Saturday, January 31, 2009

Obama seems unlikely to widen war in Afghanistan

This is one of the few pieces I've seen that note the impact of the economic recession on what the US can accomplish in Afghanistan.

Obama seems unlikely to widen war in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama, who pledged during his campaign to shift U.S. troops and resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, has done little since taking office to suggest he will significantly widen the grinding war against a resurgent Taliban.

On the contrary, Obama appears likely to streamline the U.S. focus with an eye to the worsening economy and the cautionary example of the Iraq war that sapped political support for President George W. Bush.

"There's not simply a military solution to that problem," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said last week, adding that Obama believes "that only through long-term and sustainable development can we ever hope to turn around what's going on there."

Less than two weeks into the new administration, Obama has not said much in public about what his top military adviser says is the largest challenge facing the armed forces. The president did say Afghanistan and Pakistan are the central front in the struggle against terrorism, a clue to the likely shift toward a targeted counterterrorism strategy.

After Obama's first visit to the Pentagon as president, a senior defense official said the commander in chief surveyed top uniformed officers about the strain of fighting two wars and warned that the economic crisis will limit U.S. responses. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama's meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff was private.

Obama said he wants to add troops to turn back the Taliban, but he has not gone beyond the approximately 30,000 additional forces already under consideration by the previous administration. Those troops will nearly double the U.S. presence in Afghanistan this year. But they amount to a finger in the dike while Obama recalibrates a chaotic mishmash of military and development objectives.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week warned of grandiose goals in Afghanistan, prescribing a single-minded strategy to prevent Afghanistan from being a terrorism launching pad.

"Afghanistan is the fourth or fifth poorest country in the world, and if we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose," Gates said, referring to a haven of purity in Norse mythology. "Nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience or money, to be honest."

Obama has ordered a fast internal review of his military, diplomatic and other options in Afghanistan before he makes decisions that define how aggressively he will answer the growing threat of failure in Afghanistan.

Along with that review, coordinated by the National Security Council, Obama will have results of a just-completed classified Joint Chiefs of Staff assessment of a largely stalemated fight against the Taliban and counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaida and affiliated groups along the Pakistan border.

That report, which has not yet gone to the White House, talks broadly about lowering expectations in the Afghan war.

Instead, it suggests that key goals should be to make modest gains to stabilize the governance and to eliminate terrorist safe havens, senior defense officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the report is secret.

It also calls for military commanders to better articulate what their objectives in Afghanistan are because only then can leaders determine what types of troops should be deployed and how many.

The Joint Chiefs review also stresses that the strategy must be driven by what the Afghans want and that the U.S. cannot impose its own goals on the Afghan government.

Also ahead is Army Gen. David Petraeus' wider survey of both the Afghan and Iraq wars and other issues in the Middle East. Petraeus, military architect of the troop increase of U.S. troops in Iraq, is not likely to recommend a similar one in Afghanistan.

Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

Friday, January 30, 2009

A huge day for Iraq: provincial elections

The AP's Kim Gamel reports on tomorrow's (Saturday's) provincial elections in Iraq, with the city and region of Mosul (in the Ninewa governorate) looming as a "battleground state" where the stakes are incredibly high. Actually, the stakes are high all across the country, largely because these elections are a 4-years-later do-over of the hugely flawed 2005 elections, which were boycotted by the vast majority of Sunni Arabs as well as most of Muqtada al-Sadr's supporters. That allowed the Shia Arabs as well as the Kurds to dominate provincial councils in governorates that were heavily Sunni. Now's the chance for the Sunni Arabs to assert themselves, which many of them fully expect to do. But that could also reignite Arab v. Kurd frictions, and to the extent that Sunni parties that are perceived to be close to the previously dominant Baath party make a comeback, the results could re-ignite Shiite fears as well as Iran's. The last thing that Iran wants to see is any major reduction in Shiite political power in Iraq, and especially at the hands of Sunni elements.

Also a factor here are the tribal factions, some of which have threatened to reignite the insurgency if their interests aren't served properly in the voting results.

