On anti-Semitism, BDS, Palestine and justice

My essay in New Matilda is here:

As the BDS campaign starts to gain traction, accusations of anti-semitism should be treated gravely – whether from pro-Palestine advocates or Israel’s defenders, writes Antony Loewenstein

The charges of racism were serious. University orientation weeks, reported Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper, The Australian, in early March, “have been marred by a series of alleged anti-semitic incidents”.

Socialist Alternative stood accused, according to the Australian Union of Jewish Students, of expressing hateful comments towards Jewish students, praising Hamas and calling for “death to the Zionist entity” at the Australian National University and the University of New South Wales.

The reliability of the allegations of anti-semitism has not yet been assessed but, if they are found to be true, those responsible must be opposed. A spokesperson from Socialist Alternative tells me that his organisation categorically denies all of the allegations.

Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne, a man who never misses an opportunity to fight a culture war he can’t win, accused backers of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel of making anti-semitism “a fashionability among highly ignorant sections of the far Left”. He wanted universities to “step in and take a very firm line” against racism on campus. “Free speech does not extend to ugly threats and physical harassment,” he argued.

It’s time to call this co-ordinated campaign of the local Zionist lobby and the Murdoch press for what it is; a cheapening of real anti-semitism and a clear attempt to brand all critics of Israel as Jew haters. It’s a tactic imported from America and Europe, articulated from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu down, that aims to neuter opponents of the Jewish state’s brutal, military occupation as deluded and anti-semitic.

The rhetoric is increasing as BDS scores impressive wins globally — countless European firms are changing their business practices towards Israel in rejecting the occupation — and has entered the mainstream as a legitimate tool to oppose Israeli policies.

Israel supporters have long believed that better PR will solve its problems, as if, for example, there’s any way to positively spin dozens of Israeli teens announcing their refusal to serve in the IDF due to its deleterious effect on Israeli society and Palestinian lives.

It’s a small but deeply courageous step in a society that still idolises a human rights abusing army (Amnesty’s new report details countless examples of the IDF killing Palestinian civilians in cold blood).

None of these profound shifts should escape the debate in Australian, where the Federal Government refuses to condemn illegal Israeli colonies in the West Bank.

The establishment Zionist lobby has tried for decades, with a degree of success, to insulate the Jewish community from the realities of occupying Palestine.

The advent of the internet and social media, along with a more critical young population who won’t be easily bullied into support for Israel because of the Holocaust, are changing the landscape. Hence the need to use old, tired tactics. Parroting Netanyahu’s fear-mongering over Iran and Arabs is increasingly treated worldwide with the contempt it deserves.

The old men who run the Jewish community may catch on one day that it isn’t enough to run an hackneyed style enemies list against opponents; countless journalists and editors will tell you of the bullying calls, letters and emails employed by the Zionist community against critical coverage. It only sometimes now works.

It’s a failing style even called out by The Australian’s Middle East correspondent John Lyons in a recent, robust defence of his stunning ABC TV 4 Corners story on Palestine, accusing distant, self-appointed Zionist leaders of being little more than blind defenders of Israeli government policy. Pundits take note: whenever quoting such people remember to whom they pledge partial allegiance and ask about their funding sources.

Any form of racism must be completely condemned, whether it’s directed at Jews, Muslims, Christians or other minorities. But the way in which a state and community deals with racism is a more pressing the question. After years of falsely accusing critics of Israel of anti-semitism — Sydney University’s Jake Lynch is the latest person to face the predictable and costly wrath of an Israeli-government endorsed legal case against his ethically justified backing of BDS — the organised Zionist establishment lacks credibility in crying about opposing racism, when it so flagrantly encourages demonisation of Israel’s critics along racial lines.

They have a morally compromised voice by being occupation backers themselves. How dare they claim to cry over an alleged rise in real anti-semitism (mostly online) while at the same time shedding crocodile tears against the growing BDS movement? Perhaps they should learn some humility and recognise what their beloved state has become known for globally: repressing Palestinians.

Politically, the Abbott government has pledged to remove section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in an attempt, in their words, to increase free speech (a position loudly backed by The Australian).

Federal Attorney George Brandis said on ABC TV’s Q&A this week, defending his administration’s proposed changes that are opposed by the Jewish community and many other ethnic groups, that the current drafting in section 18C restricts the rights of all peoples to speak and be offensive. Now that there are signs that Brandis may be back-tracking on a complete repeal of the section, it’s really only the Murdoch press that bangs on about “free speech” while denying the same rights to many of its critics.

Despite all this, I’ve argued elsewhere, in opposition to many on the Left who believe the legislation should remain unchanged, that although all speech has limits, a robust democracy should legally tolerate insults over race. But the vast bulk of “discussion” over 18C has been at a desultory level.

Take the recent Australian Jewish News article by Fergal Davis, a senior lecturer in law at the University of NSW. He backed maintaining the current 18C legislation and then wistfully argued that the Abbott government could be the champions of human rights because “we must convince Australians that human rights are not ‘left wing’; they are at the heart of the fair go.” Nice sentiments, but utterly removed from reality. Davis ignores the new government’s shocking treatment of asylum seekers and refusal to seriously condemn abuses at the UN by allies Sri Lanka, Israel and Egypt.

The real questions for the Murdoch press, Zionist establishment, Abbott ministers and other supposed defenders of open speech are as follows: will you follow the path of many politicians in the US, both Democrat and Republican, who are increasingly trying to criminalise civilian backing for BDS? How serious is your commitment to free speech? How willing are you to preach tolerance and acceptance while believing that certain issues, such as legitimate criticisms of Israel (defined by whom will always be the question?) are beyond the pale and anti-semitic?

Away from the huffing and puffing of self-described friends of Israel lies the real limits of insulating Israel from criticism. Trying to stop BDS, through the courts, laws, parliament or defamatory attacks, will change nothing on the ground for Palestinians, and countless people around the world now know it. Israel and its dwindling band of Zionist backers in Australia and worldwide are desperately hanging onto 20th century tactics to fight modern opposition to a racially based state.

one comment

US media largely ignores world; citizens remain insular

The role of corporate media is to serve powerful business interest and advertisers; serving the public good ain’t really a serious consideration.

New data from the US is both disturbing and unsurprising and shows even more reason why alternative and indy media must grow in power (via IPS):

If people outside the United States are looking for answers why Americans often seem so clueless about the world outside their borders, they could start with what the three major U.S. television networks offered their viewers in the way of news during 2013.

Syria and celebrities dominated foreign coverage by ABC, NBC, and CBS – whose combined evening news broadcasts are the single most important media source of information about national and international events for most Americans. Vast portions of the globe went almost entirely ignored, according to the latest annual review by the authoritative Tyndall Report.

Latin America, most of Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia apart from Afghanistan, and virtually all of East Asia – despite growing tensions between China and Washington’s closest regional ally, Japan – were virtually absent from weeknight news programmes of ABC, NBC, and CBS last year, according to the report, which has tracked the three networks’ evening news coverage continuously since 1988.

Out of nearly 15,000 minutes of Monday-through-Friday evening news coverage by the three networks, the Syrian civil war and the debate over possible U.S. intervention claimed 519 minutes, or about 3.5 percent of total air time, according to the report.

That made the Syrian conflict and the U.S. policy response the year’s single-most-covered event. It was followed by coverage of the terrorist bombing by two Chechnya-born brothers that killed three people at the finish line of last April’s Boston Marathon (432 minutes); the debate over the federal budget (405 minutes); and the flawed rollout of the healthcare reform law, or Obamacare (338 minutes).

