Archive for February, 2009

Invaders of the mind

February 28, 2009
James Buchan on how an intellectual infiltration helped to civilise us

The theory of permanent Muslim-Christian enmity, though it flourishes in the caves of Tora Bora and parts of the American academy, was long ago exploded by the historians. In this clear and well-written book, Jonathan Lyons delves into all sorts of musty corners to show how Arabic science percolated into the Latin world in the middle ages and helped civilise a rude society.

  1. The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization
  2. by Jonathan Lyons
  3. 248pp,
  4. Bloomsbury,
  5. £20
  1. Buy at the Guardian bookshop

He tells how Arab advances in astronomy, mathematics, engineering, navigation, geography, medicine, architecture, chemistry, gardening, finance and verse passed into Europe by way of the Crusader kingdoms, Sicily and Spain and prepared the ground for both the Renaissance and the scientific advances of the 16th and 17th centuries. This infiltration of ideas has left traces in our language, from alcohol, algebra and algorithm to the Arabic names of the bright stars Betelgeuse and Aldebaran.

With the fall of the Roman empire in the west, Europe lost touch with much of its classical inheritance and was isolated by the Arab invasions from the Byzantine empire where some ancient learning survived. Lyons recounts how early medieval Christendom was unable accurately to measure the time of day for monastic offices, or fix the date of Easter, while dogmatic schemes of scripture and hierarchy left little scope for natural science. Aristotle’s influence was confined to the logic and rhetoric of the schools. Bishop Isidore of Seville promulgated the idea that the Earth was flat.

In contrast, when the Arabs conquered Iraq in the first half of the seventh century AD, they came upon living schools of Hellenistic learning in natural science and medicine, along with Indian mathematics and astronomy that had come by way of Iran. Systematic reasoning, driven out of Muslim jurisprudence in favour of precedents from the Prophet’s life and conduct, found a new field of inquiry in ancient geography and cosmology. After the founding of Baghdad in AD762, the Abbasid caliphs established a library and a team of translators at the Beit al-Hikma, the “House of Wisdom” of Lyons’s title.

A famous early catalogue of Arabic books known as the Fihrist lists as many as 80 Greek authors in Arabic translation, chief among them Aristotle, the mathematician Euclid and the medical philosophers Hippocrates and Galen. For this natural philosophy, the Arabs coined the word falsafa, and called its practitioners falasifa. The great Arabic philosophers such as Ibn Sina in Iran (known in Latin Europe as Avicenna, who died in 1037) and Ibn Rushd in Spain (Averroes, who died in 1198) found ways of inserting Aristotelian natural philosophy and Ptolemaic cosmology into a scriptural monotheism, which was precisely what the Latins needed. As Lyons writes, “Arabic replaced Greek as the universal language of scientific inquiry”.

He begins with a vivid contrast. In 1109, 10 years after the Crusaders sacked Jerusalem and put Muslims, Jews and eastern Christians to the sword, Adelard of Bath, a well-born scholar, set off for Antioch not to kill Muslims but, as he put it, “to investigate the studies of the Arabs” (studia arabum). As so often in medieval biography, a few “facts” are made to work hard, and some scholars (though not Lyons) doubt Adelard ever mastered Arabic. Nonetheless, he is thought to have taken part in translations from Arabic of Euclid’s geometric system, the elements, and the astronomical tables of al-Khwarizmi, and composed such original works as On the Use of the Astrolabe. For Lyons, Adelard is the “first man of science”. Such was the prestige of Arabic learning in England, according to a startling passage here, that partisans of King Henry II, during the quarrel with Rome over Thomas Becket, threatened the king would convert to Islam.

The new learning spread. By the middle of the 12th century, Euclid and Pythagoras are arrayed with the Virgin on the west front of Chartres cathedral. Lyons summons up a world of itinerant scholars such as Michael Scot, who (in the words of one monk) “in Paris seek liberal arts, in Orléans classics, at Salerno medicine, at Toledo magic, but nowhere manners and morals”. Scot found his way to the Arabising court of one of the “baptised Sultans”, the Emperor Frederick II, where he translated Arabic commentaries on Aristotle and helped promote the great mathematician Leonardo of Pisa. Leonardo, generally known as Fibonacci, gave a systematic account of the Arab/Indian numerical system and “the sign 0, which the Arabs call zephyr”, or rather sifr – and which we call the zero.

For the orthodox, these men reeked of brimstone, and Dante placed Michael with the wizards in the eighth circle of hell. St Thomas Aquinas brought a measure of peace to the church, but the systems of Aristotle and Ptolemy became rigid and brittle till they shattered in the Copernican revolution of the 16th century.

Why Muslim science and medicine remained in their medieval state in certain regions well into our lifetimes belongs to another book. For all Lyons’s wonder and admiration, the falasifa were always out of the mainstream of Muslim thought; they are best understood as a sort of sect, like the Shia, and were just as vulnerable to charges of heresy. The only small blemish in this fine book is that Lyons has printed a beautiful page of al-Biruni’s Arabic treatise on mathematics back to front, so the text can only be read in a mirror.

• James Buchan’s latest novel is The Gate of Air, published by Maclehose Press.


Settlement expansion plans

February 28, 2009

B’, Feb 27, 2009

Following the Oslo agreement, Israel made a commitment to the United States that it would not build new settlements or expand existing ones, except to meet “natural growth.” This narrow allowance, never defined, was utilized by Israel to greatly expand settlements and build new settlements, such as Modi’in Ilit.

In April 2003, Israel for the first time undertook to freeze settlement activity, including natural growth. The commitment was made in the framework of the “road map” agreed to by Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the Quartet (the US, the European Union, the UN, and Russia), which provides an outline for achieving a two-state permanent resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In November 2007, at the joint declaration made at the Annapolis Conference, in which Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Quartet, and Arab League states took part, Israel confirmed its commitment to the road map’s principles.

