Yesterday I appeared on ABC TV’s The Drum talking about refugees, terrorism, comedy and the “war on terror”:
Umm al-Nasr, Gaza Strip: Everybody in Gaza fears another war. After the 2014 conflict, which killed 2250 Palestinians and 70 Israelis, little has changed on the ground for the territory’s 2 million residents.
A local psychiatrist, Khaled Dahlan, recently told me in Gaza that Palestinians had multi-generational trauma, having been dispossessed and attacked for decades. “We have had so many conflicts” in the last 70 years, he said.
The World Health Organisation estimates that at least 20 per cent of the population has severe mental illness.
Daniel Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel under former US president Barack Obama, recently warned that “the next war in Gaza is coming”.
Israel’s military Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot, explained in late March that his country reacts “disproportionately” to rocket fire from the strip. “The reality in Gaza is volatile,” he said.
Eisenkot warned that the Hamas authority in Gaza was “continuing to dig [tunnels] underground and to build their abilities and defensive capabilities”. Israel claims Hamas has new heavy rockets with which to attack Israeli border towns.
Israel’s State Comptroller released a report on the 2014 war that found the Israeli government was uninterested in avoiding a military conflict. “There was no realistic diplomatic alternative concerning the Gaza Strip,” it stated.
Hamas recently elected a new leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, who reportedly opposes reconciliation with Israel. He served 22 years in an Israeli jail before being released in a prisoner swap in 2011. Tensions rose again after the alleged Israeli assassination in late March of a senior Hamas militant in Gaza.
Yet Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in late 2016 that his country would help rebuild Gaza – if Hamas disarmed.
“We will be the first to invest in a port, an airport and industrial areas”, he told a Palestinian newspaper in October. Israel’s Transport Minister Israel Katz proposes building an island near Gaza to service its people – but Israel would control its air, sea and land borders.
Hani Muqbel, head of the Hamas Youth Department, told me in Gaza that his group’s philosophy was different to Islamic State’s or al-Qaeda’s. “They’re destroying the image of Islam,” he said. In contrast, Hamas had built a “national liberation movement”.
He acknowledged the current difficulties in Gaza but blamed the “Israeli occupation, siege and the [rival Fatah-run] Palestinian Authority [in the West Bank]”.
Muqbel said that Hamas did not want another war but that its issue with Israel “wasn’t between Jews and Muslims. It’s not a religious war, it’s about land.”
He demanded that Western powers stop claiming Hamas “wanted to kill Jews because they’re Jews. We do not.”
The Israeli media largely ignores Gaza and Israelis are not legally allowed to visit. Yet former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo recently said that the occupation was the country’s only “existential threat“.
An editorial in the liberal newspaper Haaretz urged the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “immediately consider other ways of halting the deterioration in Gaza – first and foremost by alleviating the wretchedness of life there”.
The Israeli human rights group Gisha recently found that Israel had massively reduced the ability of Gazans to leave in the last months, dropping 40 per cent compared to last year’s average. In February, only 7301 people went through the Erez checkpoint, which connects Gaza to Israel and the occupied West Bank. It was the lowest number since the end of the 2014 war.
Countless Gazans haven’t left for years. Many told me that it was impossible to plan anything major in life, such as marriage or travel, with certainty because applications to leave Gaza were routinely rejected by Israel with no reason given. Often they were ignored entirely.
The effect of the wars and isolation has been dramatic on the domestic lives of men and women. The last years have seen an explosion of Western aid organisations in Gaza working with local NGOs on furthering women’s rights in a male-dominated society. Many women said that these courses gave them awareness of their legal and social rights along with the ability to resist and leave a violent marriage.
The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women recently released a draft resolution that highlighted the status of Palestinian women. It expressed “deep concern” about the “ongoing illegal Israeli occupation and all of its manifestations”, including “incidents of domestic violence and declining health, education and living standards, including the rising incidence of trauma and the decline in psychological well-being”, especially for girls and women in Gaza.
A lawyer with the Gaza-based NGO Aisha Association for Woman and Child Protection, Asma Abulehia, said that she met six to seven women every day who faced domestic abuse or economic uncertainty. However, many women couldn’t leave their houses to seek help, trapped by an abusive husband or family.
“The Israeli occupation is the main reason for these problems,” she told me. “The bad economic situation has worsened social problems, along with ignorance of Islam and unfair laws against women in Gaza.”
Due to the suffocating 10-year blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt, support for Hamas has decreased. Many people long for a return of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority that governs Palestinians in the West Bank, though they aren’t convinced it would make much difference to their daily lives. Many said they wanted to leave and build a life elsewhere.
This month, Human Rights Watch released a new report, Unwilling or Unable, detailing Israeli restrictions on human rights workers entering Gaza to document breaches of human rights and international humanitarian law. It accused Israel of severely curtailing the ability of Israelis, Palestinians and internationals to enter or leave Gaza and dismissed its reasons for doing so.
Human Rights Watch asked the International Criminal Court, currently investigating possible war crimes committed in Palestine including Gaza, to determine the “credibility” of Israeli domestic investigations and its restrictions of human rights workers in and out of Gaza.
In a 2015 report the United Nations voiced fears that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020. It stated that the 2014 war had “effectively eliminated what was left of the middle class, sending almost all of the population into destitution and dependence on international humanitarian aid”.
“Hamas doesn’t care for the people,” Abulehia said. “They deny violence against women and drug abuse [of the opioid Tramadol] even exists.”
Abulehia said violence against women was worsening, though there were no reliable government figures. The Safe House, funded by the Hamas government and run by women in a secure location, is the Gaza Strip’s only women’s shelter, where up to 50 people can sleep overnight. The average stay is three months.
Many women I met at the Aisha office faced troubling options. Nineteen-year-old Noura al-Reefy married her husband three years ago and wanted a divorce. Her father-in-law sexually harassed her and her husband did nothing.
“He wanted to see my husband and me have sex in front of him and me naked without my hijab,” she told me. During multiple visits to Gaza, I’d never heard such graphic accounts of abuse from a woman.
