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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Senator from Minnesota is me, Al Franken

Those old enough to remember the original "Saturday Night Live" show from the 1970s will remember this signature line from Franken.

But you know, it was a statistical tie, and you have to blame not only Norm Coleman for dragging it out all these months but also, quite frankly, half of the voters of Minnesota for voting for such a wuss (ie Coleman) in the first place. I suppose they can be forgiven, however, since they did hand the state to Barack Obama.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Gaza: 1.5 million people trapped in despair

That's the conclusion of the International Committee of the Red Cross in a new report released today. You can read a summary and download the pdf at the link. Here are some of the basic conclusions:

This small coastal strip is cut off from the outside world. Even before the latest hostilities, drastic restrictions on the movement of people and goods imposed by the Israeli authorities, particularly since October 2007, had led to worsening poverty, rising unemployment and deteriorating public services such as health care, water and sanitation. Insufficient cooperation between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the Hamas administration in Gaza had also hit the provision of essential services. As a result, the people of Gaza were already experiencing a major crisis affecting all aspects of daily life when hostilities intensified in late December.

Six months later, restrictions on imports are making it impossible for Gazans to rebuild their lives. The quantities of goods now entering Gaza fall well short of what is required to meet the population's needs. In May 2009, only 2,662 truckloads of goods entered Gaza from Israel, a decrease of almost 80 per cent compared to the 11,392 truckloads allowed in during April 2007, before Hamas took over the territory.

Israel created the conditions in Gaza that allowed Hamas to take over in the first place, because the Palestinian Authority was helpless and unable to help the Gazan people; now it blames Hamas for its own continuing blockade of Gaza. I raise again the question I posed on Saturday: Why does the United Nations and the United States allow Israel to make all of the decisions about territories it illegally occupies or illegally lays siege to, in the case of Gaza? It is long past time for the international community to take these territories away from Israel, guarantee Israel's security, and create the conditions for a viable Palestinian state. Israel will never do it unless it is forced to.

Photo:Ezbet Abd Rabo, Gaza North, May 2009. ©ICRC / M. Al Baba

Justice denied in Madoff sentencing. Since Madoff is already 71 years old, it is unlikely that he will ever serve more than a fraction of his 150 year prison sentence. Like so many white collar criminals, he got off lightly...

Iran and the left. While I have expressed skepticism on this blog about whether the Iranian elections really were rigged (at least to the extent that Ahmadinejad did not really win), apparently some of my fellow leftists think that the current protests in that country are inspired by the CIA and the Obama administration and that somehow Ahmadinejad is the real progressive in all this. Journalist Reese Erlich, author of "The Iran Agenda," directs some common sense against such nonsense in a post on Commondreams.org.


Racial profiling by French police. Anyone who has lived or spent time in France, if they are honest, knows that the police stop non-white people much more often than whites, and often on the flimsiest of pretexts. A new study by the Soros Foundation funded Open Society Justice Initiative and the French research agency CNRS, reported in the June 30 International Herald Tribune, shows just how much more often:

Racial and ethnic profiling by the police is illegal in France, but the study of more than 500 stops at major Parisian transit stations showed that those who appeared to be of Arab origin were at least 7.5 times more likely than whites to be stopped, and that those perceived to be black — of sub-Saharan African or Caribbean origin — were six times more likely than whites to be stopped.

Racism among whites has long been endemic to French society, especially among the older generations. Many French are very critical of the United States, and often for good reasons, but they were humbled when Barack Obama was elected: The day a Black or even North African candidate could become president of France is still very far off...

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Don't do it!

The Obama administration is considering issuing an executive order that would allow so-called "preventive detention" of terrorism suspects without charge or trial. This has been coming for a long time, because the President is searching for a way to go back on his promise to close Guantanamo by next January.

Such an order would be odious, unconstitutional, and make the U.S. no different than other countries around the world that feel free to lock people in jail and throw away the key. It would also, of course, continue and endorse the Bush administration's position that the Constitution can be suspended at will, even though the U.S. Supreme Court--despite its current makeup--has ruled otherwise several times.

