Strangers in the Crowd
“The system of fear is back,” whispers an Egyptian political activist. “It is showing its teeth, saying ‘I’m baaack.’” The protest veteran speaks sotto voce even though he is sitting in his living room. And that, he points out, is the biggest change since the heady days of 2011, after the fall of Husni Mubarak, and even since the more somber times of 2012 and 2013.
Even at home, this activist feels weighed down by an atmosphere heavy with apprehension and outright pessimism. (All names of persons interviewed for this piece are withheld for their safety.) The fervent hopes of the immediate post-Mubarak era are dashed, and to many observers Egypt’s political scene is darker than under the deposed dictator. The political space that opened up over the last four years is shrinking again, and public opinion has largely turned not only against the Society of Muslim Brothers, the bête noire of the new order, but also against the forces that sought to make a revolution out of Mubarak’s overthrow.
Revolutionaries -- those who took seriously the 2011 uprising’s call for “bread, freedom and social justice” -- are vilified in the Egyptian media as foreign agents intent on ruining the nation. Leftist and liberal activists are used to the opprobrium. For much of 2011 and 2012, the ruling junta of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) labeled them as thugs and thieves. After the Muslim Brothers took power in mid-2012, the Islamist-led government portrayed revolutionary protesters as spies, unbelievers and prostitutes.
The difference now appears to be that revolutionaries stand by themselves facing the storm. The April 6 movement, with its links to organized labor, is now illegal. The Muslim Brothers, occasional allies in the past, are outlaws, too, rounded up or driven back underground. Most important of all, the masses are gone from the streets, and now they want the streets clear of disruptive marches and rallies. As one activist put it: “There is no point in public activism now. We will go to jail alone. And there, we will simply rot away alone.”
Alaa Abd El Fattah, Ahmad Douma, Ahmad Mahir, Sanaa Seif, Yara Sallam and Mahienour El Massry -- a who’s who of contemporary Egyptian activism -- are all in jail for violating the draconian protest law (in addition to trumped-up charges such as assaulting a police officer, spreading chaos, vandalizing public property and incitement to violence). These men and women are on hunger strike in a desperate attempt to make their voices heard. All the while, the order led by President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi allows corrupt Mubarak family associates such as Ahmad ‘Izz back onto the political and economic stage. The blatant injustices leave a bitter taste in many mouths.
The revolutionaries are also disappointed in themselves. As one activist puts it, “We failed. We failed to organize. We failed to formulate viable alternatives that spoke to people’s direct needs and desires. We failed to unite on a social and political program, and instead there was internal bickering. The revolutionary movement was split and fragmented.”
Internal squabbles have indeed posed an obstacle. Yet external pressures should not be underestimated. Whether the military (backed by Mubarak-era remnants, the fuloul) or the Muslim Brothers, the revolutionary activists’ opponents could bring the resources of a state to bear. The authorities strove to quash the activist impulse with measures ranging from military tribunals and the infamous “virginity tests” (justified by SCAF spokesman Sisi) to prosecution for “insulting the president” and open torture.
But, again, according to the activists, the difference is that the public now looks the other way. One can only speculate as to why. Perhaps the idea of change is now associated with Mursi, who many Egyptians saw as an authoritarian trying to impose a particular Islamist identity upon the entire nation. Egyptians are also tired of the rollercoaster ride of the last four years, one that has seen more downs than ups. The economy is in dire straits; the health system is on its knees; education is in desperate need of reform; transport and traffic are a constant source of stress; and now electricity cuts of unprecedented scale add to the aggravation. The rhetoric of stability and security taps into a deep desire for normalcy.
The price of normalcy may be the vibrancy of political life. As the public looks the other way, citizens are imprisoned, tortured and killed on a daily basis in the name of “fighting terrorism” and “national security.” Yet for most Egyptians the numbers of dead remain just that -- numbers. Perhaps the war-on-terror propaganda works. Perhaps people are simply traumatized and cannot take any more misery.
For a few activists, turning away from politics is not an option, despite the huge personal costs: “The revolution grabbed me, and I cannot stop. I cannot turn back. I am emotionally imprisoned by it. I am the last one of my circle outside of jail, and I know I will go, too. The question is not if but when.” Many others, like the public at large, turn inward, away from the public sphere. As one young activist puts it, “Politics is a very bad investment in Egypt. It carries severe repercussions with regard to money, time and effort. You cannot even get a 5 percent return on the emotional investment you put into politics. So now I am trying to move away from my addiction, and listen to music, talk about different stuff and develop a new discourse with those around me.”
The cross-ideological ties of the late Mubarak years are badly frayed. An April 6 leader says: “We used to be in dialogue with the Islamist youth. But now, because of the frustration and rage with the current regime, they no longer listen and talk to us. We cannot control them anymore.”
Meanwhile, there are ominous developments in the region that may make Sisi look like the least bad option, both in Egypt and abroad. The beheadings carried out by the so-called Islamic State, the bombings of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis -- such acts may not only burnish Sisi’s anti-terrorist credentials, but also make his regime’s transgressions look less severe. Not surprisingly, a number of activists insinuate that militant groups like Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis were purposely created by the Egyptian state itself. After all, such groups facilitate the depiction of the region as embroiled in a zero-sum war between authoritarian rulers and Islamist radicals, the very dichotomy that served Mubarak and his ilk so well for so long even as it risked becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. We might never know the reality behind these groups. The problem, however, persists. As one activist states it, “The terrorist state creates more terrorists, and there is nothing we can do about it.”
There is a renewed crackdown on civil society, which the media also accuses of working on behalf of “foreign elements.” Civil society organizations have grown since the 2011 uprising, and sought to hold the government to account through the publication of reports and commentaries in both English and Arabic, as well as lawsuits and popular mobilizations. Many Egyptian NGOs are registered as profitmaking law firms to avoid falling under the control of the Ministry of Social Solidarity, which grants licenses only to charitable organizations focused on social welfare and development. Through this loophole, the government can close down organizations that it believes engage in political activity with funding from foreign donors. NGOs faced similar challenges under the SCAF and Mursi -- including the closure of unregistered NGOs in December 2011. Now all such entities face a deadline of November 10 to register with the ministry (and thereafter cease political activity) if they wish to avoid closure and prosecution. This measure comes after raids on NGO headquarters and personal threats to employees, many of whom now avoid the office.
As this campaign of repression proceeded, Human Rights Watch published a highly critical report on the August 2013 killings at Raba‘a and al-Nahda squares. The report accused the Egyptian state (and Sisi personally) of premeditating the murder of at least 817 protesters during the dispersal of occupations of the squares. In turn, the regime insisted that Human Rights Watch cooperated with a terrorist organization (the Muslim Brothers) and violated state sovereignty, as it conducted its investigations unregistered in Egypt. Police arrested a key witness cited in the report, Muhammad Tariq, a professor from Alexandria, and the authorities barred Human Right Watch staff from re-entering Egypt.
Some Egyptian human rights activists, though critical of the Mursi government, believe that “Raba‘a is the last card we have. We don’t have other options. It is the only way that we can expose the true face of the Egyptian state.” These activists are urging the European Human Rights Council to condemn Egypt for flagrant abuses. Such a determination would send a strong message not only to the Egyptian state but also to the dissident forces, who now feel more alone than ever.
Of course, attacks on civil society and human rights activists are not new in Egypt, but the public backing for this latest crackdown has a particularly demoralizing effect. For instance, it is easy to retort that the biggest recipient of foreign funding is the state itself -- whether the annual $1.3 billion in US military hardware or the increasingly large loans and investments from rich Gulf countries. But, in the current political climate, those who make such arguments are swimming against the tide. As one activist sums up, “We have to go into hibernation, to regroup and reflect on all that has gone wrong over the last three years. Then, hopefully, one day we can reemerge stronger.”