The next biggest international story was the death in December of former South African President Nelson Mandela (186 minutes); the July ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and its aftermath; the coverage of Pope Francis I (157 minutes, not including an additional 121 minutes devoted to Pope Benedict’s retirement and the Cardinals’ conclave that resulted in Francis’ succession); and the birth of Prince George, the latest addition to the British royal family (131 minutes).

The continued fighting in Afghanistan came in just behind the new prince at 121 minutes for the entire year.

The strong showings by the papal succession, Mandela’s death, and Prince George’s birth all demonstrated the rise of “celebrity journalism” in news coverage, Andrew Tyndall, the report’s publisher, told IPS. He added that “a minor celebrity like Oscar Pistorius (the South African so-called “Bladerunner” track star accused of murdering his girlfriend) attracted more coverage [by the TV networks – 51 minutes] than all the rest of sub-Saharan Africa in the [11] months before Mandela’s death.”

An average of about 21 million U.S. residents watch the network news on any given evening. While the cable news channels – CNN, FoxNews, and MSNBC – often get more public attention, their audience is actually many times smaller, according to media-watchers.

“In 2012, more than four times as many people watched the three network newscasts than watched the highest-rated show on the three cable channels during prime time,” Emily Guskin, a research analyst for the Pew Research Centre’s Journalism Project, told IPS.

As in other recent years, news about the weather – especially its extremes and the damage they wrought – received a lot of attention on the network news, although, also consistent with past performance, the possible relationship between extreme weather and climate change was rarely, if ever, drawn by reporters or anchors.

Last year’s tornado season, severe winter weather, drought and wild forest fires in the western states constituted three of the top six stories of the year, according to the report. Along with the aftermath of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, those four topics reaped nearly 900 minutes of coverage on the three networks, or about six percent of the entire year’s coverage.

“A major flaw in the television news journalism is its inability to translate anecdotes of extreme weather into the overarching concept of climate change,” noted Tyndall. “As long as these events are presented as meteorological and not climatic, then they will be covered as local and domestic, not global.

“An exception in 2013 was Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines,” he noted. That event captured 83 minutes of coverage among the three networks, making it the single biggest story by far out of Asia for the year.

By comparison, the growing tensions between Japan and China in the East China Sea – which many foreign-policy analysts here rate as one of the most alarming events of the past year if, for no other reason, than the U.S. is committed by treaty to militarily defend Japan’s territory – received a mere eight minutes of coverage.

Two other major U.S. foreign policy challenges received more coverage. North Korea and the volatile tenure of its young leader, Kim Jong-un, received a total of 87 minutes, including 10 minutes to visiting basketball veteran Dennis Rodman, of coverage during 2013.

Events in Iran, including the election of President Hassan Rouhani and negotiations over its nuclear programme, received a total of 104 minutes of coverage between the three networks over the course of the year, nearly as much attention as was given the British royals.

Libya received 64 minutes of coverage, but virtually all of it was devoted to the domestic controversy over responsibility for the September 2012 killings of the U.S. ambassador and three other officials there. The Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria and the civil war and humanitarian disaster in the Central African Republic received no coverage at all.

As for the Israel-Palestinian conflict which Secretary of State John Kerry has made a top priority along with a nuclear deal with Iran, it received only 16 minutes of coverage in 2013. “Palestine has virtually disappeared from the news agenda,” noted Tyndall.

8 comments

How Israel and the Gulf states maintain repression in the Middle East

The idea that the Western powers want freedom and democracy in the Middle East is a joke that’s not lost on the Arabs living there.

Adam Shatz, writing in the London Review of Books, outlines brilliantly today’s messy region:

One evening in January at a hotel bar in Manhattan, I tried to ingratiate myself with an officer from Bahrain’s mission to the United Nations. Munira (not her real name) was a former student of a friend of mine. She was also a regime insider, close to Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, one of the royal family’s more reform-minded figures. I thought she might help me land a visa to Bahrain, which had all but shut out Western journalists since the crackdown at the Pearl Roundabout in February 2011. I can’t have been very persuasive. She promised to ‘assist your quest in any way’, but soon stopped replying to my emails. My visa application was never answered.

The protesters at the Pearl Roundabout, Munira told me that evening, were not fighting for constitutional reform or democracy; they were agents of Iran and Hizbullah. When they called for a republic, they meant an Islamic republic along Iranian lines where drinking would be banned and modern women like her would be forced to cover themselves. Fortunately, she had been rescued by troops from a country where drinking is already banned and women like her are forced to cover themselves. For Munira, the arrival in March 2011 of more than a thousand soldiers from Saudi Arabia, via the King Fahd Causeway between the Eastern Province and Bahrain, was a humanitarian intervention. Thanks to the support of its neighbours – and the United States, whose Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain – her tolerant, cosmopolitan, pro-Western kingdom had narrowly foiled a plot hatched in Tehran and Beirut’s southern suburbs.

I mentioned that the government-sponsored Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, in its report to King Hamad, had explicitly rejected claims of Iranian involvement in the protest movement. Whether or not they were directed from Tehran, Munira replied, the protests represented a Shia bid for power, and therefore a threat to the Sunni-led kingdom. Now that she had seen ‘terror’ in Manama – her word for the largely non-violent campaign of civil disobedience – she understood Israel’s need for stern measures. She had outgrown her youthful infatuation with the Palestinian cause, especially since Israel had proved itself a friend of Bahrain: ‘Our relations with Mossad are very good.’ Together, Israel and the Gulf monarchies were defending the region not only against Iran, but against the no less insidious influences of the Arab Spring.

Munira may have been overstating things for my benefit: what better way to win over an American Jewish journalist than to praise the Jewish state? Still, recent developments in the region – from the fall of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt to the impending strike against Syria – have confirmed that she was saying openly what many leaders in the Gulf privately believe.

Israel and the Gulf states do not have official diplomatic relations, but they have been developing closer ties over the last two decades. After the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, the Gulf states lifted their boycott of countries that traded with Israel; a few years later, Israel opened trade missions in Qatar and Oman. The two top exports from Israel to the Gulf – sold through third parties and shell companies – are security equipment and technology. When Aluf Benn published a report in Haaretz of Israeli arms sales to Arab and Muslim countries earlier this year, there were ferocious denials from Egypt and Pakistan, but not a word from the United Arab Emirates over its buying of drone technology.

In 2002, Saudi Arabia sponsored the Arab Peace Initiative, which proposed a two-state settlement based on Israel’s 1967 borders, in return for full economic and diplomatic normalisation. This spring, Riyadh reaffirmed the 2002 proposal, even accepting the need for land swaps, a further concession to Tel Aviv. Israel has never responded to the proposal. Nor did it show much sensitivity to the amour propre of its friends in the UAE when Mossad assassinated Hamas’s security chief in a Dubai hotel room in 2010. But Israel has relaxed its opposition to arms sales from Washington to the Gulf states, and shared intelligence on Iran’s nuclear activities – the concern which, along with the insurgent force of Arab populism, has sealed their alliance.