Now, just why is this happening? The New York Times, which reports on this today, provides some of the reasons:

... the possibility of the order appeared to reflect increasing frustration within the administration over the difficulties posed by the effort to meet Mr. Obama’s commitment to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, by January and the dwindling options for dealing with the detainees before then.At the heart of the issue are more than 200 men being held at Guantánamo, in some cases for years. Initially, the administration had hoped that most could either be sent back to their home countries or tried in criminal courts in the United States. But emptying the prisonhas proved politically difficult.

And:

Officials acknowledge that they have had trouble persuading other countries to accept detainees, and it now appears that some detainees — as many as several dozen — are unlikely candidates for criminal trials because of legal issues, including having evidence against them that was obtained by coerced interrogations.

Legislation remains an option, officials said, but the possibility of an executive order, which would bypass Congress, seems to indicate that the administration fears it may be unable to reach an agreement with lawmakers on a new detention system to replace Guantánamo. The White House has been unable to effectively counter resistance to transferring detainees to the United States.

Let's just deal with that last point for a moment. The Obama administration has encountered resistance even to transferring detainees to maximum security federal prisons in the United States. So what? The decision about who is held in which federal prison is not made by local citizens, nor by squawking members of Congress, but by the Justice Department, and that's the way it should be. In this situation, the way to "counter resistance" is to do what is necessary, take the political flak and make the necessary explanations, and move on. But it would appear that the Obama administration might prefer to tear up the Constitution instead.

As for holding people without charge and without trial: That's what despots do. That's what the Iranian government does. That's what China does. That's what the Bush administration did. Is that the club we want to be members of?

PS--Sometimes we have to face the consequences of our own actions. If some detainees can't be brought to trial because the evidence against them was obtained by torture (meaning, of course, that the evidence might be wrong), then they have to be released, like it or not. Sometimes justice is not pretty, but at least we would know it's justice.

Salient comment... as usual from Glenn Greenwald, on the contemplated executive order.

Unlikely ally for residents of West Bank. It's good to see yet another article, this time in Sunday's New York Times, that is sympathetic with the plight of the Palestinians. This one is about an Israeli plumber and activist (who is also gay) in the Hebron Hills, where a particularly nasty group of settlers has been trying to prevent local residents from farming their land. It used to be that Israelis could simply count on anti-Arab racism (and boy, was there plenty of it in the United States when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s) to garner support from much of the rest of the world, but those days are on the wane. The key to Middle East peace is American Jews and their consciences: Only they can put the kind of pressure on both the U.S. and Israeli governments that is needed to make a just peace with the Palestinians.

Israeli settlements primer. Sunday's Los Angeles Times features a useful guide to the history and meaning of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights by Gershom Gorenberg. Settlements have always been the smoking gun of Israel's real intentions: To take over as much Palestinian land as possible and create facts on the ground that are difficult or impossible to reverse. Only Obama--oh, and by the way, the rest of the amazingly cowardly international community, including the Europeans, who have allowed Israel to call the shots for 42 years in territory that does not belong to it--stands in the way. Check out Gorenberg's latest blog post at southjerusalem.com, where he exposes the bullshit about settlements currently being dished out by the Israeli government.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sharon Begley smackdown of evolutionary psychology

Newsweek science writer Sharon Begley pens an often wickedly funny critique of evolutionary psychology this week, and I blog about it briefly on Science's Origins blog (see the blog for the link as well as more about Begley, one of the best in the business.) Begley laments that the theory that modern human behavior, ranging from rape to mate choice to warfare, has its origins in Stone Age evolutionary adaptations continues to be very popular in the mass media despite what she argues is dwindling scientific support for it.

My blog is preceded by a detailed and thoughtful post by my colleague Ann Gibbons on the disturbing implications of paying a finder's fee to the discoverers of the "Iceman," aka Ötzi, the 5300 year old mummified Neolithic guy from the Tyrolean Alps. Ann's post was prompted by an earlier one from yet another colleague, archaeology writer Heather Pringle, in her "Beyond Stone and Bone" blog for Archaeology magazine.

