Sunday, December 31, 2006

Memories of a Murderer: the Hanging of Saddam Hussein

It's almost amusing to witness the proliferation of competing memories of Saddam Hussein's hanging yesterday. As ever, it is not easy separating history from its narration. Zeyad's transcript of a cell phone video of the execution and its apparent divergence - however slight - from the reports of the New York Times illustrate how difficult it will be to unpack the event as it really happened from the rumors, myths, stories (or histories?) told by all those who have a stake in the affair - which is to say, most of us.

Every utterance by Saddam, the executioners, officials, and witnesses is likely to prove significant for the shaping of competitive memories of the event. Predictably, those memories break down along sectarian lines. The fact that the hanging took place on the holiday of 'Eid ul-Adha, which commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son (Muslims believe that Abraham/Ibrahim wanted to sacrifice Ishmael; Jews and Christians believe that the designated sacrifice was Isaac), only added additional religious powder to the explosive mix of history and memory. Is Saddam the ram sacrificed in lieu of the nation (however defined) or is he the willing martyr, Ishmael himself, martyred for his people? Is his execution a holiday gift or insult added to injury?

Many Sunnis the world over, with the exception of Kuwaitis, denounced the killing. The Palestinians have long seen Saddam as their patron; more significant were the voices coming out of Saudi Arabia. In a statement read on the country's official news agency, the Saudi government said that "Leaders of Islamic countries should show respect for this blessed occasion ... not demean it," (Ha'aretz).

Sunni condemnations took aim at the Shi'a as well as the Americans. Doubtlessly, their collective memory of this event will prove increasingly important as the Saudis and other Sunni regimes in the region step up their support of Iraqi Sunni against Iraqi Shi'a and the Iranians. So far, many of these voices are still talking in nationalist terms. They take aim, for example, at the divisive nature of the event of the execution - divisive of the Iraqi nation. They are of course right. As all the reports and transcripts of the hanging make clear, the men who lynched Saddam were Shi'a, supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr no less. Saddam's ignominious end was the revenge of the Shi'a, and that is exactly how they staged it. But the Shi'a believe that they are the Iraqi nation. That is why the Kurds were not really represented at the execution, and that is why the hanging of Saddam took place before the dictator's trial for his atrocities against the Kurds was completed. The Iranians, in the meantime, emphasized that the execution was "a victory of the Iraqi people." They also chastised America for seeking the credit for Saddam's fall - funny, considering U.S. troops aided by Kurdish intelligence actually caught Saddam.

In fact, with their nationalist rhetoric the Saudis and the Iranians are merely paying lip-service to Iraqi unity. Everyone knows that under Saddam an Iraqi nationalism cutting across sectarian lines amounted to an illusion supported by brutal violence - a fiction from which Sunni benefited at the expense of Shi'a and Kurds. Today, Iraqi unity means Shi'a running things and letting the Kurds handle their own business in the north. By chastising the Iraqi Shi'i leaders for "demean[ing]" 'Eid ul-adha, the Saudis and others in the region are presenting themselves as leaders in a religious struggle on behalf of Sunni against Shi'a in Gulf and possibly beyond it.

Ironically, while the Iranians warned the U.S. not to take credit for the execution, much of the world pinned the blame for the hanging on the Americans alone. Indeed, a Korean friend of mine said that in most of his country's media, the rush to hang Saddam was presented as the result of a cynical ploy by Bush for higher domestic approval. I think this reaction is fairly representative for the intelligentsias of countries such as India, China, as well as for much of the European public. The Chinese foreign ministry, however, no doubt anxious to maintain positive relations with both the Iraqi government and the Iranians, stated that "Iraqi affairs should be decided by the Iraqi people," (Xinhua News).

ADDENDUM: Big Pharaoh has a nice sectarian breakdown on who executed Saddam ("the question really depends on who you are"). This is his answer for
"All other Arabs and Muslims:":

The Americans executed Saddam and they've done so during the first day of the Muslim feast to humiliate us and show our leaders what awaits them if they stood against the US.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Death of a Tyrant

There's some harrowing footage of Saddam's last moments available at Zeyad's blog, Healing Iraq. Apparently, one of those present at the execution captured the hanging on his cellphone camera. Saddam executed thousands of Iraqis, but to me this footage is a powerful statement about the barbarity of capital punishment. Definitely not recommended for the faint of heart.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Montreal Antisemitism

The Cummings Centre for Jewish Senior Citizens defaced by a swastika - Thursday, December 28, 2006

The above are pictures of the latest Jewish institution to be defaced in Montreal. The Cummings Centre provides services for senior citizens, including kosher meals, lectures and social activities. The swastika pictured above must have been spray painted in the evening of Thursday, December 28, 2006. There are almost certainly Holocaust survivors among the people who will be visiting the centre this Friday morning. The Jewish community in Montreal has been feeling under fire since the outbreak of the second intifada. There have already been several attacks on Jewish schools in Montreal, including a firebomb attack on a Jewish school reported on in this blog last September. Lately, an inordinate amount of media attention has been focused on Jewish issues: much of this attention is unfortunately negative. The reaction to a recent report by a Montreal police committee that issued "cultural advice" to improve community policing is especially instructive. In the report, a cultural advisor from the police department suggested that in cases where police had to intervene in Orthodox Jewish communities (something that is in any case rare), male police officers talk to Orthodox men and that female officers address Orthodox women so as to show sensitivity to religious customs. As far as I could tell, the report simply intended to make community policing more effective - it was not triggered by any refusal on the part of Orthodox men to speak to female police officers. Nevertheless, the lines of French-language talk shows in Montreal were jammed by callers complaining about the alleged refusal of Jews to conform to Quebec's "tolerant" values and the whole affair was cast as a surrender by the Montreal police to sexist demands by the Jewish community.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Tsipi Livni Goes Solo on Olmert

Israeli FM Tsipi Livni with U.S. Secretary of State
Condoleeza Rice last February (State Dept.)

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is said to be furious about reports that Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni met with Fatah officials Yasser Abed Rabbo and Salam Fayyad earlier in the week. Livni apparently organized the meetings without Olmert's approval or knowledge. According to Ha'aretz, she
outlined her plan to negotiate with moderate Palestinians and shape the future of the peace process. She advocates an Israeli pullout from the West Bank east of the separation fence and the establishment of a Palestinian state - which would also be the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem - in the evacuated area.
No wonder Olmert is ticked off. Here is someone finally showing initiative and an interest in some kind of progress. In a recent post, Zach, over at Epichorus, quips that
Unlike President George W. Bush, who has conveniently shortened his title of Commander-in-Chief to "The Decider," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert cannot even make the decision whether or not to change his title to "The Vacillitor."
Livni is making him look bad.

I don't know if there is a Tsipi-bandwagon yet, and I'm not sure I would jump on it, but Israel desperately needs some real leadership, and neither Olmert nor Peretz are providing much of anything these days. I don't think Livni shone during the war with Hizbullah, but I think if she had been given more breathing room, she might have made a difference then. As Israel's representative in Europe and the U.S., she has certainly out-performed Olmert.

Anarchists Bring Roadblocks to Tel Aviv

The "roadblock" set up in Tel Aviv (Ha'aretz).

Activists from the "Anarchists against the Fence" movement brought the roadblocks of the territories to Tel Aviv today - albeit only for a few minutes. The protesters set up barbed wire and military warning signs, apparently taken from pieces of the security fence in the West Bank, on fashionable Basel street in the north of the city. The twenty or so demonstrators wanted to inform Tel Aviv residents of the daily reality in the Palestinian territories only a few kilometers away from them. A traffic jam quickly developed at the location (though this is not a rare occurrence even without protests) and drivers contacted the police. The anarchists fled the scene before the police arrived.