That alliance has deepened since the fall of Mubarak. No one was more furious at Obama’s betrayal of a loyal client than the Israelis – well, no one except the Saudis. Not only had Mubarak been a redoubtable ally against Iran and Hamas; he had protected Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation seen by Riyadh and the UAE as a force of subversion throughout the Gulf. The Saudis are religious but they are not sentimental. Given a choice between a dependable secular autocrat like Mubarak and an Islamic populist movement with regional ambitions that might challenge their own, they have always chosen the former. Since the fall of Ben-Ali in Tunisia, the Saudis have fought the wave of insurrectionary movements by supporting conservative religious forces, particularly Salafi groups, and by stirring up sectarian tension.

Israel, too, prefers autocratic neighbours: countering Arab populism has been a pillar of its foreign policy since 1948. It has also tried to stoke sectarian tension in the Arab and Muslim world, supporting Maronite influence in Lebanon and encouraging irredentist groups in Iran and Iraq. But Israel’s ability to influence the domestic politics of Arab countries is limited. It cheered on General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi when he threw out Morsi, suspended the constitution and accused Hamas of trying to destabilise Egypt – as the Americans discovered when they tried in vain to restrain the Egyptian army, the generals and Israel were in constant contact during the coup – but couldn’t offer much in the way of material support. It was left to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to step in with extravagant offers of assistance, while urging Sisi to show the Brothers no mercy. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, pro-Israel lobbyists fought any attempt to suspend military aid to the Egyptian generals. One former American official with excellent ties to the Saudis called it a ‘game of charades, with communication between the players by mime’.

The Israelis and Saudis played the game well – much better than Obama, whose grudging acceptance of the coup has not prevented him from being vilified in Cairo by the military regime’s supporters. (The posters in Cairo of Obama with a jihadi beard look much like the racist caricatures of ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ that used to run in right-wing Israeli tabloids.) Indeed, one could argue that Israel and Saudi Arabia are now closer to each other in their views of the region than either of them is to the United States. The Saudi-Israeli support for the coup in Egypt challenges a central tenet of American policy in the Middle East: that stable government and peace depend on democracy. US support for democratisation is of course limited, and contingent on alignment with American objectives, but in principle the US has supported the integration of Islamist parties. The Americans were not in cahoots with the Brothers, contrary to the rumours in Cairo, but they fear that Sisi’s crackdown will drive Egypt’s Islamists toward violence, and that America might become a target. It is not an unreasonable fear.

13 comments

Here we go again; another Western-led war in the Middle East

The Guardian’s Seumas Milne on the seemingly inevitable war against Syria:

All the signs are they’re going to do it again. The attack on Syria now being planned by the US and its allies will be the ninth direct western military intervention in an Arab or Muslim country in 15 years. Depending how you cut the cake, the looming bombardment follows onslaughts on Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Mali, as well as a string of murderous drone assaults on Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

The two former colonial powers that carved up the Middle East between them, Britain and France, are as ever chafing for a slice of the action as the US assembles yet another “coalition of the willing”. And as in Iraq and Sudan (where President Clinton ordered an attack on a pharmaceuticals factory in retaliation for an al-Qaida bombing), intelligence about weapons of mass destruction is once again at the centre of the case being made for a western missile strike.

In both Iraq and Sudan, the intelligence was of course wrong. But once again, UN weapons inspectors are struggling to investigate WMD claims while the US and its friends have already declared them “undeniable”. Once again they are planning to bypass the UN security council. Once again, they are dressing up military action as humanitarian, while failing to win the support of their own people.

The trigger for the buildup to a new intervention – what appears to have been a chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta – certainly has the hallmarks of a horrific atrocity. Hundreds, mostly civilians, are reported killed and many more wounded, their suffering caught on stomach-churning videos.

But so far no reliable evidence whatever has been produced to confirm even what chemical might have been used, let alone who delivered it. The western powers and their allies, including the Syrian rebels, insist the Syrian army was responsible. The Damascus government and its international backers, Russia and Iran, blame the rebels.

The regime, which has large stockpiles of chemical weapons, undoubtedly has the capability and the ruthlessness. But it’s hard to see a rational motivation. Its forces have been gaining ground in recent months and the US has repeatedly stated that chemical weapons use is a “red line” for escalation.

For the same reason, the rebel camp (and its regional sponsors), which has been trying to engineer a western intervention in the Libya-Kosovo mould for the past two years to tip the military balance, clearly has an interest in that red line being crossed.

Three months ago, the UN Syria human rights commission member Carla Del Ponte said there were “strong concrete suspicions” that rebel fighters had used the nerve gas sarin, and Turkish security forces were reported soon afterwards to have seized sarin from al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front units heading into Syria.

The arms proliferation expert, Paul Schulte, of King’s College London, believes rebel responsibility “can’t be ruled out”, even if the “balance of probability” points to the regime or a rogue military commander. Either way, whatever Colin Powell-style evidence is produced this week, it’s highly unlikely to be definitive.

But that won’t hold back the western powers from the chance to increase their leverage in Syria’s grisly struggle for power. A comparison of their response to the Ghouta killings with this month’s massacres of anti-coup protesters in Egypt gives a measure of how far humanitarianism rules the day.

The Syrian atrocity, where the death toll has been reported by opposition-linked sources at 322 but is likely to rise, was damned as a “moral obscenity” by US secretary of state John Kerry. The killings in Egypt, the vast majority of them of civilians, have been estimated at 1,295 over two days. But Barack Obama said the US wasn’t “taking sides”, while Kerry earlier claimed the army was “restoring democracy”.

20 comments

Conspiracy theory central; how the Muslim Brotherhood controls Obama

Great US indy journo Max Blumenthal loves taking on media myths, right-wing racism and bullshit. He’s his latest (via Mondoweiss):

On August 22, 2013, several hundred Egyptians and Egyptian-Americans hit the streets of Washington DC to show their support for General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi and the regime that overthrew the elected President Mohamed Morsi in a military coup on July 3. This footage was shot outside the Egyptian Embassy.

4 comments

Only a matter of time before Palestinians rise up

Gideon Levy in Haaretz in commanding style:

One day the Palestinian people will rise up against their occupiers. I hope this day comes soon.

It’s true that this scenario seems unrealistic right now. The Palestinians are still bleeding from the second intifada, which only brought disaster upon them (and the Israelis). They are divided and torn, with no real leadership and lacking a fighting spirit, and the world has tired of their distress. The Israeli occupation seems as strong and established as ever, the settlements are growing, and the military is in complete control, with all the world’s governments silent and indifferent.

On the other hand, it is impossible to imagine that this scenario will not materialize. To our south, the Egyptian people are struggling over the nature of their regime, in a way that can only inspire awe. To the north, the Syrian people are also doing this, albeit in a much crueler fashion. Could it be that only the Palestinian people will forever bow their heads, submissively and obediently, to the Israeli jackboot? Don’t make the minister of history laugh.

The regimes against which most of the Arab nations are rebelling were generally less brutal than the regime of the Israeli occupation. They were also less corrupt, in the broad sense of the word. Most did not take over the lives of their subjects day and night, did not so drastically restrict their movement and freedom, did not systematically abuse and humiliate them in the manner of the Israeli regime. Moreover, they were not foreign regimes.

Therefore, the events at Tahrir Square will surely be replicated one day in Ramallah’s Manara Square. The masses will flood the Unknown Soldier’s Square in Gaza, push into Police Square in Hebron and storm all the checkpoints along their way. It is hard now to imagine it happening, but it is even more difficult to imagine that it will not.