EP update June 30. A very interesting critique of Begley's critique on the Huffington Post by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. (Wilson, by the way, is the son of Sloan Wilson, author of the 1950s classic novel "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.")

Science Friday. Swine flu hits hogs in Argentina. A ScienceInsider post by my colleague Martin Enserink.

No charges for UC Santa Barbara professor. InsideHigherEd.com reports that William I. Robinson has been cleared by a faculty committee in the case involving emails to students comparing Israeli actions with those of the Nazis. A victory for academic freedom, not to mention the truth. But Robinson's supporters say it isn't over, because the university needs to be held accountable for the chilling effects of pursuing Robinson in the first place. Here is more from the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB.

Clarence Thomas says strip those students. Some U.S. Supreme Court cases are close, 5-4, some are unanimous, and some in between. But when there is an 8-1 decision upholding Constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure, is it hard to guess who the one dissenter is? Apparently not, as anyone could have divined (I certainly did before reading beyond the headlines) that Clarence Thomas would be the one vote in favor of school officials who strip-searched Arizona teenager Savana Redding, suspecting her wrongly of harboring some contraband pills. Here's a guy who is still kissing the asses of the people who nominated and supported him for the high court, even when he no longer needs to--or, perhaps that is not fair, perhaps he is just a right-wing ideologue all on his own initiative. Either way, we can look forward to the day when he is always in the dissenting minority...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sasha and Malia: No more ice cream until Iran is free!























































I know I'm coming in late on this, but I gather that the right-wing blogosphere has been going bananas because President Barack Obama took his daughters out for ice cream while demonstrators in Iran were fighting for democracy. Indeed! As a matter of fact, I think that Sasha and Malia should be denied treats of any sort until the current Iranian regime is overthrown. And why stop there? I will bet those girls are allowed to watch television while censorship reigns in China, to play Monopoly while the financial crisis is ruining our families, and to live in a nice big White House while some folks are homeless in the streets. Does Obama have no shame?

And please be assured that I am no hypocrite. I have just grounded my own teenage daughter and put her on a bread and water diet until Tibet is free.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Ancient Waves of (Wild) Grain

I've been neglecting the science segment of this blog, but today on Science's online news service (ScienceNOW) I write about a paper reporting what may well be the world's earliest known granaries. The link is free for 4 weeks and then goes behind the paying wall, but here is the lede which I hope will interest you in reading the rest:

We should all give thanks to the first farmers. Had they not begun domesticating plants and animals more than 10,000 years ago, we might still be hunting and gathering and missing out on all the blessings and curses of civilization. Yet before the agricultural revolution could really take off, people had to find a way to store their produce in between harvests. Archaeologists working in Jordan now claim to have found the remains of several granaries possibly used to store wild barley, the oldest known, and dated nearly 1000 years before the first domesticated cereals.

Be sure to read the rest at the link.

Photo: An ancient granary under excavation at Dhra' in Jordan/Copyright University of Notre Dame.

More on grain. One of my sources for the online story, Dorian Fuller at University College London, has posted more detailed comments on the Archaeobotanist blog.

Can we outlaw leaf blowers everywhere?



A waste of fossil fuels, a waste of human energy, and quite frankly, a scam on those people who can afford gardeners because these guys spend all their time blowing leaves around (I have observed this many times) and running up the timeclock--which would be fine except the rest of us suffer from noise and greenhouse gas pollution. And can someone tell me why having a few leaves here and there on the grass is so terrible?

Something else that should be abolished. Israeli "settlements" in the West Bank. Tony Judt makes the case today in a New York Times opinion piece, although he provides little hope that it will ever happen.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

MSM reporter David Rohde escapes Taliban

David Rohde, who while at the Christian Science Monitor was one of the first journalists to expose the Serb massacre of 8000 Muslim men at Srebrenica, has escaped from seven months of captivity by the Taliban along with a colleague, Tahir Ludin. His current employer, the New York Times, kept his capture pretty much under wraps all this time, although obviously a lot of people--especially journalists--knew all about it.