The anarchist action seems like a smart modification of the anti-disengagement protests two summers ago, which infuriated so many Israelis. Unlike the settlers, the anarchists are conveying their message creatively without getting arrested. The inconvenience (and danger) to motorists is negligible compared to what transpired in the "orange days" of 2005. It is good to make Israelis aware of the suffering caused to Palestinians by checkpoints and roadblocks. I wonder though what the protesters would say to those who insist (rightly) that the fence and checkpoints have saved and continue to save hundreds of lives. The dramatic decrease in suicide bombings over the past year is proof of that. The often cited argument that checkpoints create terrorists, on the other hand, is hard to verify. Surely, suffering by itself does not create suicide bombers.

There is a police station just one block south of Basel on Dizengoff, so the cops must have taken their time.

This is the second Basel Street protest that has made it onto Kishkushim. Last summer, Arab Israelis demonstrated in front of the Egyptian embassy down the street.

NEXT: Palestinian leftists blow up mini van loaded with effigy passengers on Ramallah street to protest suicide bombing. Or: Gaza anarchists fire model Qassam at Palestinian houses. Oh wait, that's already happened.

Watching the Caspian Sea Basin

A view of the region (Source: Perry Castaneda)

Most observers of the Middle East would agree that Iran has been making a successful run at establishing itself as a regional hegemon. So far, attention has been focused on its moves in Iraq, the Levant, and to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan. The elimination of Iraq as a threat on its western frontier has been the biggest boost to Iranian ambitions. Iran's successes in challenging the pro-Western government in Lebanon via its proxy Hizbullah and its ally Syria have further extended its westward reach all the way to the Mediterranean. Reports of Iranian activity in Afghanistan have also surfaced, especially recently. But Afghanistan offers little in the way of resources. A much more lucrative catch for Iran is the Caspian Sea basin to its north - an area with significant oil and natural gas reserves. Iran shares borders with the countries on both the Caucasian and Central Asian sides of the Caspian Sea - Azerbaijan in the west and Turkmenistan in the east.

Turkmenistan recently made the headlines when its eccentric post-Soviet dictator, Turkmenbashi Saparmurat Niyazov died. Like its other post-Soviet Central Asian neighbors, with the exception of Kazakhstan perhaps, Turkmenistan has little in the way of modern state institutions to ensure stability following the death of its revered leader. Peter Zeihan of Stratfor (you have to sign up to read it and pay, unless someone forwards it to you) is predicting that the Iranians will be hard-pressed not to make some sort of move on Turkmenistan - in order to control key oil and gas pipelines and to secure itself against an attack from the northeast. In so doing, however, Iran risks a showdown with Russia, which has been intent to monopolize Central Asian energy distribution networks through Gazprom. ADDENDUM: Josh and Nathan over at Registan are merciless in their criticism of Zeihan. The titles of their posts, "Piecing It Together, Sort Of" and "Dumb Things Written about Turkmenistan," respectively, give an indication of their critiques. I guess we'll see who's right 5 years from now.

Oil and gas fields in the southern Caspian (Perry Castaneda, 2003)

Azerbaijan has been in the news mostly due to its increasingly aggressive posturing vis-a-vis Russia. While its enemy Armenia has been moving ever closer to Russia, Azerbaijan has been seen as a Western ally, together with Georgia. Both Georgia and Azerbaijan are aiming for greater energy independence from Russia. Together with Turkey, the two Caucasian states are also trying to build an energy supply network that will bypass Russia and Iran as it delivers oil and gas to Europe and other markets (see our earlier post, "Pipe Dreams"). Iran is wary of Azerbaijan's ties to the U.S., and perhaps even more nervous about the country's potential to incite the large Azeri minority in Iran, especially in its northern provinces. A recent New York Times article suggests that the Iranians may be playing a similar kind of game they have pursued with such success in Lebanon and Afghanistan. Azerbaijan is overwhelmingly Shi'a, and although it is often represented as quintessentially secular and frequently compared to Turkey, there is a large market for Iranian-style Shi'a Islamism. Especially in the poor rural areas, Iran is investing in social programs and religious centers. According to local observers, the Iranian investment is paying off. As evidence, they cite reactions to a recent article by two Baku secularists who criticized Islam's negative impact on Azerbaijani's economic development. Provincial imams denounced the pair and an Iranian ayatollah called for their execution. It doesn't help that the regime has made no moves toward democratization (contra U.S. President Bush's statement in May 2006 after a meeting with President Ilhalm Aliyev that Azerbaijan "understands that democracy is the wave of the future"). Sooner or later, the current Azerbaijani government will face opposition from both conservative Shi'a in the provinces cut out of the oil and gas spoils as well as the secular urban elite in Baku demanding liberalization. But Iran might not have to be subversive in its activities for much longer. Although Azerbaijan has traditionally been very careful not to antagonize its southern neighbor, Aliyev has recently come out against sanctions being placed on Iran and announced that he would look to replace Russia with Iran as the country's electricity supplier.

Needless to say, Turkey, Russia, and the U.S. will not look on passively at Iranian moves northward. But who will join whom?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The End of Another Ceasefire

An ambulance in Sderot evacuates the wounded

Despite a cessation in Israeli army operations in Gaza, as per an agreement reached with the Palestinians, militant groups have fired more than 50 Qassam rockets since this latest ceasefire began. A number of rockets have hit perilously close to strategic installations in Ashqelon. Today, one teenager is in critical condition after a Qassam hit a residence in Sderot. Another youth suffered moderate injuries. The Islamic Jihad took responsibility.

There have been numerous cases in which rockets landed in family living-rooms or narrowly missed people's bedrooms. There are certainly factions in the Gaza strips who do want a cease fire, including members of Hamas. But it is clear that neither those with the strongest militias nor those with the most popular legitimacy have been able to prevent the ongoing rocket fire. Of course, even military action - whether in the form of ground incursions, air force strikes, or artillery - has not been entirely effective. For now, Israel has appealed to the United Nations. But can the Israeli government really continue to treat these rocket launches as mere crimes or small-scale cease fire violations? Already yesterday, Defense Minister Amir Peretz called for an end to the policy of restraint.

World opinion will probably continue to condemn Israeli counter-attacks, while belittling the impact of the Qassams. At the same time, with every Qassam strike that Israel absorbs during cease fires such as this one, the Palestinians lose credibility among those powers who have invested in mediation.

Battling for the Horn of Africa

The Horn of Africa (Google Earth)

Somali transitional government troops, backed by the Ethiopian air force and land forces, are apparently routing Islamist fighters in Somalia. The U.S. seems to have given carte blanche to the Ethiopians to pursue their current counter-offensive, which began after Islamic Courts Union (ICU) militiamen attacked the city of Baidoa, which is in the Somali interior, approximately halfway between Mogadishu and the Ethiopian border. The Ethiopian-backed forces are pursuing the ICU fighters who are retreating to the capital on the coast.

Although Somalia has largely faded into the background since 9/11, the CIA and the Pentagon have long watched developments in the Horn of Africa. Even undergraduates with knowledge of the region and its languages were recruited as consultants in the past five years. The near-anarchy in Somalia, and, more recently, the power of local Islamists, have made it an ideal base for al-Qaeda-type groups - though mainly as a conduit for attacks in Kenya or the Gulf of Aden. Pirates have also threatened the safety of shipping routes off the Somali coast.

The U.S. Combined Joint Taskforce - Horn of Africa in Djibouti has been engaged in counter-terrorism training of allies such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, as well as in coordinating a multinational, force that is monitoring shipping lanes in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean (Taskforce 150). Most of the monitoring is being carried out by the German navy, which currently has a frigate with two helicopters and a tanker deployed for this purpose. The deployment falls under Operation Enduring Freedom. It actually covers the area from the Red Sea around the Arabian peninsula to the Strait of Hormuz.

