Thank you for the year that’s been and 2013

On this New Year’s Eve, I wanted to thank all my readers for your support, thoughts, links, insights, criticisms, praise and love during the year. It’s been a wild ride as I’ve travelled to Afghanistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, America and beyond for a variety of reasons, mostly work-related. I couldn’t have continued without the warm embrace of my many supporters. Thank you.

2013 may be even bigger as I’ll be releasing two new books, a film documentary, my first photography exhibition plus other treats along the way.

I hope you’ll join me and I wish you, your family and friends a happy and successful year ahead.

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How an Orthodox Israeli Jewish billionaire loves to exploit Africa

This is a remarkable story, sad, tragic and outrageous, and proves that money doesn’t bring morality (via Bloomberg):

Dan Gertler’s bearded face lights up as he looks out the helicopter window. Below, an installation twice the size of Monaco rises from a clearing in the central African forest, where it transforms ore mined from the ochre earth into sheets of copper.

“Look at it, look at it,” the Israeli billionaire, 38, shouts through the headset above the thrum of rotors. “This is what life is all about,” Gertler says as the chopper lands in the scorching, dry afternoon heat of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Everyone comes with dreams and illusions and promises. Everyone wants quick deals. They don’t want to invest. We are real.”

Wearing a black suit by French fashion house Zilli, ritual white tassels hanging off both hips and a black-velvet yarmulke, Gertler hops out into the dust of Mutanda, a mine controlled by his partner, Glencore International Plc (GLEN), that holds cobalt and some of the highest-grade copper in the world, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its January issue.

He climbs into an air-conditioned Toyota Land Cruiser to tour the mine, tapping messages into one of his three BlackBerrys, whose batteries, like those of smartphones and laptops everywhere, often depend on cobalt to keep their charge.

Gertler has stakes in companies that control 9.6 percent of world cobalt production, based on U.S. Geological Survey data and company figures.

That’s just the beginning of Gertler’s influence in Congo, the largest country of sub-Saharan Africa, with the world’s richest deposits of cobalt and major reserves of copper, diamonds, gold, tin and coltan, an ore containing the metal tantalum, which is used in consumer electronics. His Gibraltar- registered Fleurette Properties Ltd. owns stakes in various Congolese mines through at least 60 holding companies in offshore tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands.

Gertler, whose grandfather co-founded Israel’s diamond exchange in 1947, arrived in Congo in 1997 seeking rough diamonds. The 23-year-old trader struck a deep friendship with Joseph Kabila, who then headed the Congolese army and today is the nation’s president. Since those early days, Gertler has invested in iron ore, gold, cobalt and copper as well as agriculture, oil and banking. In the process, he’s built up a net worth of at least $2.5 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

He’s also acquired a roster of critics. Many of the government’s deals with Gertler deprive Congo’s 68 million people of badly needed funds, according to the London-based anticorruption group Global Witness and lawmakers from Congo and the U.K., the country’s second-biggest aid donor after the U.S.

“Dan Gertler is essentially looting Congo at the expense of its people,” says Jean Pierre Muteba, the head of a group of nongovernmental organizations that monitor the mining sector in Katanga province, where most of Congo’s copper is located.

“He has political connections, so state companies sell him mines for low prices and he sells them on for huge profits. That’s how he’s become a billionaire.”

In the eight months preceding November 2011 elections, in which Kabila won a second five-year term, companies affiliated with Gertler bought shares in five mining ventures from three state-owned firms, according to minutes of board meetings, company filings and documents published later. The state companies didn’t announce the sales.

At age 22, Gertler started buying rough diamonds so he could work with larger volumes, he says. Gertler flew between war-torn nations such as Liberia and Angola and the major diamond centers in the U.S., India and Israel, buying and selling gems, he says.

“From the beginning, he went his own way,” says his uncle, Shmuel Schnitzer, 63, who was president of the World Federation of Diamond Bourses from 2002 to 2006.“The guy has guts. This is the basic thing about him.”

Gertler broke with his family’s secular tradition when he and Anat decided to adopt an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. They’ve banned television and computers from their five-story, terraced house in Bnei Brak, whose crisp stone finishing and verdant shrubbery lining each floor contrast with the neighbors’ concrete apartment buildings.