From Jenin to Rafah, they are enviously watching the wonders of Tahrir Square. Can anyone seriously think these scenes and this spirit will not affect Balata? Not sweep through Jabalya? The first is under Israeli rule, while the other is supposedly controlled by Hamas, and yet residents of the two places cannot even meet with each other. How much longer will they accept this?

Yes, it will happen one day. The masses will rise up against the settlements and checkpoints, against the army barracks and the prisons. And at that point, the Israeli Arabs will no longer stand idly by. They are also watching what’s happening at Tahrir Square and also realize they deserve a different regime and a different country.

It seems to happen when you least expect it. No Military Intelligence report will predict it, and no Shin Bet field coordinator will warn about it. The defense minister will act shocked, the prime minister will convene urgent consultations, and the finance minister will post something on Facebook. The president of the United States will call for calm, and who knows, maybe will send a special envoy. The world’s most powerful and especially most moral military will try to restore order, but the new order will assert its control over the army as well.

As with other unjust and evil regimes, which are always destined to fall, this regime also will fall – it’s just not clear when and how. Sometimes these regimes fall in the wake of terrible bloodshed, as in Syria, and sometimes they fall on their own, like a tall tree whose trunk has rotted, as happened in the Soviet Union, South Africa and Eastern Europe. One day it will happen here, too; there is no other way.

It would be best that this day come soon; too bad it hasn’t come yet. The Israeli public, which didn’t know how to end its occupation regime on its own, will also act surprised, and offended. Again they will say that “there’s no partner,” that “they’re like animals,” but no one will take these statements seriously. Israel will again play the victim, but few will be able to identify with it anymore.

Why is it best that this happens soon? Because as time passes, the damage and rage accumulate. Because there is no chance that Israel will end the occupation voluntarily. Because justice cries out for it to happen. Because whether the solution is one state or two, an Israel that isn’t an occupier, that is just and egalitarian, will be a different and infinitely better place to live.  

41 comments

Why Prism is important; we’re watching the watchers

My following article appears in today’s Guardian Australia:

Politicians and journalists ignore public opinion at their peril. Less than two weeks after the explosive revelations by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden on the creation of a privatised, American surveillance apparatus, a TIME poll finds a majority of Americans support the leak, and Snowden receives a higher approval rating than US citizens view Congress. History has also been kind to one of the great leakers in history, the Pentagon Paper’s Daniel Ellsberg (who backs Snowden, too). Never under-estimate the public’s desire to discover what the state is doing in its name.

In Australia, however, the story has barely caused a ripple. Attorney general Mark Dreyfus refuses to acknowledge that Canberra receives information from the Prism system, instead saying that Australians should rest easy and feel protected by the warm glow of intelligence sharing with Washington. In reality, evidence has emerged that the Labor government is building a massive data storage facility to manage massive amounts of information from the US. Unsurprisingly, the US claims its monitoring is proportionate and legal, despite some members of Congress having no idea of the scope of the secret programs.

This is spying by any other name – and Snowden makes clear that everybody is doing it, despite protestations from Australia and America that only China is unleashing constant cyber attacks (Foreign Policy recently revealed that the NSA hacks into Chinese systems).

Dreyfus tried to appease whatever public anger exists – and thus far it’s been muted – by calling an inquiry into protection of information in the digital age. The Federal Greens rightly want far greater transparency on government surveillance, knowing that both Labor and the likely incoming Liberal government have spent decades colluding on ever-expanding powers of security services to monitor and track citizens with little accountability. Don’t expect support from the privacy commissioner, either, who shrugged his shoulders and implied in a statement that national security should trump privacy. Nothing to see here, move along now.

It’s shocking that so few Australians even know about the existence of the intimate intelligence sharing known as “five eyes” between Britain, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Trust the system, we’re told by The Australian’s editorial last week; it isn’t just “extreme libertarians” who question the prevalence of the surveillance state. Australia’s role as a US ally should never be to blindly accept dictates from Washington though if history is any guide Canberra sits too comfortably under America’s hypnotic war machine.

If this current assault on our communications isn’t bad enough, the growth of internet censorship and the private companies that back it is a growing issue across the world, including Australia and Asia-Pacific. Although Labor’s plans for web filtering were squashed, it’s inevitable that such calls will grow in the coming years, as is already happeningacross the globe. Besides, ThailandMalaysiaIndonesia and Singapore are just some of our neighbours that proudly restrict access for their citizens.

Democracies are increasingly being pushed into a pincer move of censorship and surveillance that would be impossible without the co-operation of private firms making billions in profits. The US hires corporations to monitor social media; Israeli-linked companies have been essential in assisting the NSA spying program as well as, in one case, selling Big Brother monitors to Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Qaddafi.

Snowden’s NSA revelations only touched the surface of the deep collaboration between government and outsourcers. US journalist Tim Shorrock estimates that about 70% of America’s intelligence budget is spent on private industry since 9/11. The extent of the NSA’s cyber army is enough, according to a feature in Wired, to “launch devastating cyber attacks”.

Whistle-blowers are an essential part of any democracy, despite the bleating of officials in Canberra, London and Washington. Governments are only outraged when embarassing leaks are finally unveiled; they continually give details to the press that makes them look strong.

The largely supine response of the Australian parliament to the Prism revelations – with opposition spokesman Malcolm Turnbull being a notable exception – proves how far this country is from proudly displaying an independent streak. Global surveillance, along with internet censorship, is a threat to both our personal freedom and ability to communicate openly.

The post 9/11 world has taught us that states exaggerate threats to scare citizens into acquiescence. Multinationals have picked a side and it’s the bottom line. Shining a light on the NSA and its global couriers is a public service that is only opposed by those with a vested interest in keeping the public in the dark.

15 comments

Julian Assange on the threat posed by US-govt backed web evangelists

What a stunning piece. Julian Assange writes the following review in the New York Times on the kind of mundane yet dangerous “debates” sucked up by many in the mainstream media when it comes to the supposedly liberating nature of the internet. When the corporation becomes far more powerful than the state (and they work together):

“The New Digital Age” is a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism, from two of its leading witch doctors, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, who construct a new idiom for United States global power in the 21st century. This idiom reflects the ever closer union between the State Department and Silicon Valley, as personified by Mr. Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, and Mr. Cohen, a former adviser to Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton who is now director of Google Ideas.

The authors met in occupied Baghdad in 2009, when the book was conceived. Strolling among the ruins, the two became excited that consumer technology was transforming a society flattened by United States military occupation. They decided the tech industry could be a powerful agent of American foreign policy.

The book proselytizes the role of technology in reshaping the world’s people and nations into likenesses of the world’s dominant superpower, whether they want to be reshaped or not. The prose is terse, the argument confident and the wisdom — banal. But this isn’t a book designed to be read. It is a major declaration designed to foster alliances.

“The New Digital Age” is, beyond anything else, an attempt by Google to position itself as America’s geopolitical visionary — the one company that can answer the question “Where should America go?” It is not surprising that a respectable cast of the world’s most famous warmongers has been trotted out to give its stamp of approval to this enticement to Western soft power. The acknowledgments give pride of place to Henry Kissinger, who along with Tony Blair and the former C.I.A. director Michael Hayden provided advance praise for the book.

In the book the authors happily take up the white geek’s burden. A liberal sprinkling of convenient, hypothetical dark-skinned worthies appear: Congolese fisherwomen, graphic designers in Botswana, anticorruption activists in San Salvador and illiterate Masai cattle herders in the Serengeti are all obediently summoned to demonstrate the progressive properties of Google phones jacked into the informational supply chain of the Western empire.