Operation Enduring Freedom - the naval theater (Source: Bundeswehr)

Her Majesty's Army Demolishes Basra "Gestapo HQ"

The British Warrior Fighting Vehicle (Source: British Army)

Events in the oil-rich, southern Iraqi city of Basra have received relatively little attention in the American media. In part, this is because the province falls under the command of the British, whereas American forces are stationed in al-Anbar (USMC) and Baghdad (U.S. Army). The Christmas day raid of a rogue police unit heavily implicated in torture, executions, and criminal activity has focused attention back on Basra. The raid involved about a thousand British troops and members of the Iraqi Security Forces (not Iraqi Army). After successfully overcoming resistance, allied forces found 127 prisoners crowded into extremely cramped quarters. Many of the prisoners bore marks of torture, and British commanders claimed to posses intelligence that
they faced execution. The prisoners were transferred to another Iraqi detention facility. The police station, dubbed "Gestapo HQ" by some members of the British military, was demolished (see NYT and Times of London for more details).

The British operation was actually the second raid on the station. A year ago, the British bulldozed one of the prison's walls in order to rescue two special forces soldiers who had gone undercover to investigate the rogue unit. Then, as now, a number of Iraqi politicians and commanders condemned the raid. But this time, the British claim to have gotten clearance from the top.

The problems in Basra are somewhat different from those in the rest of the country. Because the town is almost entirely Shi'i, there is little sectarian fighting. Rather, it is the site of conflict among various criminal gangs allied with different Shi'a militias. It's unclear how much control the various leaders such as Moktada al-Sadr or Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim have over the local actors. Thus it is possible that even they believe that the criminals running things in Basra were out of control. The operation had backing from both Iraqi PM al-Maliqi as well as the governor of Basra, Mohammad Waeli.

It remains to be seen what the long-term effects of this operation will be. Her Majesty's Armed Forces certainly performed admirably. The British surrounded the target with overwhelming force - five tanks and 40 fighting vehicles, and there were apparently no British casualties. The raid might have taken the enemy by surprise. Instead of engaging the militias on patrols, the Brits gathered intelligence and then entered the city in a massive show of force to launch a pinpoint assault on a specific high-profile target. Symbolically, this is a blow to these local strongmen; if marketed correctly, it might enhance the legitimacy of British-backed big men against the centripetal forces terrorizing the local population with their gang wars.

Friday, December 22, 2006


Democratic House Representative Keith Ellison

The recent outcry raised by Virginia Republican Virgil H. Goode Jr. over the fact that Keith Ellison, a convert to Islam and the US Congress's first Muslim (Democratic) representative, chose to use the Quran during his private swearing-in ceremony in January, is the kind of narrow-minded parochialism that scares me. According to the New York Times, in a letter written on December 5, Goode
said that Americans needed to "wake up" or else there would "likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran"
I have no doubt that Goode will be castigated by the American political mainstream for his comments. I am also confident that civil rights organizations, including Jewish groups such as the American Jewish Committee, will be among the first to come to Ellison's defence. After all, they've been fighting this kind of bigotry since the early 20th century. Nevertheless, these kinds of sentiments are a reminder that there are still people in North America - and they exist in the US as well as in Canada - who need some basic lessons in tolerance. I found Ellison's response especially encouraging. In an interview, Ellison declared:
I’m not a religious scholar, I’m a politician, and I do what politicians do, which is hopefully pass legislation to help the nation ... I’m looking forward to making friends with Representative Goode, or at least getting to know him ... I want to let him know that there's nothing to fear. The fact that there are many different faiths, many different colors and many different cultures in America is a great strength.

Taking Potshots at Israel

In a recent weekly briefing, Eran Lerman, the director of the American Jewish Committee's Israel office, referred to some "troubling signs of tension - from the Iraq Study Group report to the Jimmy Carter book and the Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer paper" that have generated considerable anxiety among Israelis. I think it would be wrong to be too alarmist about this - and Lerman is not. But Lerman has put his finger on something by linking these three. It is becoming fashionable in Washington to take potshots at Israel. At a recent panel discussion on "US Policy Toward Iran" held by the Center for American Progress and broadcast on C-SPAN, audience members repeatedly asked about the constraints put on American foreign policy by its relationship with Israel. References to Israeli politicians by both panelists and questioners were accompanied by smirks and drew the kinds of laughs with which I am familiar from Berkeley teach-ins. Meanwhile, the people taking the potshots continue to do so with the pretense that they are breaking taboos.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Radio Sawa and Mary Cheney's Baby

Since its foundation on March 2002, Radio Sawa, a radio network publicly funded by the American Broadcasting Board of Governors and U.S. Congress, has been struggling to influence Arab public opinion. Today, it can be listened to online, or on FM and medium-wave radio in Arab countries ranging from Morocco to Yemen. Radio Sawa has attracted its fair share of criticism. Ali Abunimah, the ideologue-in-chief at the Electronic Intifada website, basically lambasted the station in 2002 for not being more pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli. He also compared it unfavourably with BBC’s Radio Arabic and with France’s Monte Carlo, which he argued had more critical news coverage, a higher level of discourse and discussion, and more audience participation. He also said that the station patronized Arabs, because of its low intellectual content – back then three quarters of its content was supposedly top 40 Arabic and western pop music, while one quarter of the programming consisted of short newscasts.

Nevertheless, Abunimah and Radio Sawa’s other critics have all been forced to concede that the radio station has people in the Arab world listening. The reason that it has become the station of choice in many parts of the Arab world should be obvious: the Middle East is made up mainly of young people who happen to like Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Justin Timberlake and the Lebanese and Egyptian divas and crooners who are their counterparts. I imagine that they also enjoy hearing the brief video game and movie reviews, as well as the occasional fitness and health tips delivered by Sawa’s anchors, usually a man and a woman speaking in fashionable Lebanese colloquial. Finally, Sawa’s listeners probably also like the fact that there are no boring commercials that they have to sit through. Frankly, they could not care less about the conclusions of a certain panel of Arab language experts who, after being hired by the US Inspector General’s office to review the Radio Sawa, concluded that
parents would prefer that their teenagers not listen to Radio Sawa because its broadcasts contained such poor Arabic grammar
Since when do teenagers care what their parents think? Radio Sawa is pursuing a clever marketing strategy and, based on my own listening experiences in Arab commuter cabs in the Negev, it is obviously succeeding.

So why is this subtle successor to the Voice of America still coming under fire? One reason is that the Arab nationalists who exalt al-Jazeera will never embrace a broadcaster that has news anchors who don’t call coalition troops “the forces of occupation”, and who don’t describe terrorists killed in action as “having martyred themselves”. They automatically disapprove of Radio Sawa, because it has Israeli reporters who occasionally file reports about Israeli politics in Arabic. In short, they want all news outlets that reach Arab ears to be nationalist-Islamist and to embrace their rhetoric. That is the main reason why these critics belittle Radio Sawa’s news programming and claim that Arab listeners automatically tune out when they hear its supposedly biased news casts.

I don’t claim to know whether Radio Sawa has succeeded at all in influencing Arab public opinion and in improving the way in which young Arabs view the United States. Sawa’s other critics in the US assert that the station has focussed too much on trying to win over the audience and too little on influencing it. These people would like it to be more aggressive about advancing American interests. I actually think that Sawa has taken a good middle road. The station has attracted young listeners through its soft content. The impact of Sawa’s news programming is probably underestimated. While the station wisely refrains from being a propaganda outlet, the insights it provides into American society and the different views it gives about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are bound to have some influence. On Wednesday morning (Eastern Standard Time), the online broadcast of Jordanian Radio Sawa transmitted American President Bush’s press conference live (with simultaneous translation). Bush was questioned on everything, from his latest proposals on Iraq to Mary Cheney’s baby and its implication for his view on gay families. It was a powerful demonstration of American democracy and freedom of the press at work. Radio Sawa should stay the course.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Kurds to Baker-Hamilton: Don't Sell Us Out Again

An old map of Kurdish lands, ca. 1992 (source: Perry-Castaneda Map Collection).

