2006

End of the Strongmen

19 December 2006

The era of the Middle East strongman, propped up by and enforcing Western policy, appears well and truly over. His power is being replaced with rule by civil war, apparently now the American Administration’s favoured model across the region. Fratricidal fighting is threatening to engulf, or already engulfing, the occupied Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq. Both Syria and Iran could soon be next, torn apart by attacks Israel is reportedly planning on behalf of the US. The reverberations would likely consume the region. Western politicians like to portray civil war as a consequence of the West’s failure to intervene more effectively in the Middle East.

The problem facing the Palestinian leadership, as they strive to bring the millions living in the occupied territories some small relief from their collective suffering, reduces to a matter of a few words. Like a naughty child who has only to say “sorry” to be released from his room, the Hamas government need only say “We recognise Israel” and supposedly aid and international goodwill will wash over the West Bank and Gaza. That, at least, was the gist of Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert’s recent speech during a visit to the Negev, when he suggested that his country’s hand was stretched out across the sands towards the starving masses of Gaza — if only Hamas would repent. “Recognise us and we are ready to talk about peace” was the implication.

We didn’t disappear

14 December 2006

Region – 14 – 20 December 2006 Issue No. 824 The official political leadership of Israel’s more than one million Palestinian citizens issued a manifesto in Nazareth last week demanding a raft of changes to end the systematic discrimination exercised against non-Jews by the state since its creation nearly six decades ago.   Included in […]

If one thing offers a terrifying glimpse of where the experiment in human despair that is Gaza under Israeli siege is leading, it is the news that a Palestinian woman in her sixties — a grandmother — chose last week to strap on a suicide belt and explode herself next to a group of Israeli soldiers invading her refugee camp. Despite the “Man bites dog” news value of the story, most of the Israeli media played down the incident. Not surprisingly: it is difficult to portray Fatma al-Najar as a crazed fanatic bent only the destruction of Israel.

Prime suspects

24 November 2006

Commentators and columnists seem agreed: Pierre Gemayel’s assassination must have been the handiwork of Syria. President Bush thinks so too. Case, apparently, closed. I do not claim to know who killed Gemayel. Maybe Syria was behind the shooting. Maybe, in Lebanon’s notoriously intrigue-ridden political system, someone with a grudge against Gemayel pulled the trigger. Or maybe, Israel once again flexed the muscles of its long arm in Lebanon. It seems, however, as if the last possibility cannot be entertained in polite society. So let me offer a few impolite thoughts. As anyone who watches TV crime series will know, when there is insufficient physical evidence in a murder investigation for a conviction, detectives examine the motives of the parties who stood to benefit from the crime.

Along the fault line

20 November 2006

A new breed of Israeli academics classify Israel as an ‘ethnocracy’ rather than a liberal democracy, arguing that the institutionalised discrimination against Israeli Arabs, the ‘Judaising’ of public space, the enduring interference of the Jewish Diaspora and Zionist organisations like the JNF in Israel’s affairs, as well as the lack of defined borders and the influence of the extra-territorial settlers who live in the occupied territories, disqualify Israel from being a democracy.

David Grossman’s widely publicized speech at the annual memorial rally for Yitzhak Rabin earlier this month has prompted some fine deconstruction of his “words of peace” from critics. Grossman, one of Israel’s foremost writers and a figurehead for its main peace movement, Peace Now, personifies the caring, tortured face of Zionism that so many of the country’s apologists – in Israel and abroad, trenchant and wavering alike – desperately want to believe survives, despite the evidence of the Qanas, Beit Hanouns and other massacres committed by the Israeli army against Arab civilians. Grossman makes it possible to believe, for a moment, that the Ariel Sharons and Ehud Olmerts are not the real upholders of Zionism’s legacy, merely a temporary deviation from its true path.

The furore that briefly flared this week at the decision of Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, to invite Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party into the government coalition is revealing, but not in quite the way many observers assume. Lieberman, a Russian immigrant, is every bit the populist and racist politician he is portrayed as being. Like many of his fellow politicians, he harbours a strong desire to see the Palestinians of the occupied territories expelled, ideally to neighbouring Arab states or Europe. Lieberman, however, is more outspoken than most in publicly advocating for this position.

The Middle East, and possibly the world, stands on the brink of a terrible conflagration as Israel and the United States prepare to deal with Iran’s alleged ambition to acquire nuclear weapons. Israel, it becomes clearer by the day, wants to use its air force to deliver a knock-out blow against Tehran. It is not known whether it will use conventional weapons or a nuclear warhead in such a strike. At this potentially cataclysmic moment in global politics, it is good to see that one of the world’s leading broadcasters, the BBC, decided this week that it should air a documentary entitled “Will Israel bomb Iran?”. It is the question on everyone’s lips and doubtless, with the imprimatur of the BBC, the programme will sell around the world.

The message delivered to Condoleezza Rice this week by Israeli officials is that the humanitarian and economic disaster befalling Gaza has a single, reversible cause: the capture by Palestinian fighters of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, in late June from a perimeter artillery position that had been shelling Gaza. When Shalit is returned, negotiations can start, or so Rice was told by Israel’s defence minister, Amir Peretz. If Peretz and others are to be believed, the gunmen could have done themselves and the 1.4 million people of Gaza a favour and simply executed Shalit weeks ago.