Is the hope misplaced? It often seems so, yet the cracks in the Egyptian order are so evident that they cannot forever be hidden under the carpet of national security. Social, economic and political conditions in Egypt are deteriorating, creating the potential for unrest. The question as always is whether the state can contain the disturbance, and what will happen if it fails.
The Massacre One Year Later
In Cairo this summer, there is scant appetite for anniversaries. The passage of one year since the critical events of the 2013 coup d’état scarcely attracts the public’s attention. There are few official ceremonies or rallies to mark the huge demonstrations on June 30 against Muhammad Mursi, the July 3 military takeover or the July 26 marches summoned by ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi to give himself popular cover in his self-styled fight against terrorism.
The near absence may seem conspicuous, but it should come as no surprise. It is understandable that a regime fixated on restoration would show little eagerness to celebrate its foundational moments. Sisi oversees an alliance of entrenched interests that is defined more by its efforts to recreate an allegedly stable past -- by wiping out the contentious political order brought into being after Husni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster -- than its attempts to articulate a novel vision for the future. From such a backward-looking standpoint, inaugural events carry hardly any meaning.
But the memory of the bloodiest day during the new regime’s establishment -- August 14, 2013 -- has been harder to neglect, even for the most enthusiastic cheerleaders of the state’s actions. On that day security forces killed more than 800 protesters, most of them unarmed, in and around Cairo’s Raba‘a al-‘Adawiyya square. Coming toward the end of the “weeks of killing” -- the serial fallout of the July coup, including killings of protesters by security forces, sectarian attacks on churches and armed clashes between civilians -- Raba‘a was the most horrific episode.
Human Rights Watch has called the event “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.” In a scathing report, released on Tuesday after a year-long investigation, the organization accused Egyptian authorities of having a premeditated plan to kill, with Interior Ministry officials anticipating thousands of deaths upon moving into the square. The report implicated top officials -- including Sisi, who was defense minister at the time, Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim, Special Forces head and commander of the Raba‘a operation Midhat al-Minshawi, intelligence chief Muhammad Farid Tuhami and others -- in possible crimes against humanity. Since, to this day, not a single police or army officer has been prosecuted in an Egyptian court for killings of protesters since June 30, 2013, Human Rights Watch called upon UN member states to establish an international commission of inquiry with a mandate to look into all of the human rights violations pursuant to the June 30 events.
In Egypt, the report provoked a spate of kneejerk reactions that hinged on two flimsy defenses: unfounded doubts about Human Rights Watch’s integrity and dubious claims that the state had no choice in doing what it did. The State Information Service began on Tuesday with a statement calling the report biased and describing its authors as disconnected from Egyptian society’s “intellectual and political orientations over the last three years.” Others wrongly accused Human Rights Watch of downplaying the threat posed by weapons belonging to participants in the sit-in. The report did acknowledge that police had found a few firearms; it simply went on to insist that the death toll among the protesters was completely out of proportion to any danger that may have faced the security forces.
With a few notable exceptions, the coverage in the following days parroted the past year’s official line: The Society of Muslim Brothers is a terrorist group; the protesters were carrying guns; the sit-in were a menace to public order; all avenues for peaceful resolution were exhausted; and protesters were given sufficient warning before the security forces moved in to disperse the crowd. Newspapers carried headlines warning of Muslim Brother plots of mayhem on the anniversary, and many ran lengthy stories purporting to expose the ugly truth behind the sit-in.
Sisi loyalists on private television stations were reliably grotesque. One audacious presenter praised the assault on the square as an act of liberation that restored the “state’s prestige” (haybat al-dawla), a phrase the blogger Baheyya calls the “perfect mystification” because it commands citizens both to fear and to revere the state’s authority. For partisans of the status quo, haybat al-dawla has become something of an ideology in its own right. The anchorman went on to propose a state-sponsored celebration to mark the day of the massacre. Less outrageous commentators described Raba‘a as a wound to the Egyptian body politic, vaguely invoking the need for social reconciliation but without assigning clear political responsibility for what happened. Discussion of wrongdoing by the state is largely obscured by a hegemonic narrative in which Raba‘a crowns a state crusade to quell a terrorist campaign that began as early as 2011 when Muslim Brother operatives and allies allegedly stormed Egypt’s prisons. Nor is there much recognition that the sit-in did not have to end the way it did.
The assault on Raba‘a was indeed a climax, but of a different sort. The brutal clearing of the square was the endpoint of a strategy pursued by Egyptian political elites of all stripes, but most fatefully by leaders of the security and intelligence apparatus, in which politics was treated as an existential question governed by zero-sum calculations. That “peaceful alternatives” were never seriously pursued, as former vice president Mohamed ElBaradei stressed in his letter of resignation on the day of the killings, has almost vanished from memory. Finishing the job was made easier by a hysterical media campaign to demonize Muslim Brothers as fifth columnists, creating a toxic climate where the public could consent to mass killing. The post-June 30 public mood, which had been poisoned by a kind of anti-politics that fetishized “stability” and yearned for a reversal of the uncertainty and disorder of the previous three and a half years no matter the cost, could not have been more favorable to the elite’s machinations.
The vigorous attempts by state officials, along with media and public figures, to justify the killings are signs that Raba‘a is an enduring trauma whose memory will not be easily expunged. Raba‘a is in fact the pivotal event of Egyptian politics after the coup. Even though, as Mosaab al-Shamy (one of the foremost photographers of the massacre) observed, the state works hard to scrub the public sphere clean of commemorative icons, Raba‘a is far from invisible. As competing narratives are made to serve rival political agendas, the very persistence of contestation over the facts suggests that the massacre will not die along with its victims.
But a serious public reckoning with what happened last August 14 does not appear imminent. Visibility is one thing, and accountability another entirely. The decision to clear Raba‘a with military force was transmitted down a clear chain of command, but that clarity has barely any significance in the current political atmosphere. With so few convictions of policemen or soldiers for the killing of protesters since 2011 -- and despite the Mubarak show trial -- a sense of impunity pervades Egypt’s security institutions. The perpetrators of the Raba‘a killings acted with little fear of consequences; they even had assurances from their commanders that “they would not be subjected to prosecution later on.”
Care was taken to guarantee the license to kill. One Interior Ministry general recently admitted to Associated Press reporters that the police took steps to conceal evidence even before the dispersal. Having learned from mistakes in Mubarak-era cover-ups, which allowed the ex-president and his top security officials to be put on trial, this time officers mixed ammunition from multiple storehouses and hid ammunition release logs.
Until there is honest discussion of what happened and genuine accountability, the memory of the Raba‘a massacre will haunt Egypt -- as will the possibility of a reprise.
State Department Taking Passports Away from Yemeni-Americans
Over the past year, dozens of Yemeni-Americans visiting their ancestral homeland have had their US passports summarily revoked or confiscated by the embassy in Sanaa without any clear legal basis, effectively stranding them outside the United States. Last month, a coalition of US civil rights groups submitted a report on this practice to the Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) pursuant to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. We asked Yaman Salahi and Nasrina Bargzie, staff attorneys at the National Security and Civil Rights Program at Asian Americans Advancing Justice: Asian Law Caucus who co-authored this report with eight other legal rights groups, to shed light on the issue.
How has the US government been taking passports away from Yemeni-Americans?