The authors offer an expertly banalized version of tomorrow’s world: the gadgetry of decades hence is predicted to be much like what we have right now — only cooler. “Progress” is driven by the inexorable spread of American consumer technology over the surface of the earth. Already, every day, another million or so Google-run mobile devices are activated. Google will interpose itself, and hence the United States government, between the communications of every human being not in China (naughty China). Commodities just become more marvelous; young, urban professionals sleep, work and shop with greater ease and comfort; democracy is insidiously subverted by technologies of surveillance, and control is enthusiastically rebranded as “participation”; and our present world order of systematized domination, intimidation and oppression continues, unmentioned, unafflicted or only faintly perturbed.

The authors are sour about the Egyptian triumph of 2011. They dismiss the Egyptian youth witheringly, claiming that “the mix of activism and arrogance in young people is universal.” Digitally inspired mobs mean revolutions will be “easier to start” but “harder to finish.” Because of the absence of strong leaders, the result, or so Mr. Kissinger tells the authors, will be coalition governments that descend into autocracies. They say there will be “no more springs” (but China is on the ropes).

The authors fantasize about the future of “well resourced” revolutionary groups. A new “crop of consultants” will “use data to build and fine-tune a political figure.”

“His” speeches (the future isn’t all that different) and writing will be fed “through complex feature-extraction and trend-analysis software suites” while “mapping his brain function,” and other “sophisticated diagnostics” will be used to “assess the weak parts of his political repertoire.”

The book mirrors State Department institutional taboos and obsessions. It avoids meaningful criticism of Israel and Saudi Arabia. It pretends, quite extraordinarily, that the Latin American sovereignty movement, which has liberated so many from United States-backed plutocracies and dictatorships over the last 30 years, never happened. Referring instead to the region’s “aging leaders,” the book can’t see Latin America for Cuba. And, of course, the book frets theatrically over Washington’s favorite boogeymen: North Korea and Iran.

I have a very different perspective. The advance of information technology epitomized by Google heralds the death of privacy for most people and shifts the world toward authoritarianism. This is the principal thesis in my book, “Cypherpunks.” But while Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Cohen tell us that the death of privacy will aid governments in “repressive autocracies” in “targeting their citizens,” they also say governments in “open” democracies will see it as “a gift” enabling them to “better respond to citizen and customer concerns.” In reality, the erosion of individual privacy in the West and the attendant centralization of power make abuses inevitable, moving the “good” societies closer to the “bad” ones.

The section on “repressive autocracies” describes, disapprovingly, various repressive surveillance measures: legislation to insert back doors into software to enable spying on citizens, monitoring of social networks and the collection of intelligence on entire populations. All of these are already in widespread use in the United States. In fact, some of those measures — like the push to require every social-network profile to be linked to a real name — were spearheaded by Google itself.

THE writing is on the wall, but the authors cannot see it. They borrow from William Dobson the idea that the media, in an autocracy, “allows for an opposition press as long as regime opponents understand where the unspoken limits are.” But these trends are beginning to emerge in the United States. No one doubts the chilling effects of the investigations into The Associated Press and Fox’s James Rosen. But there has been little analysis of Google’s role in complying with the Rosen subpoena. I have personal experience of these trends.

The Department of Justice admitted in March that it was in its third year of a continuing criminal investigation of WikiLeaks. Court testimony states that its targets include “the founders, owners, or managers of WikiLeaks.” One alleged source, Bradley Manning, faces a 12-week trial beginning tomorrow, with 24 prosecution witnesses expected to testify in secret.

This book is a balefully seminal work in which neither author has the language to see, much less to express, the titanic centralizing evil they are constructing. “What Lockheed Martin was to the 20th century,” they tell us, “technology and cybersecurity companies will be to the 21st.” Without even understanding how, they have updated and seamlessly implemented George Orwell’s prophecy. If you want a vision of the future, imagine Washington-backed Google Glasses strapped onto vacant human faces — forever. Zealots of the cult of consumer technology will find little to inspire them here, not that they ever seem to need it. But this is essential reading for anyone caught up in the struggle for the future, in view of one simple imperative: Know your enemy.

one comment

The Cold War is back and arms dealers are laughing

Global powers rarely learn from history. Instead, they look to find ways to influence others with a range of sticks and carrots. Hello, weapons manufacturers, stop smiling.

Michael Klare in TomDispatch:

Did Washington just give Israel the green light for a future attack on Iran via an arms deal?  Did Russia just signal its further support for Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime via an arms deal?  Are the Russians, the Chinese, and the Americans all heightening regional tensions in Asia via arms deals?  Is it possible that we’re witnessing the beginnings of a new Cold War in two key regions of the planet — and that the harbingers of this unnerving development are arms deals?

International weapons sales have proved to be a thriving global business in economically tough times.  According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), such sales reached an impressive $85 billion in 2011, nearly double the figure for 2010.  This surge in military spending reflected efforts by major Middle Eastern powers to bolster their armories with modern jets, tanks, and missiles — a process constantly encouraged by the leading arms manufacturing countries (especially the U.S. and Russia) as it helps keep domestic production lines humming.  However, this familiar if always troubling pattern may soon be overshadowed by a more ominous development in the global arms trade: the revival of far more targeted Cold War-style weapons sales aimed at undermining rivals and destabilizing regional power balances.  The result, inevitably, will be a more precarious world.

Arms sales have always served multiple functions.  Valuable trade commodities, weapons can prove immensely lucrative for companies that specialize in making such products.  Between 2008 and 2011, for example, U.S. firms sold $146 billion worth of military hardware to foreign countries, according to the latest CRS figures.  Crucially, such sales help ensure that domestic production lines remain profitable even when government acquisitions slow down at home.  But arms sales have also served as valuable tools of foreign policy — as enticements for the formation of alliances, expressions of ongoing support, and a way to lure new allies over to one’s side.  Powerful nations, seeking additional allies, use such sales to win the allegiance of weaker states; weaker states, seeking to bolster their defenses, look to arms deals as a way to build ties with stronger countries, or even to play one suitor off another in pursuit of the most sophisticated arms available.

Throughout the Cold War, both superpowers employed weapons transfers as a form of competition, offering advanced arms to entice regional powers to defect from each other’s alliance systems or to counter offers made by the other side.  Egypt, for example, was convinced to join the Soviet sphere in 1955 when provided with arms the West had refused to deliver.  In the late 1970s, it moved back into the American camp after Washington anted up far better weapons systems.

11 comments

The last thing Syria needs, or the Middle East, is more Western “engagement”

Stunning Simon Jenkins piece in The Guardian that explains why Western imperialists, of the liberal and conservative kind, just need to butt out of the Middle East:

There could no more dreadful idea than to pour more armaments into the sectarian war now consuming Syria. Yet that is precisely what Britain’s coalition government wants to do. The foreign secretary, William Hague, seemed on Monday to parody his hero Pitt the Younger by demanding “how long must we go on allowing … ?” and “what we want to see is …”. Who is this we? But even Pitt would never be so stupid as to declare war on Syria, which is the only morally sound outcome of Hague’s rhetorical mission creep.

For two years pundits have proclaimed the imminent fall of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. High on Arab spring, they declared he would fall from the logic of history. Or he would fall because western sanctions would bring him down. Or he would fall because the media, as in the novel Scoop, were with the rebels and had decided they would win.