Rohde is a sterling example of the fact that despite the burgeoning and often blathering Blogosphere, Twittersphere, etc., we still need the "Mainstream Media" to keep us informed; and indeed there is no real substitute for it, not "citizen journalism" nor bloggers who usually rely on the MSM for their facts at the same time they are criticizing it.

In other words, we need news organizations with budgets big enough to support the kind of intrepid and courageous reporting that Rohde and his colleagues do every day. The big question is where those budgets are going to come from. If corporate America can't provide them--and perhaps that ultimately is just as well, because one valid criticism of the MSM is its corporate biases--then We the People need to do so ourselves. One very interesting idea that has been floated is to fund news organizations through endowments, which could be one element in a mix of many solutions (another encouraging development was the recent decision of Associated Press to begin distributing investigative reports by nonprofit outfits such as ProPublica.)

So yes, criticize the MSM all you want, but until we have bloggers with the budgets and the guts of reporters like David Rohde, it is all talk (or keystrokes) and little action.

Photo: David Rohde discusses how he reported the series of stories about suspected mass graves in Bosnia during Prof. Anne Nelson's International Reporting Class at Columbia University. Credit: Ian Wilhelm.

Another story we need the MSM to do for us. In today's Times, an investigation into botched prostrate cancer treatments at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Philadelphia.

Obama and the fly. Now, there's a man who is in control--even of nature as it buzzes around him. As critical as I am of Obama about a number of things, there is no escaping the fact that we now have one of the most intelligent, interesting, and physically alert presidents in U.S. history, and it is hard not to marvel at it (and perhaps even wonder if Americans really deserve him, given how incredibly stupid they are capable of being.)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Did Obama rig the 2008 election?

I'm just as willing as anyone to believe that the Iranian election was rigged; and of course I condemn the brutal suppression of demonstrators in Tehran and other cities who think they were robbed of victory.

All I ask is some serious evidence that the election really was crooked, and I mean better evidence than has been making the rounds so far. For example, the normally sage Juan Cole doubts the election was on the level because people apparently did not vote along the ethnic lines he would have predicted; Cole also raises other indications that the election returns do not correspond to what would be expected according to the past behavior of people in various regions and cities.

Interestingly, however, Nate Silver, whose predictions about the U.S. primaries and general election turned out to be so accurate last year, questions some other "statistical" evidence making the rounds in Iran and elsewhere purporting to show the election was stolen.

Perhaps stronger evidence of fraud is out there, and will be forthcoming soon. Meanwhile, it does not make sense to me to base such conclusions on fuzzy assumptions about how people should have voted. By that standard, John McCain most certainly won the 2008 presidential election. I mean, come on, who can really believe that a Black guy named Barack Obama won Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, Virginia, Iowa, Washington state, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc? Clearly rigged, as we know how racist and right wing so many of the people in those states really are.

Of course, the current Iranian government may soon prove to its people that it does not deserve to be in power, and what is happening in the streets may ultimately turn out to be more important than what happened at the ballot box. But unfortunately, we may never really know what that was...

PS--Some people, including those who should know better, are putting a lot of stock in an obviously forged "letter" supposedly sent by Iran's Interior Minister to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Another contrarian view on Iran. In the Guardian, by Seumas Milne, who questions the evidence that the election was fraudulent and examines how it all fits into U.S. global strategy. A situation like this requires the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in one's head and to engage in subtle thinking: As brutal and intolerable as the government repression of the protests is, Western sympathizers should not automatically assume that the opposition represents the majority of Iranians. On the other hand, heavy-handed government actions may eventually tip that balance.

Judging John Yoo
























Ady Barkan has a particularly clear and cogent commentary on Slate, posted Friday, about the possible consequences of Judge Jeffrey White's ruling that Joseph Padilla's lawsuit against John Yoo could go forward. It's worth a read, especially since White was appointed by none other than George W. Bush, and yet his ruling is as much an embarrassment to the Obama administration--which is trying hard to bury the past sins of its predecessor--as to Bush and his cronies. As Barkan puts it:

White's decision is the first of its kind: Until now, although other lawsuits have been brought, no government official has faced personal liability for his role in the torture or deaths of detainees. But it probably won't be the last. These cases are just beginning to address the fraught questions of justice that have emerged in the aftermath of the Bush era—what atrocities were committed in the name of national security, who bears responsibility, and how should they be punished? Although neither the Obama administration nor most members of Congress want to deal with these questions directly, they're even more opposed to letting judges (and juries) take a crack at them. Padilla v. Yoo is an example of a surprising development: a conservative judge putting pressure on the Democrats in Washington to create some system of accountability for the Bush administration. It could help spawn more such rulings.