The experiences people report have the same essential ingredients. The typical tale involves a Yemeni-American man (all of our cases so far involve men) who has been living in the United States, as a US citizen, since childhood. As an adult, he travels to Yemen to visit his parents, wife or children, and needs to apply for a visa for his spouse or relative, or to document his children as US citizens born in Yemen. He requests an appointment, for which there is often a six-month wait. He travels hundreds of miles through politically unstable territory to reach the embassy in Sanaa. There, he typically waits several hours before being called. In the course of the appointment at the consular window, a law enforcement officer takes the petitioner away to an interrogation room for several hours. The officer aggressively lobs groundless accusations of fraud at him, sometimes accusing him of having another name, sometimes accusing him of lying about who his parents are. Keep in mind that this man has already proven, to the satisfaction of a US government official, that he is a US citizen, and no one has taken any action to challenge that. He’s got valid proof of US citizenship, like a Certificate of Citizenship, a Certificate of Naturalization or a Consular Report of Birth Abroad.
But that’s not enough. The officer doesn’t believe anything the man says and at this point is not vetting the application, but basically reinvestigating the man’s claim of citizenship -- an investigation with which the man has absolutely no obligation to cooperate. The officer then terrorizes the individual with threats that failure to confess could result in several years of prison time and denial of all of the family’s applications, which would be devastating to the family, subjecting them to indefinite separation. Sometimes there are also false promises that the officer just wants to help out, that everything will be fine and that all the paperwork will be processed as soon as a confession is signed. So, after hours in an interrogation room, with all of his identity papers and legal documents in the officer’s possession, without access to an attorney or other legal assistance, the individual feels like he has no choice but to sign the papers. Of course, once the papers are signed, many people are simply dismissed from the embassy. Their passports are not returned, and their applications are not approved. No notice, no explanation, no instructions for appealing or for returning to the United States.
The use of forced confessions is especially alarming; if the government had hard proof of fraud, it wouldn’t need confessions. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would sign one and risk losing everything without being coerced or misled. That may explain why the reported encounters have the hallmarks of coercion -- such as threats of harm and hours of detention in an interrogation room -- and why the people who signed papers were generally surprised by what happened to them next. They were stuck for months without passports and without any help from the embassy. Advocates have reported that at subsequent hearings challenging passport revocations, the government’s sole piece of evidence was these sworn confessions. There was no corroboration. This fact puts the entire practice on very shaky ground, and the risk of error is very high.
We often hear about the US in Yemen through the prism of drone strikes, such as the killings of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaqi and his teenage son 'Abd al-Rahman. How does this practice of revoking and confiscating passports fit into US Yemen policy?
The US government’s foreign policy priorities in Yemen have essentially redefined the entire country as a battleground and reduced its people to nothing more than security threats. This mentality explains the unfair and harsh treatment of Yemeni-Americans at the US Embassy in Sanaa. A June 2010 State Department report explains that “Embassy Sanaa…has become the key forward operating base for the broad spectrum of counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” a remarkable description of an embassy, a place which we normally envision as a diplomatic outpost or a service center for citizens abroad.
There is nothing new about efforts to prevent immigration fraud, but the mobilization of a national security framework to rationalize attendant abuses is troubling. The State Department report explains, “The world recently has awoken to the serious threat of terrorism in Yemen, putting Sanaa’s visa and passport services in the homeland security crosshairs.” The prospect of unauthorized migration from Yemen is framed as nothing less (and nothing more) than a “risk to US homeland security,” even though there is no reason to think that the general reasons for such migration differ from the reasons for migration elsewhere in the global south -- economic inequality and political instability. “Issuing a passport or visa to a terrorist is a real risk, and Embassy Sanaa works hard to make sure that their product is free of fraud,” according to a Department internal report. The consular staff is thus sensitized to think of routine applicants of Yemeni origin, including US citizens, as potential terrorists, and to see fraud everywhere. In such an atmosphere, and without proper safeguards, it’s no wonder this translates into unjust encounters that Yemeni-Americans view as insults to their dignity.
Can you tell us a bit about the Yemeni-American community and how it is viewed by the State Department?
In 2010, the State Department estimated that there were 55,000 US citizens living in Yemen. In the US, there are large Yemeni-American communities in Oakland, Fresno, Bakersfield, Dearborn, Brooklyn and Buffalo.
One thing worth noting is the State Department’s unflattering view of Yemeni-Americans who live in Yemen. It says, “Many of the US citizens have no connection to the United States except their US passport,” and “a large number of the Yemeni-Americans reflect local standards of illiteracy and lack of education.” This elitist and troubling language from the State Department relies on a loaded “cultural” definition of “American” rather than a legal one. Indeed, in other places, the State Department contrasts Yemeni-Americans in Yemen with “true expatriates, including Islamic converts who have come to Yemen for religious studies.” Even in the legal sphere, formalistic conceptions of US citizenship are being displaced by culturalist, racist or politically loaded conceptions. At the same time these Yemeni-American citizens were being stranded in Yemen by confiscation of their passports, the State Department issued a travel advisory warning US citizens to leave Yemen immediately, which these people obviously couldn’t do. It is hard to imagine US citizens who are not of Yemeni origin being treated this way at the embassy.
How does US law ordinarily govern the revocation of citizenship?
To be clear, none of the passport cases that we are aware of so far involve formal revocation of US citizenship, but we are concerned that the passport revocations could be a precursor of things to come. What’s disturbing is the way in which a passport revocation sidesteps all of he protections for citizenship that have been put in place by the Supreme Court. Under current US law, natural-born citizens can only lose their citizenship through voluntary renunciation. And the government can only take US citizenship away from naturalized citizens if it can prove “material and substantial” fraud through “clear, unequivocal and convincing” evidence in a federal court. By contrast, under present rules, a passport can be taken away before any hearing, and the subsequent hearing isn’t in a court with its attendant protections; rather, it’s convened informally before a State Department employee who plays the role of hearing officer and a State Department lawyer who presents the government’s case. Given the sharp disparity, CUNY law professor Ramzi Kassem has called this practice in Yemen “proxy denaturalization” because the government is achieving an effect that it otherwise could not if it followed the rigorous procedures designed to protect individual rights.
What can be done to challenge these arbitrary measures?
Tactics are evolving. In mid-2013, when reports began to trickle in, we published a “Know Your Rights” pamphlet advising people to exercise caution when going to the US embassy in Sanaa. Since then we have posted periodic updates on the website, MyEmbassyRights.org, but it remains an ongoing problem and one that the State Department has not adequately addressed. Our latest shadow report to CERD asks the UN to get involved, but such efforts need to be complemented by a community mobilization strategy as well as other interventions. The work is ongoing.
“We didn’t want another Benghazi.” Oh no, is that really why the Obama administration decided to bomb Iraq?
Do we have another bunch of fools in the White House who learn precisely the wrong lessons from their mistakes?
“Another Benghazi” -- let’s think about the many valences of that phrase. Thanks to FOX News, the name Benghazi conjures up a domestic political scandal, one so convoluted and silly that rational people feel compelled to tune in, every now and then, just to be reassured that it’s convoluted and silly. But Benghazi is first a city in Libya and it first had a distinctly not comical resonance in world politics.
“Another Benghazi” -- did the “senior administration official” who dropped this term in the New York Times mean the Benghazi that did not happen? The savage bloodbath that Col. Muammar Qaddafi threatened to order in the Libyan spring of 2011, but did not, in most Western minds, because NATO flew in to save the day? Such is the face value of the official’s reasoning as framed in much of the first part of the Times story. The Yazidis stranded in the mountains without adequate food and water could be starved into submission or massacred. The Kurds in Erbil and surrounding towns could face a grim fate of their own.
Yes, those things could occur -- look at the plight of Christians in the Iraqi north -- and one may hope that now they will not.