Assad has not fallen. He is still there, locked in the lethal Muslim schism that resurfaced with the demise of the region’s secularist dictators. These have now almost all gone: the shah in Iran, Najibullah in Afghanistan, Saddam in Iraq, Mubarak in Egypt, Gaddafi in Libya. They had faults in abundance, but they succeeded in suppressing religious discord, instilling rudimentary tolerance and keeping the region mostly in order. This was in the west’s interest, and the rulers, like those in the Gulf, were supported accordingly.

Turning turtle and abetting their downfall may yet prove the most disastrous miscalculation of western diplomacy since the rise of fascism. Prior to the Iraq war, Saddam persecuted the Shias, but their shrines were safe and intermarriage was common. After the war, Sunni and Shia are torn asunder, with a death toll of ghastly proportions. Similar agony may soon be visited on the Afghans. Libya’s Tripoli is more unstable now the west has toppled Gaddafi, its fundamentalist guerrillas spreading mayhem south across the Sahara to Algeria, Mali and Nigeria.

These upheavals might have occurred without western intervention. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were largely self-starting. Islamist parties often came to power, because they offered an alternative discipline to the existing regimes. But the west’s sudden zest for “wars of choice”, its meddling in the politics of Pakistan and its sabre-rattling in Iran have created a cause on to which neoconservative Islamism could fasten.

Al-Qaida was in 2000 a tiny group of fanatics. America and Britain have portrayed it as an all-powerful enemy, apparently lurking in support of every anti-secularist rebellion. Cameron calls it “an existential terrorist threat… to inflict the biggest possible amount of damage to our interests and way of life”. Yet stabbings and bombings do not constitute an “existential threat”. The UK is a stronger culture than Cameron appears to believe. There is no threat to its existence, while the chief damage being done to its way of life comes from the incompetence of its government.

41 comments

Murdoch and Netanyahu make love so please don’t interrupt

Care to imagine what an editorial meeting is like at Rupert Murdoch’s Australian? No, me neither – “look, over there, a Muslim country the West hasn’t bombed, let’s fix that immediately!” – but there’s a weird obsession over supporting the Israeli government. There’s a direct line from the Israeli PR department to the writers at the Murdoch organ and don’t they milk it for all it’s worth? It’s not about intellectual rigour or facts but blind ideology. From comments about how Palestinians and critics should be grateful for Israel to today three articles that all tackle BDS, Palestine, human rights, anti-Semitism, TERRORISM, ice-cream and pandas.

The word “occupation” is typically absent.

First, a “news story”:

Sydney Peace Foundation head Stuart Rees has lashed out at Julia Gillard for signing the London Declaration on Combating Anti-Semitism, calling the gesture “childish, thoughtless but easily populist”.

Professor Rees is on the staff of the University of Sydney’s controversial Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, which last year denied a request for co-operation from the only Israeli academic to create a civics curriculum for both Jewish and Arab school students.

The centre cited its support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which explicitly equates Israel with apartheid-era South Africa.

Last month the Prime Minister became the first Australian parliamentarian to sign the London Declaration. “This declaration reminds us that combating anti-Semitism is an active process, not a passive one,” she said. “It demands vigilance. It means remaining alert to new vehicles by which hatred and social poison can be spread.”

Professor Rees originally made his comments in an email responding to comments made by opposition frontbencher Christopher Pyne when he attacked the BDS movement on Friday.

“Activism, boycotts and sometimes sanctions campaigns aren’t always anti-Semitic, but when you target individual businesses because they are Jewish, it is clearly anti-Semitic,” Mr Pyne said in a statement on the declaration, pointing to BDS activity at universities in NSW.

“It is sad that 70 years after the second world war and the discovery of the Holocaust we are still having to defend the right of Jewish people to live in their Jewish homeland in Israel free from this kind of anti-Semitic campaign.”

Professor Rees dismissed his remarks as “the usual childish, thoughtless but easily populist response” in the email, which was obtained by The Australian. “Justice for the Palestinians and indeed security for Israelis deserves more than predicable ‘happy to get on any easy bandwagon’ approach of this politician.”

Asked if his criticisms also applied to Ms Gillard, Professor Rees responded “of course”. “The resort to charges of anti-Semitism regarding the world-wide criticisms of the internationally illegal policies of the government of Israel is an age-old technique to stifle any criticism of blatant human rights abuses,” he said.

Mr Pyne said: “It is disappointing that Professor Rees is the director of the Sydney Peace Foundation and yet also a supporter of the BDS movement that seeks to delegitimise Israel, targets Jewish businesses and prohibits a healthy cultural exchange between universities and in so doing damages the prospects for peace.”

Professor Rees declined to comment yesterday, saying he had just returned from overseas.

And an op-ed by Bruce Loudon, a man who praises Israel for its glorious democracy but just happens to ignore the minor detail of millions of Palestinians under a brutal, Israeli occupation:

There is a fundamental flaw in the argument that forms the centrepiece of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.

Israel, supporters of the campaign maintain, is an “apartheid” state where the evils being perpetrated against Palestinians are equivalent to those committed in South Africa in the darkest days of racist oppression. They demand the same international response (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) that, they argue, succeeded in undoing the white regime.

They see successfully labelling Israel in the eyes of the world an “apartheid” state as the key to forcing it to change course.

It’s an argument that has attracted support around the world, not just among those het up by what they ludicrously perceive to be the threat posed by Max Brenner chocolate shops in Australia. Even that most eminent and widely esteemed of scientists, Stephen Hawking, has bowed to Palestinian pressure and decided to boycott a scientific conference in Israel that he was previously happy to visit.

But it is an argument many with first-hand knowledge of South Africa under apartheid rule and Israel today would regard as a cockeyed distortion of historical reality that should be resisted, for the very basis of it is plain wrong: conveniently ignored is the fact that from its inception in 1949 until Nelson Mandela won power for the African National Congress in the 1994 “freedom election”, the policy of apartheid in South Africa involved the oppression of a vast black majority, purely on the basis of race, by a tiny white minority.

Crucially, it involved the creation of a state in which there was no democracy as we know it – one in which political and most other rights were the exclusive preserve of the privileged white minority. The black majority was disenfranchised and subjected to the most outrageous forms of discrimination in every aspect of their lives. They had no representation in the national parliament.

Black lives were regulated simply because people were black. Segregation was ruthlessly enforced. Blacks were allowed to live only in specified, mostly rundown areas. They had to go to separate, backdoor entrances at post offices. They could not go to white hospitals. Marriage and sex across the colour line was barred.

A lunatic system of race classification deemed what people could or could not do. Blacks couldn’t place funeral notices in the same columns as whites in newspapers. Schools were segregated, beaches were for whites only, and blacks were barred from playing sport with whites.

Israel is vastly different; it bears little relation to the madness of apartheid in South Africa. It is, after all, a country in which there is, yes, an overwhelming Jewish majority, but in which Arabs make up 20 per cent of the population. Crucially, where South Africa, under apartheid, was a racial dictatorship, Israel is a vibrant democracy, a country whose declaration of independence at the time of its foundation specifically promised “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”.

While the black majority in South Africa was for decades disenfranchised, in Israel, every citizen, of whatever faith or ethnic background, has an inalienable right to vote and to speak out, even against Israel’s existence.