Despite its commitment to freeze building in settlements, protocols of the Supreme Planning Committee, in the Civil Administration, reveal plans for substantial expansion of settlements. The relevant protocols, of the Supreme Planning Committee’s Environment Subcommittee, were made in 2007 and 2008 and dealt with the treatment of sewage of settlements. B’Tselem received these protocols under the Freedom of Information Act. The plans uncovered also relate to anticipated expansion of settlements lying east of the route of the Separation Barrier, which some, most Israeli politicians present as Israel’s future border. These plans are in their initial planning stage, and none have been approved by the political echelon. However, the fact that the primary planning body in the West Bank considered plans to build thousands of housing units in settlements indicates that the West Bank’s planning bodies flout the official Israeli commitment not to expand settlements in the coming years.

The settlement of Gevaot. Photo: Eyal Reuveni, B'Tselem.
The settlement of Gevaot. Photo: Eyal Reuveni, B’Tselem.

Examples of settlement-expansion planning follow.

  • In the Eztion Bloc, a neighborhood, containing 550 apartments, is planned for the Gevaot area of the Alon Shvut settlement. Plans for building in this area, which currently is home to only twelve families, call for the building of 4,450 apartments. The construction has not yet been approved by the Defense Ministry, but the Environmental Subcommittee approved construction of a sewage-treatment facility, intended for 800 to 1,000 apartments, for the new neighborhood. At the hearing, it was also decided that the facility would treat the sewage from the adjacent Beit Ayin settlement. According to the protocol, 2,000 new apartments are planned for construction in Beit Ayin, which currently has some 120 families.
  • In the RimonimandEinav settlements, which lie east of the Separation Barrier, sewage treatment has been arranged as a first stage in advancing building plans. In Rimonim, 254 new apartments are planned, and in Einav, two plans for additional construction The jurisdiction area of the settlement Mevo Dotan which is also east of the barrier, is expected to expand.
  • The Ma’aleh Adumim municipality prepared a sewage-treatment plan for the settlement, including the planned construction of 3,500 apartments in E-1, in the framework of treatment of the sewage from SHAI [Samaria and Judea] Police Headquarters, which was moved to E-1.
  • In Kfar Adumim, the Subcommittee approved a sewage-treatment plan based on a projected doubling in size of the settlement, to 5,600 residents, in “the coming years.”
  • The Civil Administration’s planning office instructed the Eshkolot settlement to treat its sewage in accordance with the “full occupancy” plans of the settlement, which are expected to quintuple the settlement’s population.

Building of settlements breaches international humanitarian law, which prohibits the occupying power to transfer its population to occupied territory and to make permanent changes there.

Establishment and expansion of the settlements result in continuous and extensive infringement of Palestinian rights, among them the right to self-determination, the right to equality, the right of property, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to water, the right to sanitation and the right to freedom of movement.

Return of the War Party

February 28, 2009
Patrick J. Buchanan
Human, Feb 27, 2009

“Real men go to Tehran!” brayed the neoconservatives, after the success of their propaganda campaign to have America march on Baghdad and into an unnecessary war that has forfeited all the fruits of our Cold War victory.

Now they are back, in pursuit of what has always been their great goal: an American war on Iran. It would be a mistake to believe they and their collaborators cannot succeed a second time. Consider:

On being chosen by Israel’s President Shimon Peres to form the new regime, Likud’s “Bibi” Netanyahu declared, “Iran is seeking to obtain a nuclear weapon and constitutes the gravest threat to our existence since the war of independence.”

Echoing Netanyahu, headlines last week screamed of a startling new nuclear breakthrough by the mullahs. “Iran ready to build nuclear weapon, analysts say,” said CNN. “Iran has enough uranium to make a bomb,” said the Los Angeles Times. Armageddon appeared imminent.

Asked about Iran’s nukes in his confirmation testimony, CIA Director Leon Panetta blurted, “From all the information I’ve seen, I think there is no question that they are seeking that capability.”

Tuesday, Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a front spawned by the Israeli lobby AIPAC, was given the Iranian portfolio. AIPAC’s top agenda item? A U.S. collision with Iran.

In the neocon Weekly Standard, Elliot Abrams of the Bush White House parrots Netanyahu, urging Obama to put any land-for-peace deals with the Palestinians on a back burner. Why?

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now part of a broader struggle in the region over Iranian extremism and power. Israeli withdrawals now risk opening the door not only to Palestinian terrorists but to Iranian proxies.”

The campaign to conflate Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria as a new axis of evil, a terrorist cartel led by Iranian mullahs hell-bent on building a nuclear bomb and using it on Israel and America, has begun. The full-page ads and syndicated columns calling on Obama to eradicate this mortal peril before it destroys us all cannot be far off.

But before we let ourselves be stampeded into another unnecessary war, let us review a few facts that seem to contradict the war propaganda.

First, last week’s acknowledgement that Iran has enough enriched uranium for one atom bomb does not mean Iran is building an atom bomb.

To construct a nuclear device, the ton of low-enriched uranium at Natanz would have to be run through a second cascade of high-speed centrifuges to produce 55 pounds of highly enriched uranium (HUE).

There is no evidence Iran has either created the cascade of high-speed centrifuges necessary to produce HUE or that Iran has diverted any of the low-enriched uranium from Natanz. And the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors retain full access to Natanz.

And rather than accelerating production of low-enriched uranium, only 4,000 of the Natanz centrifuges are operating. Some 1,000 are idle. Why?

Dr. Mohamed El-Baradei, head of the IAEA, believes this is a signal that Tehran wishes to negotiate with the United States, but without yielding any of its rights to enrich uranium and operate nuclear power plants.