But, of course, the Benghazi-that-did-not-happen did happen in Libya, just not on Qaddafi’s schedule, not entirely in one city and not all at once. The increments have been getting larger of late, if the White House cares to pay attention. (This humble rag has also done a lousy job of covering Libya for the last couple of years. We are sorry and we will try harder.) But, in the corridors of power and in much of the media, the counterfactual Benghazi is much more important than the actual Benghazi, perhaps particularly because contemplating the real place in real time might hint that the consequences of NATO’s intervention are rather messier than the mythology insists.
Official Washington, in any case, bats nary an eyelash at this point. The consequences of doing something, they say, must be balanced against the consequences of doing nothing.
Never mind that the world -- and the role of US firepower in it -- is so complicated that sometimes those two sets of consequences are rather similar. The American can-do mentality regards such historically minded arguments as terribly depressing and perhaps European. Moral clarity, we say. Save the relativism for the seminar room.
Never mind that, as in Libya in 2011, the mission is already creeping two days in. The Obama administration now says that the United States will guard the Kurdish city of Erbil, seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the “good Kurds” and indeed the staunchest US allies in Iraq, though no puppets. The vaunted peshmerga, it seems, are in big trouble against battle-hardened foes. Never mind that those foes honed their skills in battles that came about largely because of the 2003 US invasion. Never mind that they’re also fighting the loathed regime of Bashar al-Asad, and that bombing them is backhanded intervention in the Syrian war, on the regime’s side.
Never mind, while we’re on the subject of civil wars, that Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Atlantic Council, believes that the so-called Islamic State “remains integrated within the wider Sunni Arab insurgency directed against the Shiites. Therefore, any US military action will extend beyond simply downgrading a terrorist organization” and risk making the US “a full-fledged participant in a wider, sectarian civil war.” Never mind that the US became exactly that in the mid-2000s, after setting the stage for the communal mayhem with its disastrous direct misrule of Iraq in 2003-2004.
And never mind that the Obama administration has plenty of experience doing nothing -- or, more accurately, doing several things wrong -- in places where doing something right might really help. These ironies, in official Washington, are also seen as academic observations.
The Times story is quite clear that “another Benghazi” refers less to Qaddafi’s pre-crime than to the Islamist militant assault on the US consulate that killed Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in September 2012. In Iraq, the Sunni fighters loyal to the so-called Islamic State are approaching Erbil and are either threatening to capture or have captured the Mosul dam, which some fear they will destroy so as to flood the Iraqi capital and put their Shi‘i Islamist enemies to flight. Not coincidentally, the US has key personnel in both locales. “We have an embassy in Baghdad, we have a consulate in Erbil, and we have to make sure that they are not threatened,” President Barack Obama himself told Thomas Friedman for another Times piece quoted in the big story today. To protect Americans from extremists armed with US-made heavy weaponry, the president pulled the trigger.
Wait a minute -- “another Benghazi” -- was the Obama administration worried that the so-called Islamic State would murder US diplomats or soldiers and open up the White House to charges of failing to shield Americans from harm? Is that why the president decided to bomb Iraq?
Well…. It’s never far from the minds of official Washington, Democratic and Republican, that the attack dogs of the other party are straining at the leash. Boy, wouldn’t the Lindsey Grahams of the world like to have “another Benghazi” about which to hold pointless hearings? Wouldn’t the Sean Hannitys of the world relish “another Benghazi” about which to host endless rehashings?
Yes, that may be another key to the code in the senior official’s remark. Presidential administrations, Democratic and Republican, when they ask themselves the question “to bomb or not to bomb,” seek the answer at least partly in polling numbers and the imagined talking points of the other side. The Democrats, if anything, are more susceptible to this contemptible thinking because the Republicans, since the Cold War, are so adept at painting their opponents as pacifist squishes. (Hell, the Democrats, like abuse victims who refuse therapy, campaign against each other in these terms.)
The New York Times enables the pathology with its paragraph-three description of Obama’s agony at being “forced” by circumstance “to abandon his long-standing reluctance to use military force.” Which reluctance is that, exactly? It’s as counterfactual as the Benghazi that didn’t happen.
Neither the facts of Obama’s record nor the fact of bombing Iraq again appeases the American right, of course. Sen. Graham and his Greek chorus are already condemning the latter as a “policy of half-measures” and calling for escalation, just as they did in the case of Libya, when Obama-bots and other interventionists also scoffed at the idea of a “slippery slope” on which hopes for a peaceful future would slide inexorably down.
Saddest of all is that, by bombing Iraq to forestall “another Benghazi,” the Obama administration may very well get one, in at least some of the senses above if not -- heaven forbid -- all of them. Or rather, Iraq may very well get “another Benghazi” and the Obama administration may very well find itself blinking away another “intelligence failure” before the bright lights on the boob tube.
Solidaridad con Gaza, La Segunda Parte
Latin American solidarity movements with Palestine are starting to win important political battles.
Ten days ago, in my first post on this subject, I described movements that, with some exasperation, were still urging governments to go beyond merely symbolic condemnations of the Israeli assault on Gaza. Ecuador had showed the way forward with the withdrawal of its ambassador to Israel, but more than two weeks into the Israeli offensive, it was far from certain that additional Latin American governments would follow suit. The July 24 decision of Brazil to recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv was a turning point.
Since that date, Chile and Peru resolved to join Brazil in its gesture of protest against Israel’s operation in the Gaza Strip and summoned their respective ambassadors home for consultations. On July 30, El Salvador became the fifth Latin American country to recall its envoy. The governments of Costa Rica and Uruguay say they are considering doing the same. Bolivia went further, renouncing a visa exemption agreement with Israel and declaring Israel a “terrorist state.” While the rest of the international community watches passively as Israel commits crimes against Gaza’s population, Latin America has closed ranks at the forefront of diplomatic protest.
Israel has expressed its resentment at these Latin American moves. After the Brazilian government called its ambassador home, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, dismissed Brazil, Latin America’s largest country and the fifth most populous country in the world, as a “diplomatic dwarf.” Off the record, a senior Israeli official told the Global Post, “They are all very far away and don’t really know what is going on, and Brazil, for its own reasons, is pressuring them. Our situation doesn’t really have any effect on them, and their action, it goes without saying, has no effect on our region.”
The truth is much worse news for Israel, which has been steadily losing the sympathy of Latin America for about a decade. From 1948 until the 1990s, Latin America was always considered “friendly” to Israel. During the first decades of Israel’s existence, Latin American leaders felt genuine affinity for the “national aspirations of the Jewish people.” Unlike their counterparts in the Afro-Asian bloc, these leaders seemed to disregard the displacement and trauma of the Palestinians. During the 1970s and into the 1980s, Israel did a brisk business with the military dictatorships of the region, and Latin America became Israel’s most important arms market, accounting for one third of its total exports of weaponry. As Carlos Escudé, an Argentine political scientist who can hardly be called pro-Palestinian, recently put it, with these military alliances, Israel chose “the wrong side of history.”
With the wave of democratization that swept across Latin America from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s and, most importantly, the region’s left turn in the 2000s, Israel lost its privileged access to the circles of Latin American government. On the opposite side, during their years of opposition to the military regimes, Latin American leftist and center-leftist leaders had forged bonds of trust with the Palestine Liberation Organization. These ties, in addition to the vitality of the solidarity movements with Palestine led by the Arab diaspora organizations, render most of today’s Latin American governments much more sensitive to Palestinian struggle for self-determination.
Contrary to what Israeli officials claim, Latin American countries are not powerless vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, the region does not have the same direct leverage over the players that the United States and the European Union have. That does not mean, however, that Latin Americans cannot make a difference. The Latin American wave of recognitions of the state of Palestine in 2010-2011 played a crucial role in the international campaign launched by the PLO at the UN to gain that status. Without these Latin American gestures, it would have been extremely difficult for Palestinian diplomats to garner international attention in 2011-2012, especially because the US and the EU were at the time entirely focused on the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria. Latin American votes were also decisive in the admission of the State of Palestine to UNESCO as a Member State. There is no doubt that, when the time comes, the region will again play a role in acceptance of Palestine as a member state of the International Criminal Court.
