I was interviewed by The Wire news radio program yesterday:
The already fragile stability in the Middle East has been further affected in recent weeks, with the US Embassy move to Jerusalem and President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
Overnight 55 Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli forces in Gaza, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state. This is the highest protest casualty rate in the region since 2014, and has some experts feeling that the US’s increased backing of Israel will lead to a more aggressive stance on neighbours such as Palestine and Syria.
The global sound of fury and shock heralded by the win of Donald Trump as the new U.S. President wasn’t heard in Israel. A poll, released in early December by the firm Dialog, found that 83 percent of Israelis viewed Trump as “pro-Israel” and hoped he would support their government’s position on expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank.
In February 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he was planning to “surround all of Israel with a fence” to keep out Palestinians and Arab states’ citizens. “In our neighborhood, we need to protect ourselves from wild beasts,” he said.
This discriminatory attitude is not just limited to politics but is both mainstream and widely accepted in Israel. For example, members of the far-right extremist group Lehava are strictly against any interaction between Jews and Palestinians. They roam the streets of Israel assaulting Arabs, and Israel does little to stop it. The group’s Hebrew stickers on Jerusalem streets read: “Beware the goys [a derogatory term for non-Jews]: they will defile you.”
Israeli security firms are excited about Trump’s win. They see dollar signs in the U.S., Europe and beyond as Western nations struggle to manage a huge influx of refugees and Muslims from the Middle East, Africa and Western Asia. Israel is viewed as an expert in the fields of counter-terrorism, surveillance, fences, sensors and militarization of borders.
In 2015, Israel reported $5.7 billion of defense industry exports. Arms sales especially soared to Europe, growing from $724 million in 2014 to $1.63 billion in 2015, amid growing concerns over refugees and terrorism. Equipment included aerospace, radar, drones and intelligence systems. Israel and its defense firms hope that surging interest in their products will counteract any negative economic impact from the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
When contacted for a comment, the Israeli Ministry of Defense refused to talk about its collaboration over countering possible threats related to refugees and terrorism.
“Unfortunately, as a rule, the Ministry does not comment on defense relationships with other countries,” it said.
Israel-based Magal Security Systems, the world’s biggest provider of perimeter security technology has global experience in using technology to keep out the unwanted and saw its share price soar following Trump’s victory.
The company’s chief executive, Saar Koursh, was recently quoted by the Financial Times saying he wanted to work on Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico.
“If Mr. Trump builds a fence or a wall, we believe our technology will definitely be a benefit,” he reportedly said.
Hagai Katz, Magal’s Vice President of Marketing and Business Development, explained that his firm is involved in securing all of Israel’s borders including those with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza. The “smart fence” around Gaza, “battle-tested” is attractive to clients, works with Israeli video cameras, satellite monitoring, ground sensors and motion detectors.
The close-to two million citizens of the Gaza Strip live in a large, open-air Israeli-imposed prison, with the U.N. fearing the territory will be uninhabitable by 2020. A recent visit to Gaza showed a population with virtually no freedom of movement.
A Magal client list, confirmed by the corporation as up to date, shows hundreds of partners developed over its more than 43 years in the business. This includes security for civilian airports in China, Colombia, the U.S., U.K. and Mexico, seaports in Israel, Canada and Kenya, utilities in Australia, Chile and Morocco, oil and gas facilities in the Gulf, Italy and Nigeria and nuclear sites in the U.S. Furthermore, there are countless commercial projects across the world, prisons, militaries (including in Bahrain) and borders including India and Pakistan, Minnesota in the U.S., Bulgaria and Serbia, as well as Slovakia and Ukraine.
A new Magal promotional brochure explains to potential clients that the main challenge in stopping “infiltrators” in Europe is gathering intelligence and establishing early warning systems.
Katz said that Israel’s “smart fence” with Egypt, five metres high with barbed wire, military posts and a quick reaction force, is the “most relevant for Europe because it’s concerned with illegal immigration.” He explained that there were five “D’s” for an effective smart fence: demark the border, deterrence, detection, delay and defeat.
“In the case of illegal immigration,” Katz explained, “deterrence is the most important thing because you don’t want to cope with the problem when somebody crosses [a border].” When a Magal spokesman was asked if fences and monitoring borders were a solution to the refugee crisis or simply a profitable outcome, Katz said: “If you really want to solve it, you need to be aggressive and determined. Nobody likes to use fences. The landscape looks ugly. It’s against the idea of open borders.”
He added that Hungary, perhaps the most antagonistic nation towards refugees in Europe, had only constructed a “dumb fence,” without technology or sensors. This “doesn’t solve the problem but moves it from one country to another.”
