power of the United States, the fading credibility of the neo-liberal economic model, and the slow replacement of the zombified ‘Washington Consensus’.

Inside the Revolution, a film by the documentary-maker Pablo Navarrete, is a serious, insightful and thought-provoking review of Venezuelan politics over recent years. With a particular focus on the perspectives of the poorest and an admirable willingness to let them tell their own story, Navarrete analyses the roots of the transformation taking place in Venezuela, the obstacles it faces, and the prospects for the future."

You can read the whole piece here, and go here for more information on screenings of Inside the Revolution.

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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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Saturday, June 27, 2009

What's happening in Iran?

A few words about what's been happening in Iran the past couple of weeks. The two main candidates in the Iranian presidential election - Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - were both essentially establishment figures. Both had been vetted and approved by Iran's 'Guardian Council' before being allowed to stand, as is the normal procedure. Mousavi had been Iran's Prime Minister during the early days of the revolution, during the Iran-Iraq war where the US backed Saddam Hussein. As President he may have taken a less belligerent rhetorical stance toward the West than Ahmadinejad, but the substance would have remained: opposition to Israel on the Palestinian issue and an insistence on Iran's right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Poliferation Treaty. However, though Mousavi's establishment credentials were pretty much impeccable, he did hint at a relaxation of the various restrictions of personal liberties within the Islamic Republic, attracting him some support from Iran's overwhelmingly young population (over 60 per cent are under 30). Exactly how much support in the final instance is, of course, the question.

By now you will be familiar with the fact that the presidential election result is under dispute, with Mousavi and thousands of protesters claiming fraud and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei insisting that the announced result is legitimate and will stand. Based on the expert analysis I've seen, it seems reasonably clear that fraud is likely to have taken place. Though it should be noted that no hard proof exists of this, the point is that those who have crunched the numbers and those who know Iranian politics and society have examined the purported election results and see them not just as surprising but as wholly implausible. See this report by researchers at St Andrews University, edited by Iran historian Ali Ansari, or these three posts by the University of Michigan's world renowned Middle East historian Juan Cole. Statistician Walter Mebane, also of the University of Michigan, has examined the data and concluded that "the results suggest very strongly that there was widespread fraud in which the vote counts for Ahmadinejad were substantially augmented by artificial means".

So why fake the election result, if that is indeed what happened? As I've pointed out, Mousavi was hardly going to lead a revolution to topple the regime since he is, after all, a long-standing part of it. Indeed, its also worth reminding ourselves that Ahmadinejad is not unpopular, and its possible that he may have run Mousavi close and prompted a run off election if the actual votes had been counted. The Guardian's editorial shortly after the "result" was announced has what to my mind is the best explanation. Mousavi had been attracting mass rallies of energised young people to the point where any victory for him would have looked like a rejection of the regime from the Iranian youth, even if Mousavi hadn't intended it as such. The Supreme Leader could not allow such a serious undermining of the regime's credibility, fearing where it might lead, and so the hopes of those who had voted for Mousavi were, it appears, summarily crushed. Opponents were then arrested, massive demonstrations though largely peaceful were met with violence, and journalists were targeted.

Has it worked? Its hard to say, but one doubts it. If anything, the Iranian establishment now looks split down the middle. Iran's most senior cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri has openly said that "no one in their right mind can believe" the official results. This may reflect growing disquiet amongst Iran's clerical elite, who perhaps never wholly bought into the regime's radical innovation of direct religious rule, adhering instead to the Islamic tradition that the clergy should keep out of politics. Meanwhile, even the hardline conservative Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani has said that a 'majority' of Iranians dispute the election results and, though he disagrees with them, they should be respected - not a tone that's entirely aligned with that of the Supreme Leader.

So allow me to speculate briefly about what will happen next. Say the stability of the regime over the past three decades has been based on a mixture of legitimacy (by which I mean a sufficient level of public perception that the regime is a legitimate one) and fear. The two pillars of legitimacy are the electoral system on the one hand and the religious character of the system on the other. The fear element is inspired by the security services and their known history of abuses. People either think the regime is legitimate, or are too afraid of it to challenge its existence, or both. Hence it stays in place.

What we can now see is potentially the two pillars of legitimacy crumbling. On the one hand, as Larijani has said, a majority believe the election result was a fabrication and many of those actively refuse to let this stand.

On the other hand, the late Ayatollah Khomeini's radical innovation of clerical rule may now be coming under renewed scrutiny within the clerical establishment. Khamenei's weak religious qualifications for the post of Supreme Leader don't help to uphold the credibility of vilayet-i faqih (clerical rule). This, it appears, is some of the background to Montazeri's strong remarks.