Most Latin American countries are reluctant to ratchet up the measures even further, for example, to cut economic ties with Israel. Adopting economic sanctions against sovereign states is not in the diplomatic DNA of the region, and showing a balanced position is part of its mediating tradition. Surely, economic interests are also at stake, even though Israel is not a significant trading partner. But outrage at Israel’s systematic violations of international law is felt increasingly keenly, across party lines, and Israel should be prepared for the eventuality that Latin American governments will act accordingly.
Covering the Coverage
Three weeks into Israel’s military campaign against Gaza, media and observers are turning the lens inward on the coverage itself. NBC was the focus of the conversation after the network recalled its correspondent in Gaza, Ayman Mohyeldin, shortly after he filed a powerful report on the killing of four boys playing on a Gaza beach. A barrage of criticism on social media spurred network executives to return Mohyeldin to his post, but MSNBC’s Rula Jabreal was not so lucky. Jabreal lost her contract with the network after she criticized its bias and that of American media on the whole. Even Jon Stewart -- comedic paragon of mainstream liberal thinking -- mocked the media’s “both sides are to blame” mantra, which equates Hamas’ homegrown rockets with Israel’s sophisticated war machinery. Yet the next day his bit, dubbed “Jon Learns What Happens When You Criticize Israel,” undermined the original segment. It poked fun at how both sides attack no matter what the media says on Israel or Palestine, thus reinforcing the “both sides do it” trope he criticized in the first place and suggesting a moral equivalency between the two sides.
Horrifying footage and reports captured by journalists on the ground in Gaza have been so damning that the usual filters applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the American media have become more apparent. But the sea change some American progressives see in media coverage of this most recent assault on Gaza is probably wishful thinking.
Graphic images of more than 1,000 dead and many more injured pose a challenge for Israeli public relations personnel. “Public opinion has a certain patience limit,” explained Avital Leibovich, a former Israeli military spokeswoman. “There is a certain point where legitimacy begins to be undermined by difficult images.” Before news of the assault on Shuja‘iyya hit the airwaves on July 21, a CNN/ORC poll found that almost 60 percent of Americans supported Israel’s assault, but a Gallup poll from July 22-23 showed public opinion more evenly split, with sympathy for Israel at similar levels to where it was after Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-2009, when a Pew survey found that 49 percent of Americans sympathized more strongly with Israel. How long the PR damage will last is another question. Sympathy for Israel (sympathy is the metric Gallup uses) has been steadily increasing over the past two decades, while sympathy for the Palestinians has remained more or less steady. Moreover, declines in sympathy for Israel are rarely accompanied by increased sympathy for the Palestinians.
And, of course, even the most graphic images of dead children are still subject to being put in “context.” Anne Barnard’s July 21 report for the New York Times from Gaza was so wrenching that the next day’s paper offered an editorial corrective dressed up as front-page news. An above-the-fold story, “Hamas Gambled on War as Woes Grew in Gaza,” explained how a desperate and marginalized Hamas instigated the war for political gain. The barrage of news stories detailing the “battles” and tit-for-tat offensives between rockets and missiles rewrite civilian deaths as the collateral damage of a war between two equally responsible, intractable and powerful parties.
The 24-hour news cycle’s dependence on talking heads and government spokespeople -- instead of dispatches from professional journalists -- to fill airtime also helps to promote the Israeli agenda. The idea that posing hard-hitting questions to pundits will somehow uncover the truth has not been borne out. Instead it provides opportunity for talented PR officers to sell their policies and shape the very parameters in which the conflict is discussed. Israel supporters need only make unsubstantiated claims to shift the discussion and place Palestinians on the defensive. Thus Israel’s claim that Hamas uses civilians as human shields is repeated despite the absence of evidence. On the more polemical programs, like Fox News’ “Hannity,” guests offering a Palestinian perspective are used as punching bags and allowed one-word “yes” or “no” answers. Never do we see an American reporter take an Israeli spokesperson to task for Israel’s crimes, as Jon Snow did on Britain’s Channel 4 News.
Social media provides some indication of where public opinion lies outside the world of corporate media. But in the auto-referential world of Twitter, it is easy for some voices to seem “louder” or more wide-reaching than they are. However many more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli hashtags there are on Twitter, it remains a narrow universe. Only 19 percent of online adults use Twitter, and half of those users are under 34. With over three quarters of all Twitter user accounts based outside of the United States, it is difficult to gauge American public opinion on the basis of Twitter hashtag numbers.
If the media and American public opinion have become more favorable toward Palestinians, that shift has had no perceptible impact on policy. In the immediate term, not even the on-camera assault of an American teenager by masked Israeli soldiers could prod the boy’s congresswoman, Rep. Kathy Castor, to intervene on his behalf. Moreover, John Kerry’s “hot mic” remark about Israel’s so-called pinpoint strikes suggests that it is not enough to know what is going on to affect change in an institution that is stalwartly pro-Israel. Asked about his off-the-air comment on Fox News, Kerry insisted upon Israel’s right to defend itself: “War is tough…. We support Israel’s right to do what it is doing.”
Eternal optimism is important for activists. Without it they would be paralyzed. Certainly, there have been some important gains over time. We have come a long way since the 1960s and 1970s when the words “Palestine” or “Palestinian” were rarely seen or heard in the media. Efforts to divest from Israel have been making gains, like the latest move by the Presbyterian Church to divest from companies that profit from Israeli occupation. These small victories should be celebrated -- cheerleading helps build morale.
But, on the ground, the Palestinian predicament has become decidedly worse over the past few decades. Settlement expansion in the West Bank continues unabated while Israeli politics turn increasingly right-wing. The Palestinian leadership is divided and an unaccountable Palestinian Authority acts as Israel’s police force in the West Bank. Whether the crippling blockade of Gaza -- now in its seventh year -- receives coverage or not, it continuously suffocates the coastal strip.
There may be a glimmer of hope in the fact that younger Americans tend to be more critical of Israel than older ones. Unfortunately, this shift has not automatically translated into a rise in support for Palestinians or their cause. It seems, indeed, that people become apathetic before they become sympathetic to the Palestinians.
Beneath the Gray Lady’s Flak Jacket
The New York Times is the most prestigious of the prestige press in the United States. The famed “gray lady” is the newspaper of record, a citadel of objectivity, it is said, where the first draft of history is crafted. It sets the agenda for other newspapers, for the broadcast news programs and even for cable TV news.
Reverence for the Times in journalism circles, however, does not keep the institution above the fray when it comes to contentious matters like Israel-Palestine, especially now as the casualties pile up in Gaza. Israel’s reinvasion and bombing campaign has piqued the public interest. Debates over Israeli policies are everywhere, and perhaps sharper (and richer) than at any moment in recent history, despite the near consensus in Congress to stand behind Israel.
With the stakes for Israel’s image in the US higher than usual, more eyes than usual have been watching the Times’ reporting. There is a great deal of what Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky called “flak,” or highly critical responses from outsiders intent on injecting their own views into the coverage.
The gray lady has come under a “deluge” of flak from readers, professional advocates, activists and officials in recent weeks. Its public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote that she saw “more than 1,000 e-mails from readers on this topic recently, with protests on both sides, and, in some cases, charges of bias coming from both sides.”
Many complained of factual errors. Sullivan admitted that some of the criticisms were valid. For instance, an editorial noted that “days of near silence” from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office passed after the murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir in early July. Readers objected, pointing to a statement the prime minister’s office had issued on the day of the crime. It stated that Netanyahu ordered the minister for internal security to investigate the killing quickly. The newspaper dutifully issued a correction.
