Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein trav­els across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, the United States, Britain, Greece, and Australia to witness the reality of disaster capitalism. He discovers how companies such as G4S, Serco, and Halliburton cash in on or­ganized misery in a hidden world of privatized detention centers, militarized private security, aid profiteering, and destructive mining.

Disaster has become big business. Talking to immigrants stuck in limbo in Britain or visiting immigration centers in America, Loewenstein maps the secret networks formed to help cor­porations bleed what profits they can from economic crisis. He debates with Western contractors in Afghanistan, meets the locals in post-earthquake Haiti, and in Greece finds a country at the mercy of vulture profiteers. In Papua New Guinea, he sees a local commu­nity forced to rebel against predatory resource companies and NGOs.

What emerges through Loewenstein’s re­porting is a dark history of multinational corpo­rations that, with the aid of media and political elites, have grown more powerful than national governments. In the twenty-first century, the vulnerable have become the world’s most valu­able commodity. Disaster Capitalism is published by Verso in 2015.

Profits_of_doom_cover_350Vulture capitalism has seen the corporation become more powerful than the state, and yet its work is often done by stealth, supported by political and media elites. The result is privatised wars and outsourced detention centres, mining companies pillaging precious land in developing countries and struggling nations invaded by NGOs and the corporate dollar. Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and across Australia to witness the reality of this largely hidden world of privatised detention centres, outsourced aid, destructive resource wars and militarized private security. Who is involved and why? Can it be stopped? What are the alternatives in a globalised world? Profits of Doom, published in 2013 and released in an updated edition in 2014, challenges the fundamentals of our unsustainable way of life and the money-making imperatives driving it. It is released in an updated edition in 2014.
forgodssakecover Four Australian thinkers come together to ask and answer the big questions, such as: What is the nature of the universe? Doesn't religion cause most of the conflict in the world? And Where do we find hope?   We are introduced to different belief systems – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and to the argument that atheism, like organised religion, has its own compelling logic. And we gain insight into the life events that led each author to their current position.   Jane Caro flirted briefly with spiritual belief, inspired by 19th century literary heroines such as Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters. Antony Loewenstein is proudly culturally, yet unconventionally, Jewish. Simon Smart is firmly and resolutely a Christian, but one who has had some of his most profound spiritual moments while surfing. Rachel Woodlock grew up in the alternative embrace of Baha'i belief but became entranced by its older parent religion, Islam.   Provocative, informative and passionately argued, For God's Sakepublished in 2013, encourages us to accept religious differences, but to also challenge more vigorously the beliefs that create discord.  
After Zionism, published in 2012 and 2013 with co-editor Ahmed Moor, brings together some of the world s leading thinkers on the Middle East question to dissect the century-long conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians, and to explore possible forms of a one-state solution. Time has run out for the two-state solution because of the unending and permanent Jewish colonization of Palestinian land. Although deep mistrust exists on both sides of the conflict, growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs are working together to forge a different, unified future. Progressive and realist ideas are at last gaining a foothold in the discourse, while those influenced by the colonial era have been discredited or abandoned. Whatever the political solution may be, Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined, enmeshed, irrevocably. This daring and timely collection includes essays by Omar Barghouti, Jonathan Cook, Joseph Dana, Jeremiah Haber, Jeff Halper, Ghada Karmi, Antony Loewenstein, Saree Makdisi, John Mearsheimer, Ahmed Moor, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy and Phil Weiss.
The 2008 financial crisis opened the door for a bold, progressive social movement. But despite widespread revulsion at economic inequity and political opportunism, after the crash very little has changed. Has the Left failed? What agenda should progressives pursue? And what alternatives do they dare to imagine? Left Turn, published by Melbourne University Press in 2012 and co-edited with Jeff Sparrow, is aimed at the many Australians disillusioned with the political process. It includes passionate and challenging contributions by a diverse range of writers, thinkers and politicians, from Larissa Berendht and Christos Tsiolkas to Guy Rundle and Lee Rhiannon. These essays offer perspectives largely excluded from the mainstream. They offer possibilities for resistance and for a renewed struggle for change.
The Blogging Revolution, released by Melbourne University Press in 2008, is a colourful and revelatory account of bloggers around the globe why live and write under repressive regimes - many of them risking their lives in doing so. Antony Loewenstein's travels take him to private parties in Iran and Egypt, internet cafes in Saudi Arabia and Damascus, to the homes of Cuban dissidents and into newspaper offices in Beijing, where he discovers the ways in which the internet is threatening the ruld of governments. Through first-hand investigations, he reveals the complicity of Western multinationals in assisting the restriction of information in these countries and how bloggers are leading the charge for change. The blogging revolution is a superb examination about the nature of repression in the twenty-first century and the power of brave individuals to overcome it. It was released in an updated edition in 2011, post the Arab revolutions, and an updated Indian print version in 2011.
The best-selling book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question - on Jewish identity, the Zionist lobby, reporting from Palestine and future Middle East directions - was released by Melbourne University Press in 2006. A new, updated edition was released in 2007 (and reprinted again in 2008). The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. Another fully updated, third edition was published in 2009. It was released in all e-book formats in 2011. An updated and translated edition was published in Arabic in 2012.

Newsweek Middle East cover story on Israel’s settler movement

I’m now based in East Jerusalem as a freelance journalist and I was thrilled to recently secure the cover story in Newsweek Middle East (15 June edition) on Israel’s settler movement (+ here are my photos from the assignment):

jun-15

The full story, over 3000 words, is below (and here’s the published PDF version: newsweekfeatureonisraelisettlers):

Har Bracha vineyard is a Jewish business situated near Nablus in the occupied West Bank. Established in 2004, its location offers spectacular views. With an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) jeep parked outside, owner Nir Lavi recently told me that he was proud of his livelihood cultivating grapes, because it proved that anti-Semitism would always fail.

“European anti-Semitism never dies,” he said. “Boycotts against us [Israel] show this.” He sells most of his products to Israelis and Jewish communities in the United States, “who have Shomron [greater Israel] in their hearts.” In response to growing global and local moves to boycott products produced by Israelis in the West Bank, Lavi opened a shop in Tel Aviv this year. He aimed to convince Israelis that the West Bank was a place of safety and legitimacy.

Last week marked the 49th year of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. In 1967 Israel seized what is now termed the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) in an act of war. Soon after this war, illegal settlements—Israeli communities built on occupied ground—began to take shape, and some 30 settlements were established between 1967 and 1977, home to roughly 5000 settlers. During this period, settlements were mostly in the Jordan Valley and it wasn’t until the late 1970s, under a more right-wing Israeli government, that they began to expand in the West Bank. Now, nearly 700,000 settlers live throughout the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

On a daily basis, and in contravention of international law, Israel confiscates land and constructs settlements that run deep into Palestinian territory. Worse still, Israel demolishes Palestinian homes and other civilian structures, forcibly displaces and transfers Palestinian civilians and exploits the natural resources of the Palestinian land. Despite the widespread condemnations and calls for cessation, Israel continues its actions with impunity. The persistent confiscation of land, water, and other natural resources also violates The Hague Regulations of 1907, which prohibit an occupying power from expropriating the resources of occupied territory for its own benefit.

Earlier this year, U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro sparked unease when he noted that Israeli settlements have expanded; Israeli vigilantes murder Palestinians without fear of investigation or reprisal; and, in the occupied, Palestinian areas, Israelis enjoy civilian legal protections while Palestinians live under military rule.

Lavi told U.S. Jewish publication, The Algemeiner, in January that the aim of his shop was, “to show sympathy and patriotism at this time, and to connect to our fellow Israelis. We don’t mind where they come from, what their background is, or what’s their political agenda. We want us to be united.”
Har Bracha employee Alice Zeeman, a religious settler with seven children who was born in Germany and converted to Judaism in her teens, told me that the facility opened 20 years ago because “there was a prophecy.” After being evacuated from the West Bank settlement of Homesh in 2005, along with thousands of settlers in Gaza during the so-called “disengagement,” Zeeman was unequivocal about her Arab neighbours. “I shout at Arabs [because they kill Jews],” she said. “I don’t call them Palestinians. They’re our enemy. We cannot employ the Arabs here. In the vineyard, only Jews work. I don’t want to see Arabs dead but I just want them to live somewhere else in the Arab world. They can only live here if they accept Jewish rule. It’s in the Bible.”

Wearing a red headscarf and speaking with a slight German accent, Zeeman explained that one of her life missions was to have a large family. “I never listen to the news. I just keep on having children. One of the most important products of the settlements are children.” She disagreed with the idea of Arabs either working with her or building settlements. A common sight across the West Bank is Palestinians constructing Israeli homes, because they have few other job opportunities due to high unemployment and a traditional farming economy that has been crushed by the Israeli occupation. “Settlements should just be built by Jews,” Zeeman said. It was a view echoed by Lavi. “We only want to have Israelis build our community,” he said.

