Posts Tagged ‘USA’
This is a guest post by Negah Rahmani, the writer can be contacted here.
The recent debate over the Cordoba Initiative, or ‘The Ground Zero Mosque’ as it is more popularly known has become yet another ‘with us or against us’ style argument in America. The proposed Islamic cultural centre two blocks from the Ground Zero site has led to heated debates, rallies and political ramifications. What started out as a simple question about the appropriateness of the proposed location has brought to light a multitude of issues and deep-seated racial and religious tensions.
Firstly, if you conduct a very basic Google search with the keywords of ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ a total of 59,900,000 hits come up. The keywords of ‘Cordoba Initiative’ bring up 3,670,000 hits. The difference is immense. Even more so if you take into consideration that the proposed project is not a mosque but a cultural centre and it is not actually on Ground Zero. The Cordoba Initiative proposes to build a centre to enhance Muslim-West and interfaith relations in America and a mosque already exists close to the site. This trend of inaccurate reference to the project has sensationalised and polarised the entire debate leaving little room for meaningful discussion. Under these circumstances people have two sides to choose from with almost no middle ground.
The initial anti-mosque sentiment has now led to a spate of anti-Islamic rhetoric across America. At the forefront of this movement has been the group Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) headed by Pamela Geller. The group has been a major force in the organisation of rallies against the construction of the centre. SIAO claims to be a human rights organisation fighting for religious liberty and individual rights. Besides being a major force behind the anti-mosque movement SIAO has launched campaigns to further their cause. Their recent ad campaign on a fleet of taxis and buses refers Muslims to LeaveislamSafely.com, a SIAO webpage detailing how Muslims (it is targeted at young Muslims, especially girls) can safely leave their faith. The organisation seems to be advocating to stop Islam taking over the US and is frantically trying to stop Sharia Law from coming into effect in the US judicial system.
Besides SIAO’s organised, and seemingly well-financed, anti-Islam campaign, other groups and individuals have also used the mosque debate to express anti-Islamic sentiment all over the country. A Florida church’s plan to hold a ‘Burn a Koran Day’ on September 11th(ed: this has been cancelled, thankfully), as well as the recent assault on a Muslim taxi driver in New York all create a grim picture. The construction of mosques and religious centres have led to communities up in arms all over the country from California to Wisconsin to Tennessee. Reporting on these incidents Laurie Goldstein of the New York Times writes that communities before protested against the construction of mosques under the guise of increased noise and traffic. Now, the gloves have come off and communities all around America are openly protesting against Islam itself. The Cordoba project, it seems has unleashed a deep Islamophobia that runs strongly all over the USA.
And this has had ramifications for people all the way up to the top. Chris Cilliza from the Washington Post writes that a recent Pew survey found 18% of participants thought Obama to be a Muslim. This is significantly higher than the 2009 figure of 11%. What’s more interesting, he writes: “there was a strong linkage between those who wrongly believe Obama is a Muslim and those who disapprove of the job he is doing as president.” Two thirds of the 41% who disapprove of Obama think him to be a Muslim. So in short, the more Americans think Obama is a Muslim, the lower his popularity. A Newsweek Poll recorded 31% of respondents who believed Obama to be a sympathiser of Islamic fundamentalists and their efforts to spread Islamic law around the world. Added to this, a recent survey conducted by The Economist/YouGov found 27.7% of respondents to view the religion of Islam very unfavourably and a further 27.7% somewhat unfavourably. That is a total of 54.4% who perceived Islam in a negative light. In light of these findings the question remains, what role have the Republicans played in adding fuel to this fire and how will it affect the mid-term election results? It has forced Obama to backpedal on his strong support for the mosque and has Democrats worried. So if the debate is being fuelled for political ends, are the American public opposed to the mosque being exploited? And how much wisdom is there in prioritising short-term political gains over long-lasting implications which will be felt all around the world?
Of course there are many more sides to this story and many voices to be heard. There have been calls to just move the proposed site to a less-offensive location. And then there are those like Newt Gingrich who call for the construction of synagogues and churches in Saudi Arabia as a precursor to the construction of the Cordoba project. Well it is easy to poke a hole through that argument. Freedoms of expression and religion (not to say that of private property) are what distinguish the US from the Middle East. America has been very willing and ready to afford itself a moral and ethical high ground based on these freedoms. And this is why they’re the right people to be invading Iraq and Afghanistan, or so we were told: to spread such (universal) ideals of freedoms and equality, right?
However, the core of the issue remains, this is no longer a widespread protest against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”, but rather an expression of an Islamophobic current that is clearly alive and well in America. Daisy Khan, the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, sums up the aspirations of the Islamic community and the Cordoba project and states, “we Muslims are really fed up being defined by the actions of the extremists.” She goes on to add that the centre is much needed to project an image of the Muslim community as majority peaceful, law-abiding citizens and good Americans. In the face of such strong Islamophobia, this redefinition of the Muslim community in the public eye is desperately needed. Given the polarisation of this topic, it will be interesting to see how the project and debate proceed. Will the Muslims who support it be considered as fundamentalists and bad Americans? Will they fall victim to more racial attacks and will there be a campaign of guilt-by-association to hinder the progress of this project? Will they abandon it under this immense pressure and, if so what does that say about the land of the free and equal?
Negah Rahmani is a student at the Monash Asia Institute undertaking a Masters in Asian Studies with a focus on Afghanistan and women’s rights.
This piece was originally published at NOW!Lebanon, titled “Lebanon in the event of an Iran strike“
The past few weeks have seen a flurry of discussion in US foreign policy circles about the potential for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. Much of this discussion has been focused around Jeffrey Goldberg’s lengthy and alarmist cover story for The Atlantic Magazine about the likelihood of such a strike happening within the next 12 months. However, no discussion of an Israeli, or indeed American, strike on Iran can ignore the unavoidable involvement of Lebanon, and the subsequent impact on the country.
