Posts Tagged ‘blockade’

Israel must end indiscriminate blockade

June 27, 2009

Morning Star Online, Friday 26 June 2009

Anti-poverty agency ActionAid has called on Tel Aviv to lift its two-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, hours before a tunnel used to smuggle goods from Egypt collapsed, killing a Palestinian.

Even school books and children’s plastic toys are banned from entering Gaza by Israel, as well as essential supplies needed for relief and rehabilitation such as fuel and building materials.

As a result, Palestinians are forced to literally go underground to ferry in supplies.

Gaza emergency services official Mouawiya Hassanein said that five other people had been injured in the collapse.

On the eve of the six-month anniversary of the Israeli bombardment, ActionAid Gaza programme manager Richard Sandison said: “Israel’s blockade is indiscriminate and is affecting the entire 1.5 million-strong population of Gaza. Ordinary women, children and the elderly are the main victims.

Mr Sandison went on to observe that: “schools are lying damaged or destroyed and cannot be rebuilt because we do not have the materials needed for construction.”

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MIDEAST: Aid Agencies Slam Gaza Blockade

June 22, 2009

By Mel Frykberg | Inter Press Service

RAMALLAH, Jun 20 (IPS) – Forty international aid agencies and NGOs have released a joint statement condemning Israel’s blockade of Gaza, to mark the second anniversary of the coastal territory being hermetically sealed off from the outside world.

“We, United Nations and non-governmental humanitarian organisations, express deepening concern over Israel’s continued blockade of the Gaza Strip which has now been in force for two years.

“These indiscriminate sanctions are affecting the entire 1.5 million population of Gaza, and ordinary women, children and the elderly are the first victims,” read the statement, to mark the anniversary Wednesday.

Continued >>

Divide and torture

June 7, 2009

redpepper.org.uk

The military onslaught on Gaza may have halted but the economic and political onslaught continues. Ewa Jasiewicz reports on a people under siege

Israel’s winter assault further disfigured the Palestinian body politic. If the Gazan limb had been kept alive on a drip of international aid, with the West Bank strapped down for economic shock therapy, December and January’s events saw both repeatedly shocked, with Gaza flattened after 22 days of bombardment.

In spite of Israel’s destruction of communications masts in the northern Gaza strip, the blockade of basic journalistic materials for Palestine’s main news agencies and attacks on reporters – killing five – news, images and voices from Gaza continued to stream forth into ’48 Palestine, the West Bank and the world. People across the globe were collectively traumatised as they watched more than a million and a half people locked into a ghetto bombed with phosphoric bombs, tank shells, flachete shells, surveillance aircraft, warships, F16s, F15s, Apache and Cobra helicopters and M16 machine guns for three unrelenting weeks.

Continued >>

The Rape of Gaza

June 2, 2009

by Roane Carey | The Nation, June 2, 2009

How would you feel if you found out that an American school, paid for with your tax dollars, was bombed and completely destroyed by a US ally? This happened in Gaza just a few months ago, during Israel’s now-infamous Operation Cast Lead.

I’ve been touring Gaza for the past three days as part of a Code Pink delegation, and the concrete rubble and twisted rebar of the American International School in Gaza is just one of the many horrifying images we’ve seen on this trip. The school, which taught American progressive values to Palestinian kids in grades K-12, was bombed by US-supplied Israeli F-16s in early January. The Israelis claimed, without supplying evidence, that Hamas fighters had fired rockets from the school. Now several hundred kids have not only lost the school they dearly loved; they have been given a very different lesson in American values, one no doubt unintended by the school’s founders and teachers.

The people of Gaza suffered immensely from the Israeli assault, which not only killed some 1,400 and injured 5,000 but destroyed or heavily damaged mosques, schools, hospitals, universities, and industrial and other business establishments, in addition to thousands of private homes. Dr. Marwan Sultan, who practices at Kamal Adwan Hospital in Beit Lahiya, told me his hospital was so damaged they had to send all patients to al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City–which was itself damaged. The bombing of one school in Beit Lahiya killed about forty kids and injured a hundred, Sultan told me. He saw scenes of death and mutilation that still give him nightmares. Thousands are living in tent cities all over the Strip, and the entire population of Gaza is being strangled to this day by a blockade that is choking off any possibility of reconstruction or recovery.