Barkan includes a particularly interesting quote from White's ruling:

Summarizing recent reports about Obama's disinterest in criminal prosecution and the lack of progress in Congress on a truth and reconciliation commission, the judge wrote that "[a]lthough the Court does not rely on the state of current events to support its decision, it is aware that other branches of government and professional forums have not acted to provide an alternative remedy for the constitutional violations alleged in this case."

It's not too late for Obama and Congress to change course--unless, of course, they are relying on the conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court to do their dirty work of covering up Constitutional violations for the sake of political expediency. They can't be that cynical, can they? Can they?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Obama hypocrisy on gay marriage

The New York Times nails President Obama and his Justice Department in an editorial today entitled "A Bad Call on Gay Rights." At issue is the administration's indefensible defense of the Defense of Marriage Act, an abomination that was signed into in 1996 law by President Bill Clinton, never a faithful friend of gay rights even in the best of times.

The basic facts, as the Times points out:

A gay couple married under California law is challenging the act in federal court. In its brief, the Justice Department argues that the couple lack legal standing to do so. It goes on to contend that even if they have standing, the case should be dismissed on the merits.

The brief insists it is reasonable for states to favor heterosexual marriages because they are the “traditional and universally recognized form of marriage.” In arguing that other states do not have to recognize same-sex marriages under the Constitution’s “full faith and credit” clause, the Justice Department cites decades-old cases ruling that states do not have to recognize marriages between cousins or an uncle and a niece.

The couple is Christopher Hammer and Arthur Smelt, who are pictured above.

An article a few days ago on sfgate.com explained the administration's position:

The Justice Department issued a statement saying Obama wants the law repealed "because it prevents LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) couples from being granted equal rights and benefits. However, until Congress passes legislation repealing the law, the administration will continue to defend the statute when it is challenged in the justice system."

Now exactly why will the Obama Justice Department continue to defend the statute? Because it is on the books? By that logic, the Justice Department will also have to prosecute the Bush administration officials who authorized and carried out torture, because there are laws on the books against that too. Better yet, let's see Obama actually carry out his campaign promises to get the Defense of Marriage Act repealed. And meanwhile, how about if the Justice Department simply steps aside and let justice take its course?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Israelis not really all that worried about Iran's nukes?

Could it be that all the blather about a nuclear-armed Iran is just Israeli leaders' way of distracting us from the real matter at hand, the peace process with the Palestinians?

Suggestions this could be the case come from a Tel Aviv University poll reported by Ha'aretz yesterday, in which only a minority of Israeli respondents thought life would change very much if Iran got the bomb. Here is how the daily paper put it:

Only one in five Israeli Jews believes a nuclear-armed Iran would try to destroy Israel and most see life continuing as normal should the Islamic Republic get the bomb, an opinion poll published on Sunday found.

Read the rest at the link. Could it be that most Israelis know that Iranian President Ahmadinejad
never really threatened to "wipe Israel off the map"?

I will be back later with some thoughts on Netanyahu's speech, which the Obama administration so far is treating as some sort of breakthrough instead of the brilliant but transparent stalling tactic it really represents.

Rainbow over Çatalhöyük

The archaeology team working at 9500 year old Neolithic Çatalhöyük, one of the largest early farming sites ever investigated, has shown up and begun this season's work. This beautiful photo by Jason Quinlan depicts the shelter over the 4040 area, where a lot of recent discoveries have been made.

I will be there myself the third week of August and report back on my own experiences. Meanwhile, to learn more about this site, pivotal in the rise of early civilization, read my book "The Goddess and the Bull" (see information on strip at left.)