Goldberg interviewed around “forty current and past Israeli decision-makers” as background for his piece, but many of them remain anonymous, and those who are named appear to contribute little different to what we already knew: Israel considers Iran an “existential threat” and is very worried, and all options are always on the table, some of them more likely than others. Thus, the motivation of Goldberg’s sources must be better understood. Why would Israeli decision makers be telling Jeffrey Goldberg that there’s a good chance of an Israeli strike on Iran? Because they understand Goldberg’s influence in Washington, and they want to mainstream the idea of not only an Israeli strike, but a potentially pre-emptive one from the US. This story has already had a broad ripple effect in the political media ecosystem, having been expanded into a fully-fledged debate on The Atlantic website and picked up by other outlets and blogs alike. This process helps an idea gain a legitimacy it didn’t have before the original big story dropped.
While, of course, such a story alone cannot be blamed for a military strike, in many ways, this process is reminiscent of similar discussions in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war, during which Jeffrey Goldberg played a remarkably similar role. In 2010, the potentially disastrous consequences of such a strike by the US, many of which would also eventuate in the case of an Israeli one, cannot be easily dismissed, and some are even mentioned by Goldberg himself: a closing of the Straits of Hormuz; a massive spike in the price of oil, exacerbating the global recession; destabilisation of the Gulf region; deadly reprisals from Iranian-sponsored terrorist outfits abroad; a nail in the coffin for the Iranian “Green Movement;” and a shoring up of sympathy for Iran’s regime internationally. Most alarmingly, Iran’s actual pursuit of nuclear-weapons capacity, both the details and progress of it, are still in doubt. A strike would, much as it did with Israel’s strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, impel Iran’s regime to redouble its efforts to reach such a capacity.
The consequences of a strike on Iran for the fragile détente between Israel and Hezbollah are unpredictable at best and a powder keg at worst. “Israel or the United States cannot just bomb Iran and (expect) things to continue normally,” Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy leader, told Reuters in March. “Any attack on Iran could ignite the whole region and the assailant will pay a heavy price whether it’s Israel or the United States.”
Cross-border rocket reprisals from Hamas and Hezbollah are widely expected in the case of a strike on Iran, but the extent of the potential conflict cannot be precisely anticipated. Many analysts already believe that the next war between Israel and Hezbollah is a matter of when, not if, and there are plenty of potential excuses for war already. One major cause for concern is the exploration of Tamarand Leviathan,two recently-discovered gas fields that could, as estimated by the US partner in exploration Noble Energy, contain up to 30 trillion cubic feet of gas. The maritime boundary between Israel and Lebanon is not well defined, and Beirut has also taken steps to begin off-shore exploration. Natural resources aside, Hezbollah’s steady rearmament since 2006 and Israel’s continued manned overflights over Lebanese territory, both in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, are reason enough for a major conflict to be sparked by either side.
Concerning Hezbollah’s rearmament, as noted by Daniel Kurtzer in his July report for the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, the party has improved both the quantity and quality of its weaponry since 2006, although it is unclear exactly by how much. Since Gabi Ashkenazi’s ascendancy to IDF chief of staff, Israel has also maintained that it is far more prepared today to fight a war with Hezbollah than in previous years. As repeatedly noted in Kurtzer’s report, Israel has not only levelled at Hezbollah the as-yet-unproven charge of acquiring Scud missiles from Syria, but also prepared for it, as well as the strategic threat from Syrian M-600 rockets or even advanced surface-to-air missiles, such as the S-300, which Israel considers a “red line.”
What this indicates is that Israel takes the threat from Hezbollah very seriously, and would be keeping this threat in mind in accompaniment to any potential strike on Iran.
If Goldberg’s story, particularly its many statements from Israeli officials, is to be viewed largely as an Israeli PR exercise, then Israel probably wishes to allow time for the off chance that the Obama administration will conduct a US strike on Iran, something Israel almost certainly prefers. The administration is in no hurry. As reported in the New York Times last week, administration officials believe that there is roughly a year before Iran achieves “breakout” nuclear capacity, or the time it would take to convert low-enriched uranium into weapons-grade. Iran’s distance from real nuclear-weapons capacity, and Israel’s current wariness of an immediate military conflict with Hezbollah indicate that a strike would likely occur toward the end of Goldberg’s proposed 12-month window, if at all.
No mistake should be made about the consequences for Lebanon. Benjamin Netanyahu has already made it clear that, as a result of Hezbollah’s inclusion in Lebanon’s cabinet, the whole country would be held responsible for attacks on Israel. This is an apparent extension of Israel’s supposed “Dahiyeh Doctrine” to cover not only southern Lebanon but the country’s institutions and infrastructure on a national level, bringing with it alarming possibilities stemming from Israel’s destruction of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.
Obama does not have the stomach for the initiation of another major conflict, but only time will tell whether Israel is prepared to put aside concerns of a complicated entanglement with Hezbollah, along with the other host of issues mentioned above, and actually execute a strike on Iran unilaterally. The possibility for unmitigated disaster is great, and hopefully cooler heads will prevail.
This piece was originally published on Foreign Policy’s Afpak Channel, titled “Getting A Grip on WikiLeaks“
By now, most readers are aware of what The Guardian calls “a huge cache of secret U.S. military files” that was leaked online by WikiLeaks on Sunday. There are more than 90,000 records and it will take journalists, pundits, and researchers a very long time to pore over all of them, but The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel, which received the leaked records several weeks ahead of time, carried out the initial analysis.
You can find the dedicated pages set up by the newspapers by clicking the links above, or if you have a lot of free time on your hands, browse the entire set so far released on the WikiLeaks website. For those with less time, Gregg Carlstrom has a solid selection of the key points to have been reported thus far up at Al Jazeera English.
Many of the responses from commentators, particularly from experts on the conflict, have been unimpressed. CNAS fellow Andrew Exum called the records “merely additional examples of what we already knew” in the New York Times, and was even more dismissive in his initial responseon his blog. Afghanistan analyst Joshua Foust called the bulk of the newspaper reports from the three above “low-hanging fruit” and wrote at length about the possible danger this leak has created for sources that were carelessly not redacted by WikiLeaks. Steve Schippert of Threats Watch finds this “latest episode amusing at best and reckless at minimum.” And so on.
