Friday, November 14, 2008

Israel's Blockade of Gaza continues

The WP reports on a horrifying situation in Gaza. More collective punishment; more anger stoked; more lives being ruined. No comment, of course, from any US representatives. At some point Mr. Obama will have to weigh in. And many across the Arab - and Muslim - world will be waiting and watching . . .
Blockade Forces Closure of U.N. Food Distribution Program in Gaza

By Linda Gradstein
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 14, 2008; 9:59 AM

JERUSALEM, Nov. 14 -- The United Nations has shut down a food distribution program that feeds 750,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip after U.N. officials said their warehouses were empty and could not be restocked because of an Israeli blockade.

On the tenth day of an Israeli closure of Gaza's borders, the area's main power plant also ran out of fuel, and U.N. and other aid officials warned of mounting problems.

"Tomorrow when 20,000 people show up to get their rations, they will be told they have to wait until we can resupply," John Ging, the senior U.N. official in Gaza, said in a telephone interview. "It is unprecedented that the UN is unable to get its supplies in to a population under such obvious distress."

Israeli officials said the closure is a response to ongoing Palestinian rocket and mortar fire from Gaza into Israel.

That continued today. The military wing of Hamas issued a statement that it had shot five longer-range Soviet-made Grad missiles at the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Israeli rescue workers said five rockets landed in Ashkelon but there were no casualties or damage. The Grad has a range of 15 miles. In the past Israel has seen rocket fire on Ashkelon, with its population of 100,000, as an escalation.

Overall at least ten rockets and mortar shells were fired at Israel. One scored a direct hit on a house in the southern town of Sderot and five others landed inside the southern city of Ashkelon. One Israeli was slightly wounded.

Israeli aircraft fired missiles at a target in the northern Gaza Strip, according to an army spokesman, wounding two gunmen.

Since November 4, Israeli troops have killed at least 10 Palestinian gunmen in a series of incidents and Palestinians have fired dozens of rockets and mortars at southern Israel. The back and forth has frayed an already fragile five month old cease-fire between Israel and the militant group Hamas.

The resulting Israeli blockade has disrupted a U.N. program that feeds about half of Gaza's population, said Ging. Food distributed through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency includes flour, oil, rice, sugar and canned meat, and is meant to provide 60 percent of daily caloric needs.

"Many of these families have been subsisting on this ration for years and they are living hand to mouth," Ging said angrily. "This is a disastrous situation and its getting worse and worse. Even during the cease-fire we were prohibited from building up our reserves which could have prevented the current crisis. This is shocking."

European Union External Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner called on Israel to reopen the crossings in keeping with international law which requires that civilians have access to all essential services such as electricity and clean water.

"I am profoundly concerned about the consequences for the Gazan population of the complete closure of all Gaza crossings for deliveries of fuel and basic humanitarian assistance," she told the Reuters news agency.

She said a group of 20 European parliamentarians were also denied entry into Gaza earlier this week.

Israeli defense ministry spokesman Peter Lerner said Israel had planned to open the border crossings yesterday to allow both fuel for the power plant and food aid to enter Gaza. But Israeli intelligence said Palestinian gunmen planned to attack the border crossing and it remained closed. Lerner also rejected Ging's criticism of Israel.

"Instead of blaming Israel, they should be blaming Hamas," he said. "We hope the Palestinains will stop firing rockets and we can get the crossings opened again."

Foreign journalists based in Israel have not been allowed to enter Gaza for the past ten days. The Foreign Press Association has complained to the Israeli government that coverage of Gaza is an essential part of covering the region, but Lerner said no change is expected in the next few days.

"There's no lack of media coverage and we've seen many stories coming out of Gaza in the last week," he said. "Hamas has full responsibility for what is going on in Gaza."

Most of Gaza City has been dark since last night when Gaza's main power plant, which supplies a third of the area's electricity, shut down after it ran out of fuel.