For, unlike Israel, Pakistan and India, none of which signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and all of which ran clandestine programs and built atom bombs, Iran signed the NPT and has abided by its Safeguards Agreement. What it refuses to accept are the broader demands of the U.N. Security Council because these go beyond the NPT and sanction Iran for doing what it has a legal right to do.

Moreover, Adm. Dennis Blair, who heads U.S. intelligence, has just restated the consensus of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that Iran does not now possess and is not now pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

Bottom line: Neither the United States nor the IAEA has conclusive evidence that Iran either has the fissile material for a bomb or an active program to build a bomb. It has never tested a nuclear device and has never demonstrated a capacity to weaponize a nuclear device, if it had one.

Why, then, the hype, the hysteria, the clamor for “Action This Day!”? It is to divert America from her true national interests and stampede her into embracing as her own the alien agenda of a renascent War Party.

None of this is to suggest the Iranians are saintly souls seeking only peace and progress. Like South Korea, Japan and other nations with nuclear power plants, they may well want the ability to break out of the NPT, should it be necessary to deter, defend against or defeat enemies.

But that is no threat to us to justify war. For decades, we lived under the threat that hundreds of Russian warheads could rain down upon us in hours, ending our national existence. If deterrence worked with Stalin and Mao, it can work with an Iran that has not launched an offensive war against any nation within the memory of any living American.

Can we Americans say the same?

Mr. Buchanan is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War”: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World, “The Death of the West,”, “The Great Betrayal,” “A Republic, Not an Empire” and “Where the Right Went Wrong.”

Obama announces plan to continue US military occupation of Iraq

February 28, 2009
By Joseph Kishore | WSWS,  28 February 2009

President Obama formally announced his administration’s plans for the continued US military occupation of Iraq on Friday, in remarks delivered at the Camp Lejeune marine base in North Carolina. Far from bringing the war to an end, the plans will maintain present troop levels for one year and ensure a substantial military presence for at least three years, through the end of 2011.

As leaked to the press earlier this week, Obama’s plan calls for the withdrawal of all “combat troops” by August 31, 2010, 19 months after his inauguration. This means that the US military presence will continue at present levels through the Iraqi elections scheduled in the fall, ensuring that the occupying forces can maintain a watchful eye over the “democratic” process.

Beginning next year, troops are scheduled to be gradually transferred out of Iraq, leaving a “residual force” of up to 50,000 soldiers after August 2010. Although referred to by the administration as “non-combat troops,” this is a verbal sleight-of-hand, as they will continue to be involved in combat activities. Obama said that these soldiers will be involved in “training, equipping, and advising Iraqi Security Forces as long as they remain non-sectarian; conducting targeted counter-terrorism missions; and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq.”

Obama also said that all US soldiers would be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, as required by the Status of Forces Agreement reached by the Bush administration and the Iraqi government in 2008. In a press conference call on Friday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated that this deadline is largely a diplomatic fiction that could be altered. “My own view would be that we should be prepared to have some very modest-sized presence for training and helping them with their new equipment and providing, perhaps, intelligence support and so on,” past 2011, he said. “The Iraqis have not said anything about that at this point, so it remains to be seen whether they will take the initiative.”

The central aim in drawing down US forces in Iraq is to free up military resources for a surge in Central and South Asia, a priority of the Obama administration. “America can no longer afford to see Iraq in isolation from other priorities,” Obama said. “We face the challenge of refocusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan; of relieving the burden on our military; and of rebuilding our struggling economy.”

Last week, Obama announced that he was deploying an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, including 8,000 marines from Camp Lejeune, and the new government has already significantly escalated air attacks on Pakistani soil. Some 15,000 more soldiers will be sent to Afghanistan in the coming months. In his remarks on Friday, Obama said he was also planning a significant increase in the size of the military to facilitate future actions.

Even as he announced the drawdown of “combat” troops over the next 18 months—three months longer than he pledged during his election campaign—Obama made clear his deference to the military. “We will proceed carefully, and I will consult closely with my military commanders on the ground and with the Iraqi government,” he said, making clear that changes to the schedule are quite possible. “There will surely be difficult periods and tactical adjustments. But our enemies should be left with no doubt: this plan gives our military the forces and the flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners, and to succeed.”

The Obama administration plan conforms to the demands of the military brass, including General Raymond Odierno, the commanding general in Iraq, and General David Petraeus, head of central command and the architect of the Iraq “surge” implemented in 2007. Both Odierno and Petraeus, along with Defense Secretary Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, are holdovers from the Bush administration, ensuring essential continuity with the policy of the previous government.

While some Democrats voiced mild concerns that the 50,000-strong residual force was too high a figure, the plan also won the quick support of major figures in the Republican Party, including former presidential candidate John McCain, who said on Friday that the plan was “reasonable.” He commented, “Given the gains in Iraq and the requirements to send additional troops to Afghanistan, together with the significant number of troops that will remain in Iraq and the president’s willingness to reassess based on conditions on the ground, I am cautiously optimistic that the plan as laid out by the president can lead to success.” House Republican leader John Boehner also endorsed the plan.

The Wall Street Journal quoted Gordon Johndroe, the last national security spokesman for Bush, saying that Obama’s plan was not in conflict with that of his former boss. “The specific timing is only slightly different but consistent with the goal of helping Iraq become self-sufficient in providing its own security,” he said. “This is possibly because of the success of the surge.”

According to media reports, Obama telephoned Bush immediately before beginning his speech at Camp Lejeune, though there was no indication as to what the two discussed.

The main concern of the military was to ensure that any partial drawdown was delayed until after the Iraqi elections, and Obama’s plan was adapted to meet these concerns. In his remarks on Friday, Gates said that it was critical to “get through this year and all of the elections that will take place” and “have a period of adjustment after those national elections to make sure people are accepting the results.”