Much of the discourse in the wake of this leak has also been about Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. Some have asserted that Assange is “a master of making it about himself,” that he has “a flair for public relations” and that he’s more of an “activist” than a journalist. These assertions are another failure of perspective. The media landscape is full of journalists with opinions and entire publications that blur the line between activism and journalism. This is not new. It also is not at all uncommon for journalists to use stories to bolster their careers and publications routinely build readership by getting “scoops” published. Journalism is a competitive industry and being good at public relations shouldn’t be viewed as something insidious.
Firstly, I agree that the failure by WikiLeaks to make more effort at redactions to protect individuals from reprisals is contemptible. I also agree that those that have been watching Afghanistan closely, even over just the past few years, may not find it at all surprising that Pakisan’s ISI is heavily involved in the insurgency in Afghanistan, or that there are many instances of seemingly recklessfriendly fire incidents and IEDs causing civilian casualties. Many may not even by surprised by reported Iranian involvement in maintaining the Afghan insurgency or rumors of Osama bin Laden’s death. These things have been talked about for a while now and, some (like the ISI business) more credible than others (like OBL’s death), but WikiLeaks has not, thus far, been able to present hard evidence of any of them, leaving many of us exactly where we started off before the leak.
What I disagree with is the lack of perspective shown by so many writers and analysts in their failure to see the forest for the trees. Assange may be sketchy and WikiLeaks may be anti-war but the narrative constructed from this raw data is being funnelled through three respectable publications that have long reported on the war. The reason why the “War Logs,” as they are called by the Guardian, are important is not that they provide groundbreaking new information or even explosive evidence to back up old information. They are important because of the sheer scale of documentation and because of the overall picture they paint of the war, considering that this is a war that is steadily approaching the nine year mark and has cost taxpayers in the U.S. alone almost $200b. And the public, particularly in coalition countries and the many countries in the region that this war has a direct impact on, still needs to think about this war.
Of the government statements in response to this leak, my favorite so far has been Senator John Kerry’s initial take:
However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan. Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent.
So yes, there is little that’s new (so far) in these “War Logs” and, yes, we know little about Julian Assange and his motivations and, sure, if you don’t trust the man and are an expert on the conflict, then feel free to disregard this story completely. Whether you believe that this war should end or not, it’s safe to say that it isn’t going very well and, at the very least, we should welcome an opportunity for the public to reassess and rethink whether, to them, this is a war that is still worth it. For that purpose, then, the “War Logs” can’t do any harm.
Yesterday, the Washington Post finally released the first part of what was one of the mostly hotly anticipated newspaper articles in years, a massive investigative report, two years in the making, about what it calls America’s “fourth branch” of government. The report has a dedicated site and will be released in installments, the first part yesterday and the second today, with more to follow
The piece was controversial even before it was released and has been generating a great deal of talk since its first installment hit the press and the internet. If you don’t have time to read the full first part and want a handy cheatsheet, Max Fisher at The Atlantic Wire has drawn up an executive summary of it.
The opening salvo is fired on the first page, as Priest and Arkin open up with the bewildering scale of the whole thing:
* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
The gist of the first piece is that “Top Secret America” is so massive that much of it is redundant, inefficient, ineffective at keeping America safe and hugely wasteful of public funds. The complex described is so grotesque in its scale and so Kafkaesque in its operations that one can’t help but scratch one’s head at how the world’s lone superpower could possibly be so stupid. Some of it is downright scary:
Beyond redundancy, secrecy within the intelligence world hampers effectiveness in other ways, say defense and intelligence officers. For the Defense Department, the root of this problem goes back to an ultra-secret group of programs for which access is extremely limited and monitored by specially trained security officers.
These are called Special Access Programs – or SAPs – and the Pentagon’s list of code names for them runs 300 pages. The intelligence community has hundreds more of its own, and those hundreds have thousands of sub-programs with their own limits on the number of people authorized to know anything about them. All this means that very few people have a complete sense of what’s going on.
If no one knows what’s going on then how can this system that carries such immense power possibly be accountable to anyone, let alone the people of America that the country supposedly belongs to? Glenn Greenwald points out that Americans “keep sacrificing their privacy to the always-growing National Security State in exchange for less security”
Indeed, Top Secret America’s security failures are mentioned repeatedly in the report:
In Yemen, the commandos set up a joint operations center packed with hard drives, forensic kits and communications gear. They exchanged thousands of intercepts, agent reports, photographic evidence and real-time video surveillance with dozens of top-secret organizations in the United States.
That was the system as it was intended. But when the information reached the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington for analysis, it arrived buried within the 5,000 pieces of general terrorist-related data that are reviewed each day. Analysts had to switch from database to database, from hard drive to hard drive, from screen to screen, just to locate what might be interesting to study further.
What they missed was the ‘pantybomber’, a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to detonate an explosive device, stowed in his underwear, on a Detroit-bound flight. That attack was averted because of an alert passenger, not because of Top Secret America. The same was the case during the Fort Hood shooting where 13 service members were gunned down by Nidal Malik Hasan.
Of course it can be argued that the US hasn’t suffered a 9/11 since 9/11 but that in itself isn’t enough proof for me that this sprawling mess that is supposed to be protecting America is doing its job properly. Not mentioned in the WaPo article (presumably because these acts of terrorism weren’t perpetrated by Muslims and therefore don’t count as terrorism, heh) all the wiretaps and surveillance didn’t prevent a man from flying a plane into an IRS building a Texas or a pipe-bomb being detonated at a mosque in Florida. Keeping America Safe from Terrorism is clearly not working.
Some criticism has been leveled at this report for not saying anything new and not being the top secret bombshell that it was billed as but I don’t think that’s fair. What’s important about this report is that it isn’t written for commentators and insiders, it’s written for the layman and published in one of the world’s most influential newspapers. Anyone expecting ‘wikileaks‘ from the Washington Post was clearly dreaming from the beginning, but what this does is it aggregates much of the information that some of us have already read in one place and it exposes a whole new set of readers to the massive failure, money sink and joke that is Top Secret America.