There have been Arab members of the Knesset in every parliament since the country’s formation, and while in South Africa discriminatory laws were administered by a race-based white judiciary, in Israel, an Arab judge was part of a Supreme Court bench that convicted a former Israeli president on misconduct charges.

Arab Israelis have served as government ministers, ambassadors for the country in key diplomatic postings abroad, and in top public service and police posts.

Yet Israel is flogged by the BDS campaigners as an “apartheid” state that deserves to be punished and ostracised by the international community in the way South Africa was. Nothing is heard, of course, about the “apartheid” being enforced by Hamas in Gaza, where strict Islamic law is being imposed, with women barred even from running in a local marathon, while schoolchildren are being segregated and forced to wear Islamic dress. There is also silence on the rank discrimination that is enforced in so much of the Arab world. That South Africa, because of its grotesque system of apartheid, was fair game for the sort of campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions that contributed substantially to the ultimate demise of white rule is hard to argue against.

But comparisons between South Africa then, and Israel now, are neither fair nor sustainable. And they certainly do not accord with reality.

The two situations are vastly different, and it is a pity people such as Hawking allow themselves to be persuaded otherwise. Israel is far from perfect. It has many shortcomings. But it is not an “apartheid” state in the sense South Africa was.

It is a vibrant democracy – significantly, the only functioning democracy in the Middle East. And it deserves better than the gross distortion of reality being espoused by BDS campaigners.

And finally an editorial where readers are told to stop picking on Israel and focus on the real menace, Iran (a nation that this peace-loving newspaper has said in the past could deserve to be bombed):

The Sydney Peace Foundation’s stated purpose is “to promote universal human rights and peace with justice” as the building blocks of any civil society. Foundation chairman Stuart Rees, however, has cast a cloud over the organisation’s bona fides by dismissing the London Declaration on Combating Anti-Semitism as “childish, thoughtless but easily populist”. His condemnation of Julia Gillard and opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne for “cowardice” in signing it almost beggars belief.

The Prime Minister and Mr Pyne are two of more than 125 politicians from 40 countries who have signed the declaration, which is a well-modulated affirmation of “democratic and human values” advocating societies built on respect, combating anti-Semitism and discrimination. As Mr Pyne said last week, it is sad that, 70 years after the Holocaust, it remains necessary to defend the right of Jewish people to live in Israel – the Middle East’s only mature democracy – free of anti-Semitic activities such as the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions campaign.

Professor Rees’s stance, in line with many on the Left, contains a curious anomaly. In recent years, while the Left has become more critical of Israel, its Palestinian opponents have become more jihadist. Israel’s critics also pay little heed to the encroaching influence of Iran, one of the world’s most oppressive and menacing regimes. Late last year, after supporting the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood at the UN, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reiterated his nation’s attitude to Israel when he said any deal that accepted the Jewish state’s existence would leave a “cancerous tumour” forever threatening Middle East security. Such hostile influence further diminishes the prospect of a workable two-state solution. Unfortunately, that prospect has receded since the death of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2004, as the influence of Fatah, the Palestinian faction prepared to negotiate a two-state solution, has been usurped.

Through Sudan and Egypt, Iran has been shipping major new weapons supplies to the Hamas terrorists in Gaza, who have governed there since winning a majority of parliamentary seats in 2006. The rockets and missiles are being stockpiled in anticipation of military conflict with Israel, to be sparked by action over Iran’s nuclear ambitions or the civil war in Iran’s ally, Syria.

Iran also has cemented its influence in the Middle East by arming its other surrogate, Hezbollah, with Iranian-supplied rockets in Lebanon. The evidence is incontrovertible that the Assad regime in Damascus, in close collusion with Iran, is seeking to transfer stockpiles of Fateh-110 missiles, with the capacity to carry a half-tonne warhead more than 300km, to Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon. Such a prospect represents a serious threat to Israel.

Against such a background, the focus of Professor Rees’s “peace” foundation is what he calls “the internationally illegal policies of the government of Israel”. While claiming that Ms Gillard and Mr Pyne “have a lot of serious reflecting and reading to do” and that they should accompany him to Gaza, the professor fails to address the religious fanaticism of Israel’s main opponents. For the head of an organisation ostensibly committed to peace, such bias suggests underlying values that are strangely skewed.

In the real world, away from propaganda for any state or its policies, lies the reality of Israeli actions and the importance of boycotting and challenging this mad normality. Here’s why.

8 comments

Why Israel lost the war and doesn’t recognise it’s now more isolated than ever

Adam Shatz in the London Review of Books:

The ceasefire agreed by Israel and Hamas in Cairo after eight days of fighting is merely a pause in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It promises to ease movement at all border crossings with the Gaza Strip, but will not lift the blockade. It requires Israel to end its assault on the Strip, and Palestinian militants to stop firing rockets at southern Israel, but it leaves Gaza as miserable as ever: according to a recent UN report, the Strip will be ‘uninhabitable’ by 2020. And this is to speak only of Gaza. How easily one is made to forget that Gaza is only a part – a very brutalised part – of the ‘future Palestinian state’ that once seemed inevitable, and which now seems to exist mainly in the lullabies of Western peace processors. None of the core issues of the Israel-Palestine conflict – the Occupation, borders, water rights, repatriation and compensation of refugees – is addressed by this agreement.

The fighting will erupt again, because Hamas will come under continued pressure from its members and from other militant factions, and because Israel has never needed much pretext to go to war. In 1982, it broke its ceasefire with Arafat’s PLO and invaded Lebanon, citing the attempted assassination of its ambassador to London, even though the attack was the work of Arafat’s sworn enemy, the Iraqi agent Abu Nidal. In 1996, during a period of relative calm, it assassinated Hamas’s bomb-maker Yahya Ayyash, the ‘Engineer’, leading Hamas to strike back with a wave of suicide attacks in Israeli cities. When, a year later, Hamas proposed a thirty-year hudna, or truce, Binyamin Netanyahu dispatched a team of Mossad agents to poison the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Amman; under pressure from Jordan and the US, Israel was forced to provide the antidote, and Meshaal is now the head of Hamas’s political bureau – and an ally of Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi.

Operation Pillar of Defence, Israel’s latest war, began just as Hamas was cobbling together an agreement for a long-term ceasefire. Its military commander, Ahmed al-Jabari, was assassinated only hours after he reviewed the draft proposal. Netanyahu and his defence minister, Ehud Barak, could have had a ceasefire – probably on more favourable terms – without the deaths of more than 160 Palestinians and five Israelis, but then they would have missed a chance to test their new missile defence shield, Iron Dome, whose performance was Israel’s main success in the war. They would also have missed a chance to remind the people of Gaza of their weakness in the face of Israeli military might. The destruction in Gaza was less extensive than it had been in Operation Cast Lead, but on this occasion too the aim, as Gilad Sharon, Ariel’s son, put it in theJerusalem Post, was to send out ‘a Tarzan-like cry that lets the entire jungle know in no uncertain terms just who won, and just who was defeated’.