Add to all this the vote-buying, intimidation, and assassinations reported over the last few weeks, and the reports (and rumors - which might as well be factual reports) of fraud that will surely emerge after tomorrow . . . . Well, let's just say that the next few weeks, and how the entire process shakes out, are going to be extremely interesting.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! A wonderful personal account

I'm posting herein a link to a wonderful personal account of one journalist's conversion to a more balanced view of Israeli-Palestinian relations. I might add that in many ways it mirrors my own process, though mine began about 25 years ago.

And I must concur in the author's impression of Tom Friedman's change in stance. I read his first book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, many years ago, and I was so impressed with its balance and its personally engaging style, and with how much it opened my eyes, that I adopted it for one of the earliest iterations of my Middle East survey course. (I probably ought to have suspected the change to come in Friedman's stance, though, when a couple of Muslim students - both of them American converts to Islam - in the class later criticized my pro-Israel bias in choosing that book.) The Friedman who expounds now in the NYT truly seems a far cry from the Friedman who wrote that book.

Fascinating NYT article on Gaza-Rafah smuggling

Michael Slackman's piece in today's NYT, on the "underground economy" between Gaza and the town of Rafah in Egypt, is both fascinating and very instructive as to how the process works, and how embedded and important it is for the local economy.

Where the Still Flourishing Underground Economy Is the Only Economy

RAFAH, Egypt — From the rooftops you can see tall buildings, and trucks pulling through streets teeming with people. You can hear generators humming, and the rumble of construction gear. From the rooftops, you can see Gaza.

But down below on the streets here, it is quiet, the kind of quiet that says people have been driven out. Stores were long ago abandoned. The street is buckled in places, and litter is piled along the curb. Residents have fled the war over the border, the heavy pressure from Egyptian security, the emptiness of life in Rafah.

“All we have,” said Muhammad Sha’er, as he looked from a rooftop into Gaza, “are the tunnels.”

Early Wednesday morning, Israel again bombed the tunnels that stretch under the border from Gaza into Egypt. The bombings followed a 22-day Israeli offensive to stop Hamas’s rocket fire, which was followed by international negotiations aimed at ending smuggling into Gaza.

But here in Rafah, people were still trying to smuggle goods through tunnels, hours before and hours after the bombing Wednesday morning. Rafah is a bleak, rutted, dusty town that bears more than passing resemblance to Baghdad after years of international sanctions.

“On the other side, they want to eat,” said Ayed el-Sayah, a furniture maker in town, referring to Gaza. “Here we want to eat, too. That’s why we have the tunnels.”

These are tense days in this shattered town of about 50,000 in the northeastern corner of Sinai. It has become the focus of an intense effort to stop smuggling activities, but the focus has been exclusively on security. Checkpoints have been set up, and the police often stop young men in cars and demand to see identification. The center of the town feels as if it is occupied.

But with every Israeli bomb just over the border, and with every increase in Egyptian security, there is less and less room for any kind of normal life. The streets are filled with idle young men, children and old men, all with nowhere to go and little to do. Women stay at home.

“We only wish we didn’t have to do this, that we had another job or a project, something else we can do,” said a 22-year-old, who asked not to be identified for fear of being imprisoned for his work as a smuggler.

The young man graduated with a degree in commerce from the equivalent here of a junior college. He said he began working a tunnel only recently because there was nothing else for him to do to make a living, or to occupy his time.

He and a cousin, 19, who also is a smuggler, were huddled together in a new imported car, one of the fruits of the trade, parked outside a friend’s house. It was a chilly desert night, the sky shocked with stars, and the young men were wired and nervous, smoking one cigarette after another.

The broad outlines of the tunnels are well known from the Gaza side. They are about 6 feet high and 3 feet wide. They are typically 65 feet or so below the surface, have pulley systems and lighting and ventilation. The Hamas government charges for the electricity used.

Little discussed is how the tunnels work on the Egyptian side, and why state security has been so unsuccessful in finding them. They are begun in Gaza in full view of Egypt’s border guards, after all, and nearly everyone here admits to either working in the tunnels or being related to someone who is.