Hopefully this report will spur a new set of readers to ask questions of their Government and question the massive shift in America’s true foundation. As Glenn Greenwald so succinctly put it:
That’s really the only relevant question: how much longer will Americans sit by passively and watch as a tiny elite become more bloated, more powerful, greedier, more corrupt and more unaccountable — as the little economic security, privacy and freedom most citizens possess vanish further still?
The more that question is asked, the more this report becomes worth the time and effort it took to compile.
This piece was originally published on Foreign Policy’s Afpak Channel, titled “Reconciliation and Women’s Rights: Easier Said Than Done”.
A recent report by Human Rights Watch calls on the government of Afghanistan to “ensure that all those who agree to the reconciliation process have made explicit their acceptance of the constitutional guarantees of equality for men and women.”
This is in reference to the planned dual processes of reconciliation, negotiations with high-level insurgent commanders, and reintegration, encouragement of lower level fighters to give up their arms.
However, how the government of Afghanistan is expected to achieve this is unclear. The weaknesses of the Karzai government and its many failures to adhere to the constitution in the past are mentioned several times in the report (specifically, pages 6, 34, and 43), as are the inherent contradictions in pursuing reconciliation with insurgent groups that are clearly ideologically opposed to any law that contradicts their version of Islamic law.
As activist Wazhma Frogh tells HRW, “President Karzai himself has done many things against the Afghan constitution. There have been hundreds of things — including illegal things — that were against the constitution. What was the result? Nothing happened.” If the government itself does not have a strong record of upholding the constitution, how can it be expected to do so after bringing the Taliban into the fold?
The HRW report is important because it brings attention to the ongoing human rights abuses in Afghanistan, particularly the disproportionate targeting of women by the Taliban and other insurgent organizations. A vivid and terrifying picture is painted of the fear these women must go through in just trying to live a normal life. A number of recommendations are made for what the major players in Afghanistan should do (on pages 59 to 64). Apart from the unwavering adherence to the constitution mentioned above, there are also recommendations for greater female representation in decision-making processes and a repealing of the Amnesty Law, which grants amnesty to individuals who committed war crimes before the war began in 2001.
However, it is difficult to read this report without coming to the conclusion that HRW’s recommendations are near impossible to implement. Great pains are taken to highlight the Taliban’s commitment to the brutal oppression of women and disdain for the constitution, and presumably they wouldn’t be so hot on a repeal of the Amnesty Law either. This is further coupled with a widely held belief that the main insurgent groups are not that interested in reconciliation in the first place.
Concerning women’s involvement in decision-making, the report argues that there is a prevailing culture of indifference among male Afghan decision makers, when it comes to upholding women’s rights, thus requiring adequate representation for women in the process itself. However, this is also a clear barrier to that representation, in the face of reconciliation efforts with insurgent groups even more violently misogynistic than any member of the government, it is unlikely that women’s representation in decision-making will be treated as a priority.
I applaud HRW’s work in drawing attention to the plight of Afghanistan’s women but when its recommendations for improving the situation are compared with the reality the NGO itself presents, it’s hard to envisage a situation where reconciliation is achieved and women’s rights, as well as general respect for the constitution, are upheld simultaneously.
Thus, we are left with another very important takeaway from this report. The reality is that these much needed recommendations may well be deal-breakers when it comes to reconciliation. Sadly, the emerging scenario is that something will have to give, and HRW is right to fear that it will probably be women who will suffer once again.
This piece was originally published on Foreign Policy’s Afpak Channel, titled “NATO’s responsibility to Afghan civilians”.
June was the deadliest month for the NATO-led force in Afghanistan since the start of the conflict. As fighting intensifies and as British troops pull out of Sangin, proponents and detractors are still squabbling over the relative success of the counterinsurgency strategy (COIN), spearheaded under the Obama administration, and the GOP is arguing over whether chairman of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele’s recent ill-advised comments about the war should be a cause for his resignation.
While domestic discussion over whether various countries should remain in Afghanistan gathers steam, a key metric that should be strongly related to the ‘success’ narrative is not getting enough airtime. Much has been made of whether NATO is ‘winning’ the war in Afghanistan or what it really means ‘to win’ such a war in the first place, but civilian casualties have rarely been discussed in any precise context.
According to a UNAMA survey released in January, 2009 was the deadliest year to date for Afghan civilians and a striking amount were killed by increased Taliban activity. But whether it’s the Taliban, suicide attacks, or U.S. forces killing civilians, the pain for the families of those killed is on the rise — and they may not care who is responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. The lack of attention from coalition governments to the details of how many civilians are killed is not encouraging.
According to James Denselow, neither the U.S. Defense Department nor the British Ministry of Defense “maintain records that would enable a definitive number of civilian fatalities to be recorded.” This is in stark contrast to scrupulously maintained numbers of military casualties. Denselow thinks that this is part of the propaganda war and that it’s aimed at maintaining control over the ‘win’ narrative. NATO governments need to take more responsibility for the accurate recording and reporting of information related to civilian casualties, much as they do for military casualties. This should not be left solely to UNAMA.
Military casualties are an understandable cause for concern for those at home, but we must also care about civilian casualties and the increasing humanitarian crisis in the country. While far from a perfect measurement, Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index has rated Afghanistan as 6th in 2010, a position that has deteriorated every year since the Index began in 2005 (when Afghanistan was 11th).
It is notable that under General McChrystal’s rules of engagement, more protection was supposed to be provided for civilians. Equally notable is the news that General Petraeus might change the rules of engagement again due to concerns that they are putting coalition forces in greater danger. The UNAMA survey mentioned above indicates that during 2009, with McChrystal’s changed rules of engagement in place for half the year, the number of civilian casualties killed by coalition forces had indeed decreased, but statistics are not yet available for 2010.
So far the debate over rules of engagement has focused greatly on the balancing act between protecting civilians and endangering coalition forces; however, I struggle to see how this debate can be properly carried out when reliable metrics are not available for half of the balance.