Obama’s speech was replete with obsequious praise for the military, an implicit endorsement of the “surge” policy of the Bush administration, and an acceptance of the lies employed to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The US military had fought “against tyranny and disorder,” he claimed. “You have borne an enormous burden for your fellow citizens, while extending a precious opportunity to the people of Iraq.” The military had “served with honor, and succeeded beyond any expectation.”

Hammering home his acceptance of the lies used to justify the 2003 invasion, Obama declared to his military audience, “And so I want to be very clear: We sent our troops to Iraq to do away with Saddam Hussein’s regime—and you got the job done. We kept our troops in Iraq to help establish a sovereign government—and you got the job done. And we will leave the Iraqi people with a hard-earned opportunity to live a better life—that is your achievement; that is the prospect that you have made possible.”

In a particularly loathsome passage directed at the Iraqi people, Obama declared, “We Americans have offered our most precious resource—our young men and women—to work with you to rebuild what was destroyed by despotism; to root out our common enemies; and to seek peace and prosperity for our children and grandchildren, and for yours.”

In fact, the principal force of destruction in Iraq has been the American military itself. More than a million people have died as a result of the war and occupation, and millions more turned into refugees. The economy of the country has been shattered by two wars and a decade-long sanctions regime.

All the lies used to justify this crime—lies facilitated by the Democrats and explicitly endorsed by Obama—were intended to cover for a policy aimed at securing the geo-strategic interests of American imperialism, above all the control of Iraq’s oil resources. More than 4,500 US and coalition soldiers have been killed in the process.

Millions of people in the United States voted for Obama because they wanted change in government policy, in particular an end to the war in Iraq. These voters have been disenfranchised, as Obama continues the Iraq occupation and extends military aggression in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In line with his economic program, his military policies are dictated by the interests of the corporate and financial elite.

The new movement against Israel’s apartheid

February 28, 2009

Eric Ruder looks at the new movement taking shape in this country and around the world–for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel and its oppression of the Palestinian people.

Some 5,000 people turned out in Los Angeles to demonstrate against Israel's war (David Rapkin | SW)

THE RUTHLESS assault on the 1.5 million Palestinians of Gaza marked a decisive turning point in Israel’s six-decade war of conquest.

In the course of 22 days, Israeli air strikes, artillery shells and invasion forces killed 1,400 Palestinians, injured 5,000 and devastated Gaza’s civilian infrastructure. The onslaught also shattered the illusion that–after more than a decade of a “peace process” that was supposed to establish a Palestinian state–Israel has any intention of letting Palestinians realize their aspirations for self-determination.

The ferocity of Israel’s offensive, the enormous loss of civilian life (more than 90 percent of those killed and wounded were civilians) and the unanimous support for the carnage across the Israeli political spectrum shocked the world. Hundreds of millions of people watched in horror as the images of devastation and reports of civilians burned by white phosphorous bombs or buried in the rubble of their former homes filled evening news broadcasts.

But the assault on Gaza has also brought a change of another sort. It stirred a commitment among people around the world that the time has come to do something about the intolerable conditions facing Palestinians.

Labor unions, student groups and other organizations have responded to the renewed calls from Palestinians for a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) to put pressure on Israel to end its apartheid policies toward the Palestinian population, both within the state of Israel itself and under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

What you can do

If you want to learn more about the growing struggle against Israeli apartheid, see the Global BDS Movement Web site and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott Web site.

Union activists considering ways to bring up the issue in their own locals will find handy materials at the Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario Web site.

Haidar Eid has written an article titled “Sharpeville 1960, Gaza 2009” that recounts his experiences during Israel’s war and adds his voice to call for an international movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, modeled on the anti-apartheid movement.

The One Democratic State Group has issued “A Call from Gaza” that asks activists and organizations to demand that their governments sever ties with Israel, and calls for Israel’s war criminals to be brought to justice.

In Britain, student groups at two dozen universities organized sit-ins and building occupations to demand that their educational institutions condemn Israel’s war crimes, cancel speaking events or honorary titles for Israeli officials, donate surplus supplies such as computers and books to Palestinian schools, and grant scholarships to students from Gaza.

In South Africa, dockworkers refused to unload a ship carrying Israeli goods. The action had a special symbolic significance, given the inspiring example of the South African struggle that overturned apartheid in 1994. As the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC) stated in a February 4 press release:

Coming weeks after the massive Israeli massacre in Gaza, this distinguished expression by SATAWU [the union of South Africa’s dockworkers] of effective solidarity with the Palestinian people in general, and with Gaza in particular, sets a historic precedent that reminds us of the first such action during the apartheid era taken by Danish dock workers in 1963, when they decided not to offload ships carrying South African products, triggering a similar boycott in Sweden, England and elsewhere.”

Dockworkers in Greece threatened to block a ship carrying weapons to Israel during the Gaza offensive, and in late January, the Maritime Union of Australia endorsed the call for a BDS campaign, and pledged to boycott all Israeli vessels, as well as all vessels bearing goods arriving from or going to Israel.

In the U.S., a wave of student occupations is taking shape, starting with the University of Rochester and New York University, and others in the planning stages.

In Canada, the Ontario division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents some 200,000 government and other public-sector workers, passed a motion calling for an academic boycott of Israel and an end to any research or investments that could benefit the Israeli army. British and French academics have likewise issued statements calling for a boycott of Israel.