Although Katz said that a number of European nations had contacted Magal to get quotes on border security – the cost is up to $5 million per kilometre of physical fence – “most of the European countries have not decided to do this. They believe they can cope with the problem without decisive actions.” Katz saw expansion opportunities in Africa (Magal is competing to build a wall between Kenya and Somalia, at a cost of over $15 billion), Eastern Europe and former Soviet states.
Other Israeli companies are also in the border monitoring business. Elbit Systems, one of Israel’s largest defence contractors and experts in drone manufacturing, are working on the U.S./Mexico border. The sandy terrain near Nogales, Arizona, the second-largest border-patrol station in the U.S., has an Elbit-built radar system. The company’s head, Bezhalel Machlis, told the Financial Times in July that he was excited about the worldwide trend towards increased military budgets.
The Israeli military tests Elbit equipment before they are sold to agencies worldwide, where Palestinians living under occupation are used as guinea pigs for Elbit’s technology.
It is worth noting that the global interest in Israeli strategies to control borders is more than just a desire for technological experience. Trump’s election and the growing support for far-right political parties and movements across Europe reveal an ideological alliance that connects Israel’s burgeoning militarized settler movement with the white nationalist agenda.
This was perfectly articulated in December at Texas A&M University when Richard Spencer, head of the white nationalist National Policy Institute, silenced Rabbi Matt Rosenberg by suggesting Zionism and Jewish continuity required discrimination and isolation to thrive.
“Do you really want radical inclusion into the State of Israel?” Spencer asked. “And by that I mean radical inclusion. Maybe all of the Middle East could go move in to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Would you really want that? Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate.”
A few weeks earlier, Spencer had praised Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and questioned whether “Israeli nationalists might want to help finance the far right in Europe and North America.” In July, he told the U.S. website Mondoweiss that he admired Israel as “a homogenous ethno-state.” During the Trump inauguration in Washington DC, Spencer was punched in the head by an anti-fascist protestor. He remains a divisive figure, opposed by many Jews, who craves separation of the races.
However, Spencer perfectly understood why many white nationalists, in the U.S., Europe and globally, have become ardent Israel supporters. Demographically, maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel is only assured by treating its Arab population as second class citizens. This is what most white nationalists admire in Israel, a willingness to brutally suppress another people to keep the state racially pure. Nationalists want the U.S. and Europe to behave similarly towards Muslims and refugees, groups that, in their view, are diluting the purity of the world’s superior Christian population.
David Sheen, an Israeli-based, independent journalist focusing on racial and religious conflict in Israeli society, said that “Israel’s leaders make brazen statements about their intentions to rule all the land, from the river to the sea, and to make Jewish supremacy paramount, demoting democratic principles to secondary status. They have already forced out over a third of the country’s African refugee population, and are on track to complete the cleansing over the next decade, if not less than that…There is no serious force at present, either within Israeli society or outside of it, that is capable of halting, or even of slowing down, Israel’s descent from flawed ethnocracy into full-on folkism.”
This logic has seen neo-Nazis and far-right extremists from Europe and the U.S. welcomed to Israel with open arms. Austria’s far-right, Freedom Party leader, Heinz-Christian Strach, visited Israel’s Holocaust memorial in April and met with members of the governing Likud party. His motives, according to press reports, were to make him “kosher in Israel” and acceptable to world leaders. Strach spoke of the “the Judeo-Christian West”.
“If Israel fails, Europe fails. And if Europe fails, Israel fails,” he said. Israeli settler leaders happily overlooked his neo-Nazi past and praised his unwavering support for Israel.
Among some French and German far-right movements online there is extensive support for Israel and its posture towards Muslims and Arabs. Largely written in the local language, and ignored by the Western media, far-right websites revel in Islamophobia as a perceived state policy in Israel and urge Europe to copy it.
One German website, PI News, claims to be “news against the mainstream” and backing “America, Israel, basic and human laws and the fight against the Islamization of Europe.” German Holocaust deniers visited Israel’s Holocaust museum and travelled around Israel in 2016 talking about blowing up mosques and embracing the settler movement. The group, from popular anti-immigrant parties, believed that radical Islam was the common dominator between themselves and Israel.
Such rhetoric is now politically popular across the West and it’s not hard to see why Israel, building fences and walls around itself, is the model. Companies such as Elbit and Magal are reaping the benefits.
Many Europeans now oppose Israel’s colonization policies and advocate boycotts against the Jewish state. However, Strach and his party, founded by former Nazis in the 1950s, are leading a wave of far-right solidarity with Israel across Europe and the world. From Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France to key players in the Trump administration, backing Israel and its draconian policies against Muslims, refugees, Palestinians, Arabs and black Africans is the new litmus test for the authoritarian right. Israel’s political and business elites, largely in sync with these views, have brilliantly exploited and monetized Western fears over minorities.