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Jacob Appelbaum on American plans to store all digital information indefinitely

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New documents prove FBI used as private intelligence arm for corporations against Occupy

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Preparing for the end of the world (at a very reasonable price)

Tim Murphy in Mother Jones:

Humans have been preparing for the worst for millennia, but modern Americans have turned it into an art form. At the dawn of the Atomic Age, suburbanites scrambled to build backyard shelters and the government stockpiled food in anticipation of the day after. The spiraling inflation of the 1970s brought with it a spike in gold sales and backwoods land purchases. During the Clinton years, camo-clad survivalists prepared for the black-helicopter invasion, and Y2K briefly made prepperism mainstream. But perhaps the best salesman for the notion that we’re on the verge of financial, technological, and political collapse has been the current occupant of the Oval Office. Stevens says of the president, “He is the leading promoter of this without even knowing it.”

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Just one more reason why academic BDS against Israeli universities vital

After the recent faux controversy in Australia over a principled academic refusing to assist an Israeli academic because his centre abided by BDS principles, this story (via Ben White in Electronic Intifada) shows how intimately linked are Israeli universities, the occupation and the settler establishment:

Dozens of academics from Israel and abroad, worried about the threat of academic boycott, have sent a petition to Tel Aviv University (TAU) requesting the cancelation of the university’s participation in the settler-run archaeological dig in the Silwan neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem.

The partnership between TAU and Elad’s project was revealed in October, and TAU’s Institute of Archaeology began digging in the “City of David” national park last week. Elad “is responsible for settling over 500 Israeli Jews throughout Silwan,” and the organization’s director “has himself been caught on tape admitting the digs he oversees endanger Palestinian homes situated above.”

The university’s response to what TAU archaeologist Prof. Rafael Greenberg has called “a clear politicization of research” has been to defend the dig on the grounds that it “will be carried out using modern scientific methods, at the highest professional standards, with particular attention paid to professional ethics.”

TAU is not alone in its relationship with the settler group’s project in Silwan; Hebrew University now offers an “Archaeological Field Summer School” at the City of David, where students can gain credit for the studies.

The organizers of the petition to TAU, worried about damage to their efforts to fight support for the Palestinian call for academic boycott, claimed that a boycott has already begun to bite. In the words of Prof. Sidra Ezrahi:

“Tel Aviv University would be causing immeasurable damage to academia in general and to our desperate efforts to steer clear of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel in particular. We’re already getting cancellations of conference participation and this is playing straight into the hands of the BDS movement.”

This follows a familiar pattern whereby so-called liberal critics of Israeli government policies are motivated by concern for the country’s international image and a desire to combat the BDS campaign. For example, opposition in 2008 to freedom of movement restrictions on Palestinian students from the West Bank was partly due to the assumption that the policy helps “those who are trying to impose an academic boycott on Israel.”

In fact, TAU’s relationship with the Elad dig in occupied Silwan is not even the half of it, in terms of the university’s complicity with grave violations of international law and human rights abuses.

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America’s wars are outsourced so there’s much money to be made

The face of America’s never-ending “war on terror” is increasingly privatised. This Washington Post article explains just one example of this trend but doesn’t examine the lack of accountability of the practice, something I’m doing in my 2013 book and film on disaster capitalism:

The rapid collapse of a U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya exposed the vulnerabilities of State Department facilities overseas. But the CIA’s ability to fend off a second attack that same night provided a glimpse of a key element in the agency’s defensive arsenal: a secret security force created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Two of the Americans killed in Benghazi were members of the CIA’s Global Response Staff, an innocuously named organization that has recruited hundreds of former U.S. Special Forces operatives to serve as armed guards for the agency’s spies.

The GRS, as it is known, is designed to stay in the shadows, training teams to work undercover and provide an unobtrusive layer of security for CIA officers in high-risk outposts.

But a series of deadly scrapes over the past four years has illuminated the GRS’s expanding role, as well as its emerging status as one of the CIA’s most dangerous assignments.

Of the 14 CIA employees killed since 2009, five worked for the GRS, all as contractors. They include two killed at Benghazi, as well as three others who were within the blast radius on Dec. 31, 2009, when a Jordanian double agent detonated a suicide bomb at a CIA compound in Khost, Afghanistan.

GRS contractors have also been involved in shootouts in which only foreign nationals were killed, including one that triggered a diplomatic crisis. While working for the CIA, Raymond Davis was jailed for weeks in Pakistan last year after killing two men in what he said was an armed robbery attempt in Lahore.

The increasingly conspicuous role of the GRS is part of a broader expansion of the CIA’s paramilitary capabilities over the past 10 years. Beyond hiring former U.S. military commandos, the agency has collaborated with U.S. Special Operations teams on missions including the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and has killed thousands of Islamist militants and civilians with its fleet of armed drones.