Thanks to Jason Quinlan, the dig's chief media, image and Web person, for permission to publish this photo.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

It's time to put the health insurance industry out of business (and us out of our misery)

Why? The story of a Los Angeles woman who is facing a 58% increase in her insurance premium from Blue Shield, related by David Lazarus in today's Los Angeles Times, provides plenty of reasons. And what better time than when the U.S. economy is undergoing a major restructuring anyway? Let's take all the premiums Americans and their employers are paying to the profit-making health insurance industry, average it all out so that risk and cost is shared by everyone equally, and create a public plan just like the ones that nearly every other civilized industrialized nation on the planet has managed to put together. And don't be surprised if such a plan turns out to be cheaper and more efficient--especially since the overhead created by the legions of health insurance employees whose only job seems to be to figure out how to deny benefits to policyholders will be eliminated.

At the least, let such a program compete with the medical profiteers. And those profiteers include the members of the American Medical Association, which wants to preclude any sort of public plan without at the same time putting strict controls on the private health industry. We need a new generation of doctors whose primary motivation is public service and not getting rich; we could start by subsidizing their medical education so they won't be stuck with big fat loans and a big fat sense of entitlement.

Photo: Private health insurance, not a pretty picture.

PS--I assume many readers saw this article which explains a lot about why the battle for comprehensive health care is an uphill one. Briefly, our politicians are on the take.

Follow the money. I don't do PR for the Times, but they are increasingly the paper of record these days as all around them fold and die. Anyway, this piece about the financial interests of health care players from insurance companies to doctors, entitled "Following the Money," does everything necessary except ask why we should be catering to the elite special interests who profit off of the health care needs of hundreds of millions of people. If they are pulling the strings, that's the first thing that needs to be changed. We shall see whether the Obama administration has the guts to do it (so far the answer is no.) And the stakes are high for the health industry profiteers: Once a public plan is in place, it is the beginning of the end for them, except perhaps the kind of specialty markets (top up insurance, special medical procedures, etc.) that are permitted even in countries with national health plans.

Nonprofit investigative journalism gets a boost. From the Associated Press, according to this New York Times item. That could be good news for everyone, or at least everyone who wants to be well informed (I realize that's not everyone these days.)

Yoo and you. Let's hope a judge's decision to let Joseph Padilla's lawsuit against John Yoo go forward, for setting in motion the chain of events that got Padilla tortured, is a sign of a slippery slope to come for the torture lobby.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Jonathan Tasini for U.S. Senate in New York



Back in 2006, when Hillary Clinton was preparing to run for re-election as a U.S. Senator from New York, she was challenged in the Democratic Party primary by someone much more progressive than she: My old friend and colleague Jonathan Tasini. Jonathan lost, of course, but he stood on a principled platform of opposition to the Iraq war that Clinton had voted for, as well as a whole host of progressive positions Clinton has at best only pretended to uphold.

Yesterday, Jonathan announced (see video above) that he will again be running, this time for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate against Kirsten Gillibrand in 2010. He deserves your vote, if you live in New York, and at least your financial support if you don't. For more information on Jonathan, who he is, and where he stands on the issues, please see his Web site.

Afterthought. And if you think we don't need truly progressive Democrats in the Senate, just consider the pickle the Obama administration has gotten itself into with its flip-flops and cave-ins over the Guantanamo detainees. So now Obama wants the power to imprison alleged terrorists indefinitely without having to prove that they are indeed dangerous; and it wants to transfer detainees to other countries without giving them the proof they need that they are not dangerous. The way for Americans to clean up the mess left by the Bush administration is to admit that they were wrong, and being wrong means making certain sacrifices if the principles of law and justice are to be upheld. You can't have it both ways.

Update: I'm a fan of Gail Collins but her failure to even mention Tasini in an 18 June Times column about this Senate race is pretty poor form.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Israel's (and America's) finest

A video by Max Blumenthal and Joseph Dana made in Jerusalem several days ago, on the eve of President Obama's visit to Cairo. Blumenthal explains the background to the clip. Some of the voices are clearly American. Jewish fascism (and racism, listen carefully) is alive and well.