Awani Sawafiri, a 37-old-taxi driver and father of three young children, said the blackout began around 6 p.m. last night. The electricity went back on for a few hours in the middle of the night but went off again at 8 a.m. He said there is also no cooking gas available in Gaza.

"When I look around it looks as though people have gone back in time," he said. "With no electricity more and more people are burning wood to make a fire to cook. The situation is very bad."

What he does have is gas for his taxi, which is being smuggled in from the Egyptian border through underground tunnels. But with the economic situation so dismal, there are few customers and he's not making any money.

Hana Bardawi, who lives in the Shati refugee camp with her seven children, says she is completely dependent on the U.N. aid. Her husband, who is ill, does not work .

"If the U.N. assistance stops, I will have to take my two oldest sons out of university, because I won't be able to afford it," she said. "Now with winter coming we also need jackets and warm clothes for the children."

Palestinian parliament member Jamal Khodari said that 80 percent of Gazans live under the poverty line and the average annual income per capita is two dollars a day.

"This is an illegal collective punishment, he said. "There is a shortage of medicines in the hospitals and the cutting of electricity is further pushing the situation deeper toward a crisis."

Ahmed Abu Hamda, a Palestinian journalist in Gaza, said the Israeli closure was the main talk of Palestinians at Friday prayer in the mosques.

"People just feel hopeless, we don't see any solution to this situation," he said in a telephone interview. "They say, 'what the hell is going on here, I just want to live.'"

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Obama, Rahm Emanuel, and Arab Disillusionment

Time magazine's Middle East blog has published an excellent analysis of the impact of Obama's appointment of Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff (and Tony Karon's piece in The National is also a must-read). My impression is that Obama wanted for that post someone he knew, someone who'd been through the in-fighting wars in Congress and could be counted on to take care of his boss. OK, fine. But from the perspective of reassuring hopeful Arab leaders and citizenries across the Middle East that the new US president would be a "fair broker" in any ongoing peace process, I cannot imagine a worse choice. Emanuel hails from a family with direct involvement in ultra-violent right-wing Zionist movements, including both the Irgun (which perpetrated the terrorist bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1947 and the massacre of Palestinian Arabs at Deir Yassin) and LEHI - aka the Stern Gang, which assassinated the UN diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte around the same time.

For a man embarking on a new presidency that needs to redefine the US's relationship with the Middle East at a critical time, Obama's first major decision represents, not the "change we need," but disappointment and foreboding.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Iraq's non-Muslim minorities left out in the cold

Looks as if Iraq's Christians and other non-Muslim minorities are being left out in the cold. Other reports have noted that in some Christian communities, militias are being formed for self-protection. This new measure coming out of Iraq's parliament can only exacerbate the situation.

And meanwhile, even though the Surge "has worked" (?), violence that no one in the US would deem acceptable here continues in Iraq, with a car bombing that killed 8. It gets mention here at the very end of this story, in sort of the "and in other news from Iraq today . . ." tag-on section.,0,7047135,print.story
From the Los Angeles Times

Iraq approves limited minority quotas on provincial councils

Christians and three other religious minorities are to get a total of six seats across three councils, half the 12 seats proposed by the U.N.
By Tina Susman

November 9, 2008

Reporting from Baghdad — Iraqi leaders ratified a bill Saturday giving minorities a quota of seats on provincial governing councils, overriding protests by Christian lawmakers who said they had been cheated.

Christians had demanded that the country's three-member presidency council, which must ratify legislation passed by parliament, veto the bill.

Lawmakers on Monday approved the quota, which gives Christians and three other minorities a total of six seats split among the governing councils in Baghdad, Nineveh and Basra provinces. The United Nations' special representative in Iraq had recommended 12 minority seats, a number Christian legislators had supported.

The three provincial councils have a total of 129 members.

In a statement following Saturday's ratification, the chief of staff for the presidency council, Naseer Ani, said its members had consulted with Vatican representatives and held "extensive discussion" about the bill. They considered the U.N. recommendations but decided to ratify the legislation unchanged out of respect for the parliamentarians' choice, he said.