This is a story of how the settlers won. After nearly 50 years since Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six Day War, its proponents have placed themselves in all levels of the Israeli state, guaranteeing institutional support for the continued expansion of settlements across the West Bank. It has rendered impossible any contiguous Palestinian state, the clear aim of the settlers and their enablers from the beginning. The two-state solution is dead, if it was ever possible.

I recently spent time traveling across the West Bank in the searing June heat talking to settlers, sleeping overnight in their houses and engaging on politics, daily life and Palestinians. I was given a unique insight into communities that mostly appear in the media as cartoon character extremists, blind ideologues or those seeking cheap housing (Israel encourages people to move to the West Bank by providing huge financial incentives and inexpensive accommodation). I witnessed all three, but also found people defiant in their beliefs, angered by what they perceived was global opposition to their lives fueled by anti-Semitism and confident that they were unlikely to be forced to leave their homes in any peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Jewish supremacy, the belief that Jews have the God-given right to control all the land in Israel and Palestine and the Arabs must submit to it, was ubiquitous throughout my travels. Paternalism merged with capitalism. Yehuda Cohen, CEO of the plastics company Lipski, which has a factory in the West Bank Barkan industrial park, told me that he hired 50 Palestinian workers because he gave “people hope. I need Palestinians and they need me.” He said that Europeans wanted to boycott his products and label them but today he was still able to sell freely across Europe.

There are around 1,000 Israeli companies operating in over a dozen industrial zones in the West Bank and about 25,000 Palestinians working in these facilities, usually making more money than if they were employed by Palestinian firms. Many Palestinian workers and unions oppose these jobs because they normalize the occupation and do nothing to strengthen the Palestinian economy. Human Rights Watch issued a report in January criticizing Israeli discrimination for “entrenching a system that contributes to the impoverishment of many Palestinian residents of the West Bank while directly benefitting settlement businesses, making Palestinians’ desperate need for jobs a poor basis to justify continued complicity in that discrimination.”

“Europeans wanted to boycott my products,” Cohen said, “but they have a brain and see that I’m part of the solution and not the problem for the conflict.” One of his Palestinian workers, Abel, argued that, “if Europeans boycott us, it affects our livelihoods. We should bring Arab students here to see how co-existence is possible.” It was impossible to know if these were his real views—because his boss was standing beside him when he spoke.

In the company staff room, Cohen showed me a pin-board full of photographs where he said he took his Palestinian and Jewish employees on short holidays. He wasn’t overly worried about growing boycott threats against his factory from around the world because, as he told The Times of Israel in 2014, “If we let them [the Europeans] profit, in the end they’ll invest. The Europeans know one thing: Israel treats them well.”

At a briefing by the Shomron Regional Council, one of the largest in the West Bank, travel guide Boaz Haetzni proudly said that there were now roughly 430,000 Jewish residents in the West Bank and appropriately 250,000 in East Jerusalem. All settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this. “Settlements have negative connotations so we use the terms ‘towns’ and ‘villages’,” he said.

Haetzni was frustrated that Israeli outposts in the West Bank, mostly considered illegal even under Israeli law, “were not authorized because of American pressure. We live in an economically viable area but the government of Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to disturb this growth. Our area is the solution to Israel’s housing crisis but authorities are trying to stop us.” He attacked President Barack Obama for placing unfair restrictions on Israeli expansion and alleged that Netanyahu publicly praised the settlements—but in private instructed his officials to contain any new construction in the occupied territories.

Haetzni acknowledged that Arab residents lived in “parallel land and systems under a different economic system and often on different roads.” This form of racial and economic discrimination is why many critics of Israel compare it to apartheid South Africa. It’s also why the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is rising in popularity across the world, especially on British and American campuses. A recent survey by Ipsos global market research found that one third of Americans and 40 percent of Britons backed a boycott of Israel, but problematically, many still viewed the tactic as anti-Semitic.

Over dips, vegetables and fresh bread, Haetnzi stated that the nearby Barkan industrial park was “the only place in the Middle East where Jews and Arabs are in peace—but we have still been boycotted by the Europeans and Palestinian Authority.” Like many settlers I met, Haetzni was obsessed with Jewish and Arab birthrates, proudly explaining that Jewish birthrates were soaring and could comfortably maintain a majority over Arabs in the West Bank for the foreseeable future. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics disagrees, having issued a report this year that found the number of Jews in Israel would equal the number of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories by the end of 2017.

It’s unsurprising that most settlers have no interest in leaving. They occupy some of the most fertile and beautiful parts of the West Bank. At the “Israel Lookout” in the Peduel settlement, the striking green and brown horizon included Tel Aviv through a heat haze and Ben Gurion International Airport. A young settler man serenaded his girlfriend with a guitar while sitting in a solitary wooden seat overlooking the view. The scene was tranquil and yet something was missing; Arabs were nowhere to be seen or heard. My guide Yehoshua Carmel, a friendly 30-year-old man born and living in Elkana settlement, acknowledged that it was “not normal to have Israeli soldiers around us all the time [for security]. I don’t want to live like this but it’s the only solution for now. If the IDF leaves here, it means that the government doesn’t want me to stay in this area. I would be very sad.”

I asked Carmel about settler violence against Palestinians, a constant threat and reality against Arab lives, farms and equipment, but he denied it was a problem and claimed the majority of attacks in the West Bank were by Arabs against Jews. “Maybe there are 50 fundamentalist Jews who want to use violence but most of us oppose violence,” he said. In July 2015, Palestinians in the village of Duma were firebombed by Jewish settlers and three members of the Dawabsheh family died including their 18-month old baby, Ali. Carmel questioned whether Jews could have committed such a grievous act. “It’s the wish of many around the world that the Duma murderers are Jewish,” he said. “It’s not terrorism if Jews did it; it’s murder. I won’t put the same terror label against Jews and Arabs. I’m religious and Duma was terrible. I’m praying it’s not Jews who did it.”

Israel’s settler movement has succeeded brilliantly in realizing its goals since 1967 due to a number of complimentary factors including decades-long persistence, Israel’s growing rightward shift, widespread distrust and contempt for Arabs and international support and complicity. The Jewish State’s backing of colonizing the West Bank has been prohibitively expensive, however. It was estimated by Israeli experts in 2007 to have cost US$50 billion since 1967 including security and civilian expenses.

Israel’s army has around 176,000 active duty soldiers and Israeli journalist Yossi Melman has calculated that it takes nearly 100,000 soldiers to keep the West Bank under Israeli control. US$600 million is required to maintain the occupation every year. The World Bank says that the Palestinian economy loses US$3.4 billion a year due to Israel’s discriminatory practices.

After nearly five decades of settlement expansion, reversing the trend is currently impossible. Although American and European governments often issue stern criticisms of Israel when new settlements are announced, there’s no economic incentive or punishment for Israel to end the addiction to expanding its territory. According to a new report by the non-profit Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, Israel has destroyed US$74 million worth of European Union projects in Palestinian territory in 2016, but the Jewish state has received no more than a public rebuke. U.S. President Barack Obama was condemned throughout my travels across the West Bank as anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli, but his time in office has seen the greatest financial support for the Jewish state in the country’s history.

Yet another failed peace initiative was recently pushed by France. A meeting was held in Paris that resulted in a bland statement with vague intentions to pursue an international conference before the end of the year, and Israel dismissed it entirely. The Palestinian Authority, a corrupt and un-elected body residing in Ramallah that faces increasing opposition from its own people for decades of mismanagement and failure, welcomed the initiative but has no power to encourage it. Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza that faces a strangulating blockade from Israel and Egypt, are determined to hold onto power and avoid another devastating military conflict with Israel.

With Daesh, Syria, Libya and Iraq weighing the region down into protracted conflicts, the Israel-Palestine conflict is no longer the key Middle East issue to be resolved. The ‘peace-process’ is dead, and Israel’s settler movement has capitalised on its demise; Netanyahu’s government has pro-settler politicians at every level including the recently appointed Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman who lives in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim.

When resigning Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon warned in May of “manifestations of extremism, violence and racism in Israeli society,” his message was decades too late. Thousands of Israelis converged at a Tel Aviv rally in April to support a solider who had executed an injured Palestinian in Hebron and the mood of the crowd was extreme, with one sign copying the Nazi SS slogan, “My honour is loyalty.” Also attending were members of Jewish supremacist group El Yahud who often attack Palestinians and leftist Israelis.

This wasn’t a fringe crowd but accurately representative of Israel’s body politic in 2016 with prominent politicians attending the event, including those from Netanyahu’s Likud party. A headline in Israeli daily Haaretz recently read: “Neo-fascists Threaten the West. In Israel They’ve Already Arrived.”

