Category Archives: International Politics

Remarks on the #Boston4Gaza Rally

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What matters is the predictable consequences of our actions that are undertaken, not the intent, not even the abstract validity of slogans.  That’s not what matters to the victims.”  –Noam Chomsky

This evening I attended a protest in Boston against the current Israeli onslaught in Gaza. The protest in many ways was very heartening, but also presented some significant problems if we are going to hold our government accountable for Israeli violence and occupation.  I wish to make clear that my criticisms are not meant to be merely academic or tactical footnotes, especially in this time of great crisis when moral outrage is more than justified.  Instead, I believe that the pro-Palestinian movement in the US needs to make some major adjustments if it is to have maximal effect in saving the people of Gaza now and ending the occupation of Palestine in the long-term.

First, I should note that this protest clearly had a very positive effect overall.  Local news covered it quite fairly and the “die-in” that happened at the end was portrayed very sympathetically, at least in the news I saw.  To read the names of Palestinian victims in Gaza was a powerful statement that, from local news coverage, seems to have reached its goal of humanizing what is a far-too-often vilified population.

The anger and moral outrage demonstrated tonight was clearly appropriate given that one can only conclude that Israel is purposely punishing the civilian population of Gaza in what can only be seen as a sadistic act.  I felt this outrage as I have listened to the courageous reporting of Sharif Abdel Kouddous on Democracy Now: one day Israel is shelling a hospital, then killing children on a beach, and then attacking another hospital, and all throughout bombing homes, all part of “terrorist infrastructure.”  I frankly dislike protests, because they tend to oversimplify and sloganize complex issues.  But in this case I felt the only decent thing to do was to bear witness to the suffering that our government labels as tragic, but proceeds to excuse and enable.  And so I joined the march.

 

While I definitely have no regrets about doing so, I was very concerned about some of the chants that were used, because they reflect a way of thinking about the Israel-Palestine conflict that has the potential to alienate the public.  Whether we in the social justice movement recognize it or not, the way we are perceived has a direct impact on how effective we will be in protecting the victims of Gaza, and Palestine more broadly.

One particular chant that was worrisome was “Palestine will be free, from the Jordan to the Sea.” The first thing a supporter of Israel’s actions in Gaza will say is “These people want to wipe Israel off the map!”  At the end of the march, one of the rabbis from an odd, rather orthodox sect had a bullhorn and talked about how the State of Israel needed to be peacefully abolished, for which he gained cheers.  Only the pro-Palestinian protesters heard what was being said, but this movement will erase any public sympathy it has if this is the message it puts forth.

The second problematic chant was the repeated call for “Intifada!”  While this is a general term for an uprising, put on the hat of a supporter of Israel’s actions.  They will think “What Intifada are they talking about?  The second one that included suicide bombings of Israeli civilians?”  Anti-Arab racism is so permeated in our culture that Arab and suicide bomber are considered close to synonymous.  However justified our moral indignation is, we need to be wise and not feed into a stereotype.

I think we could gain some lessons from our own civil rights movement.  The heroes of sit-ins at white lunch counters and the Freedom Riders sought to achieve victory by bringing the injustice of their oppressors out into the open.  Not only was it a courageous act of moral strength, but a brilliant tactic as it made it very clear to the public who was the victim and who the oppressor.  If the movement for Palestinian rights is to make maximal progress, it must provide the public with the same clarity.

For example, tonight there was a small, but vocal contingent of counter-demonstrators with signs like “Boston Strong Against Hamas Terror” and “Hamas Tunnel Rats.”  On Boston Common police formed a line between them and the pro-Palestinian protesters.  When most of the pro-Palestinian contingent was still listening to people speak, I decided to sit down facing the pro-Israel group with my sign, which read: “Bombing homes and hospitals and killing children does not give anyone security.  Tell our government to truly support a two-state settlement.” One of them kept saying to me, quite sincerely, that I should join them because I was just misguided. I assume he was referring to the part of my poster that referred to supporting a two-state solution. Not that I expect right-wing supporters of Israeli militarism to be overly rational, but I could not help but think that if this person could think I was reasonable (even if “misguided”), an average person on the street would probably agree with me.  What if the Pro-Palestinians all had signs supporting the two-state solution? (Unfortunately, mine was the only one I saw.)  “Hamas Tunnel Rats” and “Free Gaza from Hamas” would look even more ridiculous.  As it was, I imagine the average person saw both sides as extremes in a shouting match.

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Far more important than my personal experience, tomorrow, Wednesday at 5:30 at Park Street in Boston there is a vigil adopting the following statement of principles:

  • End the violence on both sides. Negotiated ceasefire now!
  • All lives are equally precious and worthy of respect, Palestinian and Israeli.
  • It’s not possible to understand the current violence in a vacuum and without considering the complex narratives of both Palestinians and Israelis.
  • There is no military solution.
  • More than ever we need a comprehensive diplomatic solution; ending the Occupation is part of that solution.
  • Palestinians and Israelis both have a right to security and to a viable homeland.