Make no mistake about it: the blockade, directly enforced by Israel and Egypt but conspired in by their superpower patron in Washington, is a continuing act of war against an entire civilian population of 1.5 million, a form of collective punishment and a crime against humanity. John Ging, director of operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which officially invited Code Pink to come to Gaza, told our delegation that billions in aid had been promised in the wake of Israel’s massacre, but so far nothing had arrived. Our delegation, he said, is the first concrete action of solidarity with an oppressed, long-suffering population. Four months after a devastating conflict, he added, the siege continues. “The first thing we need to see is the opening up of crossing points and an end to collective punishment because of the political failures and security problems created by a few.” It’s a matter of life and death, he said, “and we’re running out of time…. The people of Gaza are asking for help, justice and the rule of law.”

Code Pink–whose organizers, I might add, have done a fabulous job in arranging this tour–is urging Obama to break the siege himself by visiting Gaza on his Middle East tour. That’s not likely to happen, of course, but the least he could do is demand an end to the blockade. He’s more likely to do so if Americans put on the pressure. Readers: it’s your turn.

© 2009 The Nation

Roane Carey, managing editor at The Nation, was the editor of The New Intifada (Verso) and, with Jonathan Shainin, The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent (New Press).

MIDEAST: Gaza Changed Everything, But Its People Still Suffer

April 18, 2009

Analysis by Helena Cobban* | Inter Press Service News

WASHINGTON, Apr 17 (IPS) – Three months after the end of
Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, and nearly four months after former prime minister Ehud Olmert started it, the standoff between Israel and Hamas is as unresolved as ever.

Gaza’s 1.5 million residents, nearly all of them civilians, are still in a very tough situation, since Israel still prohibits the shipment into Gaza of many requirements for a decent life – including the building materials needed to repair or rebuild the thousands of homes and other structures the Israeli military destroyed during the war.

But it is already clear that the war has changed many aspects of the complex political dynamics both between and inside the Israeli and Palestinian communities.

Hamas, simply by surviving, has become stronger both within Palestinian politics and throughout the broader Middle East.

In the Israeli elections of early February Olmert’s party was defeated – by representatives of an even more militarist trend in Israel whose rise was fueled, in good part, by the war-fever unleashed among Jewish Israelis by Olmert’s own war.

Meanwhile, the ferocity with which Israel fought the war caused significant damage to the country’s image around the world. In the U.S., unprecedented numbers of civil society groups – including Jewish groups – expressed open criticism of Olmert’s decision to launch the war, even from the war’s very earliest days.

All these developments have been evident during Sen. George Mitchell’s latest visit to the region, which started Wednesday. This was Mitchell’s third visit since he was named U.S. special envoy on Jan. 21. Some of the post-Gaza developments seem to make Mitchell’s peacemaking effort harder. But others, especially the new estrangement between the government of Israel and some of its former strong supporters around the world, open up new possibilities for his mission.

Indeed, in some of Mitchell’s early appearances on his latest trip, he has shown himself more ready than any U.S. official has been for many years to publicly adopt a position – in this case, support of an independent Palestinian state – that is very different from that espoused by the government in power in Israel.

When Olmert launched the war on Gaza on Dec. 27, he was aiming either to destroy Hamas or to inflict so much harm on it that its leaders would bow to Israel’s political demands. Despite the large amount of damage the Israeli military inflicted on the people of Gaza, it did not achieve either of those objectives. Hamas’s long battle-hardened command structure in Gaza remained intact and in place.

(Hamas’s broader, ‘nationwide’ leadership has anyway been located for many years now outside the occupied territories. Thus, the idea of breaking or ‘taming’ the whole organisation by delivering a knockout blow to its units in Gaza was always poorly thought through.)

Instead of being broken, Hamas found that during the war its popularity rose throughout the occupied West Bank and among the five million Palestinians living in exile outside their homeland. It dipped somewhat in Gaza, doubtless because of the punishment the IDF was inflicting on the Strip’s people. But Gaza is roughly half the size of the West Bank. The overall effect was that Hamas became stronger.

Fatah, a movement that in recent years has aligned itself ever more closely to U.S. policies, meanwhile saw its popularity decline.

Indeed, the collapse of Fatah’s internal decision-making structures is now so severe there is a real possibility it might disintegrate altogether. Though the collapse has been underway for some time now, the Gaza war certainly hastened it along.

Fateh has also, ever since 1969, been overwhelmingly the strongest component of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), the secularist body that has authorised all Palestinian peace efforts with Israel to date. Fatah’s decline thus also threatens the survival of the PLO – unless the on-again-off-again ‘unity talks’ that Fatah and Hamas have been pursuing in Cairo can find a formula to bring Hamas into the PLO for the first time ever.