The settlers are equally mainstream and cannot be dismissed as minor players. Supporters recently released a guide book for tourists, “Yesha is Fun: The Good Life Guide to Judea and Samaria” [Biblical names for the West Bank] that pushes a “new and unique type of boutique tourism…tens of years after the return of the People of Israel to the land of our forebears”. Israel’s Civil Administration, tasked with managing the West Bank, were recently exposed by Haaretz for secretly re-mapping large sections of the West Bank in attempts to massively expand settlements. Israel’s largest human rights group, B’Tselem, announced in late May that it would no longer file complaints to the IDF and Israeli police about Israeli abuses in the West Bank and Gaza, citing poor or non-existent investigations by Israeli authorities.

Although there are small moves within Israel to find possible solutions to the conflict—“Two States One Homeland,” a new, small group including left-wing Israelis, Palestinians and settlers, advocates two sovereign states with open borders—the general Israeli mood is one of defiance, and an acceptance of the status-quo. It’s why the settler movement is so comfortable with its position and has few fears for its future. A 2016 poll by the Peace Index from the Israeli Democracy Institute found that 72 percent of Jewish Israelis did not believe that Israeli control over Palestinians was occupation.

It was a hot June afternoon when I reached Kashuela Farms near the Gush Etzion settlements. Located near Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I drove down a dirt track to find two Jewish families living in basic conditions in a partially cleared forest, with a simple campsite and two tipis for visitors. A website advertising the location said that, “putting it mildly, the Arab villagers in the area do not ‘like’ the presence of the farm. Hence there is round-the-clock security.” Herds of goats and sheep lived in large enclosures and I arrived to find a British, Jewish woman and her three children, all living in a nearby settlement, buying a few chickens as pets.

It was a peaceful environment. Head farmer Yair Ben-David, 38-years-old with four children, told me that he had moved to the area four years ago because the Israeli government only wanted Jews to protect the 2,000 donums of land. After the Jewish National Fund and mayor of Gush Etzion provided initial assistance to secure Jewish hold on the territory, Ben-David started developing the site. “It’s Jewish land,” he said. “Even if Palestinians have ancestors here, they don’t have a 2,000-year connection like us.” He was friendly with only one Arab man who lived in an adjacent village. “Sometimes it’s better to have no relationship [with Arabs] than a bad relationship,” he said. “Arabs know that Israel is the best place to live [in the Middle East].”

I joined Ben-David’s family and his related neighbours for a Sabbath meal inside a house made secure with water pipes and plastic sheeting. Hebrew blessings were given over the bread and the food consisted of salads, roasted chicken and vegetables, Shepherd’s pie, beans and quinoa. The children ate and then ran around the room, rendered freezing after the blaring air-conditioning could not be switched off during the Sabbath. Ben-David had timers to control the lights and hot plate for food, because he was religiously unable to do it during the Sabbath.

During the meal, we discussed relationships, the 2005 Gaza disengagement (“one of the saddest days in Israeli history,” one said), successive Gaza wars (I was told that the Israeli military was too cautious and overly worried about civilian casualties) and the boycott movement against Israel (it could only be explained as anti-Semitism, Ben-David said). The atmosphere was friendly and I sensed they welcomed the opportunity to discuss politics with somebody whose views opposed theirs.

After sleeping in a tipi, the following morning I accompanied Ben-David and two of his children to the gated outpost of Gevaot on a nearby hilltop to attend Sabbath prayers. It was held in a modern synagogue overlooking a playground paid for by the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton-Passaic in New Jersey. A highly controversial outpost, in 2014 the Israeli government appropriated large tracts of private Palestinian land and illegally redefined it as Israeli state land. Today it houses around 35 families. Many of the residents were with special needs, including Down’s syndrome, and some of these men contributed to the gender-separated, morning prayers. A civilian, Jewish guard with a machine gun walked in and placed his weapon beneath him while he prayed. After the service, I saw four IDF soldiers relaxing near a settler home, playing with their caged animals, and enjoying ice-creams given to them by a settler woman.

The settlers have created an armed, garrison state with a frontier mentality. Defiant in their belief that God gave Jews the land and Arabs must submit to their rule or leave, their success over five decades of expansion is clear. Funded, insulated, protected and armed by the Israeli state, Israel’s present and future is being written by them. It’s a vision that guarantees ongoing racial tensions and Palestinian dispossession. The international community has known this for decades and done virtually nothing to stop it.

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China/Africa Project interview on Chinese relations with South Sudan

I lived for much of 2015 in South Sudan, a country undergoing a violent, post-independence period.

I was recently interviewed by the great China/Africa Project on China’s relations with South Sudan:

Nowhere else in Africa do China’s financial, diplomatic and geopolitical interests confront as much risk as they do in South Sudan. Beijing has invested billions of dollars in the country’s oil sector, deployed over a thousand troops to serve as UN Peacekeepers and committed considerable diplomatic capital to help resolve the ongoing civil/ethnic war between President Salva Kiir against former Vice President Riek Machar.

Even though Beijing has repeatedly deployed its most senior Africa-diplomats to help broker a ceasefire and committed vast sums of money for investment and development, none of it seems like it will do much to slow South Sudan’s seemingly inevitable decline to becoming the world’s newest failed-state.

The destruction this conflict has caused is staggering. Since fighting broke out in December 2013, an estimated 50,000 people have been killed, many by some of the 16,000 child soldiers who have been forcibly conscripted by both sides. Now a quarter of a million refugees are on the move, fleeing the combined threats of war, drought and famine.

Even against these seemingly insurmountable challenges, Beijing’s point man for South Sudan remains stubbornly upbeat. “We as a government are cautiously optimistic about the future of South Sudan. The country’s leaders must remember that peace and security are essential for the growth of the people and the economy,” said Zhong Jianhua, China’s Special Representative for African Affairs, during a May 2016 interview in Beijing.

So why is China so committed to South Sudan? It probably has something to do with money and oil, but that doesn’t explain everything because for a country as large as China, the billions invested in South Sudan represents a relatively small piece of a truly massive global investment portfolio. So what is it?

Independent journalist and Guardian columnist Antony Loewenstein traveled to South Sudan in 2015 to cover the fighting. While in Juba, he also learned a lot more about what the Chinese are doing (or not)  in South Sudan. Antony joins Eric & Cobus to discuss the findings from his reporting assignment and whether he shares Ambassador Zhong’s optimism for the future of the country.

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Byline and 6PR radio on disaster capitalism, journalism and Israel/Palestine

I was interviewed last week by Tony Serve, from Perth, Australia, about Israel/Palestine, the risks pursuing real journalism and my ongoing fundraising campaign for my documentary in progress, Disaster Capitalism. The interview was broadcast on Byline and Perth’s 6PR radio:

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How drugs have always perverted human wars

My Guardian book review appears this weekend:

In October 2015 a Saudi prince was arrested at Beirut international airport accused of trying to smuggle nearly two tonnes of the amphetamine drug Captagon through the country. Two months later, Lebanese officials claimed to have confiscated 12 million Captagon pills heading to the Gulf. The synthetic drug, invented in 1961, has become a major recreational drug of choice in the Middle East and favoured stimulant in the Syrian civil war. Kurdish survivors from the Syrian city of Kobane reported Islamic State fighters being “filthy, with straggly beards and long black nails. They have lots of pills with them that they all keep taking. It seems to make them more crazy if anything.”

In this compelling book [Shooting Up: A History of Drugs in Warfare] about the history and prevalence of alcohol and drugs throughout the history of warfare, Lukasz Kamienski reveals in copious detail the countless ways “intoxication, in its various forms, has … been one of the distinctive features” of human life.

Rather than focusing on the draconian methods used by governments to restrict and regulate drugs in the modern age, Shooting Up examines how “warriors have always dreamt of gaining superhuman abilities that would bring them estimable victory, particularly when meeting their enemy in a decisive clash”. Without some tool to distract or mask the horrors of war, how can fighters tolerate the barbarity, fear, stress and intensity of combat?

Alcohol remains the most commonly used drug during and after war. Kamienski explains that the ancient Greeks and Romans probably went into battle drunk. The Roman method also involved getting their opponents inebriated before battle. By the late 19th century, the British army was regularly and proudly drunk. Its 36,000 men required 550,000 gallons of rum annually plus allowances for more booze to celebrate victory. Soldiers expected to be provided with alcohol by the army. Without it, their morale, determination and camaraderie would suffer. Japanese kamikaze pilots in the second world war were known to drink heavily as their final day approached.

American forces in Vietnam were given government rations of two cans of beer per man per day but the open secret was that destroying the Viet Kong should be rewarded. It’s a war that still remains mired in mystery; American journalist Nick Turse’s 2013 book Kill Anything That Moves made a rare departure from secrecy by highlighting the extreme violence unleashed on Vietnamese civilians by US forces. Kamienski powerfully shows how “alcohol was issued as a reward for proven proficiency in enemy kills. This largely explains why soldiers cut off the ears and penises of their dead enemy, because showing the trophies on their return to base camp entitled them to more reward – alcohol.”