Trump’s chief strategist, of course, is Steve Bannon, former executive chair of the far-right Breitbart website that has published countless derogatory articles on Muslims, woman and Jews but earned praise (along with some opposition) for its Zionist stance from some of the leading U.S. – Zionist organizations. For them, anti-Semitism is irrelevant so long as Israel is given unconditional support.
It’s a dangerous and self-defeating stance that endangers Jews worldwide though there’s a long history of Zionist groups working with fascist groups in Israel and globally. Historically, neo-Nazis and white nationalists loathed Jews but today it’s not unusual to see the Israeli flag being waved at a far-right, Pegida rally in Germany or an event organized by Britain’s U.K. Independence Party (UKIP).
Former Israeli politician, Aryeh Eldad, from the far-right National Union Party, who once advocated the shooting of anybody who crossed Israel’s border with Egypt and is friends with far-right, Dutch politician Geert Wilders, says Israel has key lessons to teach the world.
Eldad believes that it was a mistake to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as territorial with the refugee issues facing Europe since Islam is the problem.
He adds that refugee and Muslims’ high birth-rate would soon extinguish European Christians.
“If they [Europeans] want to keep their national and cultural identity…they will have to prevent further waves of immigrants because they will not be assimilated…We [Israelis] are idiots if we think it isn’t a religious war or clash of ideologies,” he said in a recent interview.
Eldad’s solution included expanding Israeli settlements, which he viewed as “legal” and “necessary,” as well as fortifying Israeli borders. Europe had to respond similarly, he argued, and repel the wave of migrants. Otherwise, it would continue being a “suicidal society,” determined to be overrun by Islam.
I was pleased to be asked to sign the following statement in support of free speech and against blacklisting for “unpopular” views on Syria (though it’s equally relevant for Palestine, the “war on terror” etc). I sign alongside Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald, Reza Aslan and many others:
The cancellation of a lecture by journalist Rania Khalek, who was invited to speak on the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill campus by Students for Justice in Palestine on February 27, 2017, raises important issues of tactics and strategy within movements for social change.
The whole statement, posted on facebook the night before, reads:
“After receiving much feedback and after careful consideration, we have decided to cancel tomorrow’s event with Rania Khalek. We do not endorse nor reject her views on the Syrian civil war as they remain relatively unclear according to our members’ diverse opinions of Rania’s analyses. Although Rania was not going to speak about Syria, we understand the Syrian conflict is a contentious issue and the invitation was met with a lot of anger. We appreciate the concerns of those who have reached out to us, especially our Syrian supporters and believe her invitation would mistakenly imply SJP to hold such views. SJP supports liberation movements for all oppressed people and recognizes their right to self-determination.”
We note: the UNC-SJP event organizers cancelled the event (which was to be on the intersection of Palestinian rights organizing and the Black Lives Matter movement) based on the speaker’s views on Syria, a topic the speaker was “not going to speak about”, that “remain relatively unclear” to them, out of concern that “her invitation would mistakenly imply SJP to hold such views”. This means that:
- No one was prepared to state what disqualified Khalek from speaking.
- The event was cancelled based on assertions about her views made by others.
- The cancellation was based on the notion that there is a political litmus test of views on Syria that are requisites to have a public voice in the Palestinian rights movement.
We also note that some of those who lobbied UNC-SJP to cancel the event have stated publicly that they want to destroy Khalek’s reputation and livelihood. This is a coordinated smear campaign, using many of the same tactics that Palestine solidarity activists have faced from pro-Israel organizations, and with many of the same targets.
The signers of this statement hold a range of views on Syria. Some agree with Khalek; others disagree – in some cases quite vehemently. But we feel that when a group seeking justice in Palestine subjects speakers or members to a political litmus test related to their views on Syria, it inevitably leads to splits, silencing, confusion, and a serious erosion of trust. It runs contrary to the possibility of people learning from one another, changing their minds, and educating one another through their activism. Disagreements about political issues exist inside every movement coalition. They must not be made fodder for targeted vilification of activists in the movement:
James W. Carden
Mnar A. Muhawesh
Al Awda SF
Col. Ann Wright
My essay in UAE newspaper The National:
The defence industry has never been happier. With sales at unprecedented levels – US$65 billion (Dh 238bn) in 2015, according to the Global Defence Trade Report – France, the United States, Canada and Britain have become global leaders in arms exports. The Middle East is the largest importing region and weapons companies such as Raytheon, Oshkosh, Thales, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are benefiting from continuing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and beyond.
These economic advantages are now expanding further afield. The refugee crisis engulfing Europe over the past 18 months has caused untold misery, with thousands drowning in the Mediterranean, racist attacks against Arab arrivals and restive populations increasingly turning against migrants fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Africa.