You can read Masrour Barzani's response to the Iraq Study Group Report in the Washington Post or on the Kurdistan Regional Government website. The immediate aim is clearly to prevent a cancellation of the popular referendum planned for Kirkuk. The long-term aim is to safeguard the autonomy of Kurdistan within Iraq - in other words to maintain the decentralized structure outlined in the constitution - and to protect the Kurds from hostile external intervention.

If you recall, the ISG Report warned about the violent fallout such a referendum might engender (see my previous post). Clearly, Baker and Hamilton want to stop such a referendum from taking place - ostensibly to prevent civil strife in Kirkuk but, more importantly, to keep Turkey happy. Turkey, it should be noted, claims that it is concerned about the safety of the Turkman population; it is probably most concerned about ceding any more oil-rich areas and powers to the Kurds. Barzani does not mention Kirkuk at all, but he objects vehemently to the ISG Report's "flippant" treatment of the constitution (after all, it guarantees the right of the Kurds to hold such a referendum). In the Baker-Hamilton report, the words "amending the constitution" often appear immediately before the phrase "settling the future of Kirkuk" (see for example ISG Report, p. 18).

The Baker-Hamilton report takes pains to portray the Iraqi constitution as a partisan document engineered by the Kurds and Shi'a at the expense of the Sunni. Yes, the constitution happens to reflect the interests of Shi'a and Kurds. There's a reason for that - as the report admits, "The Sunnis did not actively participate in the constitution-drafting process." Maybe if they hadn't been so busy killing Americans and other Iraqis, things would look different today. Why should the rejectionist forces be rewarded now? Is it all as part of the imperative to preserve a united Iraq? I think that if the ISG had visited Kurdistan they might have understood better that it's either this kind of Iraq or no Iraq at all for the Kurds.

What I like about Barzani's argument is that it points out the pitfalls of the "realist" bandwagon. The realists have been sharpening their knives against the neo-cons for years. Their current offensive builds on the demonization of neo-conservative visions of the Middle East. To be fair, when turned into policy, those visions have been disastrous. But to imply that Baker & co. represent a more moral approach is perverse. Let's not forget - lest we do, Barzani won't let us - that the report "was partly written by those who orchestrated the saving of Saddam Hussein in 1991." Let's not forget that this act of realism led to the deaths of thousands of Kurds. Yes, today, there are 3,000 Iraqis dying every month. But few of them are Kurds. Why should the Kurds have to pay for the mess that is Iraq? Why should their interests be sacrificed at the expense of those within Iraq and outside its borders who have consistently embraced the rejectionist and obstructionist policies that have led to the daily massacres of Iraqi civilians and the deaths of many American soldiers?

Against the logic of appeasement, which in this case means privileging the interests of regional powers over those of people on the ground, Barzani invokes democracy - he uses the word seven times. One, the constitution reflects a vote by the majority of the Iraqi population (true). Two, Kurdistan's autonomy is firmly anchored in the will of the Kurdish people. It seems bizarre that the only undeniably positive outcomes of the American invasion of Iraq should be sacrificed at the altar of a realpolitik that is likely to make things worse for America in the long-term. At the minimum, those championing this part of the Baker-Hamilton report should not be allowed to get away with presenting themselves as morally superior to anyone. It would behoove them to take note of Barzani's appeal:
Don't sell us out to our authoritarian neighbors and those who are terrorizing our communities. We agreed democratically to participate in this project because we were guaranteed the rights needed to protect our people. We Kurds are asking President Bush and America to remember the sacrifices we have made to keep your loved ones safe in Iraq. We are asking you to keep a promise where those before you have failed.
Unfortunately, in today's political climate, the opponents of Bush are likely to be so blinded by their thirst for revenge against the neo-cons, that they will dismiss this as mere rhetoric.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A "New" Iraq Strategy

A banner from the Kurdistan Regional Government website.
Note the Kurdish (not Iraqi) flag blowing in the wind.

It appears that the White House is leaning toward the plan that U.S. Senator John McCain has been pitching for a dramatic increase in American troops in Iraq. Tens of thousands additional American soldiers are supposed to be deployed in Baghdad at another last-ditch effort to beat the insurgency. The new objective? To end the "cycle" of sectarian violence (New York Times). The idea seems to be that by making Baghdad safe from the Sunni insurgents, the Iraqi government will gain credibility to clamp down on the Shi'a militias, and perhaps public approval.

All this is more wishful thinking. The Shi'a are not going to be won over by the U.S. They will be happy to watch the Americans continue to fight on their behalf, but they know that the U.S. will not be in Iraq forever. Those politicians calling for another troop increase will be sending more American soldiers to their deaths for gains that will be reversed once America finally withdraws - if these gains materialize at all. In any case, it is doubtful that the Shi'i population will credit the U.S. or the Maliki government with such gains. At the end of the day, the residents of Sadr City will see the Mahdi Army as their savior. Like it or not, the militias' sectarian cleansing is also seen by most Shi'a as their ticket to safe neighborhoods. Any attempts by Americans to limit militia activity, on the other hand, is perceived as a deliberate effort to put Shi'a in harm's way.

Meanwhile, the Sunni insurgency, spearheaded mainly by former Baathists but abetted by al Qaeda, is continuing the fight against the Marines deployed in the western provinces, most notably, al-Anbar. Despite the pessimistic reports by such seasoned observers as Col. Peter Devlin (see our earlier post, "Failed Province: Marines Lose Hope in al-Anbar"), the young Marines serving in the province are more optimistic. An acquaintance of mine who is the executive officer (second in command) of a rifle company deployed in al-Anbar told me that the Marines were "laying the smack down" and that things were getting "incrementally better." The Americans in al-Anbar might be embarking on another offensive soon. But to me it seems that failing a deal with credible authorities on the ground, the effects of these operations are likely to prove ephemeral. And of course, the costs are incredibly high. The same officer said that in his company there had been 4 men killed in action and 42 wounded. A company is just under 200 rifle men. The battalion to which his company belongs had lost 16 men and counted 150 wounded. (A battalion is made up of five companies or around 2,000 men).

There is one population that still views the Americans positively - the Kurds. Although they are getting more and more annoyed about being taken for granted (as they were in the Iraq Study Group report), they are America's only reliable ally on the ground in Iraq. The Kurds are enjoying the benefits of relative prosperity and security mainly because there are no Sunni in their territory and because they were able to develop autonomous institutions during the sanctions and no-fly zone period. They have been doing their best to protect Kurdistan from the havoc that rules in most of Iraq. Thus, they routinely turn away Arabs - Shi'a or Sunni - at the border. Unlike other Iraqis, the Kurds know that they could use the help of the U.S. in protecting them from the hostile states surrounding Iraqi Kurdistan. But instead of reassuring the Kurds, Baker, Hamilton and company seem to have gone out of their way to antagonize them. For example, the Iraq Study Group Report refers repeatedly to the "contentious" issue of Kirkuk. Kirkuk, a city in the north of Iraq, is home to a mixed population of Kurds, Turkomans, and Arabs. For years, Kurdish inhabitants of Kirkuk suffered from Saddam's Arabization campaign there. It is, needless to say, a big oil center. In post-Sadddam Iraq, according to the Iraqi constitution, the population of Kirkuk is supposed to hold a referendum on whether the city should join the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The ISG Report warns that such a referendum would spark further violence, and then, in the next paragraph chastises Kurdish (as well as Shi'a) leaders for "not working toward a united Iraq" (ISG Report, pp. 18-19).