"This comes as a recognition and respect for the parliament judgment," Ani said.

The presidency council comprises the president, who is a Kurd, and two vice presidents, one a Shiite Muslim and the other a Sunni Arab.

Ani said another bill would be presented in the future to guarantee minority rights.

The new law only governs seats in provincial elections, which are scheduled to take place by Jan. 31. No date has been set for the vote, which is hoped will repair lopsided provincial power structures created by wide-scale boycotts of the 2005 elections.

Younadam Kanna, a leading Christian lawmaker, said Saturday that if the quota were not changed, the community would have "no choice but to boycott the elections." He expressed concerns that without greater representation for minorities on some councils, particularly in Nineveh, they would become caught in the middle of the Kurdish-Arab power struggle raging in that part of the country.

In October, more than 1,000 Christian families fled Mosul, capital of Nineveh, after Arab-Kurdish tensions fueled anti-Christian violence. Christian residents as well as their leaders variously accused Kurds and Arabs of targeting them.

Under the U.N. proposal rejected by the parliament, Christian parties would have been guaranteed three seats on Nineveh's 37-seat provincial council, three on Baghdad's and one on Basra's. Instead they got one seat on each of the three councils. The U.N. also proposed giving Yazidis, another sect, three seats on the Nineveh council, but they got only one. Of the two other groups, Shabaks got one seat in Nineveh, and Sabeans got one in Baghdad, as proposed.

Sunni Arabs are vying for power in the Nineveh region against Kurds, and they generally opposed the quota system on grounds that the minority groups could side with Kurds and bolster Kurdish goals to expand their influence and incorporate Mosul in their semiautonomous Kurdistan region.

In a sign that he wants to limit Kurdish aspirations, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki on Saturday spoke of the need for a "strong federal state" when the national constitution is revamped. A committee has been working for months on a number of amendments to the document, which Maliki said was drafted in haste in 2005.

In a televised speech, Maliki said the amended document, set to be completed by the end of the year, should put security in the central government's hands. "This doesn't mean that the governorates wouldn't have authority over criminal and citizen issues," he said.

This could signal new resistance by the central government to demands from Kurdistan leaders that a referendum be held on expanding the Kurdish region. Kurdish security forces have butted heads with Iraqi security forces over boundary lines separating the region from the rest of Iraq.

The most intense standoff occurred in August and September in the eastern region of Khanaqin, with Iraqi security forces facing down Kurdish trips during an offensive in the region.

Also Saturday, police in western Anbar province said a car bomb killed at least eight people and wounded seven at a checkpoint west of the city of Ramadi. A police official in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, said three of the dead were police manning the checkpoint and the rest were civilians. Seven other civilians were injured, including three who were hospitalized in critical condition.

Susman is a Times staff writer.

Time staff writer Saif Rasheed and special correspondents in Baghdad and Ramadi contributed to this report.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

America's Path to a Black Man as Likely President

Frank Rich has a marvelous essay in today's NYT (I paste it below). I remember very well the movie to which the title refers. Now, very dated; but for the time (1967), quite something. I am old enough to remember very well - from my own childhood and adolescence - when "Negroes" were in the minority in professional sports, and couldn't play at all in the Southeastern Conference, in any sport. (And "Negroes," by the way, was then the "proper" term to use, but I heard the term "nigger" used all the time, even by people of "good families," but certainly by the guys I worked with on construction crews back in high-school and college summer days when I was swinging a pick-axe or operating a jackhammer.) By the time I reached high school, "Afro-American" was becoming the respectable term to be used by forward-thinking whites. Referring to someone as "black" was unheard of, unless you meant to insult someone.

I remember watching Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech live, and the March on Washington . . . and a TV reporter turning to a white onlooker to ask him what he thought, and the onlooker saying (to a national TV audience), "I don't like it. They stink, they smell." (The reporter shrank back, a bit stunned by the obvious racial hostility.)