If the pillars upon which the regime's legitimacy rests are crumbling then the fear element is all that's left. That's not nothing. But still, unless the regime is now prepared not only to quell unrest with extreme violence, but to follow this up with a general, lasting (i.e. years long) crackdown on persistent dissent, then its hard to see how major changes can be escaped.

But if the dissidents are an uneasy alliance of privileged elites and disadvantaged citizens, what are the prospects going forward? If Mousavi stitches up a deal with Khamenei to end the whole thing (after all, this is a system that has generally treated him more than fairly) what happens to the demonstrators on the street? We'll learn the answers to these questions in the weeks and months ahead.

A final word about Western involvement. Britain and the US have a long history of interference in Iranian affairs, leading right up until the present day (I've reviewed the historical record in a bit of detail here). The crucial concern has been to deny or counter Iranian independence and retain it within or return it to the Western sphere of influence, for obvious reasons that include Iran's vast reserves of oil and natural gas. We can therefore assume that London and Washington are not indifferent to what happens next in Iran. This does not mean that hundreds of thousands of Iranian protesters have somehow been manufactured or brainwashed by the West, as the Supreme Leader is rather pathetically attempting to claim. However, we should be alive to the strong possibility that if some sort of new Iranian revolution does break out, the US and Britain will be using all the considerable tools at their disposal to ensure that the Iran that emerges from that process will be the Iran they would want to see, irrespective of the wishes of the Iranian people themselves. It may be that for now London and Washington have calculated that their best bet is to stay well out of things lest they taint the Iranian protesters with their unwanted attentions. But don't bet on that staying the case. The reason events in Iran deserve our attention is precisely because of our governments' lamentable role in that country's affairs. Our concern should now be that the Iranian public are allowed to choose their own path free both from internal tyranny and foreign interference.

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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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Friday, May 22, 2009

Noam Chomsky on Torture and the Myth of American Innocence

As President Obama and former Vice President Cheney debate the Bush administration's record of torture and kidnapping, most notoriously at Guantánamo Bay, Noam Chomksy places the discussion in some important historical context:

"In the past sixty years, victims worldwide have endured the CIA's "torture paradigm," developed at a cost reaching $1 billion annually, according to historian Alfred McCoy, who shows that the methods surfaced with little change in Abu Ghraib. There is no hyperbole when Jennifer Harbury entitles her penetrating study of the U.S. torture record Truth, Torture, and the American Way. It is highly misleading, to say the least, when investigators of the Bush gang's descent into the sewer lament that "in waging the war against terrorism, America had lost its way."

Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld et al. did introduce important innovations. Ordinarily, torture is farmed out to subsidiaries, not carried out by Americans directly in their government-established torture chambers. Alain Nairn, who has carried out some of the most revealing and courageous investigations of torture, points out that "What the Obama [ban on torture] ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system's torture, which is done by foreigners under US patronage. Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so." Obama did not shut down the practice of torture, Nairn observes, but "merely repositioned it," restoring it to the norm, a matter of indifference to the victims. Since Vietnam, "the US has mainly seen its torture done for it by proxy -- paying, arming, training and guiding foreigners doing it, but usually being careful to keep Americans at least one discreet step removed." Obama's ban "doesn't even prohibit direct torture by Americans outside environments of 'armed conflict,' which is where much torture happens anyway since many repressive regimes aren't in armed conflict ... his is a return to the status quo ante, the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more US-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years."
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Read the whole article here.

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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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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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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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Thursday, January 08, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday evening, the Telegraph reported:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So yes, there is no "equivalence".

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

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

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More from me soon

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gaza: 700,000 children with nowhere to run

Israel's destruction of Gaza continues. Civilians, including children, continue to die in large numbers.

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While Israel blocks shipments of humanitarian aid.

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The Gaza strip is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, with 1.5 million people living in an area of 360 square kilometers; roughly equivalent to the size of Sheffield in the UK or Atlanta, Georgia in the US (both of whose populations are around a third that of Gaza).

About 700,000 of Gaza's population are children under the age of 14. The median age in Gaza is 17.

Israel has been relentlessly pouring high-explosives into this area, from the sky, for three and a half days now, and preventing aid from reaching those affected. The pretence that these attacks were aimed only at military targets, and that they were a response to Palestinian aggression, has long since fallen away. Israel's is a war of choice, and it is being waged indiscriminately.

Amnesty International has issued two clear, concise and strong statements (here and here) criticising both sides for their conduct in the conflict, but reserving the large majority of its criticism, quite correctly, for Israel.

Although Israel has just rejected a truce to allow the provision of aid, it remains vital that as much aid as possible is available, in the event that some can be got through to the people who need it, if not soon then at least when the bombing finally stops. Please donate something, whatever you can afford, to Oxfam, Christian Aid, Save the Children, CAFOD, or any aid agency you prefer.