Apart from policy wonks and military types engaged in the debate over rules of engagement, the tax payers who are bankrolling this war need to start thinking independently about what it means to ‘win’ and whether three Australian soldiers killed is so momentous that Afghan civilian casualties pale in comparison. In the war over numbers, we need to stop looking after our people only and look deeper into what the ‘win’ narrative means. While the U.S. and its allies have a lot at stake in this war, the people of Afghanistan have immeasurably more. Whether history judges NATO or the Taliban to be the ‘winners’ in Afghanistan, the Afghan people could end up being the losers.
For anyone not yet up to speed, a flotilla of vessels carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza with the aim of lifting the blockade imposed by Israel was intercepted and attacked by Israeli commandos yesterday which resulted in 9-19 deaths (depending on which reports you believe, Israel still has not released an official list of names of those killed). To get up to speed on developments yesterday check out my first and second posts.
More news has come today, kicking off with a marathon UN Security Council meeting called by Turkey with the aim of eliciting an official response from the Council. The bulk of the meeting went on behind closed doors but reportedly it constituted mostly a back-and-forth between the Turkish and American representatives, the latter refusing to allow the Security Council to officially single out Israel for condemnation.
Turkey proposed a statement that would condemn Israel for violating international law, demand a United Nations investigation and demand that Israel prosecute those responsible for the raid and pay compensation to the victims. It also called for the end of the blockade.
The Obama administration refused to endorse a statement that singled out Israel, and proposed a broader condemnation of the violence that would include the assault of the Israeli commandos as they landed on the deck of the ship. [NYT]
Reportedly the Israeli army will be transferring the humanitarian aid found on the boat to Gaza.
Here’s a very interesting piece of news from the excellently-run Al Jazeera English liveblog:
11:37am: His wording is far from conclusive, but the Jerusalem Post seems to think Israel’s deputy defence minister, Manan Vilna’i, hinted that Israel sabotaged some of the ships in the Gaza flotilla.
When asked during an Israel Radio interview whether it might not have been possible to stop the ships in a more sophisticated manner, Vilna’i responded, “Every possibility was considered. The fact is that there were ten less ships in the flotilla than were originally planned.”
Hosni Mubarak has opened the Rafah border and, according to this Arabic source, there are no restrictions on who is allowed to enter and exit. Would be interesting to see some reports on traffic there. Also, the EU and Russia have released a joint statement condemning Israel’s use of force and calling for the Gaza blockade to be lifted. (Hat-tip: AJE liveblog again on both).
The MV Rachel Corrie, another ship that was supposed to be part of the original flotilla but the departure of which was delayed due to mechanical malfunction has reportedly set off for Gaza and is due to arrive within 48 hours. In a response that can now only be viewed as ominous, the Israeli Navy has stated that it is ‘ready’ to receive her. The ship is a joint Irish/Malaysian vessel.
As far as the mainstream media’s reporting has been, I would like to direct you to WashPo’s fairly extreme piece by Scott Wilson on the Free Gaza Movement. What the hell kind of lead paragraph is this:
Once viewed only as a political nuisance by Israel’s government, the group behind the Gaza aid flotilla has grown since its inception four years ago into a broad international movement that now includes Islamist organizations that Israeli intelligence agencies say pose a security threat to the Jewish state.
Clearly WashPo has missed the memo. Most of the mainstream media is treating this event with a lot more caution. I normally consider the FP a fairly reliable weathervane. I certainly wouldn’t consider it a liberal newspaper and yet it has included condemnation of the attack from Stephen Walt, Mark Lynch and its own editor-in-chief Blake Hounsell, all essentially calling for the blockade to be lifted.
So if the mainstream is not exactly lining up behind Israel, what does that mean for the defenders of this monstrosity. I direct you to the following tweet by Middle East expert (though she can’t see it from her house) Sarah Palin:
Assume u WON’T get straight scoop on Israeli flotilla incident via mainstream media;PLEASE read Krauthammer,Horowitz,et al 2learn other side
Palin has long been a shrill critic of her perceived unfair treatment at the hands of the supposedly pro-liberal mainstream, but what this shows is the increasing radicalisation of the pro-Israel-at-all-costs lobby and the increasingly ridiculous sounding hasbara that is being thrown up to defend the atrocities committed by the State. Witness this tweet from Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon:
Participants on the armada of hate had ties with global Jihad and Al Qaeda and used live weapons against our troops
Apparently tying any Muslim you don’t like to al Qaeda and ‘global Jihad’ hasn’t really worked since the whole thing about how Saddam Hussein didn’t quite have anything to do with 9/11, but clearly Mr. Ayalon and his Islamophobic friends missed that memo. I also like how the activists on the Turkish-flagged vessel used “live weapons” (as opposed to, presumably, dead weapons) against “our troops” (ie. elite commandos who stormed their boat in international waters). Wow? It doesn’t take an undergraduate degree to sort the BS out of that one.
Speaking of the legality of the raid, I’m going to paste this in its entirety, thanks to Mondoweiss and Craig Murray, ex UK Ambassador and one time Foreign Office specialist on maritime law:
“A word on the legal position, which is very plain. To attack a foreign flagged vessel in international waters is illegal. It is not piracy, as the Israeli vessels carried a military commission. It is rather an act of illegal warfare.
Because the incident took place on the high seas does not mean however that international law is the only applicable law. The Law of the Sea is quite plain that, when an incident takes place on a ship on the high seas (outside anybody’s territorial waters) the applicable law is that of the flag state of the ship on which the incident occurred. In legal terms, the Turkish ship was Turkish territory.
There are therefore two clear legal possibilities.
Possibility one is that the Israeli commandos were acting on behalf of the government of Israel in killing the activists on the ships. In that case Israel is in a position of war with Turkey, and the act falls under international jurisdiction as a war crime.
Possibility two is that, if the killings were not authorised Israeli military action, they were acts of murder under Turkish jurisdiction. If Israel does not consider itself in a position of war with Turkey, then it must hand over the commandos involved for trial in Turkey under Turkish law.
In brief, if Israel and Turkey are not at war, then it is Turkish law which is applicable to what happened on the ship. It is for Turkey, not Israel, to carry out any inquiry or investigation into events and to initiate any prosecutions. Israel is obliged to hand over indicted personnel for prosecution.