I could go on and on with the reminiscing . . . but my point is that as a nation the US has made some remarkable strides, and in a relatively short time. But there's still a long way to go, especially (as Rich notes) when it's so visibly obvious that the Republican party as a whole still relies upon its "whiteness" (whether it cares to admit it or not) as a badge of its identity.
November 2, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

AND so: just how far have we come?

As a rough gauge last week, I watched a movie I hadn’t seen since it came out when I was a teenager in 1967. Back then “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was Hollywood’s idea of a stirring call for racial justice. The premise: A young white woman falls madly in love with a black man while visiting the University of Hawaii and brings him home to San Francisco to get her parents’ blessing. Dad, a crusading newspaper publisher, and Mom, a modern art dealer, are wealthy white liberals — Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, no less — so surely there can be no problem. Complications ensue before everyone does the right thing.

Though the film was a box-office smash and received 10 Oscar nominations, even four decades ago it was widely ridiculed as dated by liberal critics. The hero, played by the first black Hollywood superstar, Sidney Poitier, was seen as too perfect and too “white” — an impossibly handsome doctor with Johns Hopkins and Yale on his résumé and a Nobel-worthy career fighting tropical diseases in Africa for the World Health Organization. What couple would not want him as a son-in-law? “He’s so calm and sure of everything,” says his fiancée. “He doesn’t have any tensions in him.” She is confident that every single one of their biracial children will grow up to “be president of the United States and they’ll all have colorful administrations.”

What a strange movie to confront in 2008. As the world knows, Barack Obama’s own white mother and African father met at the University of Hawaii. In “Dreams From My Father,” he even imagines the awkward dinner where his mother introduced her liberal-ish parents to her intended in 1959. But what’s most startling about this archaic film is the sole element in it that proves inadvertently contemporary. Faced with a black man in the mold of the Poitier character — one who appears “so calm” and without “tensions” — white liberals can make utter fools of themselves. When Joe Biden spoke of Obama being “clean” and “articulate,” he might have been recycling Spencer Tracy’s lines of 41 years ago.

Biden’s gaffe, though particularly naked, prefigured a larger pattern in the extraordinary election campaign that has brought an African-American to the brink of the presidency. Our political and news media establishments — fixated for months on tracking down every unreconstructed bigot in blue-collar America — have their own conspicuous racial myopia, with its own set of stereotypes and clichés. They consistently underestimated Obama’s candidacy because they often saw him as a stand-in for the two-dimensional character Poitier had to shoulder in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It’s why so many got this election wrong so often.

There were countless ruminations, in print and on television, asking the same two rhetorical questions: “Is He Black Enough?” and “Is He Tough Enough?” The implied answer to both was usually, “No.” The brown-skinned child of biracial parents wasn’t really “black” and wouldn’t appeal to black voters who were overwhelmingly loyal to the wife of America’s first “black” president. And as a former constitutional law professor, Obama was undoubtedly too lofty an intellectual to be a political street fighter, too much of a wuss to land a punch in a debate, too ethereal to connect to “real” Americans. He was Adlai Stevenson, Michael Dukakis or Bill Bradley in dark face — no populist pugilist like John Edwards.

The list of mistaken prognostications that grew from these flawed premises is long. As primary season began, we were repeatedly told that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was the most battle-tested and disciplined, with an invincible organization and an unbeatable donors’ network. Poor Obama had to settle for the ineffectual passion of the starry-eyed, Internet-fixated college kids who failed to elect Howard Dean in 2004. When Clinton lost in Iowa, no matter; Obama could never breach the “firewalls” that would wrap up her nomination by Super Tuesday. Neither the Clinton campaign nor the many who bought its spin noticed the take-no-prisoners political insurgency that Obama had built throughout the caucus states and that serves him to this day.