CIA veterans said that GRS teams have become a critical component of conventional espionage, providing protection for case officers whose counterterrorism assignments carry a level of risk that rarely accompanied the cloak-and-dagger encounters of the Cold War.

Spywork used to require slipping solo through cities in Eastern Europe. Now, “clandestine human intelligence involves showing up in a Land Cruiser with some [former] Deltas or SEALs, picking up an asset and then dumping him back there when you are through,” said a former CIA officer who worked closely with the security group overseas.

Bodyguard details have become so essential to espionage that the CIA has overhauled its training program at the Farm — its case officer academy in southern Virginia — to teach spies the basics of working with GRS teams.

The security apparatus relies heavily on contractors who are drawn by relatively high pay and flexible schedules that give them several months off each year. In turn, they agree to high-risk assignments in places such as Benghazi and are largely left on their own to take basic precautions, such as finding health and life insurance.

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the GRS has about 125 employees working abroad at any given time, with at least that many rotating through cycles of training and off-time in the United States.

At least half are contractors, who often earn $140,000 or more a year and typically serve 90- or 120-day assignments abroad. Full-time GRS staff officers — those who are permanent CIA employees — earn slightly less but collect benefits and are typically put in supervisory roles.

The work is lucrative enough that recruiting is done largely by word of mouth, said one former U.S. intelligence official. Candidates tend to be members of U.S. Special Forces units who have recently retired, or veterans of police department SWAT teams.

Most GRS recruits arrive with skills in handling the weapons they will carry, including Glock handguns and M4 rifles. But they undergo additional training so they do not call attention to the presence or movements of the CIA officers they are in position to protect.

Although the agency created the GRS to protect officers in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, it has been expanded to protect secret drone bases as well as CIA facilities and officers in locations including Yemen, Lebanon and Djibouti.

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South Africa pays compensation to apartheid victims

I hear these stories and hope that Israel will be forced to pay compensation to Palestinian victims of its racism in decades to come:

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Thinking of occupied Bethlehem this Christmas

The reality of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation is often ignored in the West. This Christmas – I hope my readers have a safe and happy holiday season, wherever they may be – I’m once again publishing the regular missive from Brother Peter Bray, the Vice Chancellor of Bethlehem University (his past writings are here). The town suffers under the realities of Israeli rule but Bray is an inspiring figure who works tirelessly for his students and staff.

Here’s Bray’s message:

24 December 2012

Greetings from this holy place of Bethlehem as we prepare to celebrate the coming of God amongst us! It is, indeed, a privilege to be here in Bethlehem and to try to take in that some two thousand years ago God became one of us in Jesus, a helpless little baby, born here in this holy place! It shows God meets us as human being where we are in a lovable little baby. I thank God for that privilege.

From this privileged place I send you God’s blessing and pray that in your own celebrations you will experience something of the peace and joy that comes from God.

This has been an extraordinarily busy year for me, but one that has also been satisfying as we move to find ever better ways to serve the Palestinian people. The challenges have come in all sorts of ways. The continued occupation is impinging on us in a variety of blatant and subtle ways to make the operation of Bethlehem University more difficult. The most obvious one is the restrictions on travel and the adjustments that have to be made as a result of individuals not being able to get permission to go through the Wall. An example today is that we are currently waiting to welcome a group of young Lasallians from the Brothers schools in Amman (Jordan) and Jerusalem. Despite applying several weeks back, here on Christmas eve there is no indication whether the students from Jordan will get permission to join in the celebration tonight in Bethlehem University. Other challenges revolve around the financial restrictions that Israel imposes through withholding money as well as by impeding the flow of goods into and out of Palestine. These have implications for many of our parents and, therefore, for our students.

The recent attack on Gaza did not endanger us here on campus. However, I closed Bethlehem University on the Wednesday before the cease-fire was finalized. On the Tuesday afternoon the Israeli soldiers chased young men right up into Bethlehem using tear gas and some of our staff where caught on the edge of that. I did not want our students to become engaged in such confrontations and because I was unsure how things could escalate on Wednesday, I decided it was wiser to keep students away from such possibilities.

Looking back I think that was a wise decision and we were able to resume classes again on the Thursday and have been able to complete the semester without further disruption. The cease-fire was followed by the application by the Palestinian Authority to the UN and the passage of that recognition. While there was a certain satisfaction among Palestinians at that recognition, there was also a sense of wariness because there have been so many seemingly helpful things in the past that really led nowhere. The fact that the passage of this resolution by the UN was followed by Israel announcing a massive expansion of settlements indicates that the Palestinians were right in being wary about things being better as a result of the recognition they received. It is hard to see how the Palestinians are going to benefit as Israel uses its powerful position here to dominate so many aspects of Palestinian life. This domination has obvious implications for Bethlehem University and the welfare of our students, faculty and staff.