Thus, despite the trauma inflicted during the Gaza offensive, the emerging BDS movement has given a renewed sense of optimism to millions of Palestinians who have felt for years that the world shrugged as they faced daily threats to their existence. As the BNC continued:

If Gaza today has become the test of our universal morality and our common humanity, the fast-spreading BDS movement around the world has passed the test with flying colors. In fact, worldwide support for BDS against Israel in reaction to its war crimes…has shown that international civil society fully recognizes that Israel must be held accountable before international law and must pay a heavy price for its atrocities and ongoing willful destruction of Palestinian society.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

NEVERTHELESS, SOME people raise objections about whether a BDS campaign is justified or effective–or both. Does it make sense to describe Israel as an apartheid state, they ask–and in any case, will a BDS campaign have the desired effect?

While some who raise such considerations would defend Israel no matter how blatant its injustices, others have honest questions about such issues, which deserve careful answers, especially considering that so many people are just learning about the Palestinian struggle.

Though Israelis generally recoil at any comparison of Israel and South Africa, the shared pattern of racist discrimination and control is unmistakable.

“Apartheid was an extension of the colonial project to dispossess people of their land,” said South African cabinet minister Ronnie Kasrils during a visit to Jerusalem. “That is exactly what has happened in Israel and the Occupied Territories–the use of force and the law to take the land. That is what apartheid and Israel have in common.”

Kasrils should know what he is talking about. He is one of a handful of Jews who was active as guerilla fighters in the African National Congress during the anti-apartheid struggle.

Even a few prominent Israeli politicians draw the connection between Israeli and South African apartheid.

“The Intifada is the Palestinian people’s war of national liberation,” wrote former Israeli Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair in 2002 in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, referring to the Palestinian uprising of that year. “We enthusiastically chose to become a colonialist society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the Occupied Territories, engaging in theft and finding justification for all these activities…We established an apartheid regime.”

Indeed, Palestinians today endure the Israeli equivalent of the pass laws of South Africa’s white minority regime. In East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Palestinians must spend hours waiting to pass through checkpoints to travel distances that should take minutes–all while suffering humiliation and abuse at the hands of Israeli soldiers. Then there are the house demolitions, the strangulation of the economy and the constant threat of worse, in the form of targeted assassinations or violence from Jewish settlers.

“The similarities between the situation of East Jerusalemites and Black South Africans is very great in respect of their residency rights,” says John Dugard, a professor of international law who helped construct South Africa’s human rights law in the post-apartheid era, and now serves as the UN’s chief human rights monitor in the West Bank and Gaza. “East Jerusalem has territorial classification that has the same sort of consequences as race classification had in South Africa in respect of who you can marry, where you can live, where you can go to school or hospital.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

BUT EVEN if Israel can be accurately called an apartheid state, won’t a BDS campaign–and especially a cultural, academic and sports boycott–make impossible precisely the kind of exchange necessary to end Israeli apartheid?

As Haider Eid, a resident of Gaza, a professor of English literature, and a member of the steering committee of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, explains:

The same argument was used against the academic, cultural and sports boycott of South Africa.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan talked about ‘constructive engagement’ as a way to defend their diplomatic ties with South Africa. Some academics and athletes echoed these same arguments. But they forget that they are making an abnormal situation into a normal one. The international community had to make it clear to the white racists of South Africa that what they were doing was unacceptable.

I have no problem with the exchange of academic ideas. But I myself am an academic. I have been invited to five conferences over the last year, but I have not been allowed by the Israelis to leave Gaza. Why should there be such preoccupation about the freedom of exchange of ideas with Israeli institutions when Israel itself denies such exchange to Palestinians in all spheres of life?

Also, it’s important to point out that we are only talking here of boycotting institutions, not individual academics, and we are in favor of exchange with Israeli academics who object to Israel’s occupation, who support the right of return of the more than 6 million Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the region and so on. Israeli academic institutions, on the other hand, have unfortunately supported the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, supported the dispossession of Palestinian refugees since 1948, and have not raised their voices against the latest massacre in Gaza.

An international campaign of the sort that was essential to the eventual victory of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa is just as essential–if not more so–in the case of Israel because of the blanket support Israel receives from the U.S., the European Union and the United Nations Security Council.

The U.S., for example, gives billions of dollars annually–in the form of both military and economic aid–to Israel, and this support is crucial to Israel’s ability to continue its policy of territorial expansion and repression of Palestinians.

Likewise, the European Union in recent years has expanded, rather than reduced, its economic ties with Israel, a development that no doubt encouraged Israeli leaders to carry out the recent Gaza massacre without fear that such conduct might jeopardize their economic and political standing in the world.

The United Nations regularly reaffirms resolutions stipulating that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law and calling on Israel to accept the return of Palestinian refugees. But when it comes to enforcing its resolutions, the UN, which is beholden to world powers such as the U.S., won’t take any action to compel Israel to live up to its obligations under international law. As Eid explains:

We’ve lost faith in governments, in the United Nations, and the rest of the so-called international community. We’ve said our only hope is with civil society organizations, unions and solidarity movements–and this is what is happening right now.

We don’t want people just to react to the Gaza massacre for a couple of months, and then forget about it. We want this to continue. Israel is under fire now from civil society organizations. This is a historical moment, and we must seize it.

SRI LANKA: U.N. Urged to Intervene to Protect Civilians

February 28, 2009

By Haider Rizvi | Inter Press Service

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 27 (IPS) – The fast deteriorating humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka – caused by the lingering armed conflict between the government and rebel forces – demands immediate action on the part of the U.N., a leading international human rights organisation said Friday.

The call for U.N. help comes as tens of thousands of civilians in Sri Lanka’s northern region have been caught up in a fresh round of fighting between Sinhalese majority-led armed forces and minority Tamil militants seeking freedom from the centre.

“The escalating humanitarian situation there needs an urgent Security Council response,” said Anna Neistat of the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, which works closely with U.N. rights bodies.

During a recent two-week trip to the conflict zone in the north of Sri Lanka, Neistat observed that many civilians were forced to flee areas controlled by Tamil fighters, only to get trapped in military camps run by the government.