Victory in war is not measured solely in terms of body counts, however. And the ‘jungle’ – the Israeli word not just for the Palestinians but for the Arabs as a whole – may have the last laugh. Not only did Hamas put up a better fight than it had in the last war, it averted an Israeli ground offensive, won implicit recognition as a legitimate actor from the United States (which helped to broker the talks in Cairo), and achieved concrete gains, above all an end to targeted assassinations and the easing of restrictions on the movement of people and the transfer of goods at the crossings. There was no talk in Cairo, either, of the Quartet Principles requiring Hamas to renounce violence, recognise Israel and adhere to past agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority: a symbolic victory for Hamas, but not a small one. And the Palestinians were not the only Arabs who could claim victory in Cairo. In diplomatic terms, the end of fighting under Egyptian mediation marked the dawn of a new Egypt, keen to reclaim the role that it lost when Sadat signed a separate peace with Israel. ‘Egypt is different from yesterday,’ Morsi warned Israel on the first day of the war. ‘We assure them that the price will be high for continued aggression.’ He underscored this point by sending his prime minister, Hesham Kandil, to Gaza the following day. While refraining from incendiary rhetoric, Morsi made it plain that Israel could not depend on Egyptian support for its attack on Gaza, as it had when Mubarak was in power, and would only have itself to blame if the peace treaty were jeopardised. After all, he has to answer to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s parent organisation, and to the Egyptian people, who are overwhelmingly hostile to Israel. The Obama administration, keen to preserve relations with Egypt, got the message, and so apparently did Israel. Morsi proved that he could negotiate with Israel without ‘selling out the resistance’, in Meshaal’s words. Internationally, it was his finest hour, though Egyptians may remember it as the prelude to his move a day after the ceasefire to award himself far-reaching executive powers that place him above any law.

That Netanyahu stopped short of a ground war, and gave in to key demands at the Cairo talks, is an indication not only of Egypt’s growing stature, but of Israel’s weakened position. Its relations with Turkey, once its closest ally in the region and the pillar of its ‘doctrine of the periphery’ (a strategy based on alliances with non-Arab states) have deteriorated with the rise of Erdogan and the AKP. The Jordanian monarchy, the second Arab government to sign a peace treaty with Israel, is facing increasingly radical protests. And though Israel may welcome the fall of Assad, an ally of Hizbullah and Iran, it is worried that a post-Assad government, dominated by the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brothers, may be no less hostile to the occupying power in the Golan: the occasional rocket fire from inside Syria in recent days has been a reminder for Israel of how quiet that border was under the Assad family. Israeli leaders lamented for years that theirs was the only democracy in the region. What this season of revolts has revealed is that Israel had a very deep investment in Arab authoritarianism. The unravelling of the old Arab order, when Israel could count on the quiet complicity of Arab big men who satisfied their subjects with flamboyant denunciations of Israeli misdeeds but did little to block them, has been painful for Israel, leaving it feeling lonelier than ever. It is this acute sense of vulnerability, even more than Netanyahu’s desire to bolster his martial credentials before the January elections, that led Israel into war.

Hamas, meanwhile, has been buoyed by the same regional shifts, particularly the triumph of Islamist movements in Tunisia and Egypt: Hamas, not Israel, has been ‘normalised’ by the Arab uprisings. Since the flotilla affair, it has developed a close relationship with Turkey, which is keen to use the Palestinian question to project its influence in the Arab world. It also took the risk of breaking with its patrons in Syria: earlier this year, Khaled Meshaal left Damascus for Doha, while his number two, Mousa Abu Marzook, set himself up in Cairo. Since then, Hamas has thrown in its lot with the Syrian uprising, distanced itself from Iran, and found new sources of financial and political support in Qatar, Egypt and Tunisia. It has circumvented the difficulties of the blockade by turning the tunnels into a lucrative source of revenue and worked, with erratic success, to impose discipline on Islamic Jihad and other militant factions in the Strip. The result has been growing regional prestige, and a procession of high-profile visitors, including the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who came to Gaza three weeks before the war and promised $400 million dollars to build housing and repair roads. The emir did not make a similar trip to Ramallah.

Hamas’s growing clout has not gone unnoticed in Tel Aviv: cutting Hamas down to size was surely one of its war aims. If Israel were truly interested in achieving a peaceful settlement on the basis of the 1967 borders – parameters which Hamas has accepted – it might have tried to strengthen Abbas by ending settlement activity, and by supporting, or at least not opposing, his bid for non-member observer status for Palestine at the UN. Instead it has done its utmost to sabotage his UN initiative (with the robust collaboration of the Obama administration), threatening to build more settlements if he persists: such, Hamas has been only too happy to point out, are the rewards for non-violent Palestinian resistance. Operation Pillar of Defence will further undermine Abbas’s already fragile standing in the West Bank, where support for Hamas has never been higher.

Hardly had the ceasefire come into effect than Israel raided the West Bank to round up more than fifty Hamas supporters, while Netanyahu warned that Israel ‘might be compelled to embark’ on ‘a much harsher military operation’. (Avigdor Lieberman, his foreign minister, is said to have pushed for a ground war.) After all, Israel has a right to defend itself. This is what the Israelis say and what the Israel lobby says, along with much of the Western press, including the New York Times. In an editorial headed ‘Hamas’s Illegitimacy’ – a curious phrase, since Hamas only seized power in Gaza after winning a majority in the 2006 parliamentary elections – the Times accused Hamas of attacking Israel because it is ‘consumed with hatred for Israel’. The Times didn’t mention that Hamas’s hatred might have been stoked by a punishing economic blockade. It didn’t mention that between the start of the year and the outbreak of this war, 78 Palestinians in Gaza had been killed by Israeli fire, as against a single Israeli in all of Hamas’s notorious rocket fire. Or – until the war started – that this had been a relatively peaceful year for the miserable Strip, where nearly three thousand Palestinians have been killed by Israel since 2006, as against 47 Israelis by Palestinian fire.

Those who invoke Israel’s right to defend itself are not troubled by this disparity in casualties, because the unspoken corollary is that Palestinians do not have the same right. If they dare to exercise this non-right, they must be taught a lesson. ‘We need to flatten entire neighbourhoods in Gaza,’ Gilad Sharon wrote in the Jerusalem Post. ‘Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki too.’ Israel shouldn’t worry about innocent civilians in Gaza, he said, because there are no innocent civilians in Gaza: ‘They elected Hamas … they chose this freely, and must live with the consequences.’ Such language would be shocking were it not so familiar: in Israel the rhetoric of righteous victimhood has merged with the belligerent rhetoric – and the racism – of the conqueror. Sharon’s Tarzan allusion is merely a variation on Barak’s description of Israel as a villa in the jungle; his invocation of nuclear war reminds us that in 2008, the deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai proposed ‘a bigger holocaust’ if Gaza continued to resist.

But the price of war is higher for Israel than it was during Cast Lead, and its room for manoeuvre more limited, because the Jewish state’s only real ally, the American government, has to maintain good relations with Egypt and other democratically elected Islamist governments. During the eight days of Pillar of Defence, Israel put on an impressive and deadly fireworks show, as it always does, lighting up the skies of Gaza and putting out menacing tweets straight from The Sopranos. But the killing of entire families and the destruction of government buildings and police stations, far from encouraging Palestinians to submit, will only fortify their resistance, something Israel might have learned by consulting the pages of recent Jewish history. The Palestinians understand that they are no longer facing Israel on their own: Israel, not Hamas, is the region’s pariah. The Arab world is changing, but Israel is not. Instead, it has retreated further behind Jabotinsky’s ‘iron wall’, deepening its hold on the Occupied Territories, thumbing its nose at a region that is at last acquiring a taste of its own power, exploding in spasms of high-tech violence that fail to conceal its lack of a political strategy to end the conflict. Iron Dome may shield Israel from Qassam rockets, but it won’t shield it from the future.

 

5 comments