If the same right wing Israelis show up with their signs, it should be very clear to the public who is being reasonable and who is not.

When international law and opinion are so clearly on the side of both Palestinians and Israelis having their own states, the movement for justice in Palestine is not doing any service to the occupied if it cannot join this consensus.  If it chooses to focus only on ending the occupation without accepting the reality of Israel, its ability to sway public opinion will be limited and easily play into the hands of right-wing militarists.

This is all very easy for me to say from far away while Gaza’s civilian population is a shooting gallery.  However, as we continue to protest, we must remember that it is not only incumbent upon us to express moral outrage, but to also communicate to the American public that we have a clear way out.  This fight for Gaza in the court of public opinion is one we can win.  When this latest round of carnage ends, our work will continue and more than ever we will need to show that we are on the side of justice for all.

Norman Finkelstein, Egypt, and the West’s View of Muslims

I think the following brief clip from Norman Finkelstein is an excellent statement of the principles of democracy related to the situation in Egypt.  His description of the way Muslims are viewed in the West connects with a recent thought I had: if you look at a map of the world you will see that most of the regions with a majority Muslim population are ones that were most severely dominated by European colonialism.  Those are specifically Africa, the Middle East, and Indonesia.  While proving it would require far more rigorous analysis than I can provide here, it seems straightforward to observe that the sense of cultural superiority that came with imperialism still influences how the West views the inhabitants of these lands.  Go here for an interactive map of the Muslim world.

 

US Showing More Lack of Neutrality on Israel/Palestine

Now that talks are resuming between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, there is more evidence of the US’ lack of neutrality.  Reuters reports:

“In another sign of possible momentum, Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who directs the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, is expected to be named as the new U.S. envoy for Middle East peace, possibly as early as Monday, a source familiar with the matter said.”

First, if the US wanted to be an impartial mediator it would not name the former ambassador to Israel.  Imagine in the 1980′s if the US had named its ambassador to the UK as the “envoy for peace between the UK and Ireland.”  Fortunately, it chose George Mitchell.

A more specific example of Indyk’s lack of neutrality is his description of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran as the “rejectionist bloc,” which although is considered conventional wisdom, indicates an unwillingness to empathize with the Palestinians or see any reason why, for example, a guerrilla militia that developed to push out an occupying army would still harbor animosity towards the country that occupied it.  This is not to excuse the violations of the laws of war by either Hezbollah or Hamas.  But to refer to the elected government of the Palestinian people as a “terrorist government” as Indyk did, is not becoming of a mediating diplomat.

Lastly, and I must emphasize that this is not meant as any kind of racist or religious slur, it is not neutral to pick someone who is Jewish as a mediator between the two sides, just as it would be ludicrous to pick an Arab or even a Muslim American.  Going back to someone like George Mitchell, as Obama did in his first term, would be far more appropriate.

 

Balanced Perspective on Iran Needed

One lesson in reading the news is that interpretation is always key.  The US Air Force put out a report assessing the threat of ballistic missiles from other countries.  Some Israeli news outlets have put out stories that refer to the part of the report that says “Iran could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015. ”  Interestingly, YNet interprets this with the headline “Pentagon: Iran will soon have nuclear missiles capable of striking US.”  The report says nothing about Iran possessing nuclear warheads, but only about missile delivery systems.  There is also the fact that capability does not justify military action or its threat, at least according to international law. (See Article 2.4)  Nonetheless, the Israeli government is very sure that Iran is about to gain nuclear weapons and is threatening to attack Iran.  This is not to say that Iran should have nuclear weapons and is somehow an innocent victim, but balance seems fair.  For example, the report states

“Iran has ambitious ballistic missile and space launch development programs and continues to attempt to increase the range, lethality, and accuracy of its ballistic missile force”

To get a sense of how the US may appear to other countries, one need only look at the mission statement of the US Space Command, under the control of the US Air Force:

“Air Force Space Command, activated Sept. 1, 1982, is a major command with headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. AFSPC provides military focused space and cyberspace capabilities with a global perspective to the joint warfighting team.”

Or to go into the history books, there was the 1997 report US Space Command put out that stated its “Vision for 2020″ to be

“dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment.  Integrating Space Forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict.”

As always, I would refer readers back to my post on Arab public opinion polls on who they see as threats.

South American Unity

It’s an amazing thing to see South American nations so united.  It would be naive to think they are models of virtue just because they have have left governments, but they certainly are models of self respect, as seen recently in their solidarity around Evo Morales’ plane being forced down.

 

If Only US Candidates Had Lines as Good As This…

Iran just had a debate among candidates for president.  Apparently the candidates hated the format and refused to answer a lot of questions.  One candidate especially had a line we could all learn from:

 “With these repetitive, discontinuous, short, one-to-three minute answers, the people are being harmed and the eight people up here are being insulted.”