But largely ignored in the commentary and reporting from European countries struggling to cope has been the financial beneficiaries of huge migration: the arms manufacturers, private security corporations, and intelligence and surveillance multinationals. For them, Europe’s desperate desire to militarise and monitor its borders has led to a huge surge in profits.
After the attacks in Paris last November, share prices in some of these defence firms rose strongly. Lockheed Martin executive vice president Bruce Tanner told a Credit Suisse conference in West Palm Beach in the US in December that there were “indirect benefits” from the war in Syria. There was “an intangible lift because of the dynamics of that environment and our products in theatre”, such as F-22s and F-35 jets.
A recent report from NGOs Stop Wapenhandel and Transnational Institute, Border Wars, provides comprehensive evidence of Europe’s zeal to outsource its border security and explains the direct link between wars in the Middle East and profits from European policies.
The European Commission wants to reform its border security agency Frontex into a more influential European Border and Coastguard Agency. This will mean even greater windfalls for defence multinationals. The report explains that the European border security industry was estimated at €15 billion (Dh61.6bn) in 2015 and is predicted to rise to more than €29 billion annually by 2022. The budget of Frontex increased 3,688 per cent between 2005 and 2016 from €6.3m to €238.7m and European states are obliged to strengthen their borders as a condition of membership.
“There is one group of interests that have only benefited from the refugee crisis, and in particular from the European Union’s investment in ‘securing its borders’,” the Border Wars report finds. “They are the military and security companies that provide the equipment to border guards, the surveillance technology to monitor frontiers, and the IT infrastructure to track population movements.”
Crucially, the report shows that “far from being passive beneficiaries of EU largesse, these corporations are actively encouraging a growing securitisation of Europe’s borders, and willing to provide ever more draconian technologies to do this”. The large defence players in Europe include Airbus, Finmeccanica, Thales, Safran and Indra.
Finmecannica, Thales and Airbus are key lobbyists with the privately run European Organisation for Security and they push for tighter border security. Many of their suggestions, including the establishment of a cross-border security agency, have been adopted by the EU.
These companies are also three of the top four European arms traders selling weapons to nations in the Middle East and Africa that are experiencing the greatest unrest and fuelling refugees fleeing for their lives. In other words, these companies are making money from both selling weapons to repressive regimes and benefiting from the human fallout in Europe.
It’s a convenient convergence of interests and has generated virtually no public outcry. This is because populations across Europe are increasingly voting for political parties that believe in tight border controls and express little sympathy for outsiders trying to get in. The recent Brexit vote in Britain was won largely on a small majority of citizens wanting to “take back control of our borders”. The fact that this can only be achieved by privatising the border security network – states don’t have the technology or expertise to do it themselves – is either unknown or seen as a necessary evil.
Israeli firms are the only non-European receivers of research grants for border security under a 1996 agreement between Europe and Tel Aviv. This has already led to Hungary and Bulgaria expressing serious interest in 2015 of establishing high fences reminiscent of the barrier separating Israel and Egypt and Israel’s separation barrier through the occupied West Bank. Israel’s decades of experience controlling millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, through drones, fences, walls, weapons and surveillance, is the perfect experience Europe craves during its current crisis.
Writer and activist Jeff Halper calls this the “global pacification industry”, parlaying years of occupation and battle-tested technology in the service of controlling borders and people. For example, Israel Aerospace Industries has worked with Airbus to create a surveillance drone, used in Gaza, to track refugees in Europe.
The privatisation of Europe’s borders is accelerating even as the number of refugees arriving on the continent has fallen this year. The EU has a long-term plan to militarise its borders and be prepared for any further influx of unwanted migrants. Defence firms making a fortune from migration flows should make us question the morality of the world’s obsession with the outsourcing culture.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalist and author
Yesterday I appeared on the Al Jazeera English program, The Stream, talking about people and corporations making money from the Syrian war (eg. the new report, Border Wars, from The Transnational Institute on arms dealers finding huge profits from the European refugee crisis).
My segment starts at 1:32:
The holy month in Aleppo
What has Ramadan been like in the Syrian city of Aleppo? There has been little respite from the airstrikes and bombings over the past 30 days, traditionally meant to be a time of fasting and spiritual reflection. We revisit the humanitarian situation in the devastated city as Eid approaches.
Profiting off of the Syrian war
It is one month to the deadline to lay out a political transition plan in Syria. Negotiations are at a stalemate, and there are no meetings scheduled for the rest of this month. As fighting persists on the ground and refugees flee the country, who is profiting from the crisis? Author Antony Loewenstein joins The Stream to discuss how disaster capitalism is fueling the war.
Fasting and feasting away from home
For hundreds of thousands of Syrians refugees in Europe, it has been yet another holy month away from their homeland. As the last days approach, we share stories of how refugee communities have spent this Ramadan and plan to celebrate Eid.