Her statement came just a few hours after the top U.N. humanitarian official, John Holmes, briefed the 15-member U.N. Security Council about how much pain and suffering the Sri Lankan civilians were enduring as a result of the armed conflict.

In his visit to the north, Holmes urged combatants on both sides to make greater efforts to stop the rising toll of civilian casualties and to protect the people trapped in areas held by rebel fighters.

According to U.N. reports, thousands of Sri Lankans are fleeing Vanni, where government forces are in the midst of a fierce armed offensive against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The U.N. emergency relief fund has targeted 10 million dollars to assist civilians who have fallen victim to the fresh round of fighting between the army and the LTTE militants.

“I am desperately concerned about this humanitarian situation,” said Holmes at the end of his three-day visit to Sri Lanka to assess the humanitarian situation.

According to the U.N., due to the conflict tens of thousands of people in the north have been deprived of food and medical assistance. During his visit, Holmes urged rebels to let civilians move freely and pressed the government to ensure a “peaceful, orderly and humane end” to the conflict.

Sri Lanka has been mired in ethnic violence between the Sinhalese-dominated national army and the LTTE rebels for more than three decades. The armed conflict has taken tens of thousands of lives, and is considered one of the deadliest in the world.

Last month, government forces captured a major stronghold of the Tamil rebels. President Mahinda Rajapakse called it an unparalleled victory and said he wanted the rebels to surrender.

A ceasefire between the government and the rebel forces in late 2002 raised hopes for a lasting settlement. But peace talks stalled and monitors reported open violations of the truce by the government and Tamil Tiger rebels.

The current round of fighting, which started last December, has trapped some 250,000 civilians in the conflict zone, with more than 30,000 already seeking shelter outside their native towns and villages.

Holmes said during his visit he found that most of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) were mentally and physically exhausted after weeks of sheltering in makeshift bunkers, but that their basic needs were met.

HRW and other human rights organisations say they want the U.N. Security Council to address the situation in Sri Lanka in accordance with international humanitarian law “without any delay.”

“People who flee abuses by the Tamil Tigers should not have to fear abuses by the government forces,” said Neistat. “But so long as international agencies are kept away from the screening process, they will have reason to be afraid.”

Considering the fact that a number of journalists have been killed in recent weeks and months, she may be right. The London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International claims that at least 10 media workers have been killed in Sri Lanka since 2006. Many of the killings have been linked by observers to the military and other law-enforcement agencies in Colombo.

In its annual press freedom index last year, the media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters without Borders) ranked Sri Lanka 165 out of 173 countries.

Some reports from the region suggest that the Indian government is trying to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government to end its military operations in Tamil-dominated area, but whether it will be successful remains unclear.

Diplomatic observers who are knowledgeable about Sri Lanka’s internal conflict say that, at the moment, they do not expect that the U.N. Security Council is ready to send a peacekeeping force to that country.

NATO mosque attack sparks Afghan riot

February 28, 2009

Morning Star Online

(Friday 27 February 2009)
ENOUGH ALREADY: Afghan demonstrators shouting anti-US slogans during a demonstration against the alleged shooting.

ENOUGH ALREADY: Afghan demonstrators shouting anti-US slogans during a demonstration against the alleged shooting.

OVER 500 Afghan protesters blocked roads and fought police on Friday after NATO occupation forces fired gunshots in a village mosque.

In the latest in a series of outrages against the civilian population of the US and NATO-occupied country, Polish forces fired their guns in a mosque in the village of Dhi Khodaidad in Ghazni province.

The crowd threw stones at police and at least three demonstrators were wounded by gunfire before the violence subsided.

An eyewitness said that he had been in the mosque when the troops raided it. He said that the bullets had hit a wall but had not injured anyone.

Deputy Governor Kazim Allayar, who led a delegation that visited the mosque on Friday, said that at least two bullets had hit the door of the building. He added that government officials were due to meet Polish forces to find out if they were involved.

NATO forces said that an initial inquiry had failed to produce reports of troops in Dhi Khodaidad, but they were continuing their investigation.

“We don’t believe there were any forces in the area yesterday,” said a spokesman.

Polish Defence Ministry spokesman Robert Rochowicz claimed that he had “no information at all about any kind of incident concerning Polish troops in Afghanistan.”

He said that he would have been informed if anything had happened.

Amnesty International warned on Thursday that Afghanistan was at a “tipping point” as civilian deaths mount in the country.

A new report by the human rights organisation focused on the case of two brothers who were shot dead in a night-time raid by occupation forces in their home in Kandahar in January 2008.

Amnesty’s report stressed that their killing is a notable example of the lack of accountability of international forces.

The two men, Abdul Habib, a father of six, and Mohammed Ali, a father of five, were shot in their homes at point-blank range in front of their families by occupation forces in camouflage uniforms.

The men were both unarmed. More than a year later, no-one has admitted responsibility despite inquiries by Amnesty International, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston.

NATO and the Romanian Defence Ministry announced the death on Thursday of a Romanian soldier in a roadside bomb in the southern province of Zabul.

World Council of Churches: Statement on the Gaza war

February 27, 2009

World Council of Churches
Bossey, Switzerland
17-20 February 2009
Document No. 12

In the very place where Jesus Christ walked upon the earth, walls now separate families and the children of God – Christian, Muslim and Jew – are imprisoned in a deepening cycle of violence, humiliation and despair.”
Amman Call, WCC International Peace Conference,
June 2007, Jordan

1. The Gaza war during Christmas season took a terrible toll on lives and communities that were already fragile. Bombs, missiles and rockets striking densely populated areas spread an unconscionable sorrow from Gaza to much of the world. Approximately 1400 Palestinians are dead – mostly civilians, children and women – thousands more are wounded, countless thousands are traumatized, and there remains widespread destruction and damage to homes and institutions including church clinics and a hospital. Four civilians are dead in neighboring Israel and 11 soldiers were killed during the fighting and many other people injured.