A mistake too often made by those examining Israel’s behaviour in the occupied territories — or when analysing its treatment of Arabs in general, or interpreting its view of Iran — is to assume that Israel is acting in good faith. Even its most trenchant critics can fall into this trap. Such a reluctance to attribute bad faith was demonstrated this week by Israel’s foremost human rights group, B’Tselem, when it published a report into the bombing by the Israeli air force of Gaza’s power plant in late June. The horrifying consequences of this act of collective punishment — a war crime, as B’Tselem rightly notes — are clearly laid out in the report.

Olmert unravelling

28 September 2006

Kadima and the government are in trouble as the Israeli public steps even further towards the right in politics, writes Jonathan Cook in Nazareth Israelis saw in the Jewish New Year on the weekend with a flurry of opinion polls showing that they feel more insecure now than they have at any time over the past 10 years and that they no longer trust the leaders they elected just six months ago. Both results reflect the bitter public mood that has followed Israel’s military humiliation at the hands of Hizbullah over the summer. A survey in The Jerusalem Post revealed that 56 per cent believed Israel was less safe than a decade ago, when the country was recovering from the assassination by a Jewish extremist of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and facing a spate of Palestinian bus bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

In a CounterPunch article article criticising Human Rights Watch for singling out Hizbullah rather than Israel for harsher condemnation of its military actions during the Lebanon war, I made sure to quote the organisation fairly and accurately before seeking to refute its arguments. Unfortunately, in her recent response HRW’s Middle East policy director, Sarah Leah Whitson, did not return the favour. Possibly realising that her case was weak, she decided to paraphrase my argument instead, misrepresenting it, and only then try to rebut it. According to Whitson, I claim to know that Hizbullah was trying to hit military rather than civilian targets in Israel during this summer’s war because on several occasions its rockets actually did strike military targets.

The trajectory of a long-running campaign that gave birth this month to the preposterous all-party British parliamentary report into anti-Semitism in the UK can be traced back to intensive lobbying by the Israeli government that began more than four years ago, in early 2002. At that time, as Ariel Sharon was shredding the tattered remains of the Oslo accords by reinvading West Bank towns handed over to the Palestinian Authority in his destructive rampage known as Operation Defensive Shield, he drafted the Israeli media into the fray. Local newspapers began endlessly highlighting concerns about the rise of a “new anti-Semitism”, a theme that was rapidly and enthusiastically taken up by the muscular Zionist lobby in the US.

The measure of a human rights organisation is to be found not just in the strides it takes to seek justice for the oppressed and victimised but also in the compromises it makes to keep itself out of trouble. Because of the business that human rights defenders are in, they must be held to a standard higher than we demand of others. Unfortunately, one of the best — Human Rights Watch — has failed that test during the war in Lebanon this summer. To its credit, HRW has risked much opprobrium for taking Israel to task for systematically breaking international law during its assault on Lebanon.

More than a little uncomfortably, I find myself with a bone to pick with one of our finest champions of humanitarian values and opponents of war. During Israel’s attack on Lebanon this summer, the distinguished British journalist Robert Fisk did sterling work — as might have been expected — debunking some of the main myths that littered the battlefield almost as dangerously as the tens of thousands of US-made cluster bombs that Israel dropped in the last days of the fighting.

In a state established on a founding myth — that the native Palestinian population left of their own accord rather than that they were ethnically cleansed — and in one that seeks its legitimacy through a host of other lies, such as that the occupation of the West Bank is benign and that Gaza’s has ended, deception becomes a political way of life. And so it is in the “relative calm” that has followed Israel’s month-long pounding of Lebanon, a calm in which Israelis may no longer be dying but the Lebanese most assuredly are as explosions of US-made cluster bombs greet the south’s returning refugees and the anonymous residents of Gaza perish by the dozens each and every week under the relentless and indiscriminate strikes of the Israeli air force while the rest slowly starve in their open-air prison.

Late last month, a fortnight into Israel’s war against Lebanon, the Hebrew media published a story that passed observers by. Scientists in Haifa, according to the report, have developed a “missile-trapping” steel net that can shield buildings from rocket attacks. The Israeli government, it claimed , would be able to use the net to protect vital infrastructure — oil refineries, hospitals, military installations, and public offices — while private citizens could buy a net to protect their own homes.

 The fact that the government and scientists are seriously investing their hopes in such schemes tells us more about Israel’s vision of the “new Middle East” than acres of analysis.



Payback time

17 August 2006

As soon as the guns fell silent on the battlefields of South Lebanon Monday, the knives came out: Israel is in for a lengthy period of bloodletting among its political and military classes following the army’s failure to inflict serious damage on the Lebanese militia Hizbullah in a month-long confrontation. Ehud Olmert, the recently elected prime minister who had hoped to prove that despite his lack of military experience he could fill the shoes of his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, is a certain victim. Although he may cling to power for some time, the question is not whether he will fall but when. Few in Israel appear convinced that the terms of the UN-brokered ceasefire — pushing Hizbullah back from the border and replacing it with an international peace-keeping force and Lebanese troops — were worth the cost in blood or that they will ever be properly implemented.

During Israel’s war against the people of Lebanon, our media, politicians and diplomats have colluded with the aggressors by distracting us with irrelevancies, by concocting controversies, and by framing the language of diplomacy. In the fragile truce that is currently holding while Lebanon waits for Israel to withdraw, we are simply getting more of the same.

 One example of the many distractions during the war that neatly reveals their true purpose is the “faked Reuters photograph” affair. The supposed scandal of a Lebanese photographer tampering with a picture to add and darken smoke from an Israeli missile attack — to little or no effect, it should be noted — has not only been decried by activists on Zionist websites but amplified by mainstream commentators into a debate about whether we can trust the images of this war.



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