The American Embassy in Iraq

The sentence reads "Ever since I was a teenager, I have
loved Swedish women" (from an online Arabic tutorial).

Here is a random, shocking fact from the Iraq Study Group report: among the 1,000 employees of the American Embassy in Iraq there are only 33 Arabic speakers, six of whom are fluent in the language (ISG Report, p. 92).

Monday, December 18, 2006

Should Israel Talk to Syria?

Is Assad for real?

The lead editorial in Ha'aretz today calls on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert not to reject the latest offer by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualem to renew peace talks. I have gone back and forth on this issue in my mind, but I am growing more skeptical even as the calls by Americans and Israelis to pursue such negotiations are increasing. It is possible that I am mistaken in my objections, but my opposition is not dogmatic.

Proponents of negotiations with Syria often refer to the talks between the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin z"l and the deceased Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. The two were apparently very close to reaching an agreement that would have seen Israel return the Golan heights to the Syrians in return for a comprehensive peace agreement.

Ha'aretz's editorial today draws on a different lesson from the history of the Arab-Israeli conflicts. It argues that Golda Meir spurned Egyptian proposals for peace talks in 1973, in part because she "relied on the American administration, which accepted the stalled diplomatic situation in the Middle East out of Cold War-related considerations." The result was the disastrous 1973 war. The lesson for today is that
Olmert should not follow in Golda's footsteps, which caused a national catastrophe. He must seriously consider Assad's proposals, and maximize coordination with the Americans. This is the view of the Labor Party, and even Likud chair Benjamin Netanyahu is suggesting talks with Assad, during which Israel will present him with its demands that Syria relinquish terrorism, distance itself from Iran and cease providing arms to Hezbollah.
The analogy between American concerns of 2006 and Cold War concerns in 1973 seems legitimate to me. Maybe Israel must indeed strike out on its own in this case. But I think this would be a mistake for two major reasons.

One, I continue to be skeptical about the sincerity of Assad's overtures. To me, they seem primarily designed to appease international sentiment in the short term, and to confuse the domestic political scenes in the U.S. and in Israel. In America, Assad has managed to lure a number of naive American senators into visiting him again (this is after everyone from French President Jacques Chirac to German Foreign Minister was unable to make any headway at all with Assad on Lebanon). Assad smelled opportunity in the wake of the Iraq Study Group report and comments by Defense Secretary Robert Gates about the importance of negotiations. But he has not made a single concession on anything.

Two, the historical analogy is flawed because too many variables have changed in the meantime - the most significant ones being the rise of Iran in the region and the impact of the summer war between Israel and Hizbullah. In return for peace, Israel expects Syria to stop its alliance with Iran and to end its support for Hizbullah. But in the wake of Hizbullah's perceived "victory" and the success of the Shi'a in Iraq, the Iranians (as I argued yesterday) look like the rising power in the region. Assad has made his deal with Iran because he thinks that the Islamic Republic will be able to deliver the goods he wants - control over Lebanon. Furthermore, the summer war showed that a proxy such as Hizbullah can wage a war against Israel without its patron having to suffer real consequences.

The last decade shows that debilitating terrorist attacks can be waged for years by various militant factions without any governmental authority assuming authority over them (that has been the situation in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at least since Oslo). In the current international climate, there is no way to guarantee Israel's most important interest - the cessation of Syrian-sponsored terrorist attacks by Palestinian groups or Hizbullah. Syria could, as Arafat did for years, plausibly deny involvement or simply let the Iranians do most of the work. Even when faced with seemingly incontrovertible evidence, most of the international community did not agree with Israeli and American assessments that Arafat was behind the ongoing suicide bombing and shooting attacks. The decisions by President Bush and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to treat Arafat as "irrelevant," was met with condescension and condemnation in Europe and elsewhere.

I am afraid that Olmert is right in his skepticism about Syria's motives.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Let the Militias Handle the Militias

Rather than fighting Badr, Mahdi & co., the U.S. should
focus on preventing Iran from blockading the Strait of Hormuz

I could not agree more with former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's skepticism about plans proposed by Senator John McCain to "temporarily" increase troop levels in Iraq. That is a sure-fire recipe for disaster, especially given that it is entirely unclear what the mission of those troops is supposed to be. If the model is to "root out" the insurgents (don't these people remember Vietnam?), the troop increase will lead to nothing but more of the same - i.e., further American casualties and loss of face. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps cannot defeat the Iraqi militias. Rather, they should get back to doing the kind of work conventional armies are designed to do: engage or defend against other conventional armies.

I think the calls for embedding more U.S. advisers with Iraqi Army troops are similarly foolish. In almost every encounter, the Iraqi Army has been getting creamed by the militias. Is that only a function of training? It seems that most of its soldiers simply lack the will to fight. In the end, most of them are likely to join one of those militias anyway, or de facto support a Shi'i faction of one sort or another, as this is what the government is doing.

The U.S. ought to let the militias handle the militias. They are the ones most motivated to fight and most able to carry out the kind of warfare required to defeat other armed groups hiding among civilians. The Sunni will protect their neighborhoods, and the Shi'a will take care of theirs. Yes, there will be more death squad killings and "cleansing," but this is going on anyway.

It is clear now that the American invasion of Iraq accelerated the Iranian drive for regional hegemony. The Iranians are in an excellent position, and it is no wonder that the Syrians have decided to go with them rather than the Americans. A propos, I was dismayed to hear Powell endorse the idea of "talking with Syria":
Mr. Powell said the United States should be talking directly with the governments of Syria and Iran in an effort to stabilize the region — a contrast to the policy of the Bush administration, which has not engaged in such talks (New York Times).
Right now, neither Syria nor Iran have any interest in stability. Instability - whether in Iraq or Lebanon - is exactly what these two regimes want. At least when this instability harms the U.S., Israel, or pro-Western local players. If Syria had been interested in reaching some kind of accommodation, Bashar al-Assad would have picked up the phone and dialed Bush's number a long time ago. The problem is that Assad thinks the Iranians are the rising power in the region, and that Iran, through Hizbullah, will deliver Syria's main prize - political, and therefore economic control over Lebanon. The U.S. and the Europeans, on the other hand, are committed to Lebanese independence. Unless Baker & co. want to sell out the Lebanese (and maybe they do), there is no reason to talk to Syria at the moment. Rather, U.S. troops in the region should concentrate on finding ways to challenge the Iranian aims for hegemony, by confronting the conventional armies of these states. In the meantime, the Saudis will pour money into the Sunni insurgency in Iraq and check Iranian influence there.

In sum, the U.S. should maintain a large naval presence in the Persian Gulf and ground forces in Kurdistan and southern Iraq, able to mobilized quickly against land-based incursions or attempts to block strategic shipping lanes.. It will fall on Israel to contain Syria. The trick will be to avoid becoming bogged down in asymmetrical warfare - whether against Hizbullah or the Mahdi Army.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Holiday of Holidays

Haifa kicked off its annual "Hag Shel HaHagim" (Holiday of Holidays) on December 2 in its Wadi Nisnas neighbourhood. The celebration of Hanukah, Eid Al-Adha, and Christmas will continue every weekend until December 31.
The festival includes live performances (such as the band on the roof in the picture above), free entrance to the museums and galleries in the area, craft and antique fairs, and what would it be without food?

Traditional Middle Eastern sweets, such as knafe and malabi, can be bought at the festival. These boys are in business as well, selling homemade snacks.