Once Obama wrested the nomination from Clinton by surpassing her in organization, cash and black votes, he was still often seen as too wimpy to take on the Republicans. This prognosis was codified by Karl Rove, whose punditry for The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek has been second only to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as a reliable source of laughs this year. Rove called Obama “lazy,” and over the summer he predicted that his fund-raising had peaked in February and that he’d have a “serious problem” winning over Hispanics. Well, Obama was lazy like a fox, and is leading John McCain among Hispanics by 2 to 1. Obama has also pulled ahead among white women despite the widespread predictions that he’d never bring furious Hillary supporters into the fold.

But certainly the single most revelatory moment of the campaign — about the political establishment, not Obama — arrived in June when he reversed his position on taking public financing. This was a huge flip-flop (if no bigger than McCain’s on the Bush tax cuts). But the reaction was priceless. Suddenly the political world discovered that far from being some exotic hothouse flower, Obama was a pol from Chicago. Up until then it rarely occurred to anyone that he had to be a ruthless competitor, not merely a sweet-talking orator, to reach the top of a political machine even rougher than the Clinton machine he had brought down. Whether that makes him more black or more white remains unresolved.

Early in the campaign, the black commentator Tavis Smiley took a lot of heat when he questioned all the rhetoric, much of it from white liberals, about Obama being “post-racial.” Smiley pointed out that there is “no such thing in America as race transcendence.” He is right of course. America can no sooner disown its racial legacy, starting with the original sin of slavery, than it can disown its flag; it’s built into our DNA. Obama acknowledged as much in his landmark speech on race in Philadelphia in March.

Yet much has changed for the better since the era of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” thanks to the epic battles of the civil-rights movement that have made the Obama phenomenon possible. As Mark Harris reminds us in his recent book about late 1960s Hollywood, “Pictures at a Revolution,” it was not until the year of the movie’s release that the Warren Court handed down the Loving decision overturning laws that forbade interracial marriage in 16 states; in the film’s final cut there’s still an outdated line referring to the possibility that the young couple’s nuptials could be illegal (as Obama’s parents’ marriage would have been in, say, Virginia). In that same year of 1967, L.B.J.’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, offered his resignation when his daughter, a Stanford student, announced her engagement to a black Georgetown grad working at NASA. (Johnson didn’t accept it.)

Obama’s message and genealogy alike embody what has changed in the decades since. When he speaks of red and blue America being seamlessly woven into the United States of America, it is always shorthand for the reconciliation of black and white and brown and yellow America as well. Demographically, that’s where America is heading in the new century, and that will be its destiny no matter who wins the election this year.

Still, the country isn’t there yet, and should Obama be elected, America will not be cleansed of its racial history or conflicts. It will still have a virtually all-white party as one of its two most powerful political organizations. There will still be white liberals who look at Obama and can’t quite figure out what to make of his complex mixture of idealism and hard-knuckled political cunning, of his twin identities of international sojourner and conventional middle-class overachiever.

After some 20 months, we’re all still getting used to Obama and still, for that matter, trying to read his sometimes ambiguous takes on both economic and foreign affairs. What we have learned definitively about him so far — and what may most account for his victory, should he achieve it — is that he had both the brains and the muscle to outsmart, outmaneuver and outlast some of the smartest people in the country, starting with the Clintons. We know that he ran a brilliant campaign that remained sane and kept to its initial plan even when his Republican opponent and his own allies were panicking all around him. We know that that plan was based on the premise that Americans actually are sick of the divisive wedge issues that have defined the past couple of decades, of which race is the most divisive of all.

Obama doesn’t transcend race. He isn’t post-race. He is the latest chapter in the ever-unfurling American racial saga. It is an astonishing chapter. For most Americans, it seems as if Obama first came to dinner only yesterday. Should he win the White House on Tuesday, many will cheer and more than a few will cry as history moves inexorably forward.

But we are a people as practical as we are dreamy. We’ll soon remember that the country is in a deep ditch, and that we turned to the black guy not only because we hoped he would lift us up but because he looked like the strongest leader to dig us out.


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