I have mentioned before that in the midst of all that is going on one of our greatest challenges is to keep hope alive. The challenge is when there is so much evidence that things are not getting better, how do we help keep hope alive? I think we have to move past an understanding of hope that rests on optimism. Equating hope with optimism will lead to fear and despair. When I talk to our graduates and have them reflect on what it was that helped them keep hope alive while they were at Bethlehem University they respond by saying it really came back to them knowing deep down that people at Bethlehem University really cared about them. They felt that people were worried about them, were prepared to care for them and go the extra mile to help. In my Christmas message I mention that the suffering of any tragedy can be eased if people know there are others standing with them.

I think this is very true for students, faculty and staff here at Bethlehem University. The challenge then becomes how to create an oasis of peace here at Bethlehem University so that when students come on campus they know they are safe and that people here care for them. There are many aspects to doing that. One is the Lasallian emphasis on building relationships. “Be brothers and sisters to one another and older brothers and sisters to the young people entrusted to you.” (Slight adaptation from Saint John Baptist De La Salle). I think this is one aspect of Bethlehem University which we continue to work on and which so many of our graduates treasure. Having people outside Bethlehem University standing in solidarity with us is a wonderful boost to our students, faculty and staff because it highlights they are not alone in their struggle. Another aspect is providing the best possible programmes. We have been fortunate for the latter part of this semester to have Dr. Shukri Sanber from the Australian Catholic University working pro bono with us to help us continually improve what we are doing. I am deeply grateful to him for his generosity and his willingness to share his expertise.

Another challenge is to provide facilities that will contribute to building such relationships. I think you will be aware that Bethlehem University is in the process of purchasing the Mount David property near the present campus. With this property it will mean Bethlehem University will have five properties and the challenge is to find the best ways to use those for the benefit of the Palestinian people. To help us respond to this I have engaged a group of professionals who are working with us to develop a strategic plan but also to help draw up a comprehensive facilities master plan. Chris Faisandier, a long time friend from my New Plymouth days, is driving this process for us. He is Ahead Associates’ Australian based Associate. He has managed to convince Graham Ormsby, an architect and master planner along with Mr Terry Mahady of Gallagher Jeffs Consulting, who is an independent property adviser, to work with him. These three have agreed to do this work pro bono and Bethlehem University only has to cover costs involved. This is a major contribution to Bethlehem University and I am deeply grateful to these men for their offer and for the demanding work they are putting in.

Negotiating for the purchase of the property and then getting funding for it has taken a great deal of time. The purchase price is around US$13.8 and then we will need something in the vicinity of US$5.7 to get the property to where we want it, making this a US$19.5 project! It is a challenge, but one that will enable Bethlehem University to reach out in a whole variety of ways to the people of Palestine. This project says to the people of Bethlehem that Bethlehem University believes in them, that it is going to be around for a long time, that it is deeply committed to provide the very best opportunities as we educate the future leaders of Palestine. It is  wonderful opportunity to take a major step in serving Palestine and is a source of hope for the people, particularly those in Bethlehem.

We are preparing for our wonderful celebration of Christmas at midnight in our beautiful Bethlehem University Chapel. This is a standing room only event by the time everyone arrives. The new Nuncio (who is automatically the Chancellor of Bethlehem University) will preside. He is Archbishop Lazzarotto who was previously the Nuncio in Australia. I am fortunate also to have two Australian brothers staying with us. Brother Denis Loft and Brother Lawrence King are joining us to celebrate Christmas in this holy place.

Both were in New Plymouth with me and it is great to reconnect with them and give them a look at Bethlehem University and something of the Holy Land.

As you celebrate, wherever you happen to be, I assure you we will remember you as we celebrate here in this holy place. Please keep us in your prayers as we seek to live the message Jesus brought and to reach out to the needs of the Palestinian people as they celebrate the coming of God amongst us here where the Prince of Peace was born.

I again wish you God’s peace and joy at this special time from this special place!

Brother Peter Bray

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Campaigning for the boycott of Sri Lankan cricket team

I’m honoured to be asked to be a public face of this campaign (via Tamil Guardian):

Renowned Australian author Thomas Keneally has spoken out against Australia playing cricket with Sri Lanka and called for a break of sporting ties, as calls to boycott Sri Lankan cricket continue to grow.

Writing to Keneally, the Tamil Refugee Council stated,

“For too long Australia has turned a blind eye to the mounting evidence that the Sri Lankan Government committed war crimes against the poorest of its own people, including the slaughter of more than 40,000 innocent Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war in 2009.”