On today’s episode, we speak to:
Dr. Hamza Al-Khatib
Manager, Al Quds Hospital
Antony Loewenstein @antloewenstein
Jerusalem-based independent journalist
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.
My story in the Guardian:
We don’t know whether the Australian military has killed or injured civilians in Iraq, and if so, how many. Since Canberra joined the US-led mission against the Islamic State (Isis) on 8 October 2014, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has provided barely any information about its operations.
So the new report by Airwars, a British organisation comprised of journalists and researchers, is welcome. It aims to demystify the war against Isis and document how many civilians are dying in Iraq and Syria.
Airwars has found at least 459 non-combatant deaths, including 100 children, from 52 airstrikes. Over 5,700 airstrikes have been launched since 2014.
Yet the US military central command cites the deaths of only two civilians. The discrepancy between these figures – two deaths, or 459 – should be startling. The US State Department pledged to “review its findings” after Airwars issued its report, with a spokesman saying “That’s why we’re looking into them and trying to see where the – what the right number is, to be frank.”
Australia’s role in the anti-Isis coalition is shrouded in secrecy. Operation Okra is described as “conducting air combat and support operations in Iraq and is operating within a US-led international coalition assembled to disrupt and degrade ISIL.”
The ADF issues very sparse monthly reports on how it is going about this mission. Australian jets are spending thousands of hours in the air, and have completed over 100 airstrikes, dropping more than 400 bombs and missiles, yet we are told only about the jets’ capabilities, and given pretty pictures of them in action.
I asked the ADF a number of questions, including why the public wasn’t being told more, whether Australia was aware of its actions causing harm or death to civilians, and whether its “rules of engagement” aimed to minimise civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure. My questions were largely ignored. I was told:
For operational security reasons, the ADF will not provide mission-specific details on individual engagements against Daesh. The ADF will not release information that could be distorted and used against Australia in Daesh propaganda. Australia’s Rules of Engagement are designed to avoid civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.
A spokesperson for the Minister for Defence, Kevin Andrews, added that, “the Abbott government has every confidence in the professionalism of the Australian Defence Force to act in accordance with Australia’s Rules of Engagement, which are designed to avoid civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure”.
When Airwars questioned Australia’s lack of information sharing – unlike, say, Canada, which releases information on a timely basis – it received the same, pro-forma response from the ADF.
Airwars project leader Chris Woods, a British journalist and author of “Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars”, told me that Australia’s lack of transparency was worrying.
“Of the 12 nations in the Coalition which have bombed Daesh in Iraq and Syria over the past year, Australia is pretty much near the bottom in terms of transparency and accountability”, he said.
“The Saudis and the Belgians are worse, though not by much. Once a month we get a chart saying how many bombs have been dropped – and that’s it. No details of locations struck. No word of the dates on which strikes occurred.”
Woods condemns Canberra’s reason for secrecy as inappropriate for a democracy.
“The excuse for this paucity of information is that Daesh might use any improved reporting ‘for propaganda purposes’. That’s absurd, of course. Canada, the UK, France and others all report happily on where and when they strike,” he says.
“And transparency really does matter. The Coalition tells us that each member nation is individually liable for the civilians it kills. If Australia refuses to say anything about its strikes, how can there be any justice for those affected on the ground if something goes wrong?”
This ADF obsession with secrecy and obsessively trying to control the message is nothing new. Remember that in 2013, the ADF tried and failed to isolate Fairfax reporters Paul McGeough and Kate Geraghty during their time in Afghanistan. As McGeough put it, they were “effectively denying our right as journalists to cover any of the story”.
Successive Australian governments have long demanded secrecy in matters of war, immigration and trade. It’s an attitude that presumes the public either doesn’t really care about what governments do; or that enough journalists are willing to swallow spin in exchange for access, embeds with Australian troops or spurious “exclusives” with the military and strategists.
Australia’s current war against Isis has continued this tradition of secrecy. As former army intelligence officer James Brown wrote recently in The Saturday Paper, “how much progress is Australia making against Daesh? It’s painfully hard to tell.” Yet there is no demand for the ADF to open up.
Paul Barratt, former secretary of the Department of Defence and president of the campaign for an Iraq War inquiry, says that the Abbott government’s attitude “reflects both its habits of secretiveness and the lack of a coherent strategy – more policy on the run.
“What started out as humanitarian relief using existing assets in the Middle East was rapidly transformed into boots on the ground in a training role, and aircraft both flying combat missions and refuelling other coalition aircraft for combat missions in Syria. There is little sign that this has been thought through or that it is heading in the direction of an achievable goal.”