American kids trapped in Gaza.The latest press release from the Israeli NGO Gisha:

Catch 22, Gaza Closure Style:

Two American Boys Can't Leave Gaza Because They Can't Renew Passports;

Can't Renew Passports Because They Can't Leave Gaza.

· The Israeli-imposed closure – and American bureaucratic requirements – have trapped the children and their parents in Gaza - indefinitely.

· Without passports for his children, their US-educated father cannot reach his studies at a university in Russia.

· The family's plight exemplifies draconian restrictions on travel for Gaza residents – including hundreds of students pursuing higher education.

Sunday, June 7, 2009Gisha-Legal Center for Freedom of Movement today petitioned the Beer-Sheva District Court on behalf of the Elkafarna family, demanding that Israel allow its two children, U.S. citizens, to reach the U.S. consulate in east Jerusalem in order to renew their passports. Because the U.S. does not provide consular services in Gaza, Elias and Qasem, aged 5 and 6, together with their parents, residents of Gaza, need permits from the military to cross through Israel, in order to appear personally at the consulate.

The children, who do not have Palestinian ID cards, need to renew their passports immediately in order to travel with their parents to Russia, where their father, Kamal, has been accepted for an advanced degree program in Project Management, not available in Gaza. The visas for Kamal and his wife will expire on June 16, but they can't leave without their children.

Israel has ignored requests to permit the family to leave Gaza via Erez Crossing, in order to reach the US consulate. The family can't even try to leave Gaza during one of the rare openings of Rafah Crossing, because one of the child's passports has already expired. The second child's passport will expire next month.

The children, American citizens, are caught in a Catch 22 that illustrates the draconian nature of the two-year long closure of Gaza. They cannot leave Gaza because they can't renew their passports, and they can't renew their passports because they can't leave Gaza. The parents, of course, must accompany their children to east Jerusalem and wish to continue from there to Russia via Jordan.

Kamal Elkafarna, a lecturer in systems engineering in the Palestine Technical College, holds a Master's Degree in systems engineering from George Washington University in D.C., thanks to a prestigious scholarship from USAID.

Kamal Elkafarna: “The field in which I wish to develop professionally will contribute to my community in Gaza. When a technology project is implemented in hospitals or schools, it is essential to have people with broad-based knowledge – managerial and technical – to supervise the project”.

According to Tamar Feldman of Gisha, who wrote the court petition: "The Elkafarna family's plight is just one example of how the closure of Gaza – led by Israel but with the tacit acceptance of the international community – is trapping 1.5 million people, including hundreds of students accepted for study abroad".

New York Times helped Cheney get it wrong

The Times' Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, sets the record straight today (too late, as usual) about a May 21 story reporting on a Pentagon report claiming that one out of seven detainees released from Guantanamo "rejoined" terrorist activities. Cheney made use of his claim in a speech assailing Obama's plans to close the prison.

But it turns out that the report, and the Times' report on the report, were inaccurate and misleading. As Hoyt writes,

But the article on which he based that statement was seriously flawed and greatly overplayed. It demonstrated again the dangers when editors run with exclusive leaked material in politically charged circumstances and fail to push back skeptically. The lapse is especially unfortunate at The Times, given its history in covering the run-up to the Iraq war.

The article seemed to adopt the Pentagon’s contention that freed prisoners had “returned” to terrorism, ignoring independent reporting by The Times and others that some of them may not have been involved in terrorism before but were radicalized at Guantánamo. It failed to distinguish between former prisoners suspected of new acts of terrorism — more than half the cases — and those supposedly confirmed to have rejoined jihad against the West. Had only confirmed cases been considered, one in seven would have changed to one in 20.

Most of the caveats about the report were deep in the article, where they could hardly offset the impact of the headline, the first paragraph and the prominent position on Page 1.

Hoyt writes that the problems with the story surfaced immediately, and credits Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting--an organization the Times normally prefers to pretend does not exist--for its role in questioning the story's accuracy:

I started hearing from readers immediately, and the volume of protest picked up after FAIR, a liberal media watchdog group, posted a critique of the article.