Reefy had attempted suicide twice. She hadn’t finished high school but planned to complete her education after divorce. She was forced to marry her cousin “but it was a bad idea from the start. I wish it was easier for women to get divorced here..”
Buthaina Sobh, head of the Wefaq Society for Women and Child Care, told me in conservative Rafah, in the south of the territory, that sexual harassment at work, at home and on the streets was commonplace.
“In our society,” she said, “women can’t demand sexual pleasure, they’re considered a slut. Only men can. However, intellectual women now recognise that women have sexual desires and can ask for it privately.”
Sobh said the constant Israeli attacks made Palestinians “used to suffering”. She was pessimistic that women’s lives could change substantively until the siege was lifted.
Training facilities for women are still rare but slowly growing. In the conservative, Bedouin area of Umm al-Nasr in the strip’s north, I visited a multi-storey centre where women learnt tailoring and toymaking for local consumption. A showroom displayed the work for sale. Carpentry classes for women were initially resisted by traditionalist men in the village, but now the teaching of skills in a territory with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world – at least 43 per cent – is being welcomed. The Hamas authority backs the centre and wants similar facilities established throughout the strip.
The centre also runs English courses and exercise classes. Working for the Italian NGO Vento Di Terra, project manager Sara Alafifi said that before the 2014 war many people thought that exercise for women was a waste of time but now healthy bodies were seen as a sensible way to manage stress.
There are alternatives. A group of Israeli and Palestinian economists recently released two studies with the World Bank that outlined a blueprint for economic development in the West Bank, Jordan Valley and Gaza. At the launch in Jerusalem, former Israeli ambassador to South Africa Ilan Baruch was blunt.
“There has been a deliberate Israeli policy to create deficiency,” he said. “The international community has to get involved – not as a donor, but to exert pressure.”
The constant threat of war against Gaza makes normality impossible. Hypertension, deep anxiety, increasing domestic violence and insomnia are ubiquitous amongst the population.
With hawkish Israeli commentators demanding another war with Hamas, and advocating the assassination of its leaders within days of any conflict commencing, prospects will only improve if the international community can put concerted effort into finding a new direction.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalist and author.
My just published article in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
How the CIA Tricked The World’s Best Writers
By Joel Whitney
After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, fear gripped the United States, and it wasn’t only conservatives who wanted to publicly show that they were committed to patriotic ideals. Filmmakers might be excused if, in that context, some nationalistic, propagandistic images made their way into theaters. But long before that fateful September day, liberal Hollywood had a long relationship with the CIA, the 1990s having just seen an obvious upsurge in collaboration. Former clandestine officer Chase Brandon joined the CIA in 1996 as a liaison between Hollywood studios and production companies, with the intent of crafting a positive image of the covert department, founded in 1947, that has overthrown dozens of regimes around the world since the 1940s and caused the death of innumerable people. Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders once called for the agency to be abolished.
Brandon later told the Guardian that the CIA had “always been portrayed erroneously as evil and Machiavellian. It took us a long time to support projects that portray us in the light we want to be seen in.”
After 9/11, Hollywood rushed to embrace the CIA. Joel Surnow, creator of the pro-torture TV show 24, gushed to The New Yorkerin 2007 that “people in the [Bush] Administration love the series, too. It’s a patriotic show. They should love it.” The program circulated widely among US troops in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay. Blatant propaganda, the series argued repeatedly that torture produced actionable intelligence, which has long been understood to be untrue, and which was dismissed as a lie by the landmark 2014 Senate report on torture. But it was too late, because the toxic message had already seeped into the bloodstream of the American public and US forces. Torture is now viewed by many as a legitimate tool in the arsenal of the US government. It’s why President-elect Trump can claim he may accelerate its use.
The Oscar-winning film Zero Dark Thirty had direct CIA assistance in its production and script. The central message of the movie, though, was false: that torture assisted the US in finding Osama Bin Laden. Both director Kathryn Bigelow and scriptwriter Mark Boal were given unprecedented access to CIA personnel and facilities, and they welcomed it. For the Hollywood duo, the CIA was the perfect host to strengthen their belief that the men and women of the CIA were committed to the noble pursuit of fighting terror in every corner of the globe. No matter that this “war on terror” involved many illegalities, such as extraordinary rendition, torture, black sites, and prisoner abuse. The risk of global terrorism is now far higher due to these immoral acts.
The CIA must have been pleased with the final product: Zero Dark Thirty was a huge commercial and critical success that solidified the legitimacy of the agency’s secretive work. Truth got lost on the cutting room floor.
In Finks: How the CIA Tricked The World’s Best Writers, Joel Whitney, co-founder and editor-at-large of Guernica: A Magazine of Arts and Politics, has written an essential book on a small but key part of the prehistory of this hijacking of culture: the story of how TheParis Review and other magazines from the 1950s on were funded and backed by the CIA and became a central force in pushing leading writers of the day to produce propaganda for a hungry yet unsuspecting audience. The CIA even developed a large art collection in its curious approach to cultural hegemony.
Whitney explains in his introduction that the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, along with backing publications in Britain, India, Germany, France, and beyond, helped The Paris Review play a
“small role in the Cold War’s marshaling of culture against the Soviets […] We understand vaguely that our media are linked to our government still today, and to government’s stated foreign policy; and this understanding is enhanced by eavesdropping on The Paris Review’s bit part in this massive secret performance that drove a nation for nearly two decades, and whose hangover drives us still.”
Whitney succinctly explains how, during the Cold War, the US government was constantly worried about citizen morale and a fear that some would be attracted to the Soviet system. “Militant liberty” was the term for inserting propaganda into magazines, film scripts, and popular culture, pushing American-style values and decrying life under Communism in Central America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, as well as at home. The Pentagon and other government arms believed that it was possible for populations of these areas to ignore US violence if they read about the supposed glories of life in small town USA. Little has changed in the mindset of today’s propagandists, who still aim to deceive people through wartime lies.
The CIA-backed coup of Guatemala in 1954 was a classic case of misguided and criminal policy dressed up as a noble act. Whitney shows how any number of US publications were pushed to support it, despite vast evidence of its failure. A magazine called The New Leader encouraged US meddling in the country, claiming a Soviet plot to design land reforms unfavorable to US interests. The result was decades of instability and violence in the nation, culminating in the genocide of the 1980s by US-trained thug Efraín Ríos Montt.
Whitney’s writing burns with indignation at the fact that few cultural figures who worked with the CIA ever faced accountability for their actions. Like journalists on the White House drip-feed today, these writers’ work helped legitimize deluded US policies that had direct and devastating impacts on millions of people’s lives. By the late 1960s, with the United States’s antiwar movement surging and the Vietnam conflict increasingly unpopular, the antiwar press seriously challenged the establishment points of view. Money didn’t always buy success or moral superiority, and the CIA struggled to win the battle of ideas. But this resistance proved “disposable and ephemeral” as the CIA renewed its efforts in film and television.
Perhaps the strangest and most compelling of Whitney’s revelations are how the founding managing editor of The Paris Review, John Train, worked with the CIA-backed mujahideen in Afghanistan, during the 1980s, to finance a film on the war and against the Soviet presence. The author correctly argues that Train, in a small way, played a role in backing the very forces that eventually founded al-Qaeda.
“From Guatemala to Afghanistan, the American record on Cold War invasion and intervention had been a long string of failures that had to be rewritten by the propagandists. These little magazines, the television crews instrumentalized for warfare, and other secret propaganda instruments played an important role in erasing — and collectively forgetting — these mistakes.”
I think Whitney is being too kind here. These were not CIA “mistakes” but in fact crimes conducted with the full backing of the state.
Finks is a fine historical book, reviewing propaganda’s long and tortuous history in the world of art. With huge contemporary relevance, Whitney recalls what many look back on as a far more innocent media age, before the internet, and yet the effects of government-backed lies were just as deadly then as now.
Whitney urges The Paris Review and other similarly tainted magazines to honestly examine the past without fear or favor. That radical accounting of history is yet to be realized. In the age of President-elect Donald Trump and fake news, truth is an increasingly valuable commodity, agreed upon and deeply contested by nearly equal numbers of people.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalist, Guardian contributor, and author of many books, including his latest, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).
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 piece for American website Mondoweiss:
The global arms race has never been more lucrative. America and China are engaged in unprecedented levels of spending around the world to influence and shape global affairs. The effects are devastating on civilians but Washington and Beijing insists they’re “stabilizing” nations. It’s one of the deadliest myths of the 21st century.
Saudi Arabia has executed at least 100 people since January, half of which were for non-violent drug offences. The country’s bombing campaign in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians and exacerbated a humanitarian catastrophe in the Arab world’s poorest nation.
None of these facts have any bearing on America’s attitude towards its close Middle Eastern ally. Between 2010 and 2014, both countries reached $90 billion of weapons sales that included planes and armored vehicles. Despite calls from activists to halt the huge increase in arms deals between Western nations and Saudi Arabia, Riyadh claims it fears the rise of Iran and Islamic State and is now the world’s biggest defense importer.
The effect on regional violence will be devastating with the Obama administration overseeing the largest expansion of weapons’ dealing in history. Washington is bribing Israel with arms to accept the Iranian nuclear deal (and despite the bluster Netanyahu will eventually accept it) while continuing to sell weapons to the dictatorial Egyptian regime. Jordan is receiving precision-guided missiles for its fight against Islamist militants and Bahrain, even after brutally crushing a pro-democracy movement in 2011, knew it would still receive military support from America.
A nuclear agreement between Washington and Iran is undeniably better than a military conflict but Muslim civilians in the region will pay a steep price. The Wall Street Journal captured the mood with its headline: “US seeks to ally concerns of allies on nuclear deal”. This is code for bribing autocracies with more weapons:
“The U.S. is specifically looking at ways to expedite arms transfers to Arab states in the Persian Gulf and is accelerating plans for them to develop an integrated regional ballistic missile defense capability, a senior administration official said.”
When US Secretary of State John Kerry talks of Tehran increasing instability in the Middle East, it’s worth remembering who is introducing so much defense equipment into the region. Arming dictatorial allies is one of the darkest legacies of the Obama era.
Defense contractors are excited about the prospect of increased tension in the Middle East. Insecurity leads to strong business. Defense company Lockheed Martin is predicting that foreign sales will soon represent 20 percent of its business. In a sign of its seriousness, the firm opened the Center for Innovation and Security Solutions in Abu Dhabi in late 2014 to assist the United Arab Emirates and design more efficient ways to partner with US allies. Another firm, Raytheon, is seeing increased sales with Saudi Arabia, Israel, Qatar and the UAE.
Grant Rogan, CEO of Blenheim Capital and a military sales expert, recently told Foreign Policy that American weapons’ deals could soon skyrocket. “The Saudis and Emiratis don’t trust the [Iranian nuclear] deal, no matter what the deal is”, he said. He expected advanced radar systems “happening in Saudi substantially faster if there’s no deal — or if it’s a deal that doesn’t defang Iran.”
However, America’s dominance of global arms sales is being challenged like never before. China is especially appealing to developing countries, keen on buying “military set meals”, a starter pack of basic defense gear. South Sudan has been a willing buyer despite the regime pursuing a brutal war against its civilian population. Although Beijing has spent billions of dollars building infrastructure in countless areas around the world in the last decade, including Africa, growing environmental, debt and labor issues have increased skepticism towards China’s development model.
“China’s leaders demonstrate little appreciation of the yawning gulfs that separate African people from their rulers, even in newly democratic nations”, writes journalist Howard French. Washington claims to believe in good governance and freedom of speech but its policies have entrenched authoritarianism across Africa under the guise of “fighting terrorism”.
China and America are now engaged in a race for African dollars, a continent with resources and a growing middle class to embrace and exploit. Founder of military contractor Blackwater, Erik Prince, works with Frontier Services Group alongside China’s biggest state-owned firm, Citic Group, to get some of the estimated $1 trillion Beijing intends to spend in Africa by 2025.
Despite China’s partial colonization of Africa, Washington has accelerated covert operations in the last years to support, train and arm militaries and rebel groups. American journalist Nick Turse, writing in his new book, Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, explains how George W. Bush and particularly Barack Obama have engendered a pivot towards Africa “spanning almost fifty countries”. These include “drone assassinations in Somalia, a proxy war in Mali, shadowy ops in Chad and antipiracy efforts in the Gulf of Guinea.” US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is a secretive organization with little strategic depth.
The effect, like in the Middle East, has been to hugely destabilize an already fragile continent. At an Obama-led US-Africa summit in Washington in 2014, African leaders were desperate for new weapons to fight wars that neatly fit with Washington’s “war on terror”. Think Nigeria’s battle against Boko Haram, one example of a US-backed army committing gross abuses of human rights in its battle against extremism. The deadly reality is that American efforts have failed spectacularly, causing suffering for African civilians and increasing the chances of blowback on the American homeland.
The Global Peace Index released its 2015 report and found an increasingly unstable world. Arms dealing by China and America are directly contributing to this result and yet their involvement in this deadly trade is too rarely acknowledged.
Past the rosy headlines of an Iranian and American détente lies the grim reality for millions of civilians in Africa and the Middle East. For them, Washington and Beijing will continue selling weapons to leaders for whom the ideas of democracy and peace are foreign concepts.
I’m proud to have been asked to sign the following statement (latest information here):
Prominent Australians urge Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to save the life of Nadir Sadiqi
Nadir’s life hangs in the balance. You alone in this country, Mr Dutton, have the power to decide whether Nadir lives or dies.
Nadir arrived by boat in Australia five years ago, leaving behind his much-loved family and village in Afghanistan and escaping for his life. Nadir had still been a boy when his father had been killed by the Taliban for refusing to fight for them and his two older brothers had been abducted and tortured and presumably murdered. A decade later, it was Nadir’s turn. He was savagely beaten and left for dead because he too refused to fight for the Taliban, this time against Western forces, including Australians.
Nadir has spent five years in detention in Australia, teaching himself and reaching a high level of English and all the while trying to gain permanent protection – not easy when the villagers who could have corroborated his story have been killed or have fled into hiding. Despite his best efforts, Nadir’s claims for protection have been rejected and he has been ordered to return to Kabul in August.
Nadir knows no-one in Kabul. He’s acquired a foreigner’s accent and dresses in western-style clothing and would immediately stand out as an easy target. Bumper stickers on cars in Kabul state that people who work with foreigners should be killed. Any connection or perceived sympathy for the West, makes anyone in Afghanistan a target, but particularly a member of a persecuted ethnic minority like the Hazara, to which Nadir belongs.
The threat to Nadir’s life has been further intensified as a result of the Australian immigration department’s negligent data breach early last year. This led directly to a second Taliban threat that if he ever returned to Afghanistan they would find him and kill him.
The Afghan minister for refugees and repatriation has recently requested that all countries with whom Memorandums of Understanding had been signed should revise them and not return asylum seekers to Afghanistan. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade currently warns all Australian citizens not to travel there due to the ‘extremely dangerous security situation and the very high threat of terrorist attack’.
A Sydney Morning Herald investigation into asylum seekers returned to Afghanistan from Australia under the Howard years found that twenty had been killed and dozens more had disappeared. The first Hazara asylum seeker to be refouled by the Abbott government had been abducted by the Taliban within a month and severely tortured before escaping. Soon after, another Hazara with Australian citizenship was tortured and murdered. The risk for both of these men had been their connection to Australia, an ‘infidel country’.
Renowned expert on Afghanistan, Professor William Maley has stated ‘there should be an absolute moratorium on the involuntary removal of Hazara asylum seekers to Afghanistan’. Phil Glendenning, president of the Refugee Council of Australia and regular visitor to Afghanistan for the past ten years has stated that ‘no one with any knowledge of the situation in Afghanistan could possibly come to the conclusion that conditions are conducive to safe return’.
How can Australia, in the face of such powerful evidence and advice to the contrary, decide it is safe for this man to be returned to this place? We implore you, Mr Dutton, not to return Nadir to Afghanistan.
Buddies Refugee Support Group, Sunshine Coast, Qld.
Phillip Adams, AO – Broadcaster, journalist, writer and film producer, Fr Rod Bower – Archdeacon of the Central Coast, Anna Burke MP – Federal Member for Chisholm, Julian Burnside, AO, QC – Barrister, writer and human rights advocate, Jane Caro – Social commentator, writer and lecturer, Mark Darin – radio presenter, Senator Richard Di Natale – Leader of the Greens, Fr Jeremy Greaves – Archdeacon of the Sunshine Coast, Bruce Haigh – Political commentator and retired diplomat, Caroline Hutchinson – Journalist and radio presenter, Mark Isaacs – Author and former recreations manager on Nauru, Thomas Keneally, AO – Author, Dr Carmen Lawrence – Director of Centre for the Study of Social Change at UWA and former state premier, Antony Loewenstein – Independent journalist, Guardian columnist and author, Hugh MacKay, AO – Psychologist, social researcher and writer, Senator Claire Moore – Labor senator, Samille Muirhead – Journalist and radio presenter, Hon Melissa Parke, MP – Federal member for Fremantle,Rod Quantock, OAM – Comedian and writer, Dr Rosie Scott – Novelist, Mark Seymour – Musician, songwriter and vocalist, Jack Smit – Activist and coordinator, Project SafeCom, Frederika Steen, AM – Human rights advocate and retired immigration officer, Senator Larissa Waters – Greens senator, Tim Winton – Novelist
My following book review appears in today’s Weekend Australian newspaper:
Imperialism still casts a dark shadow over modern Africa. Former colonial powers France, Britain, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Germany largely spend their aid dollars in nations they used to rule. Oxfam France’s Christian Reboul told The Guardian this makes sense for Paris “because the former French colonies in Africa are de facto the poorest countries in the world”.
The other European states are equally complicit in African disadvantage. African success stories, such as Kenya and Ghana, have developed despite foreign meddling, not because of it.
Somalia is one of the most troubled countries in Africa. Blighted by decades of civil war, an al-Shabab insurgency and perennial insecurity, its presence on the news is due to terrorist attacks or failed US military involvement, such as the incident that became the book and film Black Hawk Down.
Filmmaker and journalist John Boyle shows in this revealing book that Somalia was the bastard child of Italy and Britain. It was granted independence in 1960, and the result was “a poor, underdeveloped, divided, fledgling country with little real chance of success”. As in the case of many borders in the Middle East now being destroyed by Islamic State, “the boundaries drawn by former colonial powers had little bearing on the true situation”.
Boyle wants to understand why so many Somali men are becoming pirates and causing havoc along the Somali coastline and Indian Ocean. The reason is twofold. Massive ships from Asia and Europe started pillaging fish stocks in the 2000s in areas that used to sustain Somali fishermen. Resentment grew.
Compounding this was the role of Italy, Somalia’s former ruler, in dumping huge amounts of contaminated waste at sea because it was far cheaper than trying to dispose of it cleanly in Europe. A Mafia syndicate controlled the trade; the UN issued reports that were mostly ignored.
“No one knows how many more [toxic] canisters still lie off the Somali shores,” Boyle explains, “slowly seeping their poison into the sea and the food chain. The planet’s most unfortunate nation, ungoverned, devastated by civil war, drought and famine, its oceans pillaged, now also had to suffer toxic and radioactive waste causing sickness, deformity and death.”
Somali piracy was born with a legitimate grievance, a demand for global fishing ships in their waters to pay a fine for taking stock. What started as a small operation soon became a hugely profitable enterprise. Opportunism soared as savvy businessmen realised hijacking large ships and demanding million-dollar ransoms was an easy way to make money.
Boyle argues that “most pirates today are no longer themselves displaced fishermen but members of nomadic land-based clans who generally have little or no knowledge of the sea. Rather than poor fishermen seeking redress, today’s pirates are more akin to drug dealers.”
This industry is utterly foreign to Westerners. When actor Tom Hanks starred in the 2013 film Captain Phillips, the story of the container ship Maersk Alabama, which was overwhelmed by Somali pirates, the motivation of the Somalis themselves was almost invisible.
Boyle does much better, though his writing sometimes veers into sensationalism. This is redeemed by his interviews with Somalis who are alleged pirates and end up in jail in the Seychelles. Mohamed Hassan Ali, 39, says he had no education and wanted to be a mechanic from a young age. “Before the pirates scared them away, the foreign ships were always taking our nets,” he explains. It was soon impossible to make a living selling fish and Mohamed found himself accused of attacking an Iranian ship. He denies the charges and says that because of the strong anti-Somali sentiment in the Seychelles, the venue for many court cases against piracy, he never received a fair trial.
The cost of piracy to the global economy was estimated in 2012 to be $US12 billion. Boyle shows how insurance companies are some of the biggest winners from the surge in piracy. But another, less discussed reason for piracy’s popularity is the exclusion of Somalia and similar failed states from the global economy.
Boyle only briefly touches on this issue, his focus is mostly on human stories, but it’s an integral factor in the relative success of kidnapping by militant groups worldwide. Easy money breeds greater demand for further violence when no alternatives are offered in Mogadishu and beyond.
Sustainability is not a word usually associated with Somalia. Global fish stocks are depleting fast and a report in Science in 2006 predicted that at the current commercial rate of fishing the oceans could be almost empty by 2050. Boyle concludes with a plea that Somalia’s fishing industry be managed and protected because otherwise “there will always be young men willing to risk their lives in small boats”.
Antony Loewenstein is a journalist and author. His forthcoming book is Disaster Capitalism.
Blood Ransom: Stories from the Front Line in the War Against Piracy
By John Boyle
Bloomsbury, 304pp, $29.99
The squalid guest house sits alongside a main road in South Sudan. Every night migrants arrive but few of them stay very long. They’re mostly men from Eritrea or Ethiopia who have fled racism and imprisonment in Israel looking for a better future. They stay in single rooms with a dirty mattress, searching for people smugglers for overland passage to Sudan and then Libya. Europe is the ultimate destination. They know the risks, from ISIL militants to corrupt police officers, but feel they have nothing left to lose.
Less than 30 minutes from Juba, the South Sudanese capital, the area of Shirikat is their unofficial home. The day before I visit, eight men arrive late at night and depart early in the morning for Khartoum, one step closer to taking a boat across the Mediterranean.
South Sudan has become one of the most unlikely sources of migrants, likely to be in the thousands, who are dying in unprecedented numbers this year in rickety boats heading for Italy or Greece. According to the International Organisation for Migration, more than a fifth of the 26,200 migrants who crossed the sea to reach Italy from January to April this year were originally from Eritrea.
In Shirikat, barefoot children run through muddy puddles while Indian, Ethiopian, Eritrean and Sudanese men sit around all day looking for any way to make money. It’s usually manual labour from washing dishes to lifting concrete on a building site. The heat is debilitating. Goats wander the dirty pavement and look for food. Migrants smoke shisha and play cards in a small motel behind a timber yard. For US20 cents, people can rent a small, tin shower block and wash themselves.
Yared Tekletsion is a relative success story. Born in Eritrea and 24 years old, he lived for three years in Tel Aviv as a sous chef. We meet in a seedy bar during the day with South Sudanese men sitting drinking on plastic chairs. “I never thought I would stay in Israel,” Tekletsion says. “I felt racism from the Israeli police and people every day. I have many Eritrean friends in Israel and racism makes them scared. They just work and go to church.”
Tekletsion fled Eritrea after beginning his mandatory army service and realising that he would never be free in his own country. The nation is one of the most repressive in Africa, restricting speech, the media and movement.
His path to Israel took him through Sudan, Egypt and Sinai. Years later he accepted an Israeli government offer to leave for Uganda and then made his own way to Juba.
“Life in South Sudan is good,” he tells me. “In Israel they didn’t want others [non-Israelis] to succeed but here nobody asks for my papers. I’d like to go back to Israel on holiday and give advice to my fellow Africans there; don’t go to Europe, it’s too dangerous, come here and find a job.”
Tekletsion, a Christian and irregular Sunday churchgoer, runs a building supplies business. He says it’s hard to convince new arrivals from Israel to stay in South Sudan because the country is poor with few services or employment opportunities.
South Sudan, the world’s newest state after declaring its independence in 2011, is facing a humanitarian crisis. Millions are displaced due to ongoing fighting, the economy has collapsed, tens of thousands have been killed since hostilities began in December 2013, children are recruited to fight, rape is endemic and food insecurity affects at least half the population of 11 million people.
Israel views South Sudan as a willing recipient of its surveillance equipment and defence and weapons technology. In 2013, South Sudan announced it would sell oil to Israeli companies.
Israel has maintained a close relationship with the South Sudanese for decades, especially after the 1967 Six Day War, when rebel leaders sought advice from Israel for their fight against northern Sudan. South Sudanese leaders were impressed with Israel’s military success. In the following decades Israel armed the Christian South Sudanese against the Muslim north, a country today that does not recognise Israel and allies itself with Iran (though this year’s Saudi-led strikes on Yemen have pitted Iranian interests against Sudanese ones because Khartoum has sided with Saudi Arabia). After 9/11, the United States joined Israel in massively strengthening its ties with South Sudanese rebels against a northern neighbour who had sheltered Osama bin Laden in the 1990s.
In the 2000s, with fighting raging across Sudan, many South Sudanese fled to safety in countries such as Australia and Israel. Dislike of African migrants soared in Israel, leading to growing moves to expel them. “We’re not in Tel Aviv, we’re in Africa!” shouted a Jewish protester in Tel Aviv during an anti-refugee rally in 2011. The Israeli government continued to back South Sudanese claims for independence while urging their people to return home.
But with little infrastructure in Juba, poor health care and education, as well as ongoing insecurity, South Sudanese migrants rightly believed they were owed protection. Israel disagreed despite many of the young asylum seekers never having seen South Sudan and viewing Israel as their home.
Robel Kosu doesn’t share Tekletsion’s optimism. Another Eritrean migrant who arrived in Juba four months ago, he spent six years in Israel working various jobs. The police regularly harassed him and he protested with his fellow Eritreans. At 25 years old, he is now desperate to leave Juba and get to Europe. He spends his days fighting off malaria and sitting outside a hardware shop watching the world go by.
Like Tekletsion, he left Israel voluntarily but was given US$3,500 (Dh12,900), flown to Rwanda, then told to leave by Rwandan officials, transported by bus to Uganda and then urged by fellow Eritreans to try South Sudan. “Israeli officials told me that it’s better for you to leave but Africa is a bad place,” he says.
His story matches the many others from migrants I hear in Juba, a path from Israel to South Sudan with corrupt officials, kidnapping threats and no work papers. Nearly every migrant I meet wants a future in Europe and doesn’t fear drowning in the Mediterranean.
Without identification or a passport, Kosu says that his life is in limbo. He hasn’t seen his parents or most of his siblings for years. “I feel like an outlaw. In Africa we have poor minds. I want to live where I am free, like Europe, America or Australia.”
Israel has a black, African population that it desperately wants to expel or ignore. There are about 46,000 asylum seekers in Israel, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan. They face institutional racism from the government, judiciary, army and public. In a 2012 poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute Peace Index, a majority of Israelis agreed with a statement by Likud member of the Knesset Miri Regev, the newly appointed minister for culture and sport, that Africans are a “cancer in the body” of the nation. Thirty three per cent of people believed that violence against Africans was justified. Large protests by Ethiopian Jews, held in Tel Aviv in May, highlighted the racism shown by police towards them. It’s not just Palestinians feeling the brunt of state persecution.
Israel houses thousands of African refugees indefinitely in the Holot detention centre and Saharonim prison in the Negev Desert. Conditions are grim. One man inside Holot, Adil Aldao from Darfur, describes it as a “concentration camp” where food is unhealthy and stimulation is limited. “My freedom is buried in Holot,” he says.
Israel gives African migrants 30 days to leave, rarely accepting their refugee claims. Israel has only ever accepted a handful of Eritrean and Sudanese migrant claims; the recognition rate is less than 1 per cent over the past six years. The alternative is long-term detention. More than 9,000 asylum seekers have left Israel since 2013 and Israel claims this is due to its “voluntary return” programme. In reality, the government has signed secret agreements with Rwanda and Uganda and flies people to these destinations pledging job assistance and financial support. Ugandan journalist Raymond Mujuni exposed in late 2014 that Uganda had signed a deal with Israel to take thousands of its unwanted migrants in exchange for weapons and agricultural knowledge.
All the Africans I interview in Juba and a recent report by two Israeli NGOs both find empty promises to migrants by the Israeli authorities as they face abuse by people smugglers and risk of kidnapping and death.
Israel was one of the first countries to welcome South Sudan’s independence in 2011. In 2012, they sent over 1,000 migrants back to Juba and Israel continues to deny that the remaining South Sudanese in their cities are refugees, treating them poorly. The first South Sudanese ambassador in Tel Aviv was appointed in 2014. Ambassador Ruben Marial Benjamin ignored numerous requests for comment.
Israel’s main interest appears to be selling arms to South Sudan. It overlooks its blatant human rights abuses, a tradition that has seen brutal African militaries armed and trained for decades. Israeli defence exports to South Sudan are stable and the South Sudanese army is using Israeli weapons. A South Sudanese delegation is visiting Israel in June to attend the country’s leading defence expo. Israeli Meretz politician Tamar Zandberg recently demanded that Israel cease selling weapons to Juba and follow a European Union arms embargo.
The South Sudanese government tells The National that there is no formal agreement between the nations to accept refugees from any country. Thousands have arrived in the last years without any state support.
A handful of dedicated advocates in Israel and South Sudan are working with the affected communities to help. After the South Sudanese community was deported from Israel, Israeli Rami Gudovitch co-founded the Come True project, under NGO Become, a sponsorship programme funding the education of 120 deportee children at the Trinity boarding school in Uganda. The group has plans to establish a similar school in Juba.
“I believe it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to make his effort to make the lives of refugees bearable,” Gudovitch says. “My country, Israel, was formed by refugees fleeing from the Nazis while the world turned its back to them … Every single European person who chose to protect and assist Jewish refugees in the Second World War is being remembered by the survivors and their families and friends. Helping refugees is a moral opportunity of the highest degree.”
In Juba, Hakim Monykuer Awuok has formed a partnership with Gudovitch to build a closer relations between Israel and the South Sudanese migrants who lived in Israel. An employee of the ministry of education and co-founder of NGO Empower Kids, Awuok tells The National that he believes Israel should treat its migrants with respect. “It’s a waste of such talented people to be deported here from Israel,” he says. “Building a school is one way to help them.”
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, Guardian columnist and author based in South Sudan.
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 on US website Mondoweiss:
“Europe will forever be tainted”, wrote Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer in the wake of the terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo magazine and the kosher supermarket in Paris. “It will always be the continent of expulsion, blood libels, numerus clausus, ghettos and the Final Solution.”
It was an ominous warning to European Jewry that it “may be too late” to save them from discrimination, hatred and violence. “Freedom of speech is shrinking in Europe”, Pfeffer concluded, “hemmed in on all sides by libel laws, political correctness, financial pressure and religious intimidation.” Jews would inevitably flee, he argued, if “freedom and tolerance” didn’t survive across Europe; instinctively Jews knew the history of pogroms, expulsions and death camps and never felt safe away from Israel.
This is the debate that never goes away. It’s a discussion that lurks under the surface of almost all arguments on the future of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. Terror in France has unpicked a scab that never heals, unleashing insecurity over what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century and where to live it. Growing numbers of French Jews are moving to Israel, claiming they feel safer there than in their birth country, happy that they can openly wear a kippah [skullcap] and comforted with an army to protect them. There’s little comment about what that military actually does to the Palestinians, occupying and brutalising them daily.
It was a highly selective argument forcefully made recently by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, telling French Jews that they were only secure under his nation’s protection, though he was slammed for shamelessly appropriating a tragedy for political gain. Israel even pressured one of the Jewish victim’s families to be buried there.
Too much of the discussion in the last weeks has revolved around a clash of civilisations narrative, with refined Europe, Israel and the west on the one side and barbaric extremism of the Muslim fanatic on the other. This is a gross insult to the truth. Moroccan-Dutch writer Abdelkader Benali explains that the reason so many European Muslims are disenfranchised, and a tiny minority are attracted to violent jihad, is because “Muslims are every bit as European as the Roma, gays, intellectuals, farmers and factory workers. We have been in Europe for centuries and politicians and the press must stop acting as if we arrived yesterday. We are here to stay.” Both Said and Cherif Kouachi, the Charlie Hebdo killers, had a long history of radicalisation against France, the US and Jews.
Increasing numbers of Muslims have argued that Islam itself needs to become far more capable of both tolerating and accepting blasphemy in a non-violent way and acknowledging that virulent antisemitism, not simply in response to Israeli violence in Gaza or the West Bank, is a rising problem. Not all anti-Jewish hatred is about Israeli crimes in Palestine (though it is one of many causes). The Jews of France have felt increasingly targeted for the act of being Jewish. Historical anti-Semitism was always about targeting the “otherness” of Jews, playing on stereotypes that today finds an expression in Islamist attacks on Jewish centres of learning. Muslims also face deep discrimination for their faith, practices and alleged association with terrorism. In fact, separatist groups are the largest majority of perpetrators of political violence in Europe, not Islamist jihadis. For example, in 2013 there were 152 terror attacks across Europe and only two were “religiously motivated”, according to Europol.
Israel is hardly a good model of tolerance and plurality; there’s a reason European boycotts are surging, more young Israelis are refusing to serve in an occupying military and prominent Zionist groups decry intermarriage as treason. It’s a delusion to believe that Jews are either safer in Israel than in Europe or more able to live peaceful lives. The narrative pushed by Netanyahu that all Jews of the world should move to Israel – 90% of his election funding comes from American Jews, proving that a Jewish diaspora remains an essential support base for maintaining Israeli policies – cynically expands the belief that Jews are the eternal victim (despite now having a country with nuclear weapons). Islam is framed as the enemy, an image recently tweeted by the Israeli embassy in Ireland.
Instead, Israeli writer Orly Noy explains, it’s easier to “promote a worldview in which there is no national conflict, no occupation, no Palestinian people and no blatant disregard for human rights. There are only Jews and Muslims. Turns out we look a lot better fighting a religious war than we do running an occupation.” Free speech is constantly under threat in Israel with a vocal and active far-right, Jewish fundamentalist movement.
Hypocrisy over free speech principles defines this debate. Muslims are accused of having no sense of humour over depictions of the Prophet Mohammed and yet Israel and its backers routinely try to censor images critical of the Jewish state.
France, with its historical and ongoing record of colonial adventures in Africa and the Middle East, claims to believe in free speech but wants to silence those with whom it disagrees. The Charlie Hebdo massacre should enlighten us to the real power of satire and how it affects those with and without power. Is it a false comparison to say that if you can insult the prophet Muhammad, you should be able to poke fun at the Holocaust? Does British journalist Mehdi Hasan have a point when he says that “Muslims are expected to have thicker skins than their Christian and Jewish brethren”?