I’ve long argued that reporters and media organisations should collectively push back against restrictive ADF methods by refusing to be embedded without greater freedom in the field. Apart from visiting the troops for state-managed photo ops, independent reporting of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan is preferable because it’s civilians who bear the brunt of the conflict.
Journalists should also ignore “exclusives” from the ADF until it recognises it’s creating an unacceptable mystery around actions undertaken with taxpayer dollars. Would the ADF loosen its rules? I’m confident it would, not least of all because it craves publicity.
If it doesn’t, we would at least have the spectacle of the ADF defending its tenuous position on disclosure.
My article in Le Monde Diplomatique English:
The UN Security Council recently imposed new sanctions on South Sudan including travel bans on six South Sudanese citizens. Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, praised the move saying: “The Security Council took strong action in support of a peaceful end to the conflict in South Sudan by sanctioning six South Sudanese individuals for fuelling the ongoing conflict and contributing to the devastating humanitarian crisis in their country.”
But the reality is that only one of the listed men, Major-General Marial Chanuong Yol Mangok, has a passport. This is largely a toothless travel ban on non-travellers. Many observers of South Sudan argue that the latest round of sanctions will do little to stop the country’s turmoil.
Even an arms embargo would only be successful if UN members enforce it:Israel and others still sell weapons to the war-torn nation. But an embargo has its place (the lifting of an international arms embargo on Somalia in 2013reportedly resulted in a rise of human rights abuses).
But neither President Salva Kiir nor rebel leader Riek Machar (the two men leading a brutal war for victory) are touched by the latest UN moves. Opposition figure Lam Akol told Associated Press that “if the sanctions are meant to encourage the spoilers to be serious for peace, and to warn them that not doing so has a price or punishment, then they should target the right people.”
South Sudan stands at a precarious point in its young history — 9 July was the fourth anniversary of independence and yet there was little to celebrate. I attended a government-organised “celebration” in the middle of the capital, Juba, on a searingly hot day. Although thousands of locals attended, many in full suits and fancy dresses, it was hard to discern any real enthusiasm. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni spoke, and warned against “outsiders” meddling in African affairs while his gunships flew overhead. President Kiir pledged to bring peace to South Sudan and remove corruption, promises that after years of war were hard to believe.
Since December 2013, when political and ethnic simmering tensions between Kiir and Machar exploded in bloodshed in the capital Juba and across the country, the nation has been rocked by extreme violence and dislocation. The world’s newest state has become one of the most reliant on international donors and aid to barely keep alive.
The exuberance that greeted the 2011 independence vote has largely disappeared. I never meet any locals in South Sudan who want to be once again controlled by Sudan under President Omar al-Bashir — for years under his rule the Muslim north routinely abused its southern, Christian neighbours — and yet millions of internally and externally displaced refugees are losing any hope of a secure future.
Today around eight million civilians, out of a population of 11 million, face food scarcity and at least 40% of the country is predicted to suffer from severe hunger by the end of July. In other parts of the nation, such as Unity and Western Jonglei States, some households face catastrophe and likely starvation, according to the USAID-backed Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) issued a report in late June that accused government soldiers of “widespread human rights abuses” in Unity State. The allegations included the sexual abuse of women and girls, and the burning alive of girls in their homes. The report stated: “This recent upsurge (in fighting) has not only been marked by allegations of killing, rape, abduction, looting, arson and displacement, but by a new brutality and intensity. The scope and level of cruelty that has characterized the reports suggests a depth of antipathy that exceeds political differences.”
The scale of the humanitarian crisis is immense. UNMISS runs “protection of civilian” camps and as of 6 July they were housing 153,769 people nationwide in eight locations. Cholera outbreaks are increasing while the current rainy season means vast swathes of the country are inaccessible by road. Billions of dollars of global, financial support is being pledged on an annual basis for the UN and NGOs to administer assistance, but I’m hearing there’s donor fatigue after years of grinding conflict with a rising death toll (tens of thousands, at the very least). In the brutal calculation of donor contributors, South Sudan may become less of a priority than, say, Syria or Iraq, though the needs are only increasing.
None of this carnage was inevitable. It’s a man-made disaster that was emboldened by the choices made by western powers and supporters in the lead-up to the 2011 independence vote. Buyer’s remorse is now ubiquitous. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently visited South Sudan and powerfully reported on the conditions faced by suffering civilians. While he acknowledges his own backing for the Kiir government in 2011 — though “now it’s difficult not to feel despair” — there’s little reflection on lessons that should be learned from the experience.
The US, like all nations, doesn’t support states out of love or belief in human rights: it’s always about strengthening interests. South Sudan was framed as a bulwark against Muslim Sudan that had given shelter to Osama Bin Laden in the 1990s and remains close with Iran. Furthermore, China has spent the last decade colonizing Africa and furnishing various regimes with infrastructure and weapons. The US wanted a foreign policy success in the heart of the continent, while warning Beijing to stay off its turf, and for a brief time President Obama was able to claim this. It didn’t last long.