“There will be a stain of injustice that won’t wash out of the cricket whites if the human rights abuses of the ruling Sri Lankan regime pass unremarked.”

Keneally, who had previously spoken out after the suicide of an asylum seeker fleeing Sri Lanka, responded,

“All the matters your letter raised are issues we can’t pretend about anymore, and if our government keeps up with their present tricks, they may be subject to bans and blacklistings, too.”

Keneally, was joined in endorsing the boycott call by Sydney Peace Foundation chair, Stuart Rees; human rights lawyer, Julian Burnside, AO, QC; former deputy Australian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Bruce Haigh; Norwegian film-maker Beate Arnestad; Greens MP in NSW Parliament David Shoebridge; independent journalist and author, Antony Loewenstein; Associate professor and director, Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney, Jake Lynch; Professor and journalist, Wendy Bacon, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, Tamil Youth Organisation (Sydney), Uniting Church Minister, Rev. Richard Wootton, and 3CR Radio in Melbourne.

Also supporting the campaign was the Australasian Federation of Tamil Associations (AFTA), an umbrella body of Tamil organizations in the States and territories of Australia and the two cities of Auckland and Wellington in New Zealand.

See their full statement below.

“Australasian Federation of Tamil Associations (AFTA), the umbrella body of the peak Tamil organizations in the States and territories of Australia and the two cities of Auckland and Wellington in New Zealand, is well aware that Australia has used sports sanctions effectively to bring oppressive regimes to change their way of ruling and bring relief to their respective oppressed citizens. Australia has used in all these cases Cricket as their tool to succeed.

“First when the black people of South Africa were oppressed under the then Apartheid regime and later when the Zimbabwean White land owners were being evicted from their farms by the Black natives under the notorious Mugabe regime, Australia joined several other countries not to play cricket with the South Africans and Zimbabweans until the respective regimes revert back to observing democracy and rule of law.

“AFTA has been raising its concern to the Australian government that Australia has been turning a blind eye to the mounting evidence that the ruling regime in Sri Lanka has committed genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the slaughter of more than 40,000 innocent Tamil civilians during the final phase of the civil war in 2009 as reported by the independent panel appointed by the UN Secretary General to advise him on how to proceed with the accountability process in Sri Lanka.

“AFTA is disappointed that during his recent visit, our foreign minister Hon. Bob Carr pledged unqualified support to Sri Lanka to host the next CHOGM in 2013 by a regime that is comparable to the South African Apartheid regime and Mugabe’s regime, whilst Canada and Great Britain are contemplating whether to attend this meeting. If Mugabe, who unleashed violence against the White land owners of Zimbabwe, cannot be a friend of Australia, how could we do business as usual with the Rajapaksa regime that is alleged to have committed genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes? Why is this double standard? Are the lives of Zimbabwean White land owners more valuable than the
Tamil people in Sri Lanka?

“It is high time for all Australians to implore the Gillard government and the Cricket Australia to consider suspending sporting ties with Sri Lanka until Sri Lanka:
restores rule of law and genuine democracy including independent judiciary;agrees to independent international investigations against war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide; and negotiates with the Tamil people for a genuine political power sharing arrangement based on the Tamils’ right to self-determination.

“In this context AFTA welcomes the initiative taken by the refugee Action Collective in conjunction with the Tamil Refugee Council in launching their boycott of the Sri Lankan cricket team with a demonstration in front of MCG on Boxing-day and consider it as a step in the right direction.

“AFTA appeals to all the independent media to help in taking this message to the Australian public.”

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Criminal UN negligence in Haiti over cholera crisis

During my recent visit to Haiti, working on a book and film about disaster capitalism, the issue of UN incompetence/criminality over causing the outbreak of cholera was a primary concern of many and rightly so. This Al-Jazeera documentary takes a critical look at the UN’s response:

Here’s the latest New York Times feature on the tough realities of today’s Haiti after the earthquake and far too much foreign aid.

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Breaking: US TV show discusses influence of Zionist lobby

Perhaps the only US TV host that actually honestly discusses domestic and global issues is Chris Hayes on MSNBC.

His latest involves the current absurd calls by the Israel lobby and its courtiers in the US to stop the potential Obama administration nomination of Chuck Hagel as Defence Secretary because he’s an “anti-Semite“. If America is a country where foreign policy is discussed in a serious way, what matters is how Hagel would continue the military-industrial complex and perhaps, just perhaps, put a little pressure on Israeli colonisation:

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

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