Sullivan admitted that the occasional headline had been altered because the original left readers with a false impression. The headline “Palestinian Death Toll Nears 100 as Hamas Promises More Attacks on Israel” implied that Hamas was to blame for the mounting deaths, all of which, at that point, were in Gaza. The editors changed it to “Israeli Leader Calls for ‘Full Force’ in Effort to Quell Hamas Rocket Attacks,” dropping mention of the death toll.
A headline that read “Missile at Beachside Gaza Cafe Finds Patrons Poised for World Cup” came across as a strange, mordantly insensitive stylization of an arbitrary strike that took the lives of eight Palestinians who were simply watching a sporting event. Sullivan agreed that this headline had “the effect of trivializing the attack.”
The most egregious headline alteration took place when an article originally titled “Four Young Boys Killed Playing on Gaza Beach” was amended to the detached and bizarrely vague “Boys Drawn to Gaza Beach, and Into Center of Mideast Strife.” The reformulation was met with loud protest on social media platforms, but Sullivan did not address it. Some pointed to direct language in the lede in order to dismiss criticism of the headline.
This sort of flak comes from attentive people with strong views, people looking to correct and cajole, many of them prodded by media watchdog organizations that send “action alerts” to their constituencies. It is tedious work for everyone.
Flak is quite important for keeping news outlets honest, or as honest as possible, but it can also give journalists a false sense of their own objectivity. Too often media workers take comfort in receiving pressure from “both sides.” They wrongly conclude that they must be doing something right if “both sides” are upset. (I cannot fully blame them. All of us, perhaps, are susceptible to the logical slip that the truth about any hotly contested question must lie somewhere in between the competing claims.)
Story-by-story complaints do not tell the whole story. There are many explanations for problems in particular stories or headlines: the bias of the individual journalist, the pressure of meeting deadlines, overreliance on official sources, laziness and so on.
It is fair, however, to ask if there are media patterns of fear and favor that are institutional, even cultural. This question is hard to answer by glancing at the coverage on any given day. It requires looking at a longer arc.
One big-picture metric is the presence or visibility of particular subjects, frames or sources over time. The Research and Development Lab at the New York Times introduced Chronicle, a word count tool, that allows users to search the paper’s voluminous archive for terms. It produces a visualization and downloadable spreadsheet of the number of articles featuring given terms each year.
I entered two terms, “Israeli” and “Palestinian,” to find out which one the Times mentioned more often. As it turns out, each year there are more articles that refer to “Israeli.”
The gap between the numbers of mentions of the two terms shrinks and grows over time. We can see that “Palestinian” was largely absent for the first two decades after 1948. Its post-nakba reemergence corresponds to the rise of the Palestinian national movement after the naksa, the Arab states’ loss to Israel in the June 1967 war. Fatah, after all, was launched in 1959, but the Palestine Liberation Organization did not emerge until 1964.
One pattern is that “Palestinian” peaked during flareups of violent conflict, illustrating the aphorism “if it bleeds, it leads.” This pattern started in 1970 when the Times rediscovered the Palestinians. That was the year of the Black September fighting, in which Jordan moved to dislodge the PLO fighters from its territory.
The Times was less interested in covering the quiet times, the years of refugee camp construction, the Israeli land acquisition that made permanent the exclusion of Palestinian refugees and the military occupation of the Arab Galilee until 1966. The data suggests that the gray lady overlooked the Palestinian dispossession that was the cost of Israeli state consolidation. It was a formative period, one that heavily determined the region’s subsequent path of conflict. But a very close reading of the Times’ articles -- closer than I have done here -- would be necessary to draw this conclusion definitively.
In the late 1970s, Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon to fight the Palestinian resistance brought the next spike in “Palestinian” articles, followed by the 1982 reinvasion and the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
The next big news moment arrived with the intifada in the late 1980s. Surprisingly, “Palestinian” was mentioned less at that time than it was in 1982 or during the later uprisings, but there was more parity in the instances of “Israeli” and “Palestinian” than at any time previously.
After the 2000 revolt began, the two terms began to receive roughly equal attention for a few years. That trend was not sustained, however. Last year, “Israeli” was mentioned in twice as many (4,000) articles. The Israeli government has been trying to rebrand Israel as something other than (or at least more than) an occupying power and a garrison state embroiled in perpetual conflict.
Nevertheless, it seems that variances in mentions of “Israeli” since the mid-1970s correlate to shifts in references to “Palestinian.” Rises and dips in one correspond to roughly the same in the other. Media studies tells us to expect such correlations if coverage of a particular subject is largely based on conflict frames. That said, the term “Israeli” always makes its way into more articles.
Of course, discrepancies in word frequency are at best partial proof of bias.
Comparing word counts cannot indicate qualitative differences in coverage. Word counts shed no light on framing or valence, in this case, how Israelis and Palestinians are presented and whether those presentations are coded as positive or negative. This analysis is also ill equipped for studying qualitative changes among the audience of media coverage. It is likely that the word “Palestinian” is met with much less fear and antagonism in the US today than in the 1970s.
These data are a better measure of subject priority. How important does the New York Times think the Israel-Palestine story is to its readers?
Researchers have long presumed that the media’s power is greatest in agenda setting -- naming subjects as priorities for public attention. In the words of Bernard Cohen, the press “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.” The Times is the strongest agenda setter in the country. That “Israeli” is featured in more of its articles gives “one side” a greater visibility and presence.
The greater prominence of “Israeli” could be a function of institutional ties or the biographies of editors and journalists. Or it could be a manifestation of a deep affinity between the US and Israel.
Google’s ngram search shows the same terms’ appearances in all the books Google digitized -- a marker of larger knowledge production that the Times both informs and conforms to. It shows an even wider and more consistent discrepancy than what we find in the Times, though only since 1951.
In other words, the Times is less “biased” on this issue than English-language book publishing (which includes countries other than the US). This finding hints that larger cultural biases may be at play.
Nevertheless, new information and communication technologies like social media may be a remedy.
As distributed communication networks, social media can diminish somewhat the power of gatekeeping institutions like the Times. Incumbent institutions are still informational nodes that play important roles in the generation and circulation of data, but there is much more pluralism. This pluralism does not erase power differentials “on the ground,” but it does appear to loosen the hold of traditional institutions of power over knowledge production. We can see this development in the rise of new social media journalists reporting from the ground in Gaza. These people can now reach audiences of hundreds of thousands.
Thus, the disparity in the pages of the Times and in book publishing is reversed on Twitter. As the Times itself noted: The hashtag #GazaUnderAttack highlighted the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and was used in nearly 4 million tweets in the first few weeks of the bombing. An Israeli corollary, #IsraelUnderFire, appeared only 170,000 times. On Twitter, a more global platform, Palestinian voices and perspectives are increasingly amplified, something dramatically at odds with the discrepancies that appear deeply embedded in American news and publishing industries.
It is impossible to say whether social media has convinced or will convince the New York Times that Palestinians are equally fit to print. But the Times is a business, and one that cannot risk being out of touch.
Solidaridad con Gaza
The brutal Israeli assault on Gaza, the fourth in less than ten years (2006, 2008-2009, 2012 and now again), has triggered a burst of solidarity in Latin America. Dozens of protests have taken place, in Chile, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela, among other countries. While these demonstrations were organized on the initiative of Arab organizations -- in particular drawn from the Palestinian diaspora -- several other civil society groups participated, including labor unions, indigenous and black movements, grassroots organizations and representatives of left-wing parties.