But Jews, Muslims, and Christians aren't the only ones involved the festival. Armenians and Druze were also represented. These Druze girls were helping their father make and sell traditional pitas.

The caricature painters were another popular draw at the festival.

The Holiday of Holidays also featured an Arab Scout marching band from Nazareth, led by Mr. Claus.

There was pomegranate juice for those in need of a fix.

The Debka group also livened things up.

But it wasn't a good day for everybody.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Pipe Dreams: Samsun-Ceyhan-Ashqelon-Eilat

A map showing the B-T-C Pipeline (Source: Wikipedia)

A number of new oil and natural gas pipelines have made the news in the past year. The most high-profile one was the recently completed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which transports oil from Azerbaijan to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan and is quickly becoming a major energy hub. This week, a 690 km natural gas pipeline running parallel to it began feeding gas from the Shah Deniz field in the Caspian Sea off Azerbaijan to Georgia and Turkey (Financial Times, December 14, 2006, p. 3).

The new pipeline, built by British Petrol and several partners, connects Baku to Erzurum in eastern Turkey, from where the gas will be fed to the port city of Ceyhan. The pipeline will eventually be able to carry gas to Europe. U.S. policymakers hope that it will challenge Russia's near-monopoly over gas export pipelines out of the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. Gazprom, Russia's largest company and Central and Eastern Europe's main supplier of gas, has recently raised its prices (even to allies such as Belarus), threatening the economies of U.S. allies Georgia and Ukraine. Notice also that the pipelines draw a big circle around Iran as well as Armenia.

While the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and this new Baku-Erzurum gas corridor aim to provide an alternative to Russian energy with an eye to Europe, a different project announced this week will feed gas, oil, and water from Russia to the Levant and possibly beyond it. Turkey and Israel are cooperating to build an underwater pipeline from Ceyhun to Ashqelon (see Ha'aretz, the Washington Times, and Zaman). Feeders will also provide water and energy to Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. Gazprom is planning to increase gas delivery across the Black Sea to the Turkish city of Samsun from where it will continue to Ceyhan. Check out Encarta's World Atlas for regional maps showing Ceyhan (in the Turkish province of Adana) and Ashqelon.

The Israelis, for their part, will make use of a pipeline from Ashqelon to Eilat. Until now, crude oil has been pumped from Eilat northward to Ashqelon and Haifa. The recently-completed "Reverse Flow Project" will allow oil and gas to be pumped in the opposite direction, from Ashqelon to Eilat (Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company). From the port in Eilat, oil can be shipped further east via the Red Sea - at competitive prices (so argue the backers of the plan). The project has excited India, which is hoping to diversify its energy sources as its economy grows. China and South Korea could also benefit (People's Daily Online).

Israel currently imports most of its oil from Russia by oil tankers, which ship the crude from the Black Sea through the Bosphorus to Haifa, where Israel's refineries are located (Washington Times). Congestion on this waterway has driven up the price of shipping, which was the main reason for the recent cancellation of a deal with Turkey to provide Israel with fresh water (it turned out that the increase in shipping costs made the water more expensive than fresh water produced in Israel by its desalination refineries).

With all these pipelines, the Maccabees probably wouldn't have had to worry about making the oil last. Happy Hanukah - חנוכה שמח!

Addendum: The website of the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company mentioned above has two interactive, animated maps, giving you a very good sense of the movement of oil and gas within Israel, and from Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia to east Asia via Israel.

Escalation in the Palestinian Territories

Fighting at a Hamas rally in the West Bank

My travel plans today will unfortunately prevent me from posting on the explosive atmosphere in the Palestinian territories. Suffice it to say that the alleged targeting of returning Palestinian Prime Minister Ismai'il Haniyya's car by gunmen associated with Fateh (Hamas spokespeople actually accused Abu Mazen's Presidential Guard or "Force 17") could well be the trigger that set off a Palestinian civil war in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank. In my opinion, the events of the next 24 hours are going to be crucial. If Hamas intends to launch a full-out war against Fateh - many of its spokespeople are publicly accusing Abu Mazen of complicity in the recent events and there are rumors that a number of Fateh members in the Gaza Strip, including Muhammad Dahlan, are now on a Hamas hit-list - then they would probably start their campaign after Friday prayers (around noon their time).

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Good News for Jews, Muslims, and Xhosa

A study by the National Institutes of Health has confirmed that circumcision reduces a man's risk of acquiring HIV from heterosexual intercourse by 50%, the New York Times reports. The NIH trials conducted in Kenya and Uganda reproduced the findings of a similar study done in South Africa one year ago. Scientists believe that uncircumcised men are more susceptible to contracting HIV because Langerhans cells found in men's foreskins easily attach to the virus. HIV positive circumcised men are also 30% less likely than uncircumcised men to transmit the virus to their female partners. A New England Journal of Medicine study published in 2002 also discovered that uncircumcised men were three times as likely to be carriers of the human papillomavirus as circumcised men. The papillomavirus has been linked to cervical cancer in infected women.

No photograph this time.

Carter Book Reviews

I've come across a round-up of reviews of Carter's new book, whose imbecilic title is Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid on the CAMERA website. We've had posts dealing with the apartheid lie in the past. It's regrettable that Carter has now joined the ranks of those on the left who are engaged in a global campaign to gradually chip away at Israel's legitimacy to exist as a Jewish state.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Annan Surprises with Parting Speech

(Secretary-General Annan on Dec. 11, UN Photo)

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's final address to the Security Council is bound to raise eyebrows in the Middle East. For one, Annan scolded the Israel-bashers who have done so much to give the UN a bad name over the years:
Some may feel satisfaction at repeatedly passing General Assembly resolutions or holding conferences that condemn Israel's behavior," Annan said. "But one should also ask whether such steps bring any tangible relief or benefit to the Palestinians."

Describing decades of resolutions and a proliferation of special committees, Annan asked if this had any effect on Israel other than to strengthen the belief "that this great organization is too one-sided to be allowed a significant role in the Middle East peace process," (Ha'aretz)
More importantly, Annan seems to have dealt a blow to the rejectionists among the Palestinians and their allies:
The two-state solution - Israel and Palestine - must respect the rights of the Palestinian refugees, but only within the context of preserving the character of states in the region.
It remains to be seen what impact, if any, these parting words will have on the policy of Annan's designated successor, the South Korean Ban Ki Moon.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Olmert Puts Foot in Mouth Again - Or Not?

(Olmert: "It's cool. I got it.")

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert sent shock waves through the Israeli political establishment when he publicly confirmed on German television that Israel has nuclear weapons. Or that is how it is being reported. This is what Olmert actually said:
We have never threatened any nation with annihilation. Iran, openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?
Israel's policy of "nuclear ambiguity" has been under the microscope again since Robert Gates's statements last week. The announcement by the incoming American Secretary of Defence raised eyebrows in Israel. It apparently came without advance warning to the Israelis and was accompanied by Gates's ominous admission that the U.S. would be unable to prevent an Iranian nuclear strike on Israel, should the Islamic Republic acquire nuclear weapons. In an earlier television appearance, Olmert had jokingly parried a question about Israel's own possession of nuclear weapons by referring the questioner to Secretary Gates. But Olmert reacted rather more seriously when asked a similar question on the SAT1/N24 channel (which, by the way, is owned by Haim Saban), resulting in the response cited above.

Israeli opposition politicians are up in arms over Olmert's alleged "slip of the tongue." Politicians from the far right to the far left called for his resignation. The ever-annoying MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud), who fancies himself to be the authority on Israel's national security dramatically referred to the PM's
"terrible statement made in Germany" which "undermines 50 years of Israel's policy of ambiguity." MK Yossi Beilin (Meretz) called into question Olmert's ability to serve as Prime Minister (Ha'aretz, Sueddeutsche).

We have previously criticized Olmert for opening his big mouth with his foot in it. But the PM's critics are the ones looking stupid now. First of all, the fact is that Olmert revealed no new information. When the American Secretary of Defence announces in public that Israel has nukes - seemingly as a justification for Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons - is it meaningful to talk about "nuclear ambiguity"? Hardly. Indeed, it seems to me that Olmert pulled a fast one on both the Iranians and the opposition parliamentarians, who are looking rather silly with their obsolete insistence on the policy of the past 50 years. As for the "denials" by Foreign Ministry spokespeople and aides to the PM - I would not take them seriously. They are meant to assuage the parliamentarians in the short term. The point was to send a message to the world.

Notice also who did not open his mouth in protest after Olmert's "gaffe" - Netanyahu. Perhaps we will hear from him in the coming days, but I have a feeling that Bibi would have been the first to take advantage of a political opportunity if he had thought that Olmert had made a mistake. I would not be surprised if he had been previously informed of the Israeli PM's "faux pas."

So how exactly does Olmert's announcement help Israel?

Until now, Olmert has kept relatively quiet on the international stage about the Iranian threat as well as about Israel's own defensive and offensive nuclear capabilities. The Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese have been content to split the work to allow each party to do what it is best at: i.e., the Euros have done nothing, and the Russians and Chinese have blocked American efforts to advance serious sanctions against Iran. Meanwhile, the Iranians have made terrifying announcements at Ahmadinejad's leisure, with almost no consequences for the Islamic Republic. Now, Olmert has reclaimed the initiative. He's calling the Europeans out to reveal their true colors.

Let's drop the political correctness for a second. Olmert was 100% right in framing this as a battle between civilization and barbarism. The wonderful little Holocaust denial conference that Tehran is hosting at the moment provided a wonderful background to these remarks (the Sueddeutsche has a good report; see also Genats-Lehayim). This regime must not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons. Olmert appealed to the Europe's moral conscience, just as he appealed to Germany's particular sense of moral responsibility in his talks with Merkel (see Sueddeutsche). The Europeans are now faced with some stark choices. They must decide whether to continue to equivocate and treat Israel as a pariah no more deserving of their sympathy than Iran, or to stop their relativistic moral games and come to Israel's aid. Germany and France must decide whether they really want to continue their lucrative business deals with the Iranians at the price of terrorizing Israel and threatening American troops in the Gulf. Should the international community (minus the U.S.) continue to treat Ahmadinejad as it treated Hitler before 1939, Israel will know what to do.

Iran, on the other hand, should consider itself duly warned.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Haifa, Fixed up...

Those who followed the summer's war posts may remember some of the damage depicted in the blog. The Haifa Hadar post office has since been beautifully renovated.

Before, after having been struck by a katyusha:

After, in a recent picture:

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Narrating the Israel-Hizbullah War in Pictures

Haifa, Summer 2006 (Photo: Süddeutsche Zeitung, AP)

The New Year is approaching, which means that newspapers are starting to run their "Year in Review" pieces for 2006. I couldn't help notice a photo essay that the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany's best left-of-center daily, is running on the war in Lebanon, which along with Iraq and Angela Merkel, Germany's new chancellor, topped the list for biggest stories of the year. (As a side note, the pictures of Merkel with various heads-of-state, Bush, Putin, Blair, and Chirac, are absolutely hilarious and strangely sexualized; naughty editors...)

Most of the 28 images of the war in Lebanon depict the destruction and suffering of Lebanese civilians, and rightly so. What troubled me, however, was the virtual absence of any depiction of the experience in northern Israel during those terrible months of July and August. We are shown only two pictures taken within Israel itself. The first is one of those photographs of smiling children signing Israeli rockets (see John's analysis from July), which will, unfortunately, likely remain in the collective visual memory for a long time to come. The caption reads, "While in Israel, girls write messages to Hizbullah on rockets..." The second picture shows the sidewalk in front of a shattered Haifa storefront that has been cordoned off with red caution tape. The ground is splattered with some fresh blood, but it's unclear whether someone had actually died there, or "merely" been injured by the rocket that supposedly hit the store. The caption says, in characteristically pithy understatement, "Hizbullah rockets also took their toll of victims in Israel." But the victims are almost ghost-like, with no human face. The (in)human face of Israel shown to and remembered by the world is instead the smiling children who happily sent off rockets to destroy the children of Lebanon.

With the end of hostilities, the "war of public relations" becomes the war of historical representation. If this early historical narrative by the Süddeutsche Zeitung is any indication, most people in the West will be unable to remember (if they ever knew to begin with) the terror of the Hizbullah rockets documented by our Haifa resident-correspondent, Carmia, in this blog's archives. The overwhelming, and what is looking like the excessive, destruction of Beirut can be evaluated only in the context of this terror, which many have been loath to depict.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Baker is Back

The Iraq Study Group

I was hoping to read the Iraq Study Group Report before commenting but that did not work out. It actually looks quite interesting and deserves to be read and considered in its entirety, though it remains to be seen whether Baker and Hamilton will succeed in having any of their recommendations implemented.

So far, it seems that Bush has not budged an inch from his current policy, rejecting the report's call for a troop withdrawal over the next 15 months, and refusing to negotiate without prior concessions by Syria on Lebanon and by Iran on the nuclear issue ("Bush Backs Away from 2 Key Ideas of Panel on Iraq," NYT).

Meanwhile, incoming Secretary of Defense Robert Gates dropped his own bomb at his nomination hearing, telling Congress that the Iranians were seeking nuclear weapons because
They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons - Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf.
The Saudi chief of intelligence
Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud followed up with his own statement that
The existing Israeli nuclear capability is the most dangerous strategic threat to Gulf security in the short and medium term (Ha'aretz).
The Israelis were quick to downplay the significance of these remarks (good move) but it's clear that the writing is on the wall. The mood is changing in Washington. British Prime Minister Tony Blair's comments at a joint press conference with President Bush on Thursday that the problems in Iraq were connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is further evidence that something may be afoot. Yossi Sarid seems happy about this. Maybe he is right. I wonder what Mearsheimer and Walt think about all of this.

In other news, the Kurds are apparently furious about the commission's indifference to them. See the Iraqi Kurdistan blog for more. Warning: their latest post has apparently not been edited yet.

Finally, on a less-related note, the visit of Segolene Royal, the French Socialist Party's presidential candidate, drew an ecstatic response in Israel. Daniel Ben Simon, who reports frequently on France in Ha'aretz, has a typically fascinating feature on Israel's Segolene craze. Among other things, she announced that she would pursue a zero-tolerance policy on Iran's nuclear ambitions. Sarkozy stayed fairly quiet. Instead, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, also a presidential hopeful, stuck up for the old Gaullist, pro-Arab policy, lambasting Royal for her criticism of Hizbullah:
She must learn that irresponsible declarations could cost the lives of our people in Lebanon.
I could go with either Sarko or Royal at this point, although I am a bit concerned about Royal's less-enlightened media consultant who dropped this gem on Gaza
It was dreadful. Dehumanization that seemed to be taken out of one of Primo Levi's books.

Appeasing Hamas

Haniyeh with some mullahs (photograph: Al Jazeera)

It's unlikely that the latest remarks by Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh are going to change the minds of those in Europe and elsewhere who insist that Israel negotiate with Hamas. A favored argument among these people is that the Hamas government was democratically elected, and that Israel and the U.S. are therefore obliged to talk to it. Critics of Israel's current policies vis-à-vis the Hamas government also argue that Israel's demands that Haniyeh's government honor past agreements and recognize the state's existence are somehow unreasonable. It is one thing to argue for negotiations on the basis of realpolitik. But much of the criticism of Israel and the U.S. on this particular issue is actually advanced on normative grounds of one sort or another. I have a feeling that Western Europeans and their friends in the American academy will continue to express their exasperation about Israel's policy while downplaying statements such as these, made today in Iran by the Palestinian PM:
"We will not give up our Jihadist movement until the full liberation of Beit al-Muqqadas [Jerusalem] and Palestinian land."

"The Zionists ... want us to recognize the usurpation of our land ... but these things will never happen.

"We will never recognize the usurping Zionist regime." (Source: Al Jazeera).
It is astounding that anyone would continue to insist that Israel has a duty to negotiate with the Hamas government.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Gaza's "Besieged" Economy

Different border crossings leading from Israel to the Gaza Strip

It turns out that the Palestinians are not doing quite as badly as everyone thinks. The International Herald Tribune reports that the UN will begin an appeal for a record $450 million in aid for the Palestinians. In the same article, however, the reporter, citing acting (Hamas-aligned) Palestinian Minister of Finance Samir Abu ‘Aisha, notes that “European aid to the Palestinians ha[s] increased by 27 percent this year.” This aid, however, is being channelled “directly to Palestinians” (to European NGOs?), something to which Hamas naturally objects. What I found especially interesting is that Hamas is actually downplaying the effect of the international "blockade" imposed on it.

According to the article,
while the U.N. emphasized the Palestinians' economic distress, the Palestinian finance minister played it down Wednesday, saying the boycott had failed to bankrupt the Hamas-led government.

Samir Abu Aisha, the acting Palestinian finance minister and a Hamas official, said his government has managed to remain fiscally afloat because Arab and European countries increased their donations to the Palestinians after the Hamas victory.
Hamas itself has managed to get its hands on more money the old-fashioned way: Abu ‘Aisha boasts that $60.5 million in cash have been carried into the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

So, who has a more accurate picture of the economic situation in the Palestinian Authority areas: The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, whose head, David Shearer, says that "Coming on top of the problems with access of movement, (the economic boycott) has had a massive impact on poverty levels within the West Bank and Gaza," or Abu ‘Aisha, who downplays the economic crisis and blames Israel’s seizure of Palestinian tax revenues for some financial hardship?

I think that the UN and the international community is being played or confused in a certain sense, and it’s not only Hamas who is manipulating them. Shearer highlights the fact that, "about a million people who have depended on a PA salary earner cannot do that anymore." Several weeks ago, there were a number of stories in Ha‘aretz and in the New York Times about the plight of Palestinian teachers and civil servants who were no longer getting their salaries and had gone on strike because of the embargo. The Hamas finance minister essentially refutes all these claims. He argues that all of these groups continue to be on strike not because they are not getting paid, but for political reasons, namely their opposition, as Fateh-members, to Hamas.

The lesson of all of these mixed messages is that EU donors must remain vigilant and consistent and ignore hysterical calls (from their chattering classes and other quarters) to re-instate aid to Hamas. Until the demands formulated by western donors, who have called on Hamas to renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept past peace agreements, are not met, every effort should be made to keep Hamas from getting its hands on more money.

In other news, trade in all kinds of goods continues between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As a trade consultant, I regularly monitor the Israel Customs Authority website. Today, I came across this interesting tidbit:

ט"ו כסלו, תשס"ז
‏6 דצמבר, 2006

תפיסת חשיש במעבר קרני לעזה

במהלך בדיקות טובין, שביצעו חוקרי יחידת הסמים של רשות המיסים במעבר קרני, נבדקה משאית שהובילה תרופות שונות מיו"ש לעזה.
חשדם של החוקרים עלה כאשר בתא הנהג של המשאית נמצאו במהלך הבקורת 4 קרטונים של חטיפים.
מבדיקה שערכו החוקרים נמצא שלקרטונים יש תחתית כפולה ובתוכה הוסלקו 20 חבילות של חומר החשוד כסם מסוג חשיש במשקל כולל של 2 ק"ג.
נהג המשאית ובעל החברה של החשוד נחקרו והועברו, יחד עם החומר החשוד כסם, למשטרת ישראל להמשך חקירה ומעצר.
המשאית נתפסה עד לסיום החקירה.

The above is a press release by the Israel Customs Authority dated December 6, 2006 in which they announce the seizure of 2 kg of hashish at the Karni crossing (from Israel to the Gaza Strip) in a truck carrying medical drugs from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Peaceful, Modern, and Democratic: Street Life in Beirut

Hezbollah guys in wigs, Hezbollah girls showing their thongs, loofah's on poles. It sounds like last Friday's protest in Beirut was a blast. To get a handle on just how bizarre a place Lebanon is, read this short report from Annia Ciezadlo in The New Republic.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

More Idiocy Disguised as Security

Muslims leading a prayer-protest at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport in November

If there is one thing that at which American air safety officials seem to excel, it is inconveniencing and harassing innocent airline passengers without actually making the U.S. safer from terrorist attacks. The recent removal of six imams from a US Airways flight after they had been observed praying at the Minneapolis-St. Paul terminal, is a case in point. American "security" officials, as well as more and more "regular" Americans seem to believe that they are being conscientious when they pick on people who deviate from the norms of white bread America. Even Canada, the self-declared haven of multiculturalism, is no longer immune from this idiocy. In September, a Hasidic Jew praying on an Air Canada Jazz flight was arrested for "making other passengers nervous":
"He was clearly a Hasidic Jew," said Yves Faguy, a passenger seated nearby. "He had some sort of cover over his head. He was reading from a book.

"He wasn't exactly praying out loud but he was lurching back and forth," Faguy added.

The action didn't seem to bother anyone, Faguy said, but a flight attendant approached the man and told him his praying was making other passengers nervous.

It seems to me that North Americans simply go on auto-mode when confronted with certain "suspicious" indicators. No doubt, the airlines have an extensive unpublished list of infractions (such as praying or wearing unusual clothing) that set off specific procedures. Once an infraction is reported, it becomes impossible to reverse course - no matter how obvious it becomes to everyone involved that the person singled out is completely innocent. Meanwhile all those who seem "scary" by virtue of their difference from the rest of society - be they imams or haredi Jews - are publicly humiliated.

All this might be justifiable if security officials actually apprehended terrorists. But their current modus operandi is probably making it more difficult to catch those determined to blow up airliners. The root of the problem is ignorance - the same kind of ignorance exhibited by top American security officials and lawmakers who were unable to tell a reporter whether Iran and Hizbullah were Sunni or Shi'a (see John's post). To make up for the cluelessness of the people on the ground as well as the higher-ups, the Americans have tried to implement complex data collection systems, which present enormous costs (to the civil liberties of American citizens as well as to their pockets) with very little benefits. Again, the emphasis is on specific, isolated threat indicators, rather than on holistic assessments of individuals carried out by people who actually know things.

For example, it seems that since 2002, Homeland Security has been assigning threat scores to all travelers leaving and entering the U.S., with something called the Automated Targeting System. As is to be expected from this administration, these data collected on American citizens and foreigners are shared with private companies, state and federal government agencies, and foreign countries, without monitored travelers having any access to their "report cards." The Associated Press reports that

Almost every person entering and leaving the United States by air, sea or land is assessed based on ATS' analysis of their travel records and other data, including items such as where they are from, how they paid for tickets, their motor vehicle records, past one-way travel, seating preference and what kind of meal they ordered.

I now know why I was told by my travel agent last March that ordering a kosher meal would put me on an anti-terrorism watch list.

As you might expect, collecting data on the meal selections of history graduate students is unlikely to prove effective in catching terrorists. This might explain the government's laconic response to inquiries about ATS's efficacy. According to the same article, "Government officials could not say whether ATS has apprehended any terrorists."