German Conservatives Go Left of U.S. Again

To add to what I said about a week and a half ago on how German conservatives say things that you would rarely hear an American Democrat say, Reuters had an excellent piece that highlights how different Europe really is.  I recommend reading the whole article, but it is quite telling that the German Finance Minister warned that if Europe adopted US welfare standards “we would have a revolution, not tomorrow, but on the very same day.”

Merkel Comments Point Out Difference Between Western Europe and US

In an interesting contrast between Western Europe and the US, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said today that financial markets need more regulation.  Her party, the Christian Democratic Union, is the more conservative German party, yet gives at least some minimal commitment to the notion that the government should keep markets in check.  Merkel said,

“Crises have blown up because the rules of the social market have not been observed…We have made progress but we are nowhere near a point where we could say that the kind of derailment that leads to market crises could not happen again and so the issue will again play a central role at the G20 meeting this year.”

Also interesting that she notes that markets have a social purpose and are not simply to be praised for their own sake.

“It is true that economies are there to serve people and that has by no means always been the case in recent years.”

White House Statement Ignores International Law

It’s been a number of months since I blogged, but I am back for the time being…

I do not wish to argue whether or not the attacks by Israel on Syria this weekend were justified, but instead point out a comment made by a White House spokesman, quoted by Reuters, that deserves more attention than it is likely to get:

The president many times has talked about his view that Israel, as a sovereign government, has the right to take the actions they feel are necessary to protect their people.”

This type of statement is made just about every time Israel goes on the attack.  The problem is that if international law is taken into account, then it is not a universally true statement.  If “the actions they feel are necessary to protect their people,” include the threat or use of force, then no sovereign government has this right unchecked.

Article 2, Section 4 of the United Nations Charter states:

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

There are two exceptions to this: 1) the UN Security Council approves the use of force and 2) in self defense against armed attack until the Security Council has time to act.  The second condition is summarized in the well known Article 51 of the the UN Charter:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

Israel did not refer this to the UN Security Council and will certainly not refer it to the Council under an Article 51 claim, most likely because of its past violations of Security Council resolutions.  So while Israel is certainly not alone in violations of international law, it certainly is in violation at present.

What is revealing is how we would react to other countries making the same statement the White House did.  If Iran attacked Iraq and Russia said “Iran, as a sovereign government, has the right to take the actions they feel are necessary to protect their people,” we would immediately recognize the statement as meaningless and we would apply the international norms that say a country cannot attack another one just because it claims it is in self-defense.  Given current US drone attacks outside of armed conflict in Afghanistan, in addition to its vast history of wars launched in violation of international law, it is not surprising that the White House will make such a statement about an ally.  International law is considered so foreign and inapplicable to us that this statement passes without comment.

Crucial Context on Colombia (Reuters critique)

I came across another Reuters article that needs some facts to add missing context.  This one is about about Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos’ willingness to hold a public referendum on any peace deal his administration makes with the rebel FARC guerrillas.  The article states

The drug funded group [FARC]…has fought successive governments since 1964 and killed tens of thousands.”

It is important to note that Colombian paramilitaries also played a major role in the conflict, committing gross acts of inhumanity with the backing of the state and also made a significant amount of money through drug money.  Despite their demobilization deal with the state in 2003, Human Rights Watch reports that there have been successor groups that “engage in drug trafficking” and “commit widespread abuses against civilians, including massacres, killings, rapes and other forms of sexual violence, threats, and forced displacement.”  HRW reports concerns of “ongoing infiltration of the political system by paramilitaries and their successor groups.”  Perhaps the situation has improved in the past decade since in 2001 HRW put out a report stating paramilitary “groups are responsible for most human rights violations, including massacres and forced displacement…Colombian army brigades and police work with and even profit from paramilitaries, treating them as a force allied with their own.”  The FARC are not nice guys, but it is not as if the state is on the side of the angels.

Reuters leaves out something absolutely critical when they state,

Santos has ruled out discussing major changes to Colombia’s economic or political model, saying that if the guerrillas want to modify the system, they should run for election.  More than 20 years ago, Colombia held a nationwide assembly to rewrite the 1886 constitution. Demobilized rebels from smaller groups participated, but not the FARC or the National Liberation Army, another left-wing group.”

This makes it seem as if the FARC has been hesitant to pursue a political path and leaves out why they may want constitutional guarantees.  The FARC faced a major assassination campaign when they did pursue this path in the 1980′s and 1990′s.

FACT: A 1987 article by the Christian Science Monitor reported,

The country’s oldest and largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), created the Patriotic Union to run candidates in last year’s congressional and presidential elections. Since then, four of 14 UP congressmen have been killed. Authorities have jailed no suspects in any of the killings. But a report last month by Amnesty International accused security forces and their civilian accomplices of murdering more than 1,000 people.”

FACT: A 2007 Amnesty International report stated that “Since the UP [Patriotic Union] was founded in 1985, more than 3,000 UP members have been killed or been victims of enforced disappearances, the vast majority carried out by the security forces and paramilitaries.”

I think this context is important, especially since Reuters notes that the FARC did not participate in the rewriting of the constitution.  Any guesses as to why?