At more than half a million, Latin Americans of Palestinian descent are the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Arab world. The majority are descendants of a pre-nakba generation of migrants that joined the upper and upper-middle classes of the host societies, but smaller waves of migration, mainly to Brazil and Venezuela, occurred from the 1950s onward. These new arrivals moved along a different socio-economic trajectory.
In Chile, where the Palestinian diaspora is particularly well represented among political and business elites, the pro-Palestinian movement has found a vibrant echo among legislators, thanks to the Chile-Palestine Inter-Parliamentary Group, a coalition of MPs from both left- and right-wing parties. With 46 members in the House of Deputies, which has a total membership of 120, it is currently the largest of binational friendship groups. On July 14, these deputies held up signs bearing the slogan: “End the Slaughter in Gaza. No More Occupation in Palestine.”
Some Latin American governments have taken clear positions vis-à-vis the slaughter. Not surprisingly, on July 9, Venezuela was the first country to issue a statement that “strongly rejects the attacks in the Gaza Strip by Israeli forces” against “the heroic Palestinian people” and urges Israel “to stop immediately these attacks that go against international law and against elementary respect for life and human dignity.” Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro himself launched an “SOS Palestine” campaign to demand an end to Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza. Venezuela was rapidly followed by the other member states of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (a left-wing bloc launched in 2004), notably Ecuador and Bolivia. On July 17, Ecuador’s government announced it was recalling its ambassador to Tel Aviv in protest against the Israeli military incursion into Palestinian territory. With this decision, the Andean country is now in line with Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, which suspended diplomatic ties with Israel in January 2009 and February 2010.
Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina have also issued communiqués that unequivocally ascribe the prime responsibility for the escalating violence to Israel, though regretting and condemning the firing of rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel. While the governments of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner took an oddly long time to assume a stance -- nine and 12 days, respectively, after the beginning of the Israeli offensive -- Brazil is the only country explicitly to call on Israel to “put an end to the blockade of Gaza immediately.” On July 16, Antonio Patriota, Brazil’s ambassador to the United Nations, gave a strong speech on the living conditions of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
All of these political gestures matter. But Latin American solidarity movements with Palestine ask for greater unity and, more to the point, “concrete actions.” Appearances to the contrary, the near consensus that characterized the flurry of recognitions of the Palestinian state by South American nations in 2010-2011 -- only Colombia didn’t join in -- seems more fragile today than three years ago. Paraguay, a country that recognized the state of Palestine, hasn’t yet said a word about the deadly Israeli ground incursion in Gaza. Peru’s communiqué evinced only a timid empathy for the Palestinians by suggesting a false symmetry between Israel and Hamas fighters. Colombia, a close Israeli ally, reiterated its support for Israel by “condemning in the strongest terms the acts of violence and terrorism against the Israeli territory that affect the lives and safety of the civilian population.” Yesterday, as a sign of protest against this position, several left-wing Colombian MPs took up the slogan of their Chilean colleagues (“End the Slaughter in Gaza. No More Occupation in Palestine”) during a congressional session.
Despite persistent rumors on the Internet, Chile has not suspended trade, nor frozen Free Trade Agreement (FTA) talks, with Israel. While it is true that a feasibility study for the signing of an FTA with Israel was completed positively in 2010, no further steps were taken and the agreement is currently not under negotiation, anyway. Nevertheless, the Chile-Palestine Inter-Parliamentary Group and the senator Alejandro Navarro continue to demand suspension of commercial relations, as well as withdrawal of Chile’s ambassador to Tel Aviv and proactive steps at the UN Security Council, where Chile was elected a non-permanent member for 2014-2015. An Avaaz petition was launched by Brazilian-Palestinians calling upon “Latin American presidents and ministers of foreign affairs to withdraw their ambassadors to Israel.”
In response to such demands, Chile’s Foreign Ministry announced on Sunday that the country will make a donation of $150,000 and an unspecified amount of medicine to Palestinian victims in Gaza. If Latin American governments are serious about their support for the Palestinian people and don’t want to contribute to Israel’s endless impunity, they will have to take actions that are much more than symbolic condemnations.
Meanwhile, in Hebron...
As Israel pounds Gaza by land, air and sea, we turn for a moment to the West Bank city of Hebron. In 1997, Israel withdrew its military from the majority of the city’s area, called “H-1,” which became part of “Area A,” the parts of the West Bank policed by the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israeli soldiers remained in “H-2,” the old city, where some 400 Jewish settlers live among 40,000 Palestinians and where the Tomb of the Patriarchs / Ibrahimi mosque is located. When H-2 is not under curfew, visitors can walk down Shuhada Street and see soldiers in mesh-enclosed positions above. Hisham Sharabati is an organizer with the Hebron Defense Committee, which works to expose and resist Israeli settlement expansion and army-backed settler rampages in the beleaguered city. The Committee supports Palestinian families living on Shuhada Street, and is the first response team during settler attacks. Yassmine Saleh spoke with Sharabati on July 8, 2014.
What has been going on Hebron?
The situation is always tense, because the settlers present in our city and in other settlement areas in the Hebron governorate are some of the most extreme. The settlers use any form of anti-occupation resistance as a pretext to do more harm to Palestinians.
When the Israeli operations that were advertised as searches for the three missing settler teens began, the situation got even tenser, with a marked increase in arbitrary attacks on Palestinians by both settlers and Israeli occupation forces. Homes in the villages of Tafouh, Bayt Kahil and Idhna were subjected to a series of particularly intense raids. Throughout the 20-day operation, soldiers would barge in to homes and wreak havoc as many as ten times per day. The Committee has verified reports of Israeli soldiers stealing money and gold jewelry.
In Halhoul, where there were also house searches, the army polluted wells and often sent divers down into them ostensibly to look for the missing settlers. All of these practices constitute collective punishment, though they do not depart too much from the everyday practices of the occupation regime.
The Israeli campaign in the Hebron area did not halt after the missing settlers were found dead. Instead, the Israelis behaved as they did before the advent of the PA and its control of Area A, with systematic incursions. No home, no sort of building, was safe. Many employees of the PA civil service and security forces reside in the village of Tafouh. Their homes were violated and the inhabitants subjected to full-body inspections.
Israeli occupation forces were acting under the watchful and approving eyes of the settlers, who since the missing teens were found dead have been marching daily, taunting Palestinians and demanding full-scale reinvasion of Hebron. Usually, during Ramadan, people go to pray in the Ibrahimi mosque, but the high-strung settler gangs have scared people off, and the mosque is empty.
In the town of Halhoul, homes were searched up to six or seven times per day. The Israelis place a device on the doorknob to blow the door wide open, shattering windows in the process. That’s how the soldiers enter homes: They don’t knock, they bomb their way in.
The residents didn’t bother cleaning up their homes after an Israeli raid, because they knew that another one was coming. Soldiers toss household items all over the place, rummage through kitchens, mixing the sugar with the flour, tip over cabinets, ruin sofas, and even destroy toys and decorations made by kids for Ramadan.
Israeli soldiers force a family member to escort them throughout the house. They corral everyone else so they can search uninterrupted. Often, the soldiers will confine the men in one room and the women in another. The children are traumatized by the constant threat of incursion.
The Hebron area, and particularly the Hasaka region to the north of the city, is largely agricultural. People are not accustomed to keeping their money in the bank. Instead, there are community cooperatives that people can draw upon, on a rotating basis, to pay for large purchases. So people often keep cash savings, and a lot of valuables, at home. Along with cell phones and other personal items, these valuables are regularly stolen by soldiers. We are talking about tens of cases of theft. There is a car dealership in Hebron; when the soldiers invaded the place, 65,000 shekels (about $19,000), the entirety of their receipts from the week, were stolen. The owners usually don’t keep their money at the dealership, but that night they could not take it elsewhere and they thought nothing would happen to it.