Times editors recognized some of the problems quickly. Bill Keller, the executive editor, said he came to work that day to find a message from a colleague disputing the ‘rejoined’ language. At Keller’s direction, the headline and the first paragraph were changed on the Web version. When I asked him to take another look at it last week, he said changes could have gone further and pointed out, “as we have many times in other stories, that the claim that Guantánamo inmates were ever engaged in terrorist or militant activities is much disputed.”

Hoyt goes on to list all the other reporters and editors who found fault with the story. All in all, he does a good job of critiquing the Times' errors. Just one problem: The original article ran at the top of page one of the May 21 edition. According to the Times' Web site, Hoyt's Public Editor analysis ran on "page WK8 of the New York edition" of today's paper. Score another one for Cheney.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Obama and the head scarf

Barack Obama said many important and interesting things in his Cairo speech today, and here is one comment I especially appreciated:

... it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.

This is exactly right. Attempts to prohibit women from freely choosing to wear head scarves or other clothing that expresses their religious beliefs is, under the guise of defending women's right to choose or keeping religion out of public places such as schools, an act of hostility towards their religion and their liberties. In France, for example, many liberals and even leftists have managed to convince themselves that this is a wise policy, when it is not only oppressive but provocative and likely to backfire. Moreover, it is the height of hypocrisy because in France Christian students are allowed to wear crosses around their necks as long as they are "discreet."

Freedom of religion is just as important as freedom from religion.

And I hope I don't need to apologize for using a photo of a beautiful woman to illustrate this post.

Interfering in Israel's "internal affairs"? Glenn Greenwald has a good post today on the reaction to Obama's putting the squeeze on Israel over its settlements in Palestine. Apparently the Israelis think Obama is meddling in their private business. Excuse me? An occupation, like that of the West Bank, is an international issue subject to international law. Now if Obama said that Jews and Arabs should be allowed to marry in Israel, which they currently are not, that might be meddling in Israel's internal affairs... or, on the other hand, perhaps it would be championing human rights. I guess there is no such thing as "internal affairs" in today's world.

Even American Jews are realizing the jig is up for Israeli settlements. See this editorial in the Jewish Daily Forward for evidence (with thanks to Talking Points Memo.)

Empathy on the Supreme Court? A superb column by Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times about how a little empathy in 1927 might have spared thousands of people from being sterilized against their will by eugenicists.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Is the game up for Israel?

For decades, successive U.S. presidents and governments have provided political cover for Israel's real intentions: Grab as much Palestinian land as possible and make a viable Palestinian state impossible. That game may now be over, thanks to what increasingly appears to be a clever strategy developed by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton: Make illegal settlements the main issue and don't change the subject.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the U.S. call for a settlement freeze, and the settlers themselves have shown their true colors by attacking Palestinians and burning their fields in an incident near the settlement of Nizhar yesterday.

Basically, the Obama administration seems to be giving the Israelis just enough rope to hang themselves, and the Jewish state is getting little help on this score from its usual American allies, as Haaretz reports today.

The big question now, of course, is what Obama and Clinton will do if Israel continues to be intransigent. A lot depends on how much pressure they are feeling from the rest of us. But Obama could not have picked a better time to give a speech to the Muslim world from Cairo--that's an audience that will be expecting much more than just words.

A little comic relief before Obama's speech in Cairo today (Thursday.) The Israelis are complaining that Obama won't acknowledge that Bush said they could continue settlement activity as long as they made it look as though they were honoring a freeze, according to the New York Times. The newspaper quotes some Bush officials anonymously saying that they agreed to no such thing, another saying they did, etc. Of course, settlement activity is illegal under any circumstances but it would not be the first time that either Israel or the Bush administration violated international law. But very amusing that the Israelis would pull such a desperate stunt at this late hour. Anything to distract people from the real issues at hand.

Europe not looking so shabby during economic crisis? A column by Paul Taylor in the New York Times a couple of days ago points out that European partnerships between government and labor are cushioning the blow of hard times. If we must have capitalism, the version with the human face--as opposed to naked American brutality--seems most desirable.