This book details the Nizari Ismaili, founded in the 1080s as a radical group of Shia Muslims. Its members were accused of smoking hashish to claim supernatural powers, but it’s possible that their “truly powerful intoxicant was their deep religious faith, coupled with crazed fanaticism”.

In the 21st century many Islamic extremists are surviving thanks to the drug industry. The Taliban’s main source of income is from Afghanistan’s opium trade, the world’s biggest. Militants, child soldiers, narco-guerrillas and terrorists all often raise revenue while also using the product themselves.

But what turns some soldiers into monsters? Kamienski tries to answer this question with evidence that the use of intoxicants contributes to the propensity of extreme violence on the battlefield. However, it may not that be that simple – racism is a curious omission in the book’s argument. For example, there are countless examples of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan treating local people with contempt because of their different skin colour, religion or belief. This mentality was bred long before arriving for combat.

Nonetheless, the book questions the generally accepted belief in almost all societies that soldiers are brave warriors and act like “rabid dogs”. It may often be true, with magic mushrooms and marijuana being part of a soldier’s arsenal, but it’s also an effective myth different nations tell themselves about the invincibility of their armies.

During the cold war, many governments searched for the most effective use of increasingly powerful and disabling drugs. Washington considered the idea of dispersing LSD over enemy forces, “paralysing even the best trained and disciplined units without killing or injuring them”. After the second world war Army Chemical Corps Major General William Creasy imagined the use of psychoactive substances for a “war without casualties”. He told This Week magazine in 1955 that Washington should consider using chemical weapons, asking “would you rather be temporarily deranged, blinded or paralysed by a chemical agent, or burned alive by a conventional fire bomb?” It was a question that few Americans ever knew their government was considering at the highest levels.

From developing truth serums to elicit answers from enemies during the cold war and distributing stimulants during the Vietnam war, drug development, use and abuse have always been central to humankind’s pursuit of conflict. Kamienski details the devastating civilian toll that drug abuse by soldiers can cause. In Vietnam, amphetamine use “was to blame for some incidents of friendly fire and unjustified violence against the civilian population”.

There’s no blatant anti-war message in this book, written by an academic and published here in a solid translation by the author, but its position is clear: that “soldiers are often doped by war in a twofold manner – not only can war itself be a true narcotic for them but an engagement in combat may also result in their becoming addicted to real drugs.”

 Antony Loewenstein’s Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastropheis published by Verso.

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Please support the Disaster Capitalism fund-raising campaign

For the last five years I’ve been working on the documentary, Disaster Capitalism, partly inspired by my book of the same name released last year. I’m working with film-maker Thor Neureiter and co-producers Media Stockade. It’s a truly international team; I’m based in East Jerusalem, Thor is in New York and Media Stockade are in Sydney, Australia.

Today we are launching a fund-raising campaign to generate money to complete a rough cut of the feature documentary (editing is well underway and we aim to finish soon). We’re excited to share a new video, details about our recent successful pitch at the prestigious Hot Docs film festival in Toronto and facts about how to donate money (tax deductible in the US and Australia). We are aiming to raise US$80,000 in the next month.

Here’s the video:

DisasterCapitalism_Pitch2016v2 from Thor Neureiter on Vimeo.

Please support us now and share online with your friends and family. Independent film-making is a challenging business and it needs your support.

Disaster Capitalism is about people and corporations making money from misery in Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. It’s topical, controversial and deeply relevant to our world today. We have big ambitions to show the film around the globe.

We need your financial support to complete the rough cut and show the film to over 30 distributors, sales agents and broadcasters from around the world who expressed huge interest in the project at Hot Docs.

Our website has all the required information, details how to donate money, our social media accounts and all relevant news.

Please donate generously to our film today and share the information far and wide.

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Why I was asked to join Australians for War Powers Reform

Before the 2003 Iraq war, I feared the seemingly inevitable conflict would be a disaster. Based in Sydney at the time, I watched as the general public massively opposed the impending invasion while most politicians and many in the media celebrated the prospect of “shock and awe”.

The last 15 years have seen untold bloodshed from the fateful decision to invade Iraq. It’s why I was honoured to be asked, and have now joined, the group Australians for War Powers Reform:

AWPR are Australians who believe that any decision to take Australia into international armed conflict should be made by our Parliament, not by the PM [Prime Minister] or the the Executive.

We aim to create a climate of opinion among the public and opinion leaders supporting war powers reform.

AWPR needs your help to spread the word that Australia can currently be taken to war by the decision of one person, and that needs to change.  Please tell your friends and relatives and get them to support this campaign too.  Write to the paper about it.  Contact your MP.

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When politicians in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea attack critics (including me)

Over the last years I’ve visited the province of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to investigate how a polluting Rio Tinto mine caused a brutal civil war in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s a major feature of my recent book, Disaster Capitalism, and film in progress of the same name.

Locals oppose re-opening of the mine but many powerful forces, the Australian and PNG governments, Rio Tinto, the Bougainville government and corporate interests, are linking desired independence on the province to renewed mining. It’s a false choice and the agendas of those backing this plan are tarred with decades of failed promises and mis-management.

During a recent speech in Canberra, Australia at the Australian National University, Bougainville Vice President Patrick Nisira attacked a small number of organisations and people (including me) for daring to challenge his government’s rush to re-open the mine, the economic rationales behind it and the lack of public consultation (full speech here: challenges-facing-the-bougainville-government-by-patrick-nisira-1 (1) 2, see page 22).

A key theme of my work on disaster capitalism, in Papua New Guinea and around the world, is investigating bogus claims of economic benefits from aid, mining or aid. In Bougainville, big, dirty mining is the last thing locals want.

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Oppose Israeli occupation, face Zionist lobby tears

Australian Zionist lobby group AIJAC have been attacking me for over a decade for daring to challenge the Israeli occupation of Palestine and questioning their blind and obedient support for Israeli violence. Years ago they consistently tried to bully editors and publishers against publishing my work. It was a spectacular failure.

The pro-occupation organisation is increasingly marginalised in the public domain, along with public opinion, but this doesn’t stop them remaining loyal subjects of the Zionist state.

AIJAC’s latest attack emerged after my recent interview on ABC Adelaide in Australia about Israel/Palestine. Filled with factual errors, it’s worth quoting in full to show a sad demonstration of media monitoring in the age of Zionist desperation:

An unedifying love-in on ABC Radio 891 “Adelaide Evenings” (March 21) saw Peter Goers interviewing anti-Zionist activist and author Antony Loewenstein, who trotted out a litany of the sort of erroneous claims on which he has managed to build a career.

The mood was set from the outset with Goers introducing his guest saying, “I once wrote something that pleased Anthony Lowenstein and that pleased me very much.”

Loewenstein claimed, “Israel is the ultimate example of a country that plays by its own rules,” accusing it of ignoring “countless rulings in the International Criminal Court [ICC], every human rights group in the world – Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the UN and others.”

There have been no such ICC rulings, which has never taken a case on Israel. Loewenstein perhaps means the 2004 International Court of Justice’s non-binding opinion on the legality of the security fence. If so, apparently one ruling becomes “countless rulings” in Loewenstein’s rhetoric.

Not content to miss out on the chance to also talk nonsense, Goers chimed in that the security fence is “750 kilometres of an eight-metre high concrete wall. Imagine if you woke up dear listener tomorrow and there was an eight-metre high concrete wall on your fence line, so your driveway and front door is now useless. This is… the conditions under which many thousands of people are living.” Loewenstein said it affected “millions in fact”.

“In fact” only 3 percent of the fence is concrete and it mostly runs along the Green Line demarcating the 1949 armistice lines. The concrete sections were determined by the incidence of Palestinian sniper fire during the Second Intifada. In most places it is made of wire with electronic sensors detecting potential infiltrators. It certainly does not leave “thousands” of people with their driveways and front doors cut off, nor does it directly affect “millions” unless your argument is that it affects every Palestinian in the West Bank. And it has unquestionably reduced terror attacks dramatically.

Loewenstein, who is currently based in east Jerusalem, was asked if he will “get into trouble because of your views in Israel?”

He responded, “Weeellll, I probably would”.

Israel is a democracy that supports free speech and activists there say even more extreme things than Loewenstein but do not get deported or arrested unless they are involved in criminal activity. From this he segued into a half-lucid, largely non-factual summary of the debate in Israel over how to respond to NGOs like Breaking the Silence which releases anonymous testimony of former soldiers, often offering scant detail and exaggerated claims to malign the IDF for political purposes.

The debate in Israel is over mere disclosure of the funding NGOs receive from foreign governments. Many NGOs support a one-state solution and the BDS movement, and receive most of their funding from European countries that supposedly oppose both.