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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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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Liberated attention-seekers of the world....you have nothing to lose but your shoes

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Why did an Iraqi journalist, Muntazir al-Zaidi, throw his shoes at US President George Bush during a press conference on Sunday? Well, according to Bush, "that's what happens in free societies when people try to draw attention to themselves".

Now lets have a think. What other reasons might there be for an Iraqi to want to throw his shoes (a particularly grave insult in the Arab world) at George W Bush?

Could it be related to the fact that the US invasion and occupation may by now have resulted in the deaths of over a million Iraqis (or around one in every twenty-nine of the population) and well over 4 million being driven out of their homes (or around one in every six of the population) according to the best estimates available? Those refugees were often driven into poverty and marginalisation in neighbouring countries, their children into malnutrition, their daughters into prostitution, while those left behind fared little better, be they the maimed, the bereaved, the unemployed, the impoverished, the imprisoned or the tortured. What are the odds of the anger of this Iraqi journalist towards the US President having to do with any of those things?

What about the systematic sexual abuse and torture carried out by Bush's troops at Abu Ghraib? What about the recent outbreak of cholera, merely the latest example of the train-wreck society Iraq has become?

Or maybe it was because the war - an aggressive war of choice, instigated under a cloak of propaganda and straightforward lying - was, at root, aimed at no more lofty a goal than the acquisition of greater wealth and power, through control over Iraq's vast oil reserves?

For George Bush, the obvious reason an Iraqi would throw shoes at him is because George liberated the guy and because the guy is an attention seeker. Might any other thoughts have occurred to the President, if he had given himself a little more time to consider it?

I suppose maybe the shoe-thrower could be one of those "anti-Americans" you hear about. Probably he hates freedom and our way of life, or something. Or maybe he's just ungrateful.

McClatchy reports that "al-Zaidi covered the U.S. bombing of Baghdad's Sadr City area earlier this year and had been "emotionally influenced" by the destruction he'd seen". The fact that the US still bombs densely populated civilian areas in Iraq, 5 years after liberation, is one of the major untold stories of the conflict. It is, however, no secret to Iraqis.

This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!” al-Zaidi shouted as he threw his second shoe. The New York Times reports that al-Zaidi was then "beaten by members of the prime minister’s security detail, who hauled him out of the room in his white socks. Mr. Zaidi’s cries could be heard from a nearby room as the news conference continued", no doubt another egotisitcal attempt to draw attention to himself. According to al-Zaidi's fellow reporter Mohammed Taher, the guards kicked him and beat him until "he was crying like a woman" while President Bush joked and smirked his way through the remainder of the press conference.

Al-Zaidi is now in the hands of Iraq's criminal justice system where. According to a Human Rights Watch report released Sunday:

"Torture and other forms of abuse in Iraqi detention facilities, frequently to elicit confessions in early stages of detention, are well documented. The reliance on confessions in the court’s proceedings, coupled with the absence of physical or other corroborating evidence, raises the possibility of serious miscarriages of justice. In at least 10 investigative hearings and two trials that Human Rights Watch observed, defendants renounced confessions submitted as evidence. In most of those cases, the defendants said they had been physically abused or threatened by interrogators."

Sami Ramadani, a political exile from the regime of Saddam Hussein and now a senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University, has a good article in the Guardian today explaining what motivated al-Zaidi, and what his actions meant to many Iraqis.

"Muntadhar [al-Zaidi] is a secular socialist whose hero happens to be Che Guevara. He became a prominent leftwing student leader immediately after the occupation, while at Baghdad University's media college. He reported for al-Baghdadia on the poor and downtrodden victims of the US war. He was first on the scene in Sadr City and wherever people suffered violence or severe deprivation. He not only followed US Apache helicopters' trails of death and destruction, but he was also among the first to report every "sectarian" atrocity and the bombing of popular market places. He let the victims talk first.

It was effective journalism, reporting that the victims of violence themselves accused the US-led occupation of being behind all the carnage. He was a voice that could not be silenced, despite being kidnapped by a gang and arrested by US and regime forces.

His passion for the war's victims and his staunchly anti-occupation message endeared him to al-Baghdadia viewers. And after sending Bush out of Iraq in ignominy he has become a formidable national hero. The orphan who was brought up by his aunt, and whose name means the longed or awaited for, has become a powerful unifying symbol of defiance, and is being adopted by countless Iraqis as "our dearest son"."

If you're in London this Friday 19 December, you can join a protest for al-Zaidi's release at 1pm, the US Embassy, 24 Grosvenor Square. Nearest tube stops are Marble Arch and Bond Street. Stop the War Coalition asks that you bring shoes.

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In other news, Prime Minister Gordon Brown today announced the withdrawal of British combat forces from Iraq, to be effected by 31 May 2009. You can read my Le Monde Diplomatique article on Britain's ignominious role in the occupation of Iraq here.

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