A women’s cooperative was also targeted. One woman, whose turn it was to safeguard the funds, had 8,500 shekels (about $2,480) stolen from her. A married couple had been setting aside thousands of shekels for in vitro fertilization, and was robbed of the lot.
Other families were targeted in the searches, particularly the Abu Aisha and Qawasma families. Their homes were searched every day after the settler teens disappeared. And many members of their families were also detained. Some in the Abu Aisha and Qawasma families had their apartments bombed, or even had the toilets and refrigerators destroyed.
What are the settlers up to?
More attacks. The Ja‘bari family in the old city was still awake when the settlers attacked, as it was only 10 pm. Soldiers accompany the settlers at all times, of course, to protect them. In the case of the Ja‘bari family, as in other cases before this campaign, they arrested the Palestinians who defended themselves against the settlers’ attacks. Palestinians in Hebron are subject to Israeli military law, whereas the settlers are subject to civil law, so the army never arrests them.
The old city and the southeastern parts of the Hebron governorate, especially the Yatta region, suffer the greatest number of settler attacks. Settlers attempted to break into Halhoul when the soldiers were there, but the Israeli army and police blocked them, lest they disrupt the military operation. But later the settlers attacked people in the Tall Rumayda and Rajabi quarters of the old city.
The settlers also flooded the streets of the old city to hold a riotous demonstration of incitement at the Ibrahimi mosque. What is even graver is that the settlers started building three new settlements, including one that is built over a house in the eastern part of Hebron. And there are settlement blocs near Halhoul on Road 60 (Bakaim) and on Surif lands (Kfar Etzion).
In the eyes of the State of Israel and its army, these settlement blocs are illegal, but at the same time they say that the blocs are built on individual initiative. It’s initiative that the army provides protection for, and that the state provides with electricity, water and basic infrastructure to connect the new structures to established settlements. All of this happens despite the illegality of the settlements in the eyes of the occupying state, let alone the view of the international community.
How are Palestinians organizing in response?
The Israeli operations coincided with Ramadan, which helped to produce a spontaneous eruption of popular organizing and to strengthen the sense of trust among people. People were protective of each other, particularly whenever there was news of an impending search of a house. During Ramadan people stay up after iftar (evening breakfast) through the night until suhur (pre-dawn meal before fasting recommences) and dawn prayers. This habit helped everyone to respond quickly to the Israeli incursions, which often come at night.
I don’t know if this type of organizing can or will continue after the end of Ramadan. In light of the absence of the PA, and its security forces’ failure to protect us from the settlers, I don’t know what will happen next.
What are economic conditions like now?
Hebron is a commercial city, and the Israeli army imposed a siege on June 14. So the markets have been empty, including of the ‘48 Palestinians who come from Israel to shop in Hebron and who support the local economy the most. Everyone is fearful of the siege and the likelihood of more settler attacks. Hebron has two of the biggest dairies in Palestine, Jabrini and Junaydi. These two facilities suffered in the siege, as they could not supply areas outside Hebron, since trucks could not leave the city through “the container” checkpoint. Civil servants and those working in civil society organizations outside Hebron also could not go to work, and workers with permits to enter Israel had them revoked. Many of them dared to approach the checkpoint with their permits, but the Israeli soldiers tore up their papers and ordered them back home. The workers without permits did not dare to try crossing the checkpoint. And, of course, no one carrying a Hebron ID could travel abroad.
In addition to the obstruction of commercial life, the agricultural sector in the Hebron governorate suffers. Areas such as Halhoul and Tafouh, for instance, were dealt a heavy blow when farmers could not reach their plots to gather the harvest of fruits and vegetables, particularly peaches and faqqus (Armenian cucumber). I know of a farmer in Hasaka who could water his faqqus only once in a span of 13 days.
After the missing settlers were found dead, things have become a little less tense although ’48 Palestinian shoppers from the inside are still afraid to come. The flare-up in Jerusalem and among Palestinians in Israel is making them afraid to leave, especially in light of the killing of Mohammad Abu Khdeir.
How have current events affected the standing of Hamas and other factions in Hebron?
The attacks on Hebron coincided with the longest hunger strike waged by the administrative detainees, people in Israeli custody who have not tried or indicted. Hamas had widespread popular support, particularly in light of the targeting of Hamas cadres, including members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Hamas organized demonstrations in support of the hunger strike; Israel still refused to negotiate with the hunger strikers.
The issue of administrative detainees is crucial in Hebron because there are many who hail from the area and have been in administrative detention for ten years or more. Mazin al-Natsha, for example, has spent between 12 and 13 years in prison, without trial, as has Muhammad Jamal al-Natsha.
With regard to Hamas, the attacks against its members may have weakened its political structure, as I said due to the large numbers of detainees affiliated with Hamas. But that has not reduced their popularity -- particularly because the PA suppressed two demonstrations organized by Hamas, one in solidarity with the prisoners, and yesterday’s in solidarity with Gaza. The current onslaught by the Israeli army increases popular sympathy for Hamas.
As you may know, the other factions and parties have become marginal over the years due to the structural framework of Oslo, which I could go on and on about. Oslo also enervated the national struggle. People have developed an aversion to active participation. The popular committees don’t attract widespread involvement, but those of us who are active continue to show, through our work and our words, that popular struggle is fruitful.
Image: Hebron and immediate environs in 2000 (Foundation for Middle East Peace / Jan de Jong)
MER 271: Fuel and Water: The Coming Crises
For immediate release July 18, 2014 Middle East Report 271 Summer 2014
FUEL AND WATER: THE COMING CRISES
Demand for fuel and water in the Middle East is rapidly increasing. Populations are growing, as are expectations of middle-class levels of consumption. Supplies of fuel and water are finite, however, and renewable water reserves are dwindling fast. The summer issue of Middle East Report warns of the resource crises to come in the era of climate change. In the main, these are crises of inequality, not scarcity.
The Middle East is usually characterized as oil-rich and water-poor. In her incisive primer, Jeannie Sowers shows that this canard erases huge variations between and within the countries of the region. More to the point, the glib generalization obscures the political, social and environmental factors that determine who gets access to adequate fuel and water and who does not.
Fossil fuels, of course, are the region’s energy source of choice and the main reason for its geopolitical importance. Middle East Report interviews Toby Jones about “energy security,” a term spreading like an oil spot into everyday parlance that masks so many motives of profit and power. Dina Zayed and Jeannie Sowers tell the more encouraging tale of Egyptians’ campaign against polluting coal-fired cement plants.
Middle Eastern states are beginning to make the investments in solar or wind power that seem sensible for a sun-baked region with vast open spaces. In the meantime, many states are seeking the quicker fix of nuclear power plants. Nicholas Seeley reports on Jordan’s move in the nuclear direction. Bassel Burgan, a prominent Jordanian activist, tells Middle East Report why he is against nuclear power in his country.
Francesca de Chatel and Mohammad Raba‘a relate the history of manufactured drought in Wadi Barada, the river valley whose waters once earned Damascus the title “paradise of the Orient.” The Syrian regime drilled boreholes around the Barada’s springs to fill swimming pools and garden hoses in suburbs built for the army and intelligence service officer corps. Water bubbles under the surface of the political violence in this part of Syria.
Also featured: Katherine Hennessey attends the raucous, rough-and-tumble Yemeni theater; Narges Bajoghli parses new Iranian depictions of the Iran-Iraq war on film; David H. Price reviews Hugh Wilford’s America’s Great Game; and more.
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Middle East Report is published by the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), a progressive, independent organization based in Washington, DC. Since 1971 MERIP has provided critical analysis of the Middle East, focusing on political economy, popular struggles, and the implications of US and international policy for the region.