Loewenstein tried to spin this debate as an attempt to “to shut down dissenting Jewish groups within Israel,” adding “I think you have a serious question about how you see democracy, if at all.”

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American radio program The Gary Null Show on disaster capitalism

I was recently interviewed from Jerusalem on this American radio program, broadcast via the Progressive Radio Network, about my book Disaster Capitalism, poverty in Haiti and the role of the Clinton Foundation.

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Palestinian NGO wants to break free of foreign funding

My feature in US magazine Mondoweiss:

Palestinians in Jerusalem, and the state of the city itself, are routinely ignored in much international press coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict. While the rise in Jewish, religious fundamentalism is central to understanding the current state of Israel – a recent Reuters report on religious Zionism within governmental and military ranks provided a cogent explanation of Israel’s far-right, nationalistic turn – Jerusalem is a city increasingly turning against its Arab population.

Grassroots Jerusalem is an organization dedicated to challenging this situation.

Grassroots Jerusalem’s website is an online platform with partners from 80 community groups in 40 Palestinian communities of Jerusalem. A mapping section online is a unique tool to provide the Palestinian narrative routinely lost in mainstream Israeli society. Grassroots Jerusalem criticises the ways in which, “the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) designs and provides a variety of maps to International Non-Governmental Organizations. The UNOCHA maps leave the West side of Occupied Jerusalem blank and unrepresented and do not display the Palestinian neighborhoods and villages displaced during the Nakba of 1948 nor the Israeli colonies which replaced them.”

2016 is a time where the Arabic language is increasingly marginalized within Israeli life, leaving the roughly 20 percent of Palestinians within Israel excluded. Israel is destroying Palestinian homes and buildings in partially annexed Jerusalem. The Palestinian village of Kafr Walaja was targeted this month. A recent Haaretz report about the demolitions didn’t mention why such actions are now commonplace. +972 Magazine explained:

“Hundreds of people have lost their homes and entire communities are in danger of expulsion. Settler groups such as Regavim [run by Australian-Israeli Ari Briggs], along with people such as MK Moti Yogev (Jewish Home) have been putting pressure on the authorities to carry out the demolitions, whose entire purpose is to expel Palestinians from Area C of the West Bank, under full Israeli civil and military control. The Jewish Home party’s formal plan is to annex Area C to Israel, leaving the rest of the Palestinians imprisoned in Areas A and B.”

One of the most insidious modes of disenfranchising Palestinians from their own territory is the Israeli use of alleged “breach of allegiance” to the Jewish state. A deliberate policy of forced displacement, Israeli officials have instituted a number of ways Palestinians can be slowly but surely reduced numerically to maintain a large Jewish majority. Munir Nuseibah, human rights lawyer and academic based in Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, recently wrote in Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, about the history of these policies and why they should be resisted:

“It is no longer enough for a Palestinian Jerusalemite to be actually living in Jerusalem and to maintain his/her center of life in the city. Palestinian Jerusalemites are now expected to commit to the new undefined criterion of ‘allegiance.’ The Israeli human rights organization HaMoked, which is based in Jerusalem, has challenged this new policy in the Israeli Supreme Court. However, the Court has not yet decided the case. Similarly, the case of the four Palestinian political leaders whose residency was revoked in 2006 is still pending.

“No one knows yet how many residencies have been revoked according to the relatively new criterion of “allegiance,” but at least a few more cases are pending in the Supreme Court. HaMoked has made an application based on the freedom of information act to force the Ministry of Interior reveal this information. It is worth noting that international humanitarian law forbids the expectation of allegiance from a population under occupation.”

Based in a small East Jerusalem office, and currently in the middle of a crowd-funding campaign to raise $100,000, which aims to allow them to become independent of foreign funding sources.

The group is deeply critical of how “international aid usually comes with a price: donors dictate their own agendas and ignore the voices of the people. They also perpetuate the need for aid by implementing unsustainable projects and perpetuate the occupation by treating it as a humanitarian crisis and not a political one.”

They continue:

“This cycle has created an ‘INGO industrial complex’ that has become a rampant problem in the global South. The humanitarian approach keeps Palestinian civil society and grassroots leadership on short term funding cycles, fragmented programs with no coordinated vision that are authorized by international staff who are neither elected nor permanent residents of the city. The INGOisation of the occupation unintentionally draws the attention away from the real problem (occupation!) with increasingly privatized systems. It should be called what it is in the bigger picture: benevolent colonialism.”

The raised money will contribute to training more Jerusalemite guides for tours of the city and an updated edition of the Wujood (“Existence/Presence”) guidebook to Jerusalem. I have a copy of this fascinating book, partly funded by the European Union, which features nearly 150 pages of information about the city’s history, culture and logistics. Grassroots Jerusalem is also committed to publishing a Jerusalem atlas of maps.

I recently sat down and spoke to two of the group’s leaders, Amany Khalifa and Fayrouz Sharqawi, to discuss Grassroots Jerusalem, fighting Israeli occupation, media misrepresentation of Palestinians and foreign funding:

Fayrouz: “We currently have no donors. We had an EU grant 2011-2014 and they wanted to give us more money but we refused. They wanted partnerships between Israeli and Palestinian groups and we’re against normalisation. We rejected the money which is rare here. The US, EU and UN all give out so much money but what are they really achieving? Grassroots funding is to be independent. Ideology is dictated by foreign agencies. The hierarchy is very up down and not down up. It’s short-term funding, project based and against long-term strategy. We’re trying to build a model for other Palestinian groups. We’re aiming to raise $100k through the crowd-funding campaign.

We run Palestinian political tours around Jerusalem, mostly in English but also in Arabic including inside 1948 Palestine. We’re also aiming to reach Palestinians who don’t know their own history. We want to show the many Palestinian communities in Jerusalem and support them. We want to take tours behind the [separation] wall, which is difficult now due to logistics and time, such as Abu Dis and Shuafat refugee camp.

Amany: Whenever there’s a stabbing [in Jerusalem], the media focuses on this and not about the daily, non-violent resistance by Palestinians from local councils to other local groups in Jerusalem. We want to show the world the real Jerusalem, not just Via Dolorosa.

In the Old City, there are mostly only Jewish sites (a recent Haaretz article explained) and few Muslim ones on maps. The Judaization of Jerusalem continues. People don’t know that East and West Jerusalem are false divides. It’s not like the Berlin Wall here. Israel has drawn rules that make Jerusalem indivisible.

Fayrouz: I have to explain my right to exist even before Israel exists. I have to justify my experience in Palestine. I get asked [by journalists] why I don’t accept Israel’s right to exist. I hate this game. In the US, people pick between Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, different narratives. Same here in Palestine. We have many people and journalists ask if this is a 3rd intifada. We get asked this all the time. Mainstream journalists ask about Palestinian violence.

Israeli policy is maintaining a 70% Jewish demographic balance with 30% Palestinian. This is the long-term Israeli strategy. We are fighting Israeli propaganda globally. Many journalists have Israeli type questions in their minds.

Amany: We have a right to resist Israeli occupation. We are hopeful. It’s not our right to judge Palestinian resistance. Resistance can’t go by the book. The last Israeli war with Hamas showed Hamas digging tunnels under Israel into a kindergarten and choosing not to attack, focusing on military targets. I call it the IOF [Israeli Occupation Forces] not IDF. I went to Hebrew University, it’s a military factory, production of militarised society. There has been Palestinian resistance since the occupation of 1948. In the 1970s, planes were hijacked to raise the Palestinian cause. It’s ridiculous when the Palestinian Authority talks about co-existing with Israel.

We think international aid and money to Palestinians should stop. 70 years of occupation, the international community spiting in our faces and they want us to maintain the status-quo.

Fayrouz: The Palestinian Authority is the number one traitor, collaborator. [President Mahmoud] Abbas speaks against the will of the people, saying he wants peace. Abbas is worse than the Israeli government. PA has been critical post the Oslo peace agreement; Israel couldn’t control the West Bank without the PA.

Palestinians want to live. We want to liberate ourselves. We were hopeful during Oslo.

Yasser Arafat was a leader, a hero pre Oslo, but he brought catastrophe upon us [accepting the Oslo agreement]. He had no choice, his arm was twisted. Who forced Arafat into this situation?

Amany: The international community means governments influenced by multinational corporations.

We grew up to admire [Palestinian freedom fighter] Leila Khaled but now she supports the Assad regime. I can’t accept that.

Fayrouz: Everybody has a say over Jerusalem except Palestinians. No Palestinian leadership. PA is a failure, with no presence in Jerusalem, and development is decided by outside forces who are unelected. There are almost 400,000 Palestinians who have no real say. Our role is to collect Palestinian voices and amplify them. Our role is to network between Palestinian groups, to find almost one voice to speak to journalists about Palestinians.