American actor George Clooney was another prominent and politically significant backer of South Sudanese independence. Few questions were asked, however, about the regime that was set to lead the country. Now Clooney is far more honest about the reality and wants to “dismantle the financial networks profiting from Africa’s deadliest wars.” If only these insights had been offered before 2011: “After securing their country’s independence, South Sudan’s political leadership embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars from the state treasury, leaving little for education, health or other services. Soon, this violent kleptocracy degenerated along factional lines.”
The only way the conflict in South Sudan will cease is if enough pressure is placed on its political leaders and military. Any hopes that the African Union would be a positive influence on peace negotiations (and there’s little evidence so far that it has been) were dashed during the recent controversy over Omar al-Bashir and his escape from South Africa after a possible one-way ticket to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his alleged crimes against humanity. The African Union expressed its outrage over the moves to extradite Bashir, claiming the ICC had an obsession with prosecuting Africans instead of pursuing leaders in other parts of the world. So South Sudanese leaders presumably have nothing to worry about.
Four years after South Sudan’s declared independence, the future viability of the state is in question. With millions of citizens facing extreme hunger and displacement, it’s natural to fear what will happen in the coming years. Like the ongoing conflict in Syria, another country that can no longer be described as a unified entity, South Sudan is experiencing an economic collapse and humanitarian tsunami. It’s the civilians who suffer the most and it’s for them that renewed peace talks and negotiations must be intensified. The troubles in South Sudan reflect deep failures from an international community that seems far more interested in celebrating successes than stopping bloodshed.
My weekly Guardian column:
Surely bombing yet another Muslim country is a mistake. But that’s exactly what Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni has called for – attacks on Islamic State (Isis) positions in Libya to stem the flow of refugees streaming into Europe.
Calls for tough action, like Gentiloni’s, are growing in response to refugees drowning during the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Ocean. Last year nearly 5,000 men, women and children perished at sea. This year at least 1,600 people have already died.
The desire to shut the door to Europe entirely is perhaps understandable, but it’s the wrong decision. It dishonestly uses the fantasy of small and ordered queues of asylum seekers to sell Europe as a safe haven.
And yet the modern, international system of protecting asylum seekers, set up in the wake of the Holocaust, has never looked more incapable of dealing with some of the worst humanitarian crises since the Second World War.
Over 4 million Syrians have fled their country since 2011. Aside from the refugees pouring into Italy, around 100 Syrians arrive every day by boat on Greece’s Dodecanese islands.
The country is logistically incapable of managing the influx and struggles with some of the most unaccepting attitudes to refugees in Europe (though a new, left-wing Syriza government is already releasing thousands of immigrants housed in horrible detention centres, sites I witnessed in Corinth in 2014). Some in Europe are more open. A recent poll found that 50% of Germans were in favour of taking more refugees.
The UN is practically begging Western nations to shelter Syrian refugees but the response from America, Britain, Australia and Canada has been desultory. The Saudi-led campaign against Yemen is likely to cause more people to flee a country that was already struggling before the current bombing. African leaders, from where many migrants are coming due to repression, are largely mute.
In Europe, anti-immigrant sentiment is electorally popular. It’s not a tough sell. Economic uncertainty, questions around migrant integration, Al-Qaeda or Isis-inspired violence against civilians and questions around European identity end up expressing themselves in a fear of Islam and terrorism, which are doubts politicians exploit.
And the sheer scale of refugee arrivals in Italy is even causing some asylum seekers themselves to wonder with whom they have been travelling. There are often no checks or registration on arrival and some told Foreign Policy recently that it was entirely possible that members of Isis or other militant groups were travelling among them as a way to enter Europe.
European state identity is morphing into a less homogenous collection of nations. It’s undeniably becoming more socially conservative, Muslim and unfamiliar to traditional, Christian sensibilities.
The EU’s possible solution to these changes, mimicking Australia’s offshore detention network, is to establish processing camps in non-EU nations such as Niger, Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey – as a way to keep the problem away from Europe.
To implement such a system in states that already have huge asylum burdens guarantees poor conditions and corruption. This has been Australia’s experience with awful Pacific island detention camps which have done next to nothing to alter the increasingly desperate nature of 21st century migration flows, except to keep them from settling safely in Australia.
Canberra finds itself making deals with repressive states like Cambodia and Vietnam, and tiny Island nations like Nauru, but is mistaken if it believes resettling refugees there will deter a family leaving war-torn Syria, Libya or Iraq trying to reach somewhere secure.