Amid all these political developments, Gaza’s 1.5 million people are still trying to deal with life-situations and livelihoods that were shattered by the recent war. During the war more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians. Ten Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians lost their lives.

For three years prior to the war, there had been intermittent exchanges of fire between Israel and Palestinian militants – mainly Hamas people – operating from Gaza. In addition, Israel maintained a tight siege around Gaza, in clear contravention of its responsibility as “occupying power” to safeguard the welfare of the Strip’s indigenous residents.

At the end of the war both Israel and Hamas announced parallel (and un-negotiated) ceasefires. That was on Jan. 18. In the absence of any more formal, negotiated ceasefire agreement, the existing ceasefires have remained fragile, and several exchanges of fire have occurred.

But in addition, Israel has considerably tightened the physical siege of Gaza – and this, at a time when the Strip’s residents have extraordinary needs to gain access to the materials they urgently need to rebuild the 5,000 homes and other structures that were destroyed during the war. Those structures included vital water and sanitation facilities, factories, warehouses – and even the parliament.

John Prideaux-Brune, Oxfam’s country director for the West Bank and Gaza, has described Israel’s policy toward Gaza as being one of “intentionally inflicted de-development.”

He told IPS recently, “Israel went on a rampage in Gaza during the war. You can see whole villages flattened, the cows and other livestock killed. They seem to have gone in and removed anything that could have been used for economic development – farms, factories, you name it.” (Israeli sources have said that during the war, the military trucked in 100 heavy-duty bulldozers, especially to undertake this destruction.)

“It seems a mind-numbingly stupid thing for Israel to do,” Prideaux-Brune said. “Where states have succeeded in suppressing terrorism, they have done so through negotiations and fostering economic development.”

He said he hoped western governments would act quickly to persuade Israel to lift the siege. That, he said, would allow Gaza’s people to move back onto a path of economic development rather than continuing to live on handouts.

Many of the humanitarian aid organisations that have been providing ‘emergency’ aid to Gaza (and the West Bank) for many years are now, like Oxfam, becoming more vocal in arguing that the only thing that can really stabilise the very vulnerable situation of the Palestinians of these occupied areas is to find a speedy end to the Israel’s military occupation of their home territories.

Prideaux-Brune said that the Gaza Palestinians are currently suffering from a deliberately inflicted “dignity crisis.”

“So long as Israel controls everything in these people’s lives, they will remain vulnerable,” he said. “Emergency relief aid is no substitute for successful peacemaking, and that is the only way to get to real economic development.”

*Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at http://www.JustWorldNews.org.

Castro: Cuba Will Continue to Resist

April 15, 2009

By Fidel Castro | ZNet, April 15, 2009

Fidel Castro’s ZSpace Page

The U.S. administration announced through CNN that Obama would be visiting Mexico this week, in the first part of a trip that will take him to Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, where he will be within four days taking part in the Summit of the Americas. He has announced the relief of some hateful restrictions imposed by Bush to Cubans living in the United States regarding their visits to relatives in Cuba. When questions were raised on whether such prerogatives extended to other American citizens the response was that the latter were not authorized.

But not a word was said about the harshest of measures: the blockade. This is the way a truly genocidal measure is piously called, one whose damage cannot be calculated only on the basis of its economic effects, for it constantly takes human lives and brings painful suffering to our people.

Numerous diagnostic equipment and crucial medicines –made in  Europe, Japan or any other country– are not available to our patients  if they carry U.S. components or software.

The U.S. companies producing goods or offering services anywhere  in the world should apply these restrictions to Cuba, since they are extraterritorial measures.

An influential Republican Senator, Richard Lugar, and some others from his same party in Congress, as well as a significant number of his Democratic peers, favor the removal of the blockade. The conditions exist for Obama to use his talents in a constructive policy that could put an end to the one that has failed for almost half a century.

On the other hand, our country, which has resisted and is willing to resist whatever it takes, neither blames Obama for the atrocities of other U.S. administrations nor doubts his sincerity and his wishes to change the United States policy and image. We understand that he waged a very difficult battle to be elected, despite centuries-old prejudices.

Taking note of this reality, the President of the State Council of Cuba has expressed his willingness to have a dialogue with Obama  and to normalize relations with the United States, on the basis  of the strictest respect for the sovereignty of our country.

At 2:30 p.m., the head of the Interests Section of Cuba in Washington, Jorge Bolaños, was summoned to the State Department  by Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Shannon. He did not say  anything different from what had been indicated by the CNN.

At 3:15 p.m. a lengthy press conference started. The substance of what was said there is reflected in the words of Dan Restrepo, Presidential Adviser for Latin America.

He said that today President Obama had instructed to take certain measures, certain steps, to reach out to the Cuban people in  support of their wishes to live with respect for human rights and to determine their own destiny and that of the country.

He added that the president had instructed the secretaries of State, Commerce and Treasury to undertake the necessary actions to  remove all restrictions preventing persons to visit their relatives in the Island and sending remittances. He also said that the president had issued instructions for steps to be taken allowing the free flow of information in Cuba, and between those living in Cuba and the  rest of the world, and to facilitate delivering humanitarian resources directly to the Cuban people.

He also said that with these measures, aimed at closing the gap between divided Cuban families and promoting the free flow of information and humanitarian assistance to the Cuban people, President Obama was making an effort to fulfill the objectives  he set out during his campaign and after taking on his position.

Finally, he indicated that all those who believe in the basic democratic values hope for a Cuba where the human, political, economic and basic rights of the entire people are respected.  And he added that President Obama feels that these measures  will help to make this objective a reality. The president, he said,  encourages everyone who shares these wishes to continue to  decidedly support the Cuban people.

At the end of the press conference, the adviser candidly confessed that ?all of this is for Cuba?s freedom.?

Cuba does not applaud the ill-named Summits of the Americas, where our nations do not debate on equal footing. If they were of any use, it would be to make critical analyses of policies that divide our peoples, plunder our resources and hinder our development.

Now, the only thing left is for Obama to try to persuade all of the Latin American presidents attending the conference that the  blockade is harmless.

Cuba has resisted and it will continue to resist; it will never beg for alms. It will go on forward holding its head up high and cooperating with the fraternal peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean; with or without Summits of the Americas; whether or not the president of the United States is Obama, a man or a woman, a black or a white citizen.

Biden: US won’t lift blockade of Cuba

March 30, 2009
Morning Star Online, Sunday 29 March 2009
HAND OF FRIENDSHIP? The US vice-president is happy to talk to Chile's President Michelle Bachelet but says the US has no plans to stop its persecution of Cuba.

SENIOR US politicians have hinted at better relations with Latin America’s new wave of left-wing governments – except for Cuba.

US Vice-President Joe Biden said on Saturday that the US government has no plans to lift the nearly 50-year-old illegal blockade of the socialist island.

He and President Barack Obama “think that Cuban people should determine their own fate and they should be able to live in freedom,” Mr Biden said after taking part in the Progressive Governance Summit in Chile, a gathering of centre-left leaders from Latin America and Europe.

The vice-president said a “transition” was needed in Washington’s policy but that he was in Chile “to talk about the economy, not Cuba.”

Meanwhile, in Colombia, former US president and Obama ally Bill Clinton told a meeting of the governors of the Inter-American Development Bank to maintain relations with the left-wing governments of Colombia’s neighbours.

Without naming Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, Mr Clinton said that “it shouldn’t be surprising that a reaction to global inequality and America’s withdrawal in the last eight years” under the Bush administration had produced governments “that are either too authoritarian or too hostile to market economics or both.”

The UN general assembly has repeatedly passed resolutions condemning the blockade and calling for it to end.

Washington’s isolation has increased in recent years as new progressive governments across the US’s “back yard” of Latin America and the Caribbean have forged close ties with the ever-defiant Cuban people.

Despite the blockade, Cuba has provided practical solidarity across the developing world.

Mr Biden stressed that the White House was committed to the region.

“President Obama and I are absolutely committed to working closely with our neighbours in the hemisphere,” he said at Chile’s La Moneda presidential palace after meeting President Michelle Bachelet.

At a ceremony in Pretoria on Friday, South African President Kgalema Motlanthe bestowed the gold medal of the Order of the Companions of OR Thambo on Fidel Castro, presenting it to Cuban ambassador Angel Fernandez.

The order, named after former ANC president Oliver Thambo, is South Africa’s highest award for solidarity with the anti-apartheid struggle.

It had previously been awarded posthumously to Martin Luther King Jr, Salvador Allende and Mahatma Gandhi.


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Obama Follows Bush Line on Aid to Gaza

March 3, 2009

by Glenn Kessler | The Age (Australia), March 3, 2009

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – The US was last night expected to pledge $US300 million ($A470 million) in humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip after the 22-day Israeli offensive but will maintain restrictions to stop any of the money getting to Hamas.

[In this photo released by the U.S. Embassy in Egypt, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, meets with Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa on the sidelines of the Egypt-hosted international conference on rebuilding Gaza, in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt Monday, March 2, 2009. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on her first foray into Middle East diplomacy, declared the Obama administration committed to pushing intensively to find a way for Israelis and Palestinians to exist peacefully in separate states. (AP Photo/U.S. Embassy in Egypt, Sameh Refaat)]In this photo released by the U.S. Embassy in Egypt, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, meets with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa on the sidelines of the Egypt-hosted international conference on rebuilding Gaza, in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt Monday, March 2, 2009. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on her first foray into Middle East diplomacy, declared the Obama administration committed to pushing intensively to find a way for Israelis and Palestinians to exist peacefully in separate states. (AP Photo/U.S. Embassy in Egypt, Sameh Refaat)

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in Egypt on Sunday to take part in a donors’ conference for the reconstruction of Gaza, was also expected to announce $US600 million in help to the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority is controlled by Hamas’ main rival, Fatah, which is ruling by emergency decree in the occupied West Bank.

The extra money not aimed at Gaza includes $US200 million to pay Palestinian Authority wages – much of which was previously announced – and $US400 million to support development in the West Bank. The full package awaits congressional approval.

Taken together, the announcements underscore how little the Obama Administration’s policy towards the Palestinian issue has so far differed from the Bush administration’s.

Although Mr Obama has named a Middle East envoy, a step George Bush resisted, the policy to be outlined at the conference indicates that the Administration will maintain a tough stance on Hamas, seeking to bolster the Islamist movement’s rivals and keeping its distance from Palestinian efforts to create a unity government.

Mrs Clinton, making her first visit to the Middle East as chief US diplomat, did not speak to reporters on her arrival in Egypt.

Although the international quartet – the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia – has set conditions for dealings with Hamas, the EU has been looking for some sign of greater flexibility from the US on helping Gaza.

The question of engagement with Hamas will become more acute if negotiations between it and Fatah on a unity government are successful. The Bush administration shunned the previous unity government between March and June 2007.

“We’re talking about an administration that is only one month in,” US State Department spokesman Robert Wood said, when asked why Mr Obama appeared to be keeping to Mr Bush’s path.

Gaza, where unemployment tops 40 per cent and 80 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, was devastated by the recent offensive, which Israel launched after a ceasefire broke down and Hamas rockets rained down on Israeli towns.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair, a special envoy of the quartet, visited a UN school in the Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun on Sunday and later told al-Jazeera TV the devastation was “very shocking”.

Mr Blair, accompanied by the UN Relief and Works Agency’s head in Gaza, John Ging, said Israel should immediately lift its economic blockade of the strip.

“I think there is a recognition that we have got to change our strategy towards Gaza,” he said.

“I don’t think anybody can come here and not be appalled by what is happening.”

Mr Blair also visited Sderot, an Israeli town that has been frequently struck by Palestinian rockets in recent years.

Palestinian officials hope to raise as much as $US2.8 billion in humanitarian relief and reconstruction aid for Gaza. But Israel maintains tight control of crossings into Gaza and will not allow entry of any items that it says could be used by Hamas to re-arm. It bans or restricts the importing of cement, steel rods and other material necessary for construction.

International aid groups and Hamas have called for the crossings to be opened, saying the closures unfairly punish civilians.

The US position on humanitarian aid has been similar to Israel’s stance, although on a recent visit by US politicians Massachusetts senator John Kerry complained to Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak about Israel’s refusal to allow pasta through the crossing.

Israel insists that any humanitarian aid should pass through established agencies such as the UN, said Jonathan Peled, spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington.

Mrs Clinton is expected to hold talks today with Israeli officials, including Mr Olmert and Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu.

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.

http://mondediplo.com/2009/02/01abandoned

For Kashmiri Muslims the meaning of independence from Indian occupation of their land

September 14, 2008

Kashmir is in crisis: the region’s Muslims are mounting huge non-violent protests against the Indian government’s rule. But, asks Arundhati Roy, what would independence for the territory mean for its people?

Arundhati Roy| The Guardian, Friday August 22 2008

A Kashmiri Muslim shows a victory sign during a march in Srinagar, India

A Kashmiri Muslim shows a victory sign during a march in Srinagar, India. Photograph: Dar Yasin/AP

For the past 60 days or so, since about the end of June, the people of Kashmir have been free. Free in the most profound sense. They have shrugged off the terror of living their lives in the gun-sights of half a million heavily armed soldiers, in the most densely militarised zone in the world.

After 18 years of administering a military occupation, the Indian government’s worst nightmare has come true. Having declared that the militant movement has been crushed, it is now faced with a non-violent mass protest, but not the kind it knows how to manage. This one is nourished by people’s memory of years of repression in which tens of thousands have been killed, thousands have been “disappeared”, hundreds of thousands tortured, injured, and humiliated. That kind of rage, once it finds utterance, cannot easily be tamed, rebottled and sent back to where it came from.

A sudden twist of fate, an ill-conceived move over the transfer of 100 acres of state forest land to the Amarnath Shrine Board (which manages the annual Hindu pilgrimage to a cave deep in the Kashmir Himalayas) suddenly became the equivalent of tossing a lit match into a barrel of petrol. Until 1989 the Amarnath pilgrimage used to attract about 20,000 people who travelled to the Amarnath cave over a period of about two weeks. In 1990, when the overtly Islamist militant uprising in the valley coincided with the spread of virulent Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) in the Indian plains, the number of pilgrims began to increase exponentially. By 2008 more than 500,000 pilgrims visited the Amarnath cave, in large groups, their passage often sponsored by Indian business houses. To many people in the valley this dramatic increase in numbers was seen as an aggressive political statement by an increasingly Hindu-fundamentalist Indian state. Rightly or wrongly, the land transfer was viewed as the thin edge of the wedge. It triggered an apprehension that it was the beginning of an elaborate plan to build Israeli-style settlements, and change the demography of the valley.

Days of massive protest forced the valley to shut down completely. Within hours the protests spread from the cities to villages. Young stone pelters took to the streets and faced armed police who fired straight at them, killing several. For people as well as the government, it resurrected memories of the uprising in the early 90s. Throughout the weeks of protest, hartal (strikes) and police firing, while the Hindutva publicity machine charged Kashmiris with committing every kind of communal excess, the 500,000 Amarnath pilgrims completed their pilgrimage, not just unhurt, but touched by the hospitality they had been shown by local people.

Eventually, taken completely by surprise at the ferocity of the response, the government revoked the land transfer. But by then the land-transfer had become what Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the most senior and also the most overtly Islamist separatist leader, called a “non-issue”.

Massive protests against the revocation erupted in Jammu. There, too, the issue snowballed into something much bigger. Hindus began to raise issues of neglect and discrimination by the Indian state. (For some odd reason they blamed Kashmiris for that neglect.) The protests led to the blockading of the Jammu-Srinagar highway, the only functional road-link between Kashmir and India. Truckloads of perishable fresh fruit and valley produce began to rot.

The blockade demonstrated in no uncertain terms to people in Kashmir that they lived on sufferance, and that if they didn’t behave themselves they could be put under siege, starved, deprived of essential commodities and medical supplies.

To expect matters to end there was of course absurd. Hadn’t anybody noticed that in Kashmir even minor protests about civic issues like water and electricity inevitably turned into demands for azadi, freedom? To threaten them with mass starvation amounted to committing political suicide.

Not surprisingly, the voice that the government of India has tried so hard to silence in Kashmir has massed into a deafening roar. Raised in a playground of army camps, checkpoints, and bunkers, with screams from torture chambers for a soundtrack, the young generation has suddenly discovered the power of mass protest, and above all, the dignity of being able to straighten their shoulders and speak for themselves, represent themselves. For them it is nothing short of an epiphany. Not even the fear of death seems to hold them back. And once that fear has gone, of what use is the largest or second largest army in the world?

There have been mass rallies in the past, but none in recent memory that have been so sustained and widespread. The mainstream political parties of Kashmir – National Conference and People’s Democratic party – appear dutifully for debates in New Delhi’s TV studios, but can’t muster the courage to appear on the streets of Kashmir. The armed militants who, through the worst years of repression were seen as the only ones carrying the torch of azadi forward, if they are around at all, seem content to take a back seat and let people do the fighting for a change.

The separatist leaders who do appear and speak at the rallies are not leaders so much as followers, being guided by the phenomenal spontaneous energy of a caged, enraged people that has exploded on Kashmir’s streets. Day after day, hundreds of thousands of people swarm around places that hold terrible memories for them. They demolish bunkers, break through cordons of concertina wire and stare straight down the barrels of soldiers’ machine guns, saying what very few in India want to hear. Hum Kya Chahtey? Azadi! (We want freedom.) And, it has to be said, in equal numbers and with equal intensity: Jeevey jeevey Pakistan. (Long live Pakistan.)

That sound reverberates through the valley like the drumbeat of steady rain on a tin roof, like the roll of thunder during an electric storm.

On August 15, India’s independence day, Lal Chowk, the nerve centre of Srinagar, was taken over by thousands of people who hoisted the Pakistani flag and wished each other “happy belated independence day” (Pakistan celebrates independence on August 14) and “happy slavery day”. Humour obviously, has survived India’s many torture centres and Abu Ghraibs in Kashmir.

On August 16 more than 300,000 people marched to Pampore, to the village of the Hurriyat leader, Sheikh Abdul Aziz, who was shot down in cold blood five days earlier.

On the night of August 17 the police sealed the city. Streets were barricaded, thousands of armed police manned the barriers. The roads leading into Srinagar were blocked. On the morning of August 18, people began pouring into Srinagar from villages and towns across the valley. In trucks, tempos, jeeps, buses and on foot. Once again, barriers were broken and people reclaimed their city. The police were faced with a choice of either stepping aside or executing a massacre. They stepped aside. Not a single bullet was fired.

The city floated on a sea of smiles. There was ecstasy in the air. Everyone had a banner; houseboat owners, traders, students, lawyers, doctors. One said: “We are all prisoners, set us free.” Another said: “Democracy without freedom is demon-crazy.” Demon-crazy. That was a good one. Perhaps he was referring to the insanity that permits the world’s largest democracy to administer the world’s largest military occupation and continue to call itself a democracy.

There was a green flag on every lamp post, every roof, every bus stop and on the top of chinar trees. A big one fluttered outside the All India Radio building. Road signs were painted over. Rawalpindi they said. Or simply Pakistan. It would be a mistake to assume that the public expression of affection for Pakistan automatically translates into a desire to accede to Pakistan. Some of it has to do with gratitude for the support – cynical or otherwise – for what Kashmiris see as their freedom struggle, and the Indian state sees as a terrorist campaign. It also has to do with mischief. With saying and doing what galls India most of all. (It’s easy to scoff at the idea of a “freedom struggle” that wishes to distance itself from a country that is supposed to be a democracy and align itself with another that has, for the most part been ruled by military dictators. A country whose army has committed genocide in what is now Bangladesh. A country that is even now being torn apart by its own ethnic war. These are important questions, but right now perhaps it’s more useful to wonder what this so-called democracy did in Kashmir to make people hate it so?)

Everywhere there were Pakistani flags, everywhere the cry Pakistan se rishta kya? La illaha illallah. (What is our bond with Pakistan? There is no god but Allah.) Azadi ka matlab kya? La illaha illallah. (What does freedom mean? There is no god but Allah.)

For somebody like myself, who is not Muslim, that interpretation of freedom is hard – if not impossible – to understand. I asked a young woman whether freedom for Kashmir would not mean less freedom for her, as a woman. She shrugged and said “What kind of freedom do we have now? The freedom to be raped by Indian soldiers?” Her reply silenced me.

Surrounded by a sea of green flags, it was impossible to doubt or ignore the deeply Islamic fervour of the uprising taking place around me. It was equally impossible to label it a vicious, terrorist jihad. For Kashmiris it was a catharsis. A historical moment in a long and complicated struggle for freedom with all the imperfections, cruelties and confusions that freedom struggles have. This one cannot by any means call itself pristine, and will always be stigmatised by, and will some day, I hope, have to account for, among other things, the brutal killings of Kashmiri Pandits in the early years of the uprising, culminating in the exodus of almost the entire Hindu community from the Kashmir valley.

As the crowd continued to swell I listened carefully to the slogans, because rhetoric often holds the key to all kinds of understanding. There were plenty of insults and humiliation for India: Ay jabiron ay zalimon, Kashmir hamara chhod do (Oh oppressors, Oh wicked ones, Get out of our Kashmir.) The slogan that cut through me like a knife and clean broke my heart was this one: Nanga bhookha Hindustan, jaan se pyaara Pakistan. (Naked, starving India, More precious than life itself – Pakistan.)

Why was it so galling, so painful to listen to this? I tried to work it out and settled on three reasons. First, because we all know that the first part of the slogan is the embarrassing and unadorned truth about India, the emerging superpower. Second, because all Indians who are not nanga or bhooka are and have been complicit in complex and historical ways with the elaborate cultural and economic systems that make Indian society so cruel, so vulgarly unequal. And third, because it was painful to listen to people who have suffered so much themselves mock others who suffer, in different ways, but no less intensely, under the same oppressor. In that slogan I saw the seeds of how easily victims can become perpetrators.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani began his address with a recitation from the Qur’an. He then said what he has said before, on hundreds of occasions. The only way for the struggle to succeed, he said, was to turn to the Qur’an for guidance. He said Islam would guide the struggle and that it was a complete social and moral code that would govern the people of a free Kashmir. He said Pakistan had been created as the home of Islam, and that that goal should never be subverted. He said just as Pakistan belonged to Kashmir, Kashmir belonged to Pakistan. He said minority communities would have full rights and their places of worship would be safe. Each point he made was applauded.

I imagined myself standing in the heart of a Hindu nationalist rally being addressed by the Bharatiya Janata party’s (BJP) LK Advani. Replace the word Islam with the word Hindutva, replace the word Pakistan with Hindustan, replace the green flags with saffron ones and we would have the BJP’s nightmare vision of an ideal India.

Is that what we should accept as our future? Monolithic religious states handing down a complete social and moral code, “a complete way of life”? Millions of us in India reject the Hindutva project. Our rejection springs from love, from passion, from a kind of idealism, from having enormous emotional stakes in the society in which we live. What our neighbours do, how they choose to handle their affairs does not affect our argument, it only strengthens it.

Arguments that spring from love are also fraught with danger. It is for the people of Kashmir to agree or disagree with the Islamist project (which is as contested, in equally complex ways, all over the world by Muslims, as Hindutva is contested by Hindus). Perhaps now that the threat of violence has receded and there is some space in which to debate views and air ideas, it is time for those who are part of the struggle to outline a vision for what kind of society they are fighting for. Perhaps it is time to offer people something more than martyrs, slogans and vague generalisations. Those who wish to turn to the Qur’an for guidance will no doubt find guidance there. But what of those who do not wish to do that, or for whom the Qur’an does not make place? Do the Hindus of Jammu and other minorities also have the right to self-determination? Will the hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits living in exile, many of them in terrible poverty, have the right to return? Will they be paid reparations for the terrible losses they have suffered? Or will a free Kashmir do to its minorities what India has done to Kashmiris for 61 years? What will happen to homosexuals and adulterers and blasphemers? What of thieves and lafangas and writers who do not agree with the “complete social and moral code”? Will we be put to death as we are in Saudi Arabia? Will the cycle of death, repression and bloodshed continue? History offers many models for Kashmir’s thinkers and intellectuals and politicians to study. What will the Kashmir of their dreams look like? Algeria? Iran? South Africa? Switzerland? Pakistan?

At a crucial time like this, few things are more important than dreams. A lazy utopia and a flawed sense of justice will have consequences that do not bear thinking about. This is not the time for intellectual sloth or a reluctance to assess a situation clearly and honestly.

Already the spectre of partition has reared its head. Hindutva networks are alive with rumours about Hindus in the valley being attacked and forced to flee. In response, phone calls from Jammu reported that an armed Hindu militia was threatening a massacre and that Muslims from the two Hindu majority districts were preparing to flee. Memories of the bloodbath that ensued and claimed the lives of more than a million people when India and Pakistan were partitioned have come flooding back. That nightmare will haunt all of us forever.

However, none of these fears of what the future holds can justify the continued military occupation of a nation and a people. No more than the old colonial argument about how the natives were not ready for freedom justified the colonial project.

Of course there are many ways for the Indian state to continue to hold on to Kashmir. It could do what it does best. Wait. And hope the people’s energy will dissipate in the absence of a concrete plan. It could try and fracture the fragile coalition that is emerging. It could extinguish this non-violent uprising and re-invite armed militancy. It could increase the number of troops from half a million to a whole million. A few strategic massacres, a couple of targeted assassinations, some disappearances and a massive round of arrests should do the trick for a few more years.

The unimaginable sums of public money that are needed to keep the military occupation of Kashmir going is money that ought by right to be spent on schools and hospitals and food for an impoverished, malnutritioned population in India. What kind of government can possibly believe that it has the right to spend it on more weapons, more concertina wire and more prisons in Kashmir?

The Indian military occupation of Kashmir makes monsters of us all. It allows Hindu chauvinists to target and victimise Muslims in India by holding them hostage to the freedom struggle being waged by Muslims in Kashmir.

India needs azadi from Kashmir just as much as – if not more than – Kashmir needs azadi from India.

· Arundhati Roy, 2008. A longer version of this article will be available tomorrow at outlookindia.com.


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