2. The humanitarian situation in Gaza remains extremely alarming. More than one million people, 80 percent of the population, depend on food aid. Thousands of jobs have been lost. The educational and health systems have broken down due to the blockade that is still being imposed by the Israeli government. Palestinian church leaders, representatives from Action by Churches Together International and other humanitarian aid workers have been denied access to Gaza.

3. Still violence continues and the word peace is rarely spoken. With concerned people in many countries, we speak now to mourn the dead and to cry out with the wounded. The war and the political decisions behind it have deepened an intolerable spiral of despair, violence and deaths.

4. All the lives lost are sacred. Civilians were trapped in the war zone and had no way to escape. All of us who are part of the international community failed in our obligation to stop the killings. Governments failed to fulfill their legal obligations to prevent or remedy the Gaza war under the terms of international law and international humanitarian law. Such failure discredits international law and gives encouragement to those who rely on the use of force.

5. The Gaza war brought people onto the streets in cities around the world while those responsible for the enforcement of international law stood by doing little to nothing. Israel, like any other state, has the right of self defense, but is also bound by humanitarian principles of proportionality and distinction. The imperative to protect human lives is mandatory for all parties involved – including the international community. All have failed in this responsibility. Civilians have suffered on both sides. However, as the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights noted, “the scale of civilian harm resulting from Israeli unlawful conduct was far greater than that of Palestinian unlawful conduct.” Furthermore, given the evidence of possible war crimes, the international community has a “responsibility to protect” the population at grave risk in Gaza because the government responsible for them has failed to do so.

6. What happened in Gaza is not an isolated tragedy. It is to be seen in the context of the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory that began in 1967. In the case of Gaza the last three years have seen siege and collective punishment harden into a stringent 18-month blockade. Without an end to the occupation, the cycle of violence continues.

7. Israel’s future, its well-being and security depend on a just and genuine peace. The same is true for any prospective Palestinian state. Failure to achieve a just and peaceful resolution of the conflict will open the future to more violence and war. Indeed, while world attention was focused on Gaza, the expansion of settlements and violence against Palestinians continued in the rest of Occupied Palestinian Territory.

8. Gaza’s suffering should serve as a reminder to governments to carry out their third state responsibility. International law requires states not to knowingly aid or assist another state in internationally unlawful acts and not to recognize such acts as lawful. They bear indirect responsibility if they assist or recognize such acts, for example, the illegal use of force and violations of laws and rights that take place daily in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

9. Palestinians who take up arms are also accountable under the law for their use of force. We join the international condemnation of the violence perpetrated by members of Hamas and other groups against civilians in Israel and against their own people.

10. Palestinian unity is essential not only for ending the occupation but also for eventually building a viable Palestinian state. Members of the international community bear partial responsibility for policies that divided people and political structures in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. It is incumbent on the international community now to actively and responsibly support the reintegration of Palestinian political processes including elections and the reunification of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

11. We extend our solidarity to all Palestinians and Israelis who engage in the peaceful pursuit of national Palestinian independence and non-violent resistance to foreign occupation. Non-violent resistance is a right of people living under occupation. We encourage people of all nationalities, religions and good will to support the non-violent struggle for a comprehensive and just peace.

12. We recall the many WCC policy statements that bear on present challenges, including those addressing the siege of Gaza (2008), the Amman Call to churches (2007), the need to engage with all the elected representatives of the Palestinian people (2006), assessing Israel’s pullback from Gaza and ending economic ties to the occupation (2005), plus regular condemnation of all attacks against civilians and consistent church support for the implementation of UN resolutions as the basis for peace.

Accordingly, the executive committee of the World Council of Churches, meeting in Bossey, Switzerland, 16-20 February 2009;

A. Commends the many churches, related ministries, international church organizations, regional and national councils of churches, and civil society groups including Jewish and Muslim organizations that responded to the tragedy in Gaza with prayer, advocacy and aid.

B. Invites greater church engagement in joint efforts for peace, including broader participation in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), in the WCC-led World Week for Peace in Palestine Israel, 4-10 June 2009, and in other initiatives of the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum.

C. Calls member churches and related organizations, wherever applicable, to hold their own governments to account for third state responsibilities in the Israel-Palestine conflict under international law.

D. Recommends that member churches and related organizations in a position to do so practice morally responsible investment and purchasing in regard to corporations whose products or services support the occupation of Palestinian territory.

E. Calls for the United Nations to investigate alleged war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law by the parties to the Gaza conflict, including the use of weapons that have indiscriminate effects; and calls for the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1860 which requires inter alia that the government of Israel lift the siege of Gaza.

F. Urges the government of Switzerland as the repository of the Geneva Conventions to convene an international conference of the high contracting parties of the 4th Geneva Convention to investigate armed violations against civilian populations by the parties to the conflict.

G. Supports proposals that churches and governments which funded aid and infrastructure projects in Gaza hold the government of Israel accountable for the destruction it has caused during the war and demand compensation for the same.

H. Calls on the government of Israel to facilitate the on-going work of United Nations agencies in Occupied Palestinian Territory including access for the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights to the populations living under occupation; and also calls on the government of Israel to facilitate unimpeded access to Gaza for humanitarian aid workers, rehabilitation and reconstruction teams, pastoral delegations and clergy of religious congregations there.

I. Affirms Palestinian Christians in their endeavors to promote Palestinian unity, be of service to society, minister to their church members and join civil society in peaceful and non-violent measures to bring the occupation to an end.