After all, the west’s participation in Middle Eastern wars is what’s accelerating this huge population transfer. Libya, where Gentiloni wants to drop his bombs, was meant to be peaceful after the 2011 overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. But Libya is broken, with French oil producer Total SA cutting and running this month.
The result of Europe’s lack of investment in Libya after the end of the dictator has borne results: political chaos, violence and a wave of refugees fleeing. Not that this has stopped Libya’s broke, ruling government still having money for a Washington-based lobbyist – though it’s unclear who is paying the bill.
The EU is showing every indication of wanting to push the refugee “problem” off its soil, a sign of its unwillingness to deal with the fruits of its foreign policy. Adequate search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean are not happening due to the spurious argument that saving people will only encourage more to come.
The result is many more deaths at sea; because of their brown and black skin, governments don’t fear a public outcry to save them. The compassionate and correct response is to not allow people to drown. Instead, European nations are pushing for drones to monitor the Mediterranean (with Israeli government and corporate assistance, since they’re global leaders in the technology) and warships on the Libyan coast.
Europe, like Australia, views this issue as a security threat and not a humanitarian crisis. The response follows this logic. People smugglers are framed as the ultimate enemy. Rarely are Western policies acknowledged as being part of the problem.
One solution is to ease the path for migrants to enter the EU in a safe and responsible way. It is increasingly difficult for refugees to claim asylum in overseas embassies, forcing them to take alternative paths. Last year nearly half of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean came from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia – and yet the EU does little to find solutions in those states.
The EU hosts few of the world’s refugees, the UNHCR has found that 86% of the world’s total reside in developing nations, so rhetoric about a supposed migrant “invasion” is false. Australia argues similarly, though its intake could be far higher, too.
Europe is mimicking an Australian immigration architecture that profits from surveillance and detention. Greek journalist Apostolis Fotiadis, author of the just released book Border Merchants, wrote after the recent Mediterranean drownings that, “promoting reactionary policies dressed up with words of grief seems to have become a habit [for the EU].”
Europe is learning, as Australia surely will, that constructing a fortress around their privileged nations while politicising human tragedies is a road to further unrest.
My following story appears in today’s Guardian (I’m currently based in Juba, South Sudan):
Valerie Amos has joined calls for an arms embargo against South Sudan, the most senior UN official to back growing international demands for action against the country as it enters a second year of civil war.
“Anything that takes weapons off the streets, out of countries and out of communities will help us because ultimately for us it’s about bringing peace,” the UN humanitarian chief told the Guardian. “If there are no weapons, it’s harder for people to fight, peace will come sooner and we can get more aid to the people who so desperately need it.”
The United States has so far resisted efforts to implement an embargo, although the secretary of state, John Kerry, and senior members of the Obama administration have recently spoken in support of one. An arms ban would target both the South Sudanese government and the opposition, with both sides being accused of war crimes after fighting broke out in December 2013.
Tens of thousands of lives have been lost and millions of citizens forced to flee their homes during the civil war in the country. Aid group says about 2,5 million people are at risk of famine.
Amos, who leaves her position as UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator after five years in March, was speaking in Wai in Jonglei state at the end of a three-day visit to South Sudan with Unesco peace envoy and actor Forest Whitaker.
The UN is assisting around 25,000 people in rebel-held Wai, providing food, water, some shelter and basic medical care. Amos praised the resilience of the refugees she met, adding: “I just wish that those that are really pursuing this conflict would take time out to come and see what the impact of this is, particularly on women and children.”
The economic cost of war has already reached billions of dollars and a recent Frontier Economics report found that ending the conflict this year would save the international community about $30bn.
Amos said both sides should be held accountable for human rights abuses and expressed concern about an “economic crisis” in the country. “It’s a country dependent on oil and we have seen production halved,” she warned.
After meeting the South Sudanese president Salva Kiir and many of his ministers in the capital Juba, Amos both praised and criticised authorities. “The government does not want to admit hunger figures of 2.5 million people facing severe food shortages. We have to keep the pressure on,” she said, adding that the government had improved access to aid in many areas.
Amos has urged the international community to embrace a “more interventionist” approach towards global conflicts but urged caution against military involvement. “One of the things I’ve become more conscious of as I’ve been working in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan is that we have this whole international framework of law and norms, but those rules are being broken every single day. We talk about the importance of protecting civilians yet it’s about those civilians being killed as a result of barrel bombs or women being raped.”
She said it was shameful that these abuses were tolerated. “So my question is, where is the accountability? Countries have signed up to these rules so how do we hold them accountable? When you talk about interventionism, everybody thinks about war and putting troops from another country on the ground. That’s not what I mean. When we see this happening, how do we stop it? One of my jobs is to raise these questions.”
Last night I appeared on ABCTV News24’s The Drum talking about ISIS, terrorism and Gough Whitlam’s collusion in the occupation of East Timor: