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Friday, January 30, 2009

The BBC and journalistic objectivity

The BBC has been taking a lot of heat for refusing to air an appeal for the people of Gaza on the grounds that to do so would compromise its "objectivity." Even Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Association, is now boycotting the BBC, saying that the network is breaking "the rules of basic human decency."

It's funny, but the BBC did not use this argument in 2007 when it broadcast an appeal for the people of Darfur. Didn't this compromise its objectivity in reporting on that conflict? After all, the BBC could have been seen as taking sides against the "pro-government Arab militias [that] have been accused of widespread atrocities, such as mass killings, rape and looting black African villages," as the network described them at the time. Rather, "films starring actress Joanna Lumley and journalist Feargal Keane are being shown on ITV and the BBC," the network reported at the time.

This is the same kind of "objectivity" that President Barack Obama displayed when he regretted the death toll on both sides of the Israel-Gaza conflict. So let's see, we have 13 Israeli deaths--10 of them military personnel--and 1300 Gazan deaths, nearly a third of them children. Objectivity demands that journalists and others acknowledge when a conflict is very one-sided and results in death to one side at 100 times or more the toll of the other side. Indeed, failure to take such imbalances into account is a sure sign that one is taking sides.

Perhaps the BBC is concerned that simply helping charity groups to broadcast an appeal for Gaza is somehow an implicit criticism of Israel and the actions it took that led to the humanitarian crisis. But again, objectivity requires letting the chips fall where they may.

The Nazis used to have the habit of executing 100 or more people whenever partisans in a village or a city killed one of their officers. I don't recall reading about anyone "regretting the loss of life on both sides," although I am sure there were a few who did. The heroic wartime journalists of the BBC, however, were certainly not among them.

PS--Apparently the BBC's logic is not shared by many of its journalists and presenters.

Increasing even-handedness in the Mideast. Glenn Greenwald sees lots of encouraging signs.

Israel hides true settlement data. A report by the BBC, at least its journalists are doing their job; the original report is from Ha'aretz, which reports:

An analysis of the data reveals that, in the vast majority of the settlements - about 75 percent - construction, sometimes on a large scale, has been carried out without the appropriate permits or contrary to the permits that were issued. The database also shows that, in more than 30 settlements, extensive construction of buildings and infrastructure (roads, schools, synagogues, yeshivas and even police stations) has been carried out on private lands belonging to Palestinian West Bank residents.

Ha'aretz stresses that these figures do not just apply to "illegal" settlements (all of the settlements are actually illegal under international law) but to all the settlements, including major ones on the West Bank.

Samantha Power is back. According to Talking Points Memo, the Harvard author and human rights advocate will be working for the National Security Council. That is good news.

Wall Street bonuses "shameful"!

That was President Barack Obama's judgement yesterday on the nearly $20 billion Wall Street bankers gave themselves as the economy was collapsing.

But is it a surprise? The economy is something that we all participate in, and that we all need to survive, and yet it is mostly run by a small number of people--and for their own benefit.

This is a teachable moment about what capitalism really is at its core. No wonder the McCain-Palin charges that Obama was a "socialist" didn't stick with most voters.

It's time to put as much private capital into public hands as we can while we have the chance, and then keep it there. What better moment than when the capitalists are counting on the rest of us to bail them out?

Afterthought: All my life, defenders of the capitalist system have been telling me that they are entitled to their profits because of all the "risk" they are taking. But where is the risk when they run to the government for bailouts and/or shamelessly accept them when they are offered? (this tendency is even stronger in Europe.) It seems that if the general public is protecting them from the risks, it is only fair, by their own logic, that their profits be much smaller.

Those rascally Republicans! So Republicans in the House of Representatives voted unanimously against Obama's stimulus package, after our new president extended the hand of bipartisanship and tried to get them aboard? And all to reclaim their party as the champion of small government, at a time when massive government intervention is clearly called for? Great! Obama handed them the rope, and they hung themselves with it. If they want to tell Americans that the free market can solve the disaster that the free market caused, let them do it.

Israel starves Gaza of fuel and electricity. Click here for a Powerpoint presentation by the Israeli human rights organization Gisha.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Army to report record number of suicides

So reports CNN online today. It features the story of Jeffrey Lucey, who committed suicide in 2004 after he could not get the mental health treatment he needed from the Veteran's Administration.

CNN says:

News of the Army's 2008 suicide figures did not surprise Kevin Lucey, whose 23-year-old son Jeffrey M. Lucey -- a former Marine -- hanged himself on June 22, 2004 -- 11 months after returning from Iraq.

The night before, Jeffrey "asked if he could sit in my lap and if we could rock," Lucey said.

"It was about 11:30 at night. And I rocked him for about 45 minutes. Now here you have a 23-year-old, 150-pound Marine that I'm just rocking, and his therapist said it was his last gasp. It was his last place for refuge and then, the next time I held him in my lap was when I was taking him down from the rafters. He had put the hose around his neck double-looped and he was dead," Lucey said.

He said his son had not been able to get the treatment he needed from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"What is disappointing is that the intervention doesn't appear to be there at the present time," he told CNN in a telephone interview from his home in western Massachusetts.

The government settled with the family for $350,000.

"The foolish part of all this is we just wanted someone to say they did wrong," he said. "But no one would until recently."

He said the U.S. attorney, acting on behalf of the Department of Veterans Affairs, told him his son's case had led the VA mental system to be changed.

Fear of stigma may also have played a role in making his son reluctant to seek professional help. His son, Lucey said, was afraid that getting mental help would affect his chances of getting a job as a state trooper. Apparently it did not.

"A year after he died, they accepted him," the father said.

Photo: Jeffrey Lucey/family photo/Marine Corps Times

More on treatment of veterans: From historian Andrew Hunt, a passionate commentary on the tragic case of a 93 year old WWII vet who froze to death when his electricity was cut off.

Changing journalism's business model?
A lot of journalists are buzzing over an opinion piece in yesterday's New York Times advocating that newspapers and other media outlets should be put on the endowment system, like many universities. My Boston University colleague Chris Daly weighs in on his blog with some generally positive reactions. "Why not?" Chris asks.

Did he or didn't he? Ie, did Attorney General nominee Eric Holder promise a senator he would not prosecute Bush administration officials for torture and other crimes so he could get his confirmation out of committee? Glenn Greenwald tells the convoluted story, complete with numerous updates that leave us still wondering...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Global warming: Lots of bad news







Science
's online news service, ScienceNOW, today features three depressing stories about the effects of climate change.

The first, by our climate correspondent Richard Kerr, cites studies concluding that the effects of global warming are going to be with us (ie, our descendants, if they survive) for 1000 years.

Then, in a story entitled "Death March of the Penguins?" freelance correspondant Helen Fields reports that melting sea ice in the far south could wipe out populations of emperor penguins within the next 100 years.

Finally, freelancer Phil Berardelli breaks the bad news about global warming's effects on the oceans: Even if we get a handle on the problem, climate change will leave numerous oxygen-depleted "dead zones," which would threaten much marine life and those animals--like us humans--who depend on it.

The links to these sobering stories, which might make you glad the U.S. now has a president who takes global warming seriously, are free for four weeks from publication. Check them out now while you still have the chance.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Israel's lies

One of the most heroic figures in Judaism today is Henry Siegman, director of the US Middle East Project in New York, and a former national director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America. Siegman has courageously put the Jewish tradition of ethics and justice ahead of the kind of barbaric tribalism that has characterized much of Israeli society and behavior over the past several decades. In the London Review of Books, Siegman tackles the lies that Israel has told about the reasons for its assault on Gaza, lies which have been swallowed whole by much of the American news media. Please read the entire article, but here are some extracts:

Western governments and most of the Western media have accepted a number of Israeli claims justifying the military assault on Gaza: that Hamas consistently violated the six-month truce that Israel observed and then refused to extend it; that Israel therefore had no choice but to destroy Hamas’s capacity to launch missiles into Israeli towns; that Hamas is a terrorist organisation, part of a global jihadi network; and that Israel has acted not only in its own defence but on behalf of an international struggle by Western democracies against this network.

I am not aware of a single major American newspaper, radio station or TV channel whose coverage of the assault on Gaza questions this version of events. Criticism of Israel’s actions, if any (and there has been none from the Bush administration), has focused instead on whether the IDF’s carnage is proportional to the threat it sought to counter, and whether it is taking adequate measures to prevent civilian casualties.

Middle East peacemaking has been smothered in deceptive euphemisms, so let me state bluntly that each of these claims is a lie. Israel, not Hamas, violated the truce: Hamas undertook to stop firing rockets into Israel; in return, Israel was to ease its throttlehold on Gaza. In fact, during the truce, it tightened it further. This was confirmed not only by every neutral international observer and NGO on the scene but by Brigadier General (Res.) Shmuel Zakai, a former commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division. In an interview in Ha’aretz on 22 December, he accused Israel’s government of having made a ‘central error’ during the tahdiyeh, the six-month period of relative truce, by failing ‘to take advantage of the calm to improve, rather than markedly worsen, the economic plight of the Palestinians of the Strip . . . When you create a tahdiyeh, and the economic pressure on the Strip continues,’ General Zakai said, ‘it is obvious that Hamas will try to reach an improved tahdiyeh, and that their way to achieve this is resumed Qassam fire . . . You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they’re in, and expect that Hamas will just sit around and do nothing.’

Siegman also tackles the real motivations behind Israel's "withdrawal" from Gaza:

The greater lie is that Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza was intended as a prelude to further withdrawals and a peace agreement. This is how Sharon’s senior adviser Dov Weisglass, who was also his chief negotiator with the Americans, described the withdrawal from Gaza, in an interview with Ha’aretz in August 2004:

What I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements [i.e. the major settlement blocks on the West Bank] would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns . . . The significance [of the agreement with the US] is the freezing of the political process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed from our agenda indefinitely. And all this with [President Bush’s] authority and permission . . . and the ratification of both houses of Congress.

Do the Israelis and Americans think that Palestinians don’t read the Israeli papers, or that when they saw what was happening on the West Bank they couldn’t figure out for themselves what Sharon was up to?

As for Israel's attitude towards Hamas:

Why then are Israel’s leaders so determined to destroy Hamas? Because they believe that its leadership, unlike that of Fatah, cannot be intimidated into accepting a peace accord that establishes a Palestinian ‘state’ made up of territorially disconnected entities over which Israel would be able to retain permanent control. Control of the West Bank has been the unwavering objective of Israel’s military, intelligence and political elites since the end of the Six-Day War.[*] They believe that Hamas would not permit such a cantonisation of Palestinian territory, no matter how long the occupation continues. They may be wrong about Abbas and his superannuated cohorts, but they are entirely right about Hamas.

And Siegman has some advice for Obama and U.S. Mideast policy:

If Barack Obama picks a seasoned Middle East envoy who clings to the idea that outsiders should not present their own proposals for a just and sustainable peace agreement, much less press the parties to accept it, but instead leave them to work out their differences, he will assure a future Palestinian resistance far more extreme than Hamas – one likely to be allied with al-Qaida. For the US, Europe and most of the rest of the world, this would be the worst possible outcome. Perhaps some Israelis, including the settler leadership, believe it would serve their purposes, since it would provide the government with a compelling pretext to hold on to all of Palestine. But this is a delusion that would bring about the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Obama has, of course, now picked a Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, who is no fool when it comes to understanding the region. Let us hope that the new administration does not let Israel play it for a sucker, as it has done with so many American presidents in the past.

PS--Contrast this analysis with that of Thomas Friedman in yesterday's New York Times, which, amazingly for someone whose reputation was made on his Middle East expertise, gets the primary issues completely wrong. Here is the crux of what Friedman had to say:

We’re getting perilously close to closing the window on a two-state solution, because the two chief window-closers — Hamas in Gaza and the fanatical Jewish settlers in the West Bank — have been in the driver’s seats. Hamas is busy making a two-state solution inconceivable, while the settlers have steadily worked to make it impossible.

Now go back and read Siegman's analysis of where Hamas really stands, despite its fanciful rhetoric about destroying Israel, which the Israelis and their supporters love to pretend to take seriously because it suits their interests. But even worse is Friedman's unbelievably naive comment on the settler movement, which implies that around 200,000 people have somehow been holding Israeli policy towards the Palestinians hostage. Those poor Israelis, they would love to make peace with the Palestinians but the settlers won't let them! Quite the contrary: The settlers are now, and always have been, the front group for Israeli determination to hold onto the West Bank. Until and unless the Obama administration understands that and brings Israel to heel, there will indeed be no resolution and no peace. I don't care how they do it--behind the scenes if they like, while holding Israel's hand in public--as long as they do it.

Another Jew says Israel's behavior was shameful. That would be Roger Cohen, no raving radical he, writing in the New York Review of Books. One key graf:

Israel has the right to hit back at Hamas when attacked—but not to blow Gaza to pieces, or deprive people of food, water, and medicine. In at least one appalling incident at Zeitoun, on the east of Gaza City, where children were found next to their mothers' days-old corpses, the International Red Cross has accused Israel of an "unacceptable" failure "to meet its obligation under international law to care for and evacuate the wounded." Israel denies targeting civilians, accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields, and says it works in "close cooperation" with international aid organizations. But at some point—and I would say a couple of hundred dead children in Gaza are already well past that point—such denials become pointless: the facts speak for themselves. No invocation of collateral damage or legitimate defense can excuse such wanton killing. As Avi Shlaim, a professor of international relations and former soldier in the Israeli army, has observed, the Gaza offensive "seems to follow the logic of an eye for an eyelash."

Update on Israel's bracing for war crimes charges. From Jonathan Cook, a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel.

With Gaza, Journalists Fail Again. Former New York Times correspondant Chris Hedges takes the press to task on Truthdig for uncritically reporting Israeli lies.

A remarkable segment on Israel and Palestine on CBS's "60 Minutes."
In which the settlers explain why they are in the West Bank, and the Israeli military's abuse of Palestinians is documented:


Watch CBS Videos Online

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Music in Paris

Continuing with today's "living dolls" theme (which no doubt brushes up against the boundaries of political correctness), the incredibly beautiful woman pictured at left is French pianist Hélène Grimaud, who was in fine form last night during a concert at the Cité de la Musique in Paris. I have long been a fan, not only for the pure aesthetic pleasure of looking at her but also because she is one of the greatest pianists in modern times. Her talent was on display during the middle of three pieces (Mozart's "Concerto pour piano et orchestre en sol majeur," which was sandwiched between two Strauss compositions) performed by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, directed by Vladimir Jurowski.

Beginning Tuesday January 27, you can watch and listen to the entire concern online at the Cité de la Musique's internet link. I will try to remember to post a reminder on the day.

Photo: Kasskara/Deutsche Grammophon

PS--If you think this is just a photo-shopped album cover and that no one could really be that beautiful, then perhaps you need a video shot of Grimaud playing the piano:

Living dolls

Where do you stand on the Marvelous Malia and Sweet Sasha controversy? Balter's Blog wants to know.

Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Israel braces for war crimes trials

According to several news reports today, the Israeli government is planning to approve a bill on Sunday that will grant legal aid and other forms of support to Israeli Defense Forces officers who may be charged with war crimes for the recent actions in Gaza.

According to Ha'aretz:

The bill, titled "strengthening the IDF's hand after Operation Cast Lead", was put forward by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and coordinated by the Ministry or Defense, Ministry of Justice and State Prosecutor. There is growing concern at the Defense Ministry and the Ministry of Justice that Israeli officers will be singled out in a wave of suits for alleged human rights violations.

According to Le Monde, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reports that the Israeli army has warned officers thinking about traveling to Europe against the risks of being the subjects of international arrest warrants. And there are indications that such concerns could indeed be valid: The UN special rapporteur for human rights, Richard Falk, is quoted in other reports as saying that there is evidence that war crimes were committed, including the failure to allow civilians to leave the war zone:

"To lock people into a war zone is something that evokes the worst kind of international memories of the Warsaw Ghetto, and sieges that occur unintentionally during a period of wartime," Falk, who is Jewish, said, referring to the starvation and murder of Warsaw's Jews by Nazi Germany in World War Two.

Falk also did not accept Israeli justifications for their actions:

Falk, who was denied entry to Israel two weeks before the assault started on Dec. 27, dismissed Israel's argument that the assault was for self-defense in the light of rocket attacks aimed at Israel from the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip.

"In my view the UN charter, and international law, does not give Israel the legal foundation for claiming self-defense," he said. Israel had not restricted fighting to areas where the rockets came from and had refused to negotiate with Hamas, preventing a diplomatic solution, Falk said.

Update: CNN reports that the Israeli government did indeed pass the legal defense measure on Sunday. In addition, CNN says: A team of legal experts, led by Justice Minister Daniel Friedman, will defend Israel's military operation in Gaza, according to Olmert. Friedman and international law experts will formulate answers to possible questions regarding the activity of the Israel Defense Forces that might arise, he said.

The Taliban rules. A harrowing article in Sunday's New York Times, about the murderous hold the Taliban has on Pakistan's Swat Valley, underscores the challenges faced by Obama's strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan. This and other reports make it clear that the Pakistan government has no intention of seriously battling Islamic fundamentalist extremism. Until that changes, it is hard to imagine what American boots on the ground are going to be able to do.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

This guy is so serious!

Some of you may have seen the clip of Vice-President Joe Biden taking a dig at Chief Justice John Roberts yesterday as he swore in senior White House staff (see below.) Notice how President Obama steps over to him and touches his arm, shaking his head disapprovingly even as the staff laughs at the joke. Biden is apt to say anything, of course, but it revealed just how serious Obama is about his bipartisan stance. I think that many have misinterpreted his insistence on bipartisanship as a sign that he will be wishy-washy on the crucial issues of the day; it seems more likely that he is simply doing his best to disarm opponents and gather as many troops as possible behind some of the more far-reaching things he is planning to do (his forgiveness of Joe Lieberman was an earlier example, if not proof that he really is a Christian.)

We shall see soon enough whether I am right about this or not, although so far he is not wasting any time doing what he said he would do. His executive order that the Freedom of Information Act must be interpreted in favor of disclosure rather than the way the Bush administration viewed it, in favor of secrecy, is a very important example.



Spying revelations: Journalists also targets. From Keith Olbermann's Countdown... (with thanks to PK for the heads up.)



Better than owning? Kevin Kelly of Wired says "Access is better than ownership." Check out this interesting blog post about the future of private property.

War crimes in Gaza? Possibly, say human rights groups; Israel of course denies it. Read about it in the Los Angeles Times. A few key grafs:

Moral questions also linger among Israeli peace activists troubled by the relative lack of public introspection over the destruction and civilian deaths wrought by their army's immense firepower during the fighting in the cramped territory. They say Hamas' abuses do not erase Israel's responsibility for such incidents as the shelling of a United Nations school that killed dozens of civilians sheltered there. Even if Hamas had to be weakened, they wonder how their nation, where memories of the Holocaust are so thoroughly embedded, could look past the plight of 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in a dense war zone they couldn't escape.

"We are witnessing a moral corrosion that is destroying everything at a fantastic pace," said Michael Sfard, a lawyer with Volunteers for Human Rights in Tel Aviv. "We've reached a threshold of insensitivity that we had never reached in the past."

The offensive "on Gaza may be squeezing Hamas, but it is destroying Israel," Ari Shavit wrote in the left-leaning Haaretz in the days before the operation ended. "Destroying its soul and its image. Destroying it on world television screens, in the living rooms of the international community and most importantly, in Obama's America."

An interview with Ilan Pappe. In the Guardian.

The incendiary IDF (Israeli Defense Forces.) A report on Israel's use of white phosphorus over Gaza, by Kenneth Roth for Human Rights Watch.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My president is cool, how 'bout yours?

I don't know about you, but I'm busting my buttons that my president is a cool, smart young Black guy instead of an ignorant, incompetent fool. It's a guilty pleasure, to be sure, because I am a life-long leftwinger and Obama is just the human face of the capitalist ruling class--right? Hmm, I guess we will know soon enough. But I'm not as ready to moan and whine as some Marxists who are so sure they have it all figured out that they actually think they know what Obama is really going to do.

Actually, I don't know exactly what to expect from him, because what he does depends so much on what we do. And that's another source of guilt: Deep down, many of us Americans don't believe we really deserve to have a good president, especially after we--in our democratic wisdom--twice elected George W. Bush. Oh, I know, you didn't vote for him (neither did I.) Oh, and yes, he stole the 2000 election, didn't he? Well, perhaps if the Democratic Party had offered up a better candidate the margin of victory would have been greater AND no one would have wanted to vote for Ralph Nader. So, there again, those of us on the liberal/left side of the spectrum have to share the guilt because Gore and Kerry were the best we could come up with.

I am sure that I and most other readers of this blog, no matter what their political viewpoints, will not agree with everything that Obama does. But it seems clear that he is not likely to be bound by ANY previous conventional wisdom or taboos, other than those he actually agrees with. I think we have learned that much about him by now, especially since he is still standing tall after all the mud slung at him during the primary and presidential campaigns. He may even surprise us. Already this morning, he is beginning to fulfill his campaign promise to close Guantanamo by halting the military tribunals, he is freezing many of those Bush administration midnight rules and regulations from going into effect, and he is removing the ban on federal money going to international family planning groups that counsel about or perform abortions.

Who knows, he and Hillary Clinton might even buck the Jewish lobby (ie AIPAC, yes Virginia, there is a Jewish lobby) and tell the Israelis that they have to make peace. Maybe now Obama will tell us what he thought about the collective punishment of death and destruction Israel just deliberately visited upon the people of Gaza. I somehow doubt that he thought it was a good idea, especially since he is a Christian and probably relies more on the New Testament than the Old Testament for his moral code.

At the very least, every day Obama will do something new and interesting, and that will inspire many Americans to do the same.

How did Cheney really pull that muscle? One of the Washington Post's blogs, The Gene Pool, starts off by suggesting that he did it while chopping up kittens with an axe, but another commenter thinks he was moving out boxes so the FBI wouldn't find them.

What Israel hath wrought. Two versions of the destruction of a village in east Gaza. Which one sounds the most believable?

Obama, Israel and Palestine. An interesting and important article by Steven Erlanger in the Jan 22 New York Times explores the difficult choices faced by the new Obama administration in the Middle East. Erlanger points out that Israel's actions in Gaza have probably strengthened Hamas at the expense of Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas (he pretty much dismisses some Israeli claims to the contrary), and increased the likelihood that Hamas would win new elections designed to create a Palestinian unity government for both Gaza and the West Bank. That of course raises the issue of whether Obama, and Israel too, would have to engage directly with Hamas as part of the settlement process. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but isn't it funny how many recent Israeli actions seem to have the effect of making the "peace process" more difficult? But something tells me that sooner or later, the jig is up for Israeli obfuscations, which were so eagerly supported and accepted by the Bush administration--whose 8 year long "disengagement" from the situation could perhaps better be seen as a period of letting Israel do exactly what it wanted. Obama does not have to shed his pro-Israel rhetoric to make progress in the Middle East, all he has to do is be even-handed and let Israel hang itself on its own rope as its true motivations--avoid peace at any cost--are exposed. Now if the Palestinians would just get smart and take advantage of this window of opportunity rather than eating themselves up in internecine warfare...

One-state solution? Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi gets some of his facts wrong--the Israelis did expell many Palestinians from their lands in 1948--but his opinion piece in the Jan 23 Times makes a very good argument for this logical and I think inevitable outcome, even if a two-state solution might be necessary as a first step. Let me be as clear as possible: States based on religion or ethnicity, whether Islamic republics or Jewish states, are abhorrent.

Gideon Levy: Gaza war ended in utter failure for Israel. The Ha'aretz columnist explains why.

Oaf of office. Don't miss Steven Pinker's explanation of how strict constructionist grammarian Chief Justice John Roberts got President Obama balled up on the oath of office Tuesday. His call for boldly splitting infinitives should be a clarion call to all those who want to write gracefully.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bliss was it in that dawn...

Barack Obama will end up disappointing many on both the left and right, but we can be forgiven for thinking and hoping that this is indeed a new day and a new dawn. Nobody put such hopes more beautifully than Wordsworth. Let's read his words again, and make them so! For it is not just what Obama does, but what we do, that will make all the difference.

Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!--
Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,
When most intent on making of herself
A prime Enchantress--to assist the work
Which then was going forward in her name!
Not favoured spots alone, but the whole earth,
The beauty wore of promise, that which sets
(As at some moment might not be unfelt
Among the bowers of paradise itself )
The budding rose above the rose full blown.
What temper at the prospect did not wake
To happiness unthought of? The inert
Were roused, and lively natures rapt away!
They who had fed their childhood upon dreams,
The playfellows of fancy, who had made
All powers of swiftness, subtilty, and strength
Their ministers,--who in lordly wise had stirred
Among the grandest objects of the sense,
And dealt with whatsoever they found there
As if they had within some lurking right
To wield it;--they, too, who, of gentle mood,
Had watched all gentle motions, and to these
Had fitted their own thoughts, schemers more wild,
And in the region of their peaceful selves;--
Now was it that both found, the meek and lofty
Did both find, helpers to their heart's desire,
And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish;
Wcre called upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,--the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!

--William Wordsworth, "The French Revolution as it Appeared to Enthusiasts at its Commencement"



This land is your land:



But let's not forget Gaza. While Americans and much of the world celebrate a new dawn, the victims of Israel's barbaric bombardment continue to bury their dead and try to put together what is left of their lives. Remember that Israel did this with American money and weapons. Many of us will be waiting to hear what Barack Obama has to say about it now that he is that "one president at a time." Meanwhile, as reporters tour Gaza, Israel's wanton destruction of civilian lives and civilian infrastructure becomes more clear every day. Because Hamas was in political control of Gaza--as a result of democratic elections--Israel considered the entire civilian infrastructure to be a fair target. Translation: Cynical and deliberate collective punishment of the entire population, all the while lying about it.

Obama's inaugural address:

My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often, the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebearers, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land -- a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the fainthearted -- for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor -- who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Time and again, these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act -- not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions -- who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account -- to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day -- because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control -- and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort -- even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West: Know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment -- a moment that will define a generation -- it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends -- hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed -- why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back, nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lull on the killing fields

The unilateral cease-fire may or may not hold for very long, given that Hamas has vowed to keep fighting unless its demands are met. But those demands are very simple and reasonable: Israel must pull its forces out of Gaza and open the border posts.

Israel is declaring victory, claiming that it has accomplished all it intended to during this war that cost 1200 Palestinian lives and 13 Israeli lives. In reality, it has lost and lost badly. Hamas is not only still in charge in Gaza, but it was able to launch more rockets after the cease-fire was declared. The Jewish state stands exposed more than ever as an entity willing to engage in the worst kind of barbarism to hang onto its settlements in the West Bank and thwart the creation of a viable Palestinian state. And it has created a whole new generation of children who, barring serious intervention in Middle East affairs by the new Obama administration, will grow up remembering what they experienced in Gaza these past few weeks and determined to do something about it.

Jeremy Bowen, the BBC's Middle East Editor, in his insightful account of the ceasefire, points out the real reasons why Israel has silenced the guns and bombs this weekend:

By saying that it will stop now, Israel will feel it will start on the right foot with the Obama administration in Washington after it takes office on Tuesday. And if Israel did start to fight again, it would expect to get the backing of the new president.

Indeed, it seems reasonably clear that Israel launched its assault when it did precisely because it knew that its financial and moral backer, the United States, would not lift a finger to stop it. But whether or not it will get the backing of Obama to begin attacking again remains to be seen. Obama is now on the spot, morally and politically, and perhaps that is exactly where we need him to be if there will ever be an end to the killing.

This war was possible because the overwhelming majority of Israelis, and way too many Americans, think that Jewish lives are worth more than Palestinian lives. But the Jews of Israel are outnumbered, and unless they have a change of heart, they will eventually pay a heavy price for what they have done today. As Bowen concludes his report:

After inflicting so much pain and death, Israel still says that Gaza's civilians are not its enemy. That is something that Gazans - and millions of others in this part of the world - do not believe.


Gaza war a challenge and an opportunity for Obama. So suggests Gershom Gorenberg, in an interesting piece in Ha'aretz: "While public support for Israel continues, blind support for hawkish Israeli policies can no longer be assumed, even among Jews. J Street, the new, dovish pro-Israel lobby, exceeded expectations in raising funds for congressional candidates. Jews are among the pundits calling for a more balanced American approach. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has written recently of feeling despondent and shamed by the war in Gaza. Matthew Yglesias, an influential young blogger, has called for public American pressure on Israel to freeze settlement. The disqualification of the Arab political parties is likely to increase the discomfort of liberal Jews. So are the prime minister's boasts of his ability to change the American vote in the Security Council, which seemingly confirm claims that Israel controls U.S. policy."

Update: The aftermath.

Israeli forces demolished the house of the Sammouni family in Gaza City after ordering them to remain in it for safety.

Twenty-seven members of the family died and another 90 Gazans remained trapped under the rubble, with rescue efforts hampered by Israeli forces.

Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros reports.



Uncovering the bodies. Another report on the aftermath from the Los Angeles Times, from within Gaza. And another from the BBC, including video footage.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Palestinian doctor's daughters killed by Israeli attack while he is being interviewed on Israeli television



More about the Palestinian doctor. From the New York Times, the story of Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish.

And more about this heartbreaking tragedy from Scott MacLeod on Time magazine's Middle East Blog. One of the doctor's daughters, Bisan, 20, was a business student who had participated in a peace camp with Israeli youth in the U.S. MacLeod quotes the doctor: "I turn to all of you, to the entire world, so you know that my children were the ultimate price, and I don't want anyone to taste what I suffered. I want them to be the ultimate price for a ceasefire, that's what I want. The Israeli government should tell the truth. I want my children to be the victims of peace…I am armed with love and peace. This is what I'm armed with. My children were armed with love and peace." Thanks to LP for the heads up on this item.

Questions and answers about Gaza. From Stephen R. Shalom, who teaches teaches political science at William Paterson University in New Jersey.

Western press enters Gaza: The truth will out



As you know, Israel has blocked "foreign" journalists from entering Gaza during its assault on the territory, although Al-Jazeera has a number of reporters there and has done a generally excellent--if not always entirely "balanced"--job of bringing news of the terrible destruction of lives and buildings to those who are willing to see and hear it.

The BBC has now managed to get one of its reporters, Christian Fraser, into Gaza via Egypt, and his reports of the incredible destruction and its effect on those Gazans still living can be seen here. The BBC is also reporting this morning that Israeli airstrikes hit a United Nations school and killed two children. The report quotes Christopher Gunness, a spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), calling for an investigation into possible war crimes by Israel--adding to the many voices now suggesting that both Israel and Hamas are guilty of violations of international law.

It is great that Fraser is now on the ground in Gaza, and once a cease-fire is declared Israel will have no choice but to allow the entire Western press into the strip. The truth of the Jewish state's barbarian acts will then be irrefutable--even though, as usual, it will come too late for its more than 1100 victims.

PS--Until now the BBC had relied heavily on a Gazan reporter whose name I do not immediately have to hand, and he did a very good job. But Western audiences tend to only believe "their own" reporters, which is why Fraser's reports will have particular credibility. As a long-time member of the Paris press corps, I can testify that most U.S. and British news outlets insist on sending their own nationals abroad as foreign correspondents, rather than rely on "native" reporters. The American reporters, for example, usually arrive in Paris speaking very little French and have to get up to speed--something that takes time. And because of U.S. and French tax laws, normally American reporters can only stay abroad 5 years without triggering local taxes and social security charges. Thus most U.S. outlets rotate their reporters in and out: Just when they are speaking the language well, and know French politics and have good sources, they have to leave. I have been here more than 20 years and have seen it time and time again.

Meanwhile, concerning other massacres... The Center for Justice and Accountability, an organization that investigates and litigates human rights abuses, announces that a Spanish court will investigate the killing of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 16 year old daughter in El Savador in 1989. This was apparently carried out by the Salvadorean military, heavily supported at the time by the U.S. government. Spain is one of the few places victims of abuses can turn these days for justice; let us hope the Bush administration's torturers travel there soon.

Forgive and forget? Speaking of accountability, Paul Krugman hits the nail right on the head when he says Obama does not have the Constitutional right to let bygones be bygones when it comes to crimes committed by the Bush administration. "I don't believe that anybody is above the law," but "we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards," Obama said last Sunday. Krugman's answer is the only one that puts the law above political considerations: "...to protect and defend the Constitution, a president must do more than obey the Constitution himself; he must hold those who violate the Constitution accountable. So Obama should reconsider his apparent decision to let the previous administration get away with crime. Consequences aside, that's not a decision he has the right to make."

Sderot. There has been a lot of coverage of this town, which has been hit by rockets from Gaza, especially since Obama visited it last July. What is less well known is that Sderot was built on the ruins of the Palestinian town of Najd, whose inhabitants were expelled by Jewish troops in 1948. Details are at the Palestine Remembered Web site, which is dedicated to preserving the memory and history of towns in Israel that were once Palestinian. This does not justify the rockets, of course, whose launching constitutes war crimes on the part of Hamas; but it does put things into some context and perspective.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Bush tours America to survey damage caused by his disastrous presidency


Bush Tours America To Survey Damage Caused By His Disastrous Presidency

Many of you have probably seen this, but just in case, a little light relief to get the weekend started (with thanks to DG for the reminder.)

Stop starving the Gazans



An opinion piece in today's International Herald Tribune by Yossi Alpher, formerly of Tel Aviv University and now co-editor of bitterlemons.org, reminds us of the backdrop to the current war: An economic blockade of Gaza--that is, collective punishment of the entire population--for having democratically elected Hamas (a development that the Israelis are entirely responsible for, having given nothing to Abbas and other moderate Palestinians.) Alpher points out:

For the past year and a half, Israel, with the full backing and encouragement of the quartet of Middle East mediators (the European Union, the United States, the United Nations and Russia), as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even the West Bank-based PLO, has maintained an economic blockade on the Gaza Strip.

Generally it has allowed into Gaza only the equivalent of the UN minimum number of calories required daily for subsistence, multiplied by the 1.5 million or so population of the Gaza Strip, along with minimal medical supplies and fuel.

This economic-warfare strategy against Gaza has failed totally; indeed, it has proven counterproductive. Now is the right time for all involved to reconsider its usefulness and thereby raise a major contribution to long-term cease-fire efforts.

Alpher, who is Israeli, also argues:

From Israel's standpoint, if Hamas wants to Islamize Palestinian society, that's the Palestinians' business, not ours. There is no border dispute with Hamas in Gaza; most Israelis just want to be left alone to live their lives peaceably. Now, as a cease-fire looms, we might stand a better chance of achieving this objective if we, and our moderate Arab neighbors and friends in the West, stop starving Gazans.

And he concludes that Israeli's co-conspirators in collective punishment must also take responsibility:

Because Israel's neighbors and the international community have been complicit in this counterproductive economic blockade and the widespread humanitarian suffering it has generated, it is incumbent upon them as well as Israel to reconsider it.

That's a pretty mild proposal, isn't it--stop trying to starve the Gazans into submission? But for an international community that has accepted Israeli's wanton assaults on a civilian population without lifting a finger to stop it (more than 300 children dead, remember), it might seem like a radical idea. On Tuesday we shall know whether Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will fill the moral vacuum left by the world's cynicism and callousness.

Israel's "friends." Just an afterthought here. It would appear that Israel is going to be leaving Gaza soon, leaving behind more than 1000 dead and having achieved none of its goals. Hamas is still in power and still firing rockets. To make matters worse for Israel and its allies, the assault on Gaza has galvanized much of world opinion against the Jewish state, increased the likelihood of terrorism against Israeli and American targets for years to come, marginalized Mahmoud Abbas, and possibly set back chances for peace in the region (although that last point depends almost entirely on the attitude that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton take; this is their moment.) So all those great friends of Israel--the Alan Dershowitz's for whom anything the country does is just A-okay, the Senators and Representatives who gave near-unanimous support to Israel's barbaric actions, the opinion writers for the New York Times--have led their great ally down the garden path of self-delusion and moral bankruptcy. Was it good for the Jews? No, not at all. But sometimes even your best friends won't tell you that.

Someone must stop the madness. So says an Israeli correspondent for Ha'aretz. If Israelis are free to say it, why aren't Americans?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Was the war on terror a mistake?

That's the implication of comments by Britain's foreign minister, David Miliband, in the Guardian and reported on by the BBC. One key graf:

The more we lump terrorist groups together and draw the battle lines as a simple binary struggle between moderates and extremists, or good and evil, the more we play into the hands of those seeking to unify groups with little in common. Terrorist groups need to be tackled at root, interdicting flows of weapons and finance, exposing the shallowness of their claims, channelling their followers into democratic politics.

The "war on terror" also implied that the correct response was primarily military. But as General Petraeus said to me and others in Iraq, the coalition there could not kill its way out of the problems of insurgency and civil strife.

And he concludes:

The call for a "war on terror" was a call to arms, an attempt to build solidarity for a fight against a single shared enemy. But the foundation for solidarity between peoples and nations should be based not on who we are against, but on the idea of who we are and the values we share. Terrorists succeed when they render countries fearful and vindictive; when they sow division and animosity; when they force countries to respond with violence and repression. The best response is to refuse to be cowed.

Waterboarding is torture. So said Attorney General nominee Eric Holder at his Senate confirmation hearing today. That means his Justice Department will be obliged to prosecute those who ordered it and carried it out, right?

More on waterboarding. An article by Scott Shane in the January 17 New York Times explores the possibility that Holder's declaration does indeed oblige his Justice Department to consider prosecuting those who carried out torture. Stay tuned.

More Israeli war crimes. The U.N. accuses it of illegally firing white phosphorus shells.

UNICEF: Children bearing brunt of Gaza war. From CNN.

Amnesty International calls for arms embargo. The organization cites evidence of U.S. arms shipments to Israel just before and after the beginning of the Gaza war. Thanks to UA for bringing this to our attention.

Muntader al-Zaidi. The International Herald Tribune reports that the journalist who threw his shoes at George W. Bush has not been allowed visits from family nor lawyers since December 21. Al-Zaidi's only real crime, of course, is that he missed. Seriously, however, Bush's "young democracy" is obviously still taking baby steps towards basic civil rights. (Be sure to visit the Free al-Zaidi Web site.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The chosen people or Jewish barbarians?

20 When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. 21 They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

--Joshua 6, the taking of Jericho, New International Edition

* * *

24 When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the desert where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Israelites returned to Ai and killed those who were in it. 25 Twelve thousand men and women fell that day—all the people of Ai. 26 For Joshua did not draw back the hand that held out his javelin until he had destroyed [a] all who lived in Ai. 27 But Israel did carry off for themselves the livestock and plunder of this city, as the LORD had instructed Joshua.

28 So Joshua burned Ai and made it a permanent heap of ruins, a desolate place to this day. 29 He hung the king of Ai on a tree and left him there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take his body from the tree and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day.

--Joshua 7, the destruction of Ai, New International Edition.

* * *

I don't remember exactly when I was first told that we Jews were "the chosen people." My clearest memory was when I was 10 years old and attending Hebrew school in Los Angeles, in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah. At that time, and perhaps today, Hebrew school was as much about Jewish and Biblical history as about learning the beautiful language I have retained so little of, sad to say. I don't recall the specific lesson we were learning, but our teacher paused to say: "We are the chosen people. We are the chosen people."

This repetition with so much emphasis hit home with me, and before long I was going around telling everyone who would listen that I had two countries, Israel and America. This was only a decade after Israel had declared its "independence" in 1948, and the idea that it had done so under anything other than divine right to the land of Palestine was not a topic of discussion.

In 1999, I spent a day in Gaza reporting a story on archaeology in the Holy Land. During an interview with the Palestinian Authority's head of archaeology in Gaza, the gentleman--a plump, friendly man with a moustache--got onto the topic of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. This was a time, some may recall, when nearly everyone on both sides thought a Palestinian state was coming in a year or two, and it was a time of calm and peace. No suicide bombers, no rockets, no Hamas in control of Gaza. The archaeologist had read the Bible too. "God promised this land to the Jews," he told me, "as long as they fulfilled certain conditions. The problem is, they failed to fulfill the conditions!"

I began to smile, then to laugh out loud. It was very funny, and oh so true. I don't know if the archaeologist knew I was Jewish--he didn't ask and I didn't offer to tell him--but he gleefully smiled and laughed with me.

By that time I no longer considered myself "chosen," and my Jewish identity was expressed most strongly in my love of lox and bagels. Indeed, my two visits to Israel (this one and one earlier in the 1990s) left me pretty revulsed by Israeli society and attitudes. While I met many nice people, there were also so many who were amazingly arrogant, smug, and convinced of their superiority to both Arabs and Christians. It was clear that they still felt they were "chosen." And yet equally surprising was how rudely so many Israelis treated each other, similar to the attitudes in Paris I encounter daily. (My time in Gaza and the West Bank, where I was always welcomed warmly and graciously, was a stark contrast.)

On another occasion during that visit, I went to the Western Wall (also called the Wailing Wall), where I watched Jews bend, sway and pray in grief at the loss of their great temple. I wondered at the time whether they were grieving more for the loss of this sanctuary to their relationship with God or for the Kingdom, born in the kind of bloodthirsty violence evidenced in the Bible passages above, that their failure to meet God's conditions had apparently caused them to lose.

The Bible, which was written by people and not by God, says that God told Joshua and the Israelites to carry out the massacres that won them the land of Canaan. How convenient! Take over a land, slaughter whole peoples, and then claim one is doing it in God's name. The same claim is made today by the settlers in the West Bank, which Israel does not want to give up--the key to understanding what is going on today.

The world tolerated the creation of a Jewish state on a land where not everyone was Jewish because of guilt over the Holocaust and geopolitical considerations that are even more important today. In other words, the world's response to ethnic cleansing of the Jews was ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from much of their lands, and the destruction of their culture.

There are basically two kinds of Jews today: Those who cling to the tribalism of Joshua and the Israelites, who claimed that God was on their side; and those who have responded to the very real persecutions of Jews over the ages with a high level of social consciousness and a concern for social justice for all humanity.

Fortunately, we are seeing evidence that many Jews around the world, especially in the United States, Europe, and even Israel, belong to the second group. We may not really be the chosen people, but we are responsible for what is being done in our name in Gaza--and we are the ones primarily responsible for ending it.

Illustration: Joshua taking Jericho.

Afterthoughts: As regular readers of this blog know, I tend to analyze political events primarily through a moral lens. But let's talk naked American self-interest for a moment. In six days, Barack Obama will be president. The world has written off George W. Bush, and his refusal to stay Israel's hand in Gaza is no surprise to anyone. But on January 20, the United States will have a chance to change its image. If Obama does not step in to stop the killing, Americans and America will be the targets of terrorists for generations to come. The U.S.'s completely one-sided position in the Middle East is the number one recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and our nation has handed them one excuse after another for their killing sprees. And as many have pointed out, Israel too will reap the whirlwind from its current actions, sooner or later. Yes, for once, peace is actually good for the Jews too.

Did Olmert get Bush to undercut Rice at the UN? Despite U.S. State Department and White House denials, Olmert is sticking to his story. It would appear that Condi was denied one last chance to do the right thing after 8 years of doing nothing at all to bring peace to the Mideast.

Israel: Boycott, Divest, Sanction. That's the call from Naomi Klein in The Nation: "It's time. Long past time. The best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation is for Israel to become the target of the kind of global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa."
I need to give this some thought. Is it the right course? You think about it, too.
More on boycott: I saw this piece in the left publication Counterpunch last week by Jean Bricmont and Diana Johnstone but did not link to it then; I am doing so now as it makes a number of points I agree with although I am still not at all sure about the boycott idea.

Jewish opposition to Gaza war makes news in Israel. Rabbis and others take out an ad in the New York Times, according to Ha'aretz.

Israel has done all it can in Gaza. That's according to top Israeli defense officials, who are calling for a cease-fire, reports Ha'aretz. If it happens, Israeli leaders and their supporters will no doubt cite it as evidence of Israel's peace-loving ways. The paper also reports on serious splits in the Israeli leadership about what to do next, with Olmert's aides attacking Livni and Barak. I wonder when the American news media will catch up with events?

A call from Israeli human rights groups (a pdf of the following available here):

A Clear and Present Danger

An Israeli Call for Urgent Humanitarian Action in Gaza

January 14, 2009

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Defense Minister Ehud Barak

Chief of Staff Lieut. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi

OC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant

Atty. Gen. Menachem Mazuz

RE: Warning of a clear and present danger to the lives and well-being of tens of thousands of civilians

Since the beginning of the campaign in Gaza on December 27, a heavy suspicion has arisen of grave violations of international humanitarian law by military forces. After the end of the hostilities, the time will come for the investigation of this matter, and accountability will be demanded of those responsible for the violations. At this point we call your attention to the clear and present danger to the lives and well-being of tens of thousands of civilians.

The level of harm to the civilian population is unprecedented. According to the testimony of residents of the Gaza Strip and media reports, military forces are making wanton use of lethal force which has to date caused the deaths of hundreds of uninvolved civilians and destroyed infrastructure and property on an enormous scale. In addition, Israel is also hitting civilian objects, having defined them as "legitimate military targets" solely by virtue of their being "symbols of government."

Caught in the middle are 1.5 million civilians in extreme humanitarian distress, whose needs are not being adequately met by the limited measures taken by the army. That distress is detailed in the Appendix to this letter. Its main points are as follows:

  1. The fighting is taking place throughout the Gaza Strip, whose border crossings are closed, so that residents have nowhere to flee, neither inside the Gaza Strip nor by leaving it. Many are unable to escape from the battle zone to protect themselves. They are forced to live in fear and terror. The army's demand that they evacuate their homes so as to avoid injury has no basis. Some people who did escape are living as refugees, stripped of all resources.
  2. The health system has collapsed. Hospitals are unable to provide adequate treatment to the injured, nor can patients be evacuated to medical centers outside of the Gaza Strip. This state of affairs is causing the death of injured persons who could have been saved. Nor are chronic patients receiving the treatment they need. Their health is deteriorating, and some have already died.
  3. Areas that were subject to intensive attacks are completely isolated. It is impossible to know the condition of the people who are there, whether they are injured and need treatment and whether they have food, water and medicine. The army is preventing local and international rescue teams from accessing those places and is also refraining from helping them itself, even though it is required to do so by law.
  4. Many of the residents do not have access to electricity or running water, and in many populated areas sewage water is running in the streets. That combination creates severe sanitation problems and increases the risk of an outbreak of epidemics.

This kind of fighting constitutes a blatant violation of the laws of warfare and raises the suspicion, which we ask be investigated, of the commission of war crimes.

The responsibility of the State of Israel in this matter is clear and beyond doubt. The army's complete control of the battle zones and the access roads to them does not allow Israel to transfer that responsibility to other countries. Therefore we call on you to act immediately as follows:

  1. Stop the disproportionate harm to civilians, and stop targeting civilian objects that do not serve any military purpose, even if they meet the definition of "symbols of government."
  2. Open a route for civilians to escape the battle zone, while guaranteeing their ability to return home at the end of the fighting.
  3. Provide appropriate and immediate medical care to all of the injured and ill of the Gaza Strip, either by evacuating them to medical centers outside of the Gaza Strip or by reaching another solution inside the Gaza Strip.
  4. Allow rescue and medical teams to reach battle-torn zones to evacuate the injured and bring supplies to those who remain there. Alternatively, the army must carry out those activities itself.
  5. Secure the proper operation of the electricity, water and sewage systems so that they meet the needs of the population.

Sincerely,

Atty. Fatmeh El-Ajou

Adalah -- The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel

Vered Cohen Barzilay

Amnesty International Israel Section

Dr. Haim Yaakoby

Bimkom -- Planners for Planning Rights

Jessica Montell

B’tselem -- The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories

Atty. Sari Bashi

Gisha -- Legal Center for Freedom of Movement

Dalia Kerstein

Hamoked -- Center for Defence of the Individual

Prof. Zvi Bentwich

Physicians for Human Rights -- Israel

Dr. Ishai Menuchin

Public Committee Against Torture in Israel

Atty. Michael Sfard

Yesh Din -- Volunteers for Human Rights


Appendix: The humanitarian collapse in the Gaza Strip

Situation Report, January 14, 2009, [Day 19 of Fighting]

Overview

As of Wednesday, January 14, 2009, the 19th day of the military campaign in the Gaza Strip, the dimensions of the humanitarian collapse in the Gaza Strip are growing: many injured people are not receiving medical treatment at all, the evacuation of the injured to hospitals is not being permitted, medical teams are being attacked on their way to render aid and the health system in Gaza, especially hospitals, is collapsing. Gaza's electricity, water and sewage systems are in a state of partial collapse, preventing Gaza residents from accessing clean water and exposing them to the risk of infectious disease and lethal sewage flooding in populated areas.

***

Damage to the health system and prevention of evacuation of casualties

  • Six cases of army shooting at medical teams have been documented by human rights organizations. 12 medical personnel have been killed, and 17 were injured.
  • We know so far of 15 cases of attacks on medical facilities, including a medical supply warehouse, three mobile clinics, a mental health center, the walls and windows of three government hospitals and a number of rescue vehicles. Direct attacks were recorded in the European hospital and the Dura hospital, an UNRWA facility and the Safha Al-Harazin clinic in Shuja’iya.
  • There are delays of an average of between 2 and 10 hours in coordination between the army and the medical teams for evacuation or transfer of casualties. In most cases, the army does not respond at all to the requests made to it. The human rights organizations know of more than 100 civilians who were trapped for more than 24 hours, including dozens of injured, without any medical care, sometimes without water or food either. In one case a family of 21 (including six injured) waited seven days until the army allowed Red Cross representatives to evacuate them. In two other cases families waited more than 36 hours for evacuation. The organizations believe there are other similar cases that have not yet been documented.
  • The Gaza health system is in a state of total collapse after more than a year and a half of continuous closure: a severe shortage of medical equipment and medications, a shortage of skilled personnel, the absence of knowledge and experts to treat complex injuries and more. According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, only 30% of the medical equipment and medications permitted to be transferred to the Gaza Strip meet the needs and of its hospitals and are responsive to their shortages.
  • There are 2050 hospital beds in the Gaza Strip (1500 in government hospitals and 550 in private clinics). The intensive care unit at Shifa Hospital was reinforced from 12 beds to 30. Since January 1, 2009 the unit has been at full capacity, even though since January 6, 2009, each day an average of five patients are sent from it to Egypt. The health system is maintaining a 75% capacity at Shifa while at other hospitals, the capacity is 95%. The treatment of chronic patients, including cancer patients, liver patients, dialysis patients and others, has stopped almost completely due to a shortage of hospital beds in the departments and of available doctors.
  • 850 chronic patients and hundreds of injured from the Israeli assaults need to be referred to medical treatment outside of Gaza since December 27, 2008. Of them, just three wounded and a few dozen ill patients have been evacuated to Israel while 250 injured were evacuated to Egypt through the Rafah Crossing. Since January 6, 2009 no additional patients have been transferred to Israel for medical care.
  • Shifa Hospital and the other government hospitals in Gaza city operated without electricity supply using generators for a week between January 3-10. Since January 10, 2009 the hospital has been receiving electricity for 8-12 hours a day. Throughout the month of January the other hospitals in the Gaza Strip have been receiving electricity for an average of 4-8 hours a day. The rest of the time the hospitals rely on generators. In at least one case when a generator broke down at the Al-Quds hospital it remains without any electricity supply and life-saving medical equipment stopped working.
  • Patients who are at home are exposed to heightened risk because of the shortage of electricity, which prevents the regular use of household medical equipment operated by electricity as well as heating devices.

***

Attacks on electricity, water and sewage infrastructures

Electricity lines, water and sewage pumps and waste collection and treatment facilities have been damaged by the bombardments. The battles taking place in the Gaza Strip prevent most repair work in the absence of security coordination with the army. The same is true of transporting fuel and equipment inside the Gaza Strip. Without electricity, it is impossible to pump water and treat sewage.

In the 14 months before the military campaign Israel prevented the supply of vital products to the Gaza Strip and thereby emptied it of the fuel, food, medicine and spare parts needed to cope with the severe results of the fighting. There is a severe shortage of fuel needed to operate the power plant in the Gaza Strip as well as the generators that back up the electricity system. There is a shortage of spare parts and equipment needed to perform repairs and maintenance.

Water and sewage systems

  • More than half a million people are completely cut off from access to clean water, mostly in Gaza City and the northern area. Some of those people have been without access to water for more than 10 days. Many water pipes have been damaged. Without electricity in the homes it is impossible to pump water to the high stories and the water reservoirs on the roofs of the high houses.
  • Sewage is flowing in the streets because of the shortage of electricity for sewage pumps and treatment facilities, due to the damage caused by the bombardments and because of breakdowns that could not be fixed in the absence of security coordination with the army and without the necessary spare parts. In Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahiya, Jabaliya and parts of Gaza City the sewage pumps are not working at all. Since January 3, 2009 it has been impossible to access a sewage pipe in Beit Hanoun that was bombed. Since then sewage has been flowing to the area.
  • Israel is preventing Water Authority technicians from accessing the Gaza City waste treatment facility. Since January 3, 2009 sewage has been flowing to the facility but it is not emptying because there is no one to operate the pumps. In addition on January 10, 2009 one of the sewage reservoirs there was bombed. It is believed that the sewage from the treatment facility and the sewage reservoir has begun to flood the area, but the damage cannot be assessed in the absence of security coordination.
  • Israel is prohibiting access to the Beit Lahiya sewage reservoirs, where the waste level rises every day in the central reservoir and the waste water threatens to flood the area. The reason is destruction of the generator on January 3, 2009 that is supposed to pump the waste into overflow lagoons. Despite requests from international organizations to avoid striking that sensitive area, the area was bombarded again on January 10, 2009 and damage was caused to buildings next to the reservoir. Floods in that area would risk the welfare and lives of some 10,000 residents living nearby.
  • The Gaza Strip water company needs many items that are in short supply including chlorine, pipes, valves and other items. Most of the equipment was ordered months ago but no permission was given to let it in.

Electricity system

  • At least a quarter of a million residents of Gaza have been living without electricity for 18 days. At any given moment, up to one million people are disconnected from the electricity supply, which makes it difficult to access water, use medical equipment, preserves and refrigerate food and heat homes.
  • Six of 12 high-voltage lines supplying electricity from Israel and from Egypt are not working because of damage caused by the bombardments. The Gaza power plant has been working since January 10, 2009 very partially (at 38% capacity) and manufacturing only 30 MW a day. As a result, the Gaza Strip is receiving a supply of only 48% of the required amount of electricity, at most. It is estimated that because of local breakdowns of lines, the amount of electricity reaching consumers is much smaller.
  • The amount of industrial diesel available at the power plant is 500,000 liters, the amount needed for one single day to operate the three turbines. Another 369,000 liters were transferred to the Palestinian side of the Nahal Oz terminal but cannot be shipped to the power plant because of the absence of security coordination.
  • On the night before Tuesday, January 13, 2009, Israel bombed the electric company's warehouse in Gaza, causing tremendous damage including damage to transformers, cables, low voltage disconnect pillars and additional equipment. Israel had allowed the entrance of this equipment and spare parts into Gaza only four days earlier, after delaying the approval of its entry for months. The stores of the Gaza Electricity Distribution Company were empty before the military campaign since Israel has for months prevented the transfer of spare parts that were ordered and paid for.

***

A predictable humanitarian collapse

  • For the last 14 months Israel has deliberately and consistently restricted the transfer of fuel into the Gaza Strip as part of the Cabinet decision from September 19, 2007 authorizing punitive measures against the residents of Gaza. Instead of fulfilling its duty to provide the civil population with the necessary humanitarian products before launching the military campaign, the Israel drained the Gaza Strip of the fuel, food and equipment needed to cope with the severe results of the fighting.
  • In the two months preceding the military campaign Israel tightened the closure and deliberately drained the Gaza Strip of the industrial diesel needed to manufacture electricity, by preventing its transfer through the Nahal Oz terminal. During those two months Israel allowed the transfer of only 18% of the amount of industrial diesel needed to operate the Gaza power plant, which is only 28% of the amount of industrial diesel the Supreme Court ordered it to provide.
  • For more than three months Israel has been preventing the transfer of the spare parts needed by the Gaza Electricity Distribution Company (GEDCo) for its current operations. Even at this very moment spare parts are waiting at the Karni Crossing and the Ashdod port.