Meanwhile, Blake Hounsell for FP:
It already has the makings of a huge international fracas that will make the Goldstone Report look like small potatoes by comparison.
There’s a huge unwillingness on the Israeli right to face reality — that Israel is fast losing friends and allies in the world, and that this government in Jerusalem has only accelerated the shift. It’s not hard to imagine boycott campaigns gaining momentum, damaging the Israeli economy and isolating the country diplomatically, especially in Europe.
While I’m still skeptical of how much damage exactly boycott campaigns will actually have and whether the ‘friends and allies’ are actually going to be lost (all I’m seeing so far are spirited statements, as usual), I think that Hounsell makes a good general point: the tide does appear to be turning, as evidenced by how increasingly shrill and crazy Israel’s defenders currently sound.
I’m going link some great pieces by Stephen Walt and Arabist at the bottom of this post to save me having to essentially paste them in its entirety (especially Arabist, his post was that good) but here are my thoughts.
If we are to accept the Israeli narrative of events – that the activists on the Flotilla attacked Israeli troops with sticks, knives and deckchairs, thus provoking them to respond and unfortunately kill some of them – as the truth, the argument still has massive, gaping holes.
First of all, the boat was in international waters and Israel had no legal right to storm the boat with commandos, some of the best soldiers in an army considered already to be one of the best in the world. Since the boat was raided by soldiers, the occupants of the boat surely had the right to defend their vessel. The fact that they supposedly did so with a ragtag assortment of improvised weapons and were shot at with automatic weapons as a means of self-defense makes about as much sense as napalming a mosquito. This is pretty much the antithesis of proportionality and anyone who buys this is clearly deluded. Moreover, “the most moral army in the world” and certainly one of its best would surely have been able to manage a situation involving sticks and knives a little better than in such a way that resulted in at least 9 fatalities. Oh yeah, shal I remid you again? Commandos vs. Civilians. Proportional? No. This. Does. Not. Hold. Water.
Also, to those pundits that suggest that Israel’s main mistake was to board the boat in international waters and not in “Israeli territorial waters” appear to be missing the point. The boat was headed for Gaza, not Israel. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 (and still claims political kudos for doing so). Yes, Gaza is not recognised a state but that doesn’t make Israel’s siege of Gaza legal, nor does it just hand jurisdiction over Gaza’s territorial waters to Israel as a sort of parting gift. It is obviously not that clear cut.
Oh yeah, and the blockade. Need I remind you people how cruel and barbaric it is? No I don’t, because Stephen Walt will (if Glenn Greenwald didn’t in the post I linked last time). One final note to those supposedly hyper-realist defenders of Israel’s rights as a state: stop glorifying the State. There is no good reason why I, as an Australian (or any self-respecting national of any other country), should take Israel’s security any more seriously than the security of the people of Gaza. Right now, the biggest threat to their ‘security’ is not Hamas (as is often claimed by the Zionist lobby) but an Israeli blockade that is causing death by starvation and lack of medical attention, that is robbing the Gazans of the right to rebuild their shattered economy destroyed by air raids and Operation Cast Lead, and that is conducting a crude campaign of national humiliation and collective punishment. Oh, but the activists on the boat constituted a ‘threat to Israeli security’. Time to wake up.
And here’s that piece of gold by Arabist, read it.
Complaining about the fact that terrorism perpetuated by white people isn’t considered terrorism is nothing new but always worth pursuing. This is not a straw man, this is a serious gaping hole in our society’s fabric of reason and consciousness. The fact that right wing crazies, teabaggers, birthers and the like go nuts over possible connections between falafel vendors and Hamas but fail to mention non-Muslim terrorists should not be surprising. They are, after all, crazies. They are not the voice of reason and while their mere existence and relative prominence in our society scares me, it is not as scary as the wanton lack of reason displayed not only by our own mainstream media but even alternative media that are more broad-based and even supposedly carry a liberal bias.
Exhibit A (February 2010):
Leaving behind a rant against the government, big business and particularly the tax system, a computer engineer smashed a small aircraft into an office building where nearly 200 employees of the Internal Revenue Service were starting their workday Thursday morning. [NYT]
Let’s see… flying a plane into a government building on a weekday morning because you’re angry at the government. Sounds like terrorism to me.
Exhibit B (March 2010):
Nine people federal prosecutors say belong to a “Christian warrior” militia were accused Monday of plotting to kill a Michigan law enforcement officer and then attack other police at the funeral.
The five-count indictment unsealed Monday charges that between August 2008 and the present, the defendants, acting as a Lenawee County, Michigan, militia group, conspired to use force to oppose the authority of the U.S. government. [CNN]
Let’s see… I wonder what would happen if a group of nine Muslims plotted to kill law enforcement officers?
Exhibit C (May 2010):
A pipe bomb exploded at a mosque in north Florida May 10 and is being investigated as a possible hate crime. The FBI says they have few leads, and have joined the mosque and a nearby church in offering a $20,000 reward for information.
The FBI, however, says it could have caused serious injuries and deaths had the bomb been placed inside the mosque instead of outside.
The bomb went off during evening prayers, when about 60 people were at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida in Jacksonville. No one was injured. [TPM]
Let’s see… trying to bomb a place of worship. I wonder what would happen if the bomb was planted at a synagogue? The blame would be shifted onto ‘Muslim extremists’ in a heartbeat. But here… ‘no leads’.
Now compare these to the reactions to the ‘pantybomber’ and the foiled Times Square plot? I’m sure I didn’t see any of the above exhibits trend on Twitter like these two did and while I’m sure that an evacuation of Times Square is a major event and that the concept of a ‘panty bomber’ is possibly very amusing I don’t think these factors warrant the major scale shrug given to the above three exhibits. So how did the supposedly liberal interwebs do?
Florida mosque bombing = 211,000 results
Michigan militia = 221,000 results
Plane into IRS building = 986,000 results (hoorah)
as compared to:
Underwear bomb = 2,990,000 results
Times Square bomb = 13,000,000 results
OK, I don’t pretend to be some kind of SEO expert and I’m sure the above search terms or keywords or whatever aren’t precise and neither is my method but you’re getting my drift here, right? Why do we see constant articles written about Faisal Shahzad (9,650,000 results, incidentally) and related obscure facts, like that his handwriting “reveals hostility”, but nothing about the origins of the Michigan militia or the Texan IRS-bomber, Joe Stack?