Amany: “Peace-building” came with Oslo while the occupation grew. We’re not naïve that speaking to Israelis can help. The use of beautiful language can help, we’re told, but when you leave the meeting, Israelis and Palestinians go their own ways.

Our role is focusing on Palestinian communities. Building connections between Jerusalem, West Bank, Gaza and Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria.

There are maybe 20 anti-Zionists in Israel who could be partners. Anti-Zionism is the least I expect from partners. Without acknowledging the 1948 Nakba, Israel’s fascism, there’s no point in conversation.

We’re often asked why we don’t educate or teach Israelis. Non-violence is a privilege, impossible to implement.

Fayrouz: The majority of Palestinians don’t believe in dialogue and peace-building. Some believe that this helps make us lose even less. Growing numbers of Palestinians in Jerusalem want to be residents here. All options for Palestinians are decided by others. We’re tired of compromise.

It’s been 15 months since we received any salary for Grassroots Jerusalem. When we talk about, say, refugees returning to 1948 Palestine, we’re told by donors we’re too political. Donors are scared including European donors. One outside group who owned property in East Jerusalem said they wouldn’t rent office space to us because they were worried about the Israeli response. It’s our city.

BDS success shows that this issue is all about money.

Amany: We think BDS should work more organising Palestinian groups here. They should speak to us. It’s hard and impossible for me, living here, to avoid Hebrew University so what can Palestinians do to support BDS? Somebody has to visit local Palestinian communities. You can support BDS and invest here in our communities.

Fayrouz: We ask tourists to boycott Israeli businesses and support Palestinian tourism. We encourage foreigners who want to come and volunteer in Palestine to not go to West Jerusalem and have fun in Israeli bars. What’s their real goal here?

***

The position of Palestinians in Israel itself remains a daily challenge to assert one’s right to equality. I recently met a young Palestinian, Israeli woman in Jerusalem, living in the north of Israel, who said that having an Israeli passport made her an outcast in the Arab world. She couldn’t access many nations because of this document and she craved another nation’s passport. She wouldn’t want to bring up her children in Israel to suffer the same way she had with institutionalised racism and discrimination.

When I said I tried to avoid buying products from the settlements at local shops and supermarkets in Jerusalem, she said she didn’t really care because it made no difference. For her, Israel and the settlements were the same entity, the same country, the same laws. “It’s already one country”, she said. She argued that businesses in Israel proper and the settlements both pay tax to the Israeli state and the Israeli government funds and supports the illegal settlement project.

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How occupation truths about Palestine often hidden by politicians and reporters

My column in the Guardian:

New South Wales Premier Mike Baird recently visited Israel and Palestine, the first for a sitting leader of the Australian state. After travelling to the occupied West Bank and seeing the Aida refugee camp, Baird wrote on Facebook that the situation was “heartbreaking.” He continued:

“I don’t know where the cycle of thousands of years of violence ends. But I do know that all kids should be able to dream. That they should have hope of a better future.”

Baird’s motherhood statements, pushing the human angle of the conflict, diluted the politics. He didn’t mention the Israeli occupation, its nearly 50-year existence and effects on Palestinian children. Human Rights Watch recently stated that, “Israeli security forces are abusing Palestinian children detained in the West Bank. The number of Palestinian children arrested by Israeli forces has more than doubled since October 2015.” Amnesty issued a report this month telling Israel to protect human rights defenders and activists from Israeli military and settler violence.

Baird also briefly went to Bethlehem and met its first female mayor. He wrote that Vera Baboun was a teacher and “fierce advocate for her community as she seeks to solve some very complex problems.”

Channel 9 News and Sky News covered Baird’s time in the West Bank, at least the word “occupation” was briefly uttered by one report, yet they both grossly exaggerated the journey into a supposedly brutal war zone. It’s nothing of the sort. I’m based in East Jerusalem and safely travel to the West Bank without fear of attack.

Apart from scant time in the West Bank, Baird’s trip was principally about deepening NSW’s economic, medical cannabis and policing ties to Israel. Co-ordinated by the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce and the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, Baird was effusive in his praise for Israel. He told the Australian Jewish News that Israel is an “incredible nation” that is “leading the world in so many ways”. He wanted his trip to represent a “critical turning point” in relations between NSW and Israel, “going from being … allies and friends to significant collaborators and economic partners.”

Baird inked a deal with Israeli arms manufacturer, Elbit Services, to provide a flight simulator to help the Australian Royal Flying Doctor Service. Elbit is subject to a worldwide campaign against its involvement in Israel’s military and building of the separation wall through Palestinian territory.

The politics around Israel/Palestine are changing in Australia, however, and Baird’s visit won’t change this reality. Outgoing Labor MP Melissa Parke – who worked as a UN lawyer in Gaza – tabled a petition in parliament urging Australia to back the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. The Greens’ Lee Rhiannon is an outspoken opponent of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Although many politicians and journalists from most media outlets routinely take free pro-Israel lobby trips to Israel with a few minutes in the West Bank, and despite growing opposition in the NSW Labor party, the Australian public are becoming less tolerant of the Israeli occupation and regular attacks against Gaza.

Roy Morgan polling from 2011 showed that a majority of Australians opposed expanding Israeli colonies in the West Bank, and in 2014 a majority also thought that Australia should vote yes for Palestinian recognition as an independent member state at the UN. These trends have had no effect on Australia partneringwith Israelis weapon’s manufacturers over the last decade; Canberra is keen to purchase battle-tested armaments.

The boundaries of acceptable political debate in Australia are narrow. Think of so-called Labor dissidents pushing for the party to recognise Palestine at some point in the indeterminate future when such a policy is irrelevant to facts on the ground after nearly 50 years of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

The Palestinian Authority, the likely head of this “state”, is an authoritarian and corrupt body backed by the west, including Australia. What’s brave calling for them to rule over Palestinians? On the ground in Palestine, the idea of “recognising” Palestine elicits confusion. Many Palestinians tell me they crave global support and recognition but after years of empty gestures and UN resolutions their scepticism is warranted. Palestinian politicians haven’t faced an election in over 10 years.

I know that some activists in Australia celebrated Mike Baird’s brief trip to Palestine as a sign that political leaders have to at least show interest in the Palestinians in 2016. Perhaps. But until journalists and politicians talk more honesty about Israel’s stranglehold on the Palestinian territories, public opinion will continue to turn away from the Jewish state.

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South Sudan’s death spiral

My feature in the Australian literary journal Overland:

Flying into Bentiu, a town in northern South Sudan, is unnerving. The front of a broken plane, cockpit windows smashed, sits close to the dusty airstrip; long green grass sprouts around the cracked fuselage. Soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a former guerrilla movement and now the country’s official army, live in tin sheds around the rocky runway. The young men, some in uniform and many not, are armed with AK-47s. They loiter, looking bored. Gunfire can be heard in the background. The sky is heavy with grey clouds.

Bentiu occupies a grimly unique position within recent South Sudanese history. In 2014, the town was the sight of a massacre, one of the worst atrocities of the civil war. Rebel forces killed hundreds of civilians and used public radio broadcasts to encourage the rape of women of different ethnicities, later releasing a statement that boasted of ‘mopping and cleaning-up operations’.

It’s July 2015, just a month before the signing of the peace agreement. I have been living in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, for most of the year, working as a freelance journalist; my partner is employed by an international NGO. Juba is a challenging place to be based; our existence was defined by security concerns, a collapsing economy, nightly curfews and growing crime. Temperatures in summer are regularly over forty-five degrees and water shortages are common.

South Sudan is land-locked, sharing borders with Uganda, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. Like its neighbours, the country continues to endure the after effects of colonisation, having been occupied in the twentieth century by British interests. Much of the land is swamp or tropical forest, and the country hosts one of the largest wildlife migrations in the world.

I travelled to Bentiu by a slow-moving Russian UN helicopter. From the air, burnt-out buildings dot the swampy land. Tens of thousands of cattle are scattered among them, guarded by locals. Cattle-raiding is endemic in South Sudan, a brutal tactic used by government forces and militias to starve various groups of people. Cattle are the heart of the nation – cattle is not only used for food, but also for cultural practices, such as marriage (as bride price) and compensation after disputes – but years of war have left many without this precious commodity.

The trip from Juba took three hours and I was accompanied by Indian and Rwandan peacekeepers. There are over 12,500 uniformed UN peacekeepers in South Sudan – from a range of countries, including Cambodia, Australia, Zimbabwe and Yemen – making it one of the largest UN missions in the world.

A single muddy road littered with abandoned trucks and cars leads from the airport to Bentiu town and onto the sprawling UN base for internally displaced persons. The number of people seeking protection at the camp has swelled over the last two and a bit years of fighting; now, around 120,000 civilians live in a site originally built to house less than half that number. Almost every imaginable UN agency, international NGO and humanitarian group is involved in feeding, housing, rehabilitating and providing medical care.