A people abandoned

February 27, 2009
Serge Halimi

Axis of Logic
Feb 27, 2009, 04:07

By 14 January Israeli troops had killed more than a thousand Palestinians confined to a narrow strip of land and subjected to land, sea and air bombardment by one of the most formidable armies in the world. A Palestinian school converted into a United Nations refuge had been bombed (1), a resolution – issued by the only organisation that really represents the “international community” people are so fond of talking about – had called in vain for a halt to the military operations in Gaza. So, on 14 January, the European Union showed just how firmly it was prepared to react to this mixed display of violence and arrogance. It decided to suspend the process of rapprochement with Israel! But to lessen the impact of what might, even so, have been seen as gentle reproach to Tel Aviv, it explained that this was a “technical”measure, not a “political”one. And that the decision was taken by “both parties”.

Israel is free to do as it likes. Its army had already destroyed most of the Palestinian infrastructure funded by the EU and there had been little or no reaction, no legal action, no call for reparations (2). It then imposed a blockade on people already living in poverty, with no water, food or medical supplies. Still no response, only endless admonitions and a general refusal to become involved in the argument, on the pretext that violence of the strong is not always accompanied by submission of the weak. So why should Israel suppose that it cannot continue to act with impunity?

Twenty years ago, the Jewish state took the precaution of encouraging the rise of Hamas against the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Hamas was a dream adversary, with a medieval charter, doubtful military potential and no inclination to “communicate” with western public opinion. Having no “partner for peace”is a perfect excuse to bomb and colonise ad lib. But even now, there are still newspaper editors in Europe complaining that Israel one day lose the moral high ground” (3).

The United States too has nothing against the Tel Aviv government’s plans. On 9 January, the House of Representatives passed a resolution recognising Israel’s “right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza”. A few hours earlier the Senate had “reaffirmed the United States’ strong support for Israel in its battle with Hamas”. Perhaps with the idea of striking some sort of “balance”, the House of Representatives resolution also expresses to innocent Israeli and Palestinian victims and their families”. That resolution was adopted by 390 votes to five. The Senate resolution was adopted unanimously. The US executive also held firm: a few hours after announcing a unilateral ceasefire, Ehud Olmert rang the US president to thank him for his support. Support also includes non-refundable aid amounting to $3 billion a year, which no-one including Obama has thought of questioning.

With this sort of backing, the main Israeli parties’ aim seems to be clear: to destroy any prospect of achieving the internationally recognised aim of establishing a genuine Palestinian state. The West Bank will continue to be an amorphous collection of homelands, criss-crossed with walls and roadblocks, dotted with settlements, and drip-fed by the European Union. And Gaza will be bombed whenever its neighbour has a mind to unleash a disproportionate “response” to rocket or other attacks. In fact, after 60 years of defeat, humiliation, exile, violation of signed agreements, colonisation and internecine feuding, after governments all over the world have abandoned them to their fate and allowed international law, including settlements, to be ridden over roughshod, it is nothing short of a miracle that the Palestinians are still determined to assert their national identity in real terms.

If they succeed, it will not be thanks to the Europeans, or to the Americans or to most Arab states. In Gaza, these powers have all conspired once again in the interminable spoliation of a nation.

Freeing Up Resources … for More War

February 27, 2009

Hours after President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress, The New York Times printed the news that he plans to gradually withdraw “American combat forces” from American combat forcesduring the next 18 months. The newspaper reported that the advantages of the pullout will include “relieving the strain on the armed forces and freeing up resources for Afghanistan.”

The president’s speech had little to say about the plans for escalation, but the few words will come back to haunt: “With our friends and allies, we will forge a new and comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat Al Qaida and combat extremism, because I will not allow terrorists to plot against the American people from safe havens halfway around the world. We will not allow it.”

Obama didn’t mention the additional number of US troops – 17,000 – that he has just ordered to Afghanistan. But his pledge that he “will not allow terrorists to plot against the American people” and his ringing declaration, “We will not allow it,” came just before this statement: “As we meet here tonight, our men and women in uniform stand watch abroad and more are readying to deploy.”

Get the message? In his first speech to Congress, the new president threw down a 90-month-old gauntlet, reaffirming the notion that committing to war halfway around the world – in Afghanistan and now in Pakistan too – will make Americans safer. With drumrolls like that, the mission could outlive all of us.

And so, a colossal and fateful blunder, made by a very smart leader, arguably our best and brightest, is careening forward with the help of silence that defers all too readily to power. This is how the war in Vietnam escalated, while individuals and groups muted their voices. Many people will pay with their lives.

The reasons the war in Afghanistan cannot be won are directly connected to why the war is wrong. In essence, people do not like their country occupied for years on end, especially when the occupiers are routinely killing civilians (whatever the rationale). Monochrome words like Taliban and “terrorists” might seem tidy and clear enough as they appear in media coverage, or as they roll off a president’s tongue, but in the real Afghan world the opponents of the US war are diverse and wide-ranging. With every missile strike that incinerates a household or terrorizes a village, the truly implacable “extremists” can rejoice at Uncle Sam’s assistance to their recruiting efforts.

Those who are fond of talking and writing about President Obama’s admirable progressive values will, sooner or later, need to come to terms with the particulars of his actual policies. In foreign affairs, the realities now include the ominous pairing of his antiterrorism rhetoric and his avowed commitment to ratchet up the US war effort in Afghanistan.

I don’t often make predictions, but I’m confident about this one: Within a few years, some members of Congress, and leaders of some progressive groups with huge email lists, will look back with regret as they recall their failure to clearly and openly oppose the pivotal escalation of the Afghan war.

They could save themselves a lot of shame, and save others their lives, by speaking out sooner rather than later. In the process, they might help save the Obama presidency from running aground in Afghanistan.


Norman Solomon is the author of “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death,” which has been adapted into a documentary film of the same name. For video of his appearance on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” to discuss Obama and the war in Afghanistan, click here:

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