All of this gives rise to the old paradox about the media: is it the chicken or the egg? Is the cause here a failing among the media to properly report on important events or is it the fault of the public for not being interested enough to demand such reporting, explaining the lack of supply? The Google and Twitter watch would suggest that the latter may well be the case. But then again, can the blame be shifted back to the media chicken for incubating, via years of selective reporting and broad-based orientalism, an egg that has hatched a desensitized and apathetic drone unquestioningly consuming panty-bomber lulz and Times Square oh noez?
How much do we really care about events that don’t fit our prejudiced race-based dichotomy, that white people are victims and Muslim people are terrorists? (Note: this is further complicated of course by white convert Muslim ‘terrorists’ like “Jihad Jack” and David Hicks treated like weird cross-cultural abominations that have given up “white person” status and are now the Other with added circus freak curiosity status).
I’m using the pronoun ‘we’ here because I believe I am equally guilty. Sure, I busted out this post and maybe a few tweets but I probably tweeted more about Faisal Shahzad too. I probably haven’t given this issue enough attention either. I mean the IRS bombing was in February and this post is coming out in May? I know many of my most respected Tweeple and fellow bloggers are equally guilty.
Note: I suspect that this is also the reason for the muted outrage over Barack Obama’s recent approval of the extrajudicial assassination of a US citizen who just happened to be… Muslim (Anwar al-Awlaki, 323,000 results). Would we be so quick to apply a prejudiced assumption that the person is probably a terrorist anyway, with or without trial, if the target was, say, a militantly aggressive white Christian member of an anti-Government tea party faction? I can only imagine the outrage. I can see what you’re thinking: “but, uh, I oppose that assassination!” Sure, but how much do we oppose it? If Obama plotted to assassinate a cheerleader from Ohio whilst on holiday in Amsterdam, I’m assuming y’all would blog about it a little more, eh?
Let’s face it, we’re no shrinking violets, we’re good at outrage, we love a spot of anger and a powerful target to rail against. Why then, is our outrage so selective and often so muted, particularly, when double standards are so undeniable? We need to take a good hard look at ourselves and our prejudices, and realise that, no matter how intellectually aware of it we are, orientalism pervades not only our key institutions and power structures but also the hope for the future – our own hearts.
We’ve heard that the appeal has been made in private before but, over the weekend, Mahmoud Abbas publicly requested that President Obama impose a solution to the Middle East conflict. This implies, of course, that he’ll ‘impose’ a Palestinian state on the Israeli people, and ‘impose’ concessions on behalf of the Palestinians also. While I can appreciate Abu Mazen’s frustrations, even he must understand this is impossible and stating it is also not doing Obama any favours.
The obvious implication of Abu Mazen having the boldness to make such a request is that he believes Obama is firmly on ‘his side’. In an increasingly polar, divided and confrontational political arena, this is more bad press for the President as it could further erode his base of support within Israel and the Jewish community as well as giving tea party activists and the like another bone to chew on. I don’t see any political benefit for Abu Mazen here either. What political ends could it possibly serve for him to once again confirm his total political impotence? Begging the President of the US to do the job for him against the Israelis does not build confidence in a leader.
No, I see this as a statement made purely out of desperation. Perhaps Abbas really thought that he would be the one to bring a Palestinian state? Perhaps he really thought he could finally step out of Arafat’s shadow and be the father of a new Palestine, a Palestinian Ben Gurion or something. But even Abbas must think twice, a state will not be achieved by begging. Politics respects the strong, not the weak.
Let’s take a quick look at the frustrating political stalemate that has brought this desperate situation about.
Of the main players:
- Abbas is looking inreasingly weak, impotent and useless. He has completely lost Gaza, there have been plenty of allegations about corruption and very few people among his own constitutents have any respect for him or hope under his leadership. He has been treated like a pawn by the Israelis time and time again, eclipsed even by Salam Fayyad’s proclamations of Palestinian statehood being just around the corner.
- Obama is presiding over an increasingly bitter and divided country. The watered-down health care reform bill that he passed may have been lauded in the papers as monumental but drew a huge toll in blood & sweat from the Democratic party and himself. His first term has been far from easy. Both Iraq and Afghanistan are still looking like losing battles, Israel-Palestine is spiralling out of control, his power base on the left thinks that he hasn’t gone far enough whereas the right is getting more and more hostile as the days wear on.
- Netanyahu, what can we say about poor old Bibi. It’s a testament to the man’s political canniness that he has been able to hold his shaky coalition together for this long. The inordinate amount of power held by the far right in the Israeli Knesset has made it almost impossible for Netanyahu to make any real progress in any direction when it comes to Palestine. What the man actually wants to do is no longer even relevant, he is basically a middleman. Bibi is trying to strike a balance between increasing pressure from the international community in the wake of Cast Lead and from a far less friendly President in the White House on one side, and a powerful far right not willing to make any concessions on the other.
But more on Netanyahu. This piece from Hagai Segal for YNet further highlights the delicacy of the tight-rope that Bibi is walking. Segal highlights what we already knew, there is no actual construction going on in East Jerusalem, probably a part of the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ Bibi is said to have struck with Obama. Bombastic announcements of settlement expansion were made and we assumed they were to curry favour with the right, but is the right so stupid as to accept these announcements without bricks and mortar? Is the Israeli public going to keep buying the line that Bibi is running rings around Obama? Or is something going to give somewhere?
Meanwhile, Abu Mazen is still refusing to enter negotiations with Israel until they agree to a total settlement freeze in East Jerusalem. So while the settlement announcements served to hold the right-wing at bay for a time and the lack of construction is holding Obama at bay, Abu Mazen is refusing to accept it. The only political points Bibi can score at the moment is that the Palestinians are being belligerent about refusing to enter peace talks. He can’t even point out the lack of construction in East Jerusalem as a concession because it’s meant to be one that flies under the radar.