British political parties such as the UK Independence Party have mainstreamed anti-Muslim rhetoric of the type once experienced by Jews. “The cold truth is that organised suspicion and denigration of Islam is the new antisemitism”, argues historian John Keane. Islamophobia is a scourge despite the term being dismissed by the French prime minister.
So what are Jews to do from Australia to Europe to America? In a recent survey, a majority of British Jews said they couldn’t imagine a long-term future in England, concerned with rising anti-Semitism. This Jewish feeling of insecurity is real and can’t be easily dismissed. British police have recently stepped up patrolling Jewish communities and soldiers in Belgium are guarding Jewish sites. The threat exists.
The answer isn’t more state surveillance, as proposed by Australia, Britain, France and the US, nor mass emigration. The facts speak to a vibrant Jewish diaspora that has the right, in light of the 20th century, to settle and be safe wherever they want. Fleeing to Israel isn’t the answer. It would be a “blatant capitulation to terror”, suggested Israeli reporter Chemi Shalev.
Israel has framed itself since its inception as a “light unto the nations”. “There is no demographic or practical existence for the Jewish people without a Jewish state”, Netanyahu proclaimed in 2010. But the vast bulk of global Jewry feels secure in their own multicultural country with full rights and responsibilities, a transformation from 100 years ago when Jews were often ghettoised.
Living in Israel isn’t the solution to antisemitism, though many like the concept of a Jewish state despite its racial exclusivity. Modern Jewish identity isn’t about cowering in fear but should be about building decent communities that accept the diversity of human existence.
A powerful short film from the Centre for Constitutional Rights on Yemeni man Fahd Ghazy who has been imprisoned for 12 years. No crime. No guilt.
This is what causes terrorism and resistance:
My weekly Guardian column:
The secret CIA files appeared just before Christmas. One detailed how CIA operatives could maintain cover, using fake IDs, when travelling through foreign airports. Israel’s Ben Gurion airport was said to be one of the hardest to trick.
The other document, from 2009, was an assessment of the CIA’s assassination program. It raised doubts about the effectiveness of the program in reducing terrorism. Likewise with Israel’s killing of Palestinians.
In Afghanistan, the CIA discovered that murdering Taliban leaders could radicalise the militants, allowing even more extreme actors to enter the battlefield. The Obama administration ignored this advice and unleashed “targeted killings” in the country. Unsurprisingly, the insurgency is thriving.
These vital insights into the “war on terror” were released by WikiLeaks and received extensive global coverage.
Since 2010, when WikiLeaks released Collateral Murder, showing American forces killing Iraqi civilians, there have been multiple covert – and public – attempts to silence the organisation. Julian Assange has now been stuck in London’s Ecuadorian embassy for two and a half years fighting an extradition order from Sweden over allegations of sexual misconduct. There is an ongoing US grand jury examining the organisation’s role in publishing war and State Department cables. On Christmas Eve, WikiLeaks revealed that Google had turned over the Gmail account and metadata of a WikiLeaks employee in response to a US federal warrant.
The organisation’s ability to stay afloat – and continue to source and release insightful documents – among all this is remarkable.
There is some good news: Visa and MasterCard are being sued for refusing to allow funds to flow to WikiLeaks, and Assange’s lawyers are confident that the current impasse with Sweden will be resolved (although the irregularities over the case are deeply disturbing).
But the reality remains that the public image of Assange has taken a beating after years of legal fights, the botchedAustralian WikiLeaks political party and constant smears by journalists and politicians. We apparently want our heroes to be mild mannered and non-combative. We supposedly need them to be polite and not uncover countless, dirty abuses by western forces. We clearly don’t forgive them for not being perfect. Or perhaps we have a limit to how many war crimes we want to hear about with nobody facing justice? That’s hardly WikiLeaks’ fault. The group has made mistakes, and will make many more, but as a supporter since its 2006 inception, I’m struck by its resilience.
WikiLeaks has been warning against the dangers of mass surveillance for years. The 2014 Assange book, When Google Met WikiLeaks, features an insightful essayon the dangers of Google’s desire to lead American interventionist foreign policy. The book gained headlines across the world. In the month of its release, the organisation offered new documents on German company FinFisher selling its spying equipment to repressive regimes.
The emergence of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and his ability to live a relatively free life in Russia is partly thanks to WikiLeaks, which helped him escape Hong Kong and claim asylum in Moscow. Snowden remains free tocontinue campaigning against the dangers of global surveillance, unlike Chelsea Manning who is now suffering in an American prison for bravely leaking American cables. WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison, a British citizen, lives in exile in Germany due to fears of returning home after working to protect Snowden. This is the definition of heroism.
Just because WikiLeaks’ Assange and Harrison no longer appear in the media daily doesn’t mean their contribution isn’t significant. Take the recent report published by Der Spiegel that showed western policy in Afghanistan aimed to kill as many Taliban leaders as possible, regardless of the number of civilians caught in the crossfire. The thinking was summarised by the head of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) intelligence in Afghanistan, who once said during a briefing: “The only good Talib is a dead Talib.”
This story built on the 2010 WikiLeaks release of Afghan war logs and uncovered yet another level of the “kill everything that moves” mentality that’s been unofficial US military policy since at least Vietnam.
The danger of discounting or ignoring WikiLeaks, at a time when much larger news organisations still can’t compete with the group’s record of releasing classified material, is that we shun a rebellious and adversarial group when it’s needed most. The value of WikiLeaks isn’t just in uncovering new material, though that’s important, it’s that the group’s published material is one of the most important archives of our time. I’ve lost count of the number of journalists and writers who tell me their work wouldn’t have the same insights without the State Department cables. My recent books have been similarly enriched.
States across the world talk of democracy and free speech but increasingly restrict information and its messengers.
“This war on whistleblowers is not ancillary to journalism, but actually it directly affects it,” says Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “It’s making it much more difficult for the public to get the information they need.”
WikiLeaks remains at the forefront of this struggle.