The UN camp was established in December 2013, soon after violence erupted in Juba between President Salva Kiir’s faction, drawn primarily from the Dinka ethnic group, and those loyal to Riek Machar, Kiir’s former deputy, mainly from the Nuer ethnic group. At independence in 2011, both sides had been publicly committed to the new nation. But it didn’t last: tensions escalated, with both Kiir and Machar wanting more power. South Sudan is suffering today because these military men – both of whom spent decades fighting for independence – are unable to transition from combatants to democrats. Since it began in late 2013, the conflict has engulfed vast swathes of the state, destroying any hope that was felt locally and internationally in the first years of independence.

Indeed, the world’s newest nation has collapsed. ‘There has been so much killing, abuse and destruction of property here. It’s immense,’ an anonymous senior UN official at the refugee camp tells me (few UN authorities in Bentiu are authorised to speak openly to the media). Tens of thousands have been killed, and millions have been displaced internally and externally. Of the around twelve million people who live in South Sudan, 70 per cent face severe hunger. The economy is in freefall, with government forces and rebels fighting regularly over desperately needed oil reserves. Education and healthcare facilities have been unable to cope under the strain of the conflict. In 2014, the government hired former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince and his new firm, Frontier Services Group, to help boost oil output, but there is little evidence it’s working.

Bentiu heaves with broken humanity. The camp looks similar to those that have sprung up in response to other African conflicts, from Central African Republic to Congo. But things were supposed to be different in this new nation. South Sudan was born nearly five years ago amid so much hope – something much of Africa can’t claim. Yet the country has disintegrated. Many of the refugees in Bentiu are exhausted and confused, unsure how their country is again unsafe for them and their children. They can’t plan more than a few days ahead, and their hopes of a better future have been extinguished by fighting and ethnic strife. But this time things are different: the tensions, I am told, aren’t historical or cultural, but rather fuelled by leaders with grim agendas.

The Bentiu camp stretches as far as the eye can see. Flimsy houses made of bamboo and plastic sheets are positioned near little stalls selling flip-flops, baby formula, dresses, broken mobile phones, bags of sugar and glucose biscuits. During the rainy season, April to November, vast parts of the camp overflow with mud and debris. In the camps early days, flooding was common; some residents lived in water up their waists, and children drowned in their own homes. The UN was unprepared for the sheer numbers of arrivals: one official says the situation was ‘unforeseen’ because few expected the war to escalate so quickly. The UN has also been accused by Canadian Megan Nobert of ignoring her rape and not taking responsibility for the attack at their Bentiu base in 2015. The alleged attacker was subcontracted by the UN, but agencies failed to properly investigate.

I have looked at photos of the early days of the camp and can see that much has changed. The UN and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours on improving conditions. There is clear evidence of raised land, water channels and new wooden structures that are incomparably less dirty and cluttered than the old ones.

In one of the homes I meet Julia John, a 25-year-old woman who shares the space with her husband and three young children, as well as with her sister, her sister’s children and her mother. Their tidy space has just two single beds, a small table and rug, plastic chairs and dresses hung as wall decoration. Julia tells me of her desire to return home, but also of her fear of living alongside her ‘enemies’. She fled the fighting in January 2014 and has been in the camp ever since. ‘I hope for peace, but am not hopeful,’ she says.

Julia’s old property is only a few kilometres from the camp, but to her it feels so much further away. Every day when she leaves the UN base to search for firewood, she faces the threat of rape; soldiers routinely abduct, assault and disappear women. Julia has asked the UN and NGOs to provide firewood inside the camp to avoid the treacherous journey – so far they have not complied.

As a result of ongoing fighting in the region, around 200 new arrivals flow into the Bentiu camp each day. I hear testimony from survivors of horrific acts of violence committed against the Nuer by government soldiers and its militias. There are stories of boys being castrated and of women and girls being publicly gang raped. Nyaduop Machar Puot, a mother of five, explains that she recently witnessed ‘women and kids [being] burned alive in their tukuls [traditional South Sudanese huts]’ in her area of Koch county. She had to flee with her family because her own house was burned down and her cattle stolen.

In July last year, Human Rights Watch released a report that featured interviews with more than 170 victims and witnesses of government and militia enforced violence in Unity (one of South Sudan’s twenty-eight states). The report concludes that the mass rape, beating, killing and dislocation were the result of ‘decades of impunity’ in the region and a lack of accountability, trials or proper investigation. It predicts that this legacy will continue to fuel further crimes in South Sudan.

Back in Juba, the crowds gather for South Sudan’s fourth anniversary celebration. Locals sing and dance in colourful dresses and formal suits that glisten in the sun. Some listen as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the only major international dignitary to attend, ominously warns of ‘outsiders’ meddling in South Sudan’s affairs. He blames former colonial powers, such as Britain, France and Portugal, for African woes and argues that ‘tribalism [and] sectarianism are wrong ideas’ that should be dismissed.

Uganda has provided thousands of troops to back the South Sudanese government since the 2013 conflict erupted. Most of these were withdrawn in 2015, though a handful remain. Israel and China also arm and back government forces, while Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir assists the opposition. South Sudan has become a proxy war. Sudan continues to destabilise a nation it never wanted to be independent (much of the valuable oil sits within South Sudanese borders), Israel has a long history of supporting African dictatorships and China wants access to South Sudan’s resources. Everybody has dirty, meddling hands. This is the modern face of imperialism. Foreign troops don’t need to occupy a nation for it to be controlled by outside forces.

Museveni’s speech is followed by President Kiir thanking his ‘fellow citizens’ for their years of struggle. He offers few practical solutions to the problems now facing the nation.

The mood at the event is muted – there is little to celebrate. People look forlorn, perhaps unsure why they have come, apart from loyalty to the independence cause. Not even the marching band can rouse the masses. I am looked at with suspicion; zealous security guards in sunglasses ask foreigners wearing sunglasses to remove them. Entrepreneurial women sell nuts and national flags, many of which wilt in the sun. Thousands of discarded, plastic water bottles litter the dusty ground.

South Sudan’s current crisis is entirely man made and yet the nation’s international backers chose to ignore the warning signs. There was a gaping democratic deficit at the heart of the liberation movement; its leaders’ known corruption was overlooked for geopolitical reasons.

Sovereignty wasn’t simply given to the South Sudanese by benign powers. The South Sudanese spent decades fighting for independence against an oppressive northern neighbour, and did so with international backing. I haven’t met any South Sudanese who don’t support separation from Khartoum. Decades of blood and pain were spent gaining freedom and this is why so many South Sudanese are today despairing at their country’s disintegration. ‘Everybody’s a loser in war,’ one man tells me when I visit Bor, in Jonglei state. ‘We’re all losers. We want peace.’

Sudan gained independence from Britain in 1956, but subsequent decades saw Khartoum’s leadership apply a similar mindset to its southern section as its former colonial rulers. In his classic 1966 novel on colonialism Season of Migration to the North, Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih eloquently encapsulates this attitude: ‘They have left behind them people who think as they do.’

There were decades of civil war between Khartoum and its southern population over land, oil, dignity and prestige. Between 1983, when then President Jaafar Nimeiri introduced Sharia law, and 2005, when a peace agreement was finally signed, two million people died and four million were displaced. Both the SPLA and the Sudanese forces committed widespread abuses. Human Rights Watch released a report in 1994 that was eerily prescient in its predictions, warning that ‘the leaders of the SPLA factions must address their own human rights problems and correct their own abuses, or risk a continuation of the war on tribal or political grounds in the future, even if they win autonomy or separation.’ The SPLA and its backers never undertook this necessary accounting.

Today, due to the war, some South Sudanese survive on a diet of roots, water lilies, grass and leaves. Whole families have been forced to hide in dirty marshes, sometime for days, to escape violence. While in Bentiu, a number of women recount to me the brutality of militias, describing how babies were killed before their eyes. These women don’t expect justice or compensation, though they want both. I ask whether they dream of soldiers facing trial for war crimes when the country eventually finds peace – the idea is dismissed as fanciful.

Last August’s peace agreement includes provisions for a hybrid court staffed with South Sudanese and African nationals. It’s a bold initiative that shuns the more traditional route of the International Criminal Court (ICC), a body treated with suspicion across Africa because it rarely investigates crimes by Western nations. But there is little political will to establish this court for South Sudan because the organisation tasked to deliver it, the African Union, is made of leaders who are themselves facing warrants for arrest. This includes Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is charged with alleged genocide in Darfur.

In a tragic historical irony, South Sudan’s leaders are now mimicking its northern neighbour’s fraught relationship with the UN, the West and humanitarian groups. Government forces are stealing food from civilians, blocking the delivery of aid and studiously responding to allegations of abuse by claiming a Western and African conspiracy against their sovereignty. It’s an absurd suggestion, not least because the nation is only independent on paper; without foreign aid, the country and its population would not survive.

It’s an uneasy time for free speech in South Sudan. At least seven reporters were murdered in the country last year. None of the culprits have been found. In 2015, President Kiir threatened journalists critical of his leadership with death. Francis, a Juba-based reporter, tells me that he has to self-censor his work or he would not have a job. He doesn’t fear for his life, but knows his ability to be a critical journalist is severely curtailed.

As a state, South Sudan struggles to function in any capacity. Habib Dafalla Awonga, Director General for Programme Coordination at South Sudan’s HIV/AIDS Commission, explains to me how the war has hampered his ability to get reliable data on infection rates. He estimates that around 2.7 per cent of the population are HIV-positive, but has no way of sourcing definite numbers. It’s probably way higher, especially among soldiers sleeping with sex workers. Despite these concerns, Awonga accuses the West of ‘pushing a gay agenda’ because international HIV/AIDS bodies demanded protections for men who have sex with men (MSM) and sex workers.

This view that Western films, music and popular culture lead people towards sins such as homosexuality and sex work is commonly held across the continent. There are no publicly known gay groups in South Sudan, and being openly gay is impossible. Edward Emest Jubara, Acting Director General for Culture and Heritage in the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport, told a local newspaper in July that ‘a relationship between a man and a man is unacceptable in our society’. He was responding to comments made by President Obama during his July visit to Africa, when he urged the continent to abandon anti-gay discrimination. These attitudes are why American evangelical churches view South Sudan, as they do neighbouring Uganda, as prime territory for spreading their anti-gay and anti-abortion agenda. Though exact numbers are unknown, a growing number of American evangelical groups are operating in South Sudan, and they’re finding a receptive audience to their message.

South Sudan’s issues manifest in a range of other hurdles, too. Only 2 per cent of the nation’s roads are paved, making it near impossible to access remote communities in the rainy season (aid groups are forced to rely on expensive UN flights). This year the UN is trying to raise US$1.3 billion from governments for humanitarian efforts. It’s a tough call when there are so many other pressing crises. Because Africa is largely ignored in the international media unless there is an Ebola outbreak or genocide – Black lives don’t matter here – South Sudan can’t compete with a sectarian, proxy war in Syria or post-US invasion chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan. Africa is still easily framed as the dark continent: uncivilised, violent, savage. Yet South Sudan joins a long list of dysfunctional African states, from Burundi to Guinea-Bissau, that are crying out for peace.

Being based in South Sudan has forced me to examine the uniqueness of the country’s crisis and how it compares to other, equally horrific situations in nearby countries. The most media-savvy citizens in Juba know that their nation is mostly ignored by the international media, that the conflict is not deemed important enough to warrant serious attention – the victims are non-people, nameless and disposable. But they have learnt that the ‘international community’ – a generic term that usually means what Washington and its allies want – has been unable and unwilling to pressure the warring factions. They also know that President Obama’s focus has been on the various conflicts in the Middle East. And while no South Sudanese express a desire for American military intervention, many wish for Washington to be more assertive in resolving the current conflict.

There is no doubt that the level of brutality in South Sudan is worse than almost any other conflict I’ve reported; depraved attacks against Palestinians and Afghans are not uncommon, but the scale and intensity in South Sudan is particularly harrowing. The remoteness of the conflict and the lack of accountability for war crimes has exacerbated extremism against civilians. I hear again and again vivid descriptions of rape and murder that shock me to my core.

South Sudanese leaders and military chiefs understand little about governance and that has led to endemic corruption. Between the 2005 peace agreement with Sudan and independence in 2011, Juba obtained over US$13 billion in oil revenues; a significant amount of this went to security expenditure and salaries. Development was largely forgotten.

But what is often ignored in the just-ified criticisms of state officials is the complicity of self-interested outsiders. For example, the China National Petroleum Corporation was keen to establish firm ties with Juba both before and after independence, in order to become a major political player in East Africa. But flowing oil has done little for the local population.

In 2015, to protect its economic interests, China deployed 1051 combat-ready troops to bolster the UN mission in South Sudan. The other, less publicly discussed agenda was to protect its financial posit-ion in an unstable nation. This signals a significant shift in Beijing’s thinking towards Africa. There are now at least 3000 Chinese soldiers, sailors, engineers and medical staff stationed across the continent.

According to Eric Olander, chief editor of the China Africa Project, China’s long-held ideology of non-interference is being tested in South Sudan. ‘At what point,’ he asks, ‘does a peace process where China is actively immersed in Juba’s domestic politics along with Beijing’s first deployment of combat-ready troops in Africa cross the line from peacekeeping to intervening in another country’s internal affairs?’

These geo-strategic manoeuvrings have no relevance for the millions of South Sudanese civilians suffering due to the conflict. In Wai, for instance, around 25,000 people live under trees and in a few mud shelters. There are no tents. Women and children sit on the ground almost motionless, mosquitoes buzzing around them, waiting for basic medical care and food handouts of oil and sorghum. It reminds me of the infamous images from Ethiopia in the 1980s. There are tens of thousands of others like this across South Sudan: communities left to fend for themselves because they cannot be accessed by aid groups. Nobody knows how many have died in the last few years due to starvation. No-one is counting the numbers.

These gruesome realities are at least condemned by the Obama administration, though it’s mostly lip-service. During Obama’s visit to Kenya and Ethiopia in July, he accused Kiir and Machar of dragging their nation into the ‘despair of violence’. But the Obama years have seen significant – largely ignored – expansions of the US’ military footprint across Africa, including deepening relationships with some of the continent’s most brutal dictators. This has contributed to instability and abuses in Libya, Mali, the Gulf of Guinea and elsewhere.

In his book Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, Nick Turse notes that at least forty-nine of Africa’s fifty-four countries have had some US military presence or involvement in the last decade. It’s arguably one of the greatest colonisation projects of the twenty-first century and virtually nobody knows about it. South Sudan was supposed to be central to this plan: a reliable client state in the heart of Africa, a base from which the US could challenge China’s growing military and political power on the continent. Its strategic importance for Washington, after years of losing influence to Chinese infrastructure and funding projects, has withered since the outbreak of the civil war. The failure of the US to assist in building infrastructure or to respond to human rights violations and state corruption has been critical in South Sudan’s ongoing instability.

But almost as soon as conflict erupted in 2013, Washington was distracted by the civil war in Syria, the disintegration of Iraq and the rise of ISIS. Uncritical praise for the South Sudanese regime soon became more circumspect, despite the billions of dollars being spent on propping up the government. One unnamed US official was recently reported as saying that ‘the parties have shown themselves to be utterly indifferent to their country and their people, and that is a hard thing to rectify’.

Accountability for this catastrophe is difficult to find, especially from the high-profile American backers who spent years pushing for South Sudan’s independence. Few questions were asked on the suitability of South Sudanese leaders, their human rights record or their ability to manage a new state. This is hardly unsurprising: Beijing and Washington traditionally prefer partnering with reliable autocrats.

In the mid 1990s, a small group of American activists and officials began a campaign to push for South Sudanese independence. The three key individuals were Susan Rice (then assistant secretary of state for Africa, now Obama’s national security advisor), Gayle Smith (then at the National Security Council and now administrator of USAID) and John Prendergast (then at the National Security Council, soon the State Department and now co-founder of the Enough Project). Actor George Clooney later became active over Sudan’s abuses in Darfur. Arguably, South Sudan became a cause célèbre because helping build a new state seemed romantic and justified in a post-September 11 world.

Very few of these individuals looked too closely into who they were backing in South Sudan. Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University and a leading Sudan expert, tells me that ‘South Sudan’s leaders believed that they had the backing of the US administration, with celebrity activists as their enforcers, to defy the rules of that club. The SPLA was permitted to get away with murder because they had a chorus of supporters who would unfailingly chant that the other side was worse.’

Thankfully, some have recognised the need for change. Last year the Enough Project launched ‘the Sentry’, a project targeting the financial enablers of violence in South Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere across Africa.

Meanwhile, in the southern town of Yei, near the borders with Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, there is an illusion of tranquillity. Many refugees fleeing Darfur and the Nuba Mountains reside here, and the dusty streets feel relatively peaceful. American and Australian evangelicals operate His House of Hope – Bet Eman Hospital for Women and Children and the Reconcile Peace Institute. Both organisations do important work, but nowhere is safe for long because of the sporadic outbreaks of violence. Civilians are scared, not trusting the words of politicians.

In South Sudan more generally, the hope that went with independence has largely evaporated. There is currently no indication that a comprehensive and sustainable peace deal will completely stop the violence and allow the country to develop its infrastructure and resources. A UN report from earlier this year concludes that both Kiir and Machar should face sanctions for their roles in the war. Without concerted international pressure to cease the violence and to establish accountable trials and a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission, South Sudan is destined to remain mired in conflict. Its determined people deserve far better from the major global powers that, just a few years ago, promised them the world.

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