Where to from here?
The AFP reports that Abbas has been invited to Washington for direct talks with Obama. Ha’aretz is reporting that the stalled indirect ‘proximity’ talks are to start no later than mid-May, citing the perennial deus ex machina, unnamed officials. I’m inclined to believe this claim. I think Abbas is heading over to Washington for drilling. Obama is going to tell Abbas to back down on the request for a settlement freeze, to take heed of the lack of construction, to stop pushing Bibi because a collapsed coalition and a political vacuum in the Knesset would help no one (least of all Obama) and to enter ‘proximity’ talks.
The irony of the settlement situation is that, although settlement construction in East Jerusalem has stalled, none of the principal actors mentioned above can draw any political capital from it unless proximity talks begin. If proximity talks happen then that can be considered a limited victory for Obama & Mitchell, which is why they are presumably keen to see them start again in earnest.
Whether these talks will amount to anything is the million dollar question asked before every single round of talks, every single new ‘peace process’ or ‘road map’. I’m tempted to say no, but presumably Obama wants us to have ‘the audacity of hope’.
It’s been a hefty week of diplomatic news for Israel. Apart from the news of the expulsion of a UK diplomat and the possibility of Australia following suit, there has also been settlement news, Obama love-hate news, potential intifada news and even Osama comes back from the dead to weigh in with his two cents, what fun.
On the settlement/Obama front there’s been so much random news that I don’t even know where exactly to start digging in all this muck. Let’s start with the fact that Israel announced another 20 settlement units in East Jerusalem, once again impeccably timed with Netanyahu’s visit to the US. Paltry, you might say, nothing compared to announcing 1,600 to welcome Joe Biden with, but still, fairly similar. Sure 1,600 is a bigger number than 20 and Netanyahu is visiting the US not welcoming Biden, but in principle, it’s essentially the same damn thing. Mondoweiss rightfully asks the question, why isn’t Obama outraged?
Moreover, constructing the new 20 units is going to involve demolishing a historic building, the Shepherd Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah:
The Shepherd Hotel, close to the British consulate, was once a headquarters for Haj Amin al-Husseini, the former Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem. After 1967, Israel deemed it absentee property. It was then bought, reportedly for $1m, in 1985 by Irving Moskowitz, a Jewish American millionaire who funds settlements.
Elisha Peleg, a Jerusalem city councillor, said the Shepherd Hotel building permit was a “technical step” and that more construction would follow there and in other Palestinian areas of the city. “We will continue to build all over Jerusalem, in Sheikh Jarrah and Ras al-Amud as well,” he said. [Guardian]
So what of the talks between Bibi and Obama? Reportedly, Bibi got freaked by the supposed crisis happening in US-Israeli relations, cancelled a bunch of appointments and flew to Washington quick-smart. A media blackout was imposed during the meeting, an unusual step and a possible indicator of the frosty atmosphere. This was no ‘beer summit’.
The White House spokesman suggested that talks were “honest and straight forward” and early reports from Israel suggested that Netanyahu was claiming ‘progress’ made during the meeting but a recent report from the Sydney Morning Herald suggests otherwise. Apparently, according to leaked documents, Bibi was ‘humiliated’.
According to leaked accounts reported in the Israeli media, Mr Obama humiliated Mr Netanyahu by leaving the meeting early.
”I’m going to the residential wing to have dinner with Michelle and the girls,” Mr Obama reportedly said, adding that Mr Netanyahu should consult his aides about goodwill gestures Israel was prepared to make towards the Palestinians before renewed peace talks. ”’I'm still around,” he said. ”Let me know if there is anything new.”
When the President returned, Mr Netanyahu is said to have made a counter-offer which Mr Obama did not accept. [SMH]
I’d snub Bibi for dinner with Michelle and the girls too. After all, they are considerably more attractive than that stern-faced gargoyle pictured above.
For an alternative and very well-reasoned take on how the talks should have gone, Avi Issacharoff for Ha’aretz:
How could Netanyahu have safeguarded the construction in East Jerusalem? By offering something in return. Past Israeli governments have indicated their intent to build in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line, but they simultaneously gave the U.S. a political strategy to present to the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s government is backtracking on all fronts and offering nothing to the Americans or the Palestinians.
More on the Shepherd Hotel demolition, also from the Guardian, an important thing to consider:
“What it means politically is that it is one very important project that can torpedo the peace talks,” said Hagit Ofran, a settlement expert at the Israeli group Peace Now. “It is in the hands of the settlers to decide when to bring the bulldozers … It is a very dangerous step.”
This is a salient point. If the settlers control the bulldozers then the settlers have a very provocative tool at their disposal, it’s like allowing a bunch of potentially crazy wingnuts to have control over the red button that starts a war. How’s that Palestinian powder keg coming along?
Well not great, Israel is still planning to enlarge the Jewish prayer plaza at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. I’ll let Electronic Intifada explain this one:
The site eyed by Israeli officials is located at the Mughrabi Gate, an entrance to the mosque compound known as the Haram al-Sharif, the most sensitive site in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Inside are al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock.
Earlier encroachments by Israel on Islamic authority at the site have triggered clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians. A heavily armed visit to the compound by Ariel Sharon in 2000, shortly before he became prime minister, to declare Israeli rights there sparked the second intifada.
There’s also the contentious killing of four Palestinian teenagers at the hands of the IDF that has sparked protests in the Occupied Territories and, supposedly, an Israeli investigation into the matter. All of this sounds very very intifada-like.
Also, Ban Ki Moon is going to ask the Arabs to go back to peace talks, yeah… that’ll work. Sometimes the man’s, or rather the position’s, impotence astounds me. Jordan’s King Abdullah thinks Israel is playing with fire. Bashar al Assad has no faith in Israel. Oh and there’s also that other guy, he’s not happy either. And if anyone is still wondering why people are angry about Gaza, here’s yet another story. Two soldiers are being tried in an Israeli military tribunal (any guesses as to how it will turn out) for using a 9 year old boy as a minesweeper… classy.