The young men say that most people no longer have the tunnels come up inside their homes, because if they are caught they have no room for denial, and the whole family could be imprisoned. The openings are lined with tarps and filled with sand. When the tunnel owner in Gaza wants to make a run, he phones and the young men assemble a small group of trusted partners. They then dig out the sand, pull out the plastic tarps and pass through food, clothing or whatever has been ordered.

“It is a family affair, but not everyone knows where the hole is,” said the 19-year-old. “There are only a very few people you can trust and rely on. You make a deal with four or five other guys and that’s it, it stays between you.”

The young men said that most tunnels also have a pipe running through, a couple of inches in diameter. They said the pipes were used to funnel fuel, mostly diesel, to Gaza. Even when Israeli bombs managed to damage the tunnel entrances, or cause a collapse, the pipes were often undamaged and the fuel smuggling went on uninterrupted. They said they did not know anyone who smuggled weapons — only food, fuel and clothing.

There was a time, more than a year ago, when smuggling was extremely lucrative, people here said. One bag of clothing could bring $200. But when the borders were closed after Hamas took control, the number of tunnels exploded from about 30 to between 200 and 300, according to residents here. With that, prices dropped, and that same bag of clothing came down to $80.

With the recent conflict, prices have risen again, because many tunnels are inoperable and because of the increased risk of getting caught or injured. Driving through Rafah at night, a friend of the smugglers, Ahmed, pointed to a convoy of white pickup trucks, all loaded with cans of fuel. “They are for the tunnels,” he said, “all headed to Gaza.”

How Ahmed — whose identity also is being hidden to protect him from arrest — could know that the trucks were smuggling fuel when security officials did not was not immediately clear. Ahmed introduced another friend, a smuggler, whose towering new home rose from the desert near Rafah, a mansion by local standards, and an absolute advertisement for his line of work.

On Thursday, the Obama administration’s new Middle East envoy, George J. Mitchell, said that opening Gaza to commercial goods would help stamp out smuggling, of arms as well as goods. But Ahmed and his friends said that the authorities were reluctant to take measures to end the smuggling, of commodities at least.

How else, they asked, is anyone here going to make a decent living?

From the rooftop, Mr. Sha’er pointed to where Israeli planes bombed Gaza early Wednesday morning, flattening buildings, churning up huge mounds of sand. A few hours after the bombs fell, the people of Gaza were back at it, he said, trying to restore the tunnel openings. In Rafah many people said they were waiting for the call telling them their tunnel was working again and it was time to make another delivery.

Krauthammer on Obama's interview with al-Arabiya

I don't know where to start with Krauthammer's incredibly slanted piece in today's WaPo . . . and to be honest, I've better and more important things to do. But if I might address just one point. CK asserts:

In these 20 years, this nation has done more for suffering and oppressed Muslims than any nation, Muslim or non-Muslim, anywhere on Earth. Why are we apologizing? . . . . In these seven years since Sept. 11 -- seven years during which thousands of Muslims rioted all over the world (resulting in the death of more than 100) to avenge a bunch of cartoons -- there's not been a single anti-Muslim riot in the United States to avenge the massacre of 3,000 innocents.

The US's altruism, of course - at least in CK's mind - includes our "liberation" of both Iraq and Afghanistan, and he gloats about how there were no anti-Muslim riots in the US after 9-11. Well, Charles, how about instead:

  • How in the months and years following 9-11, the FBI and local police swept up hundreds of alleged "terrorists" or "terrorist sympathizers" into jails across the US - and the CIA did the same across the world - to detain, maltreat, sometimes torture them - and the vast majority of them, we now know, had absolutely nothing to do with 9-11 or terrorism.
  • How in the months after 9-11 the Bush administration ramped up the fear and anger of our fellow citizens to inspire the need for "payback" - to be exacted from the people of Iraq, who had absolutely nothing to do with 9-11, but upon whom the US exacted vengeance, to the tune of hundreds of thousands killed and maimed, millions driven from their homes.

I don't know about you, Mr. Krauthammer, but that's anti-Muslim "riot" enough for me.

Aaron David Miller on "peace process"

I happened to get Google notice of this report from a Cleveland source about a talk by Aaron David Miller, a generally respected expert (a former consultant to six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations) on the US-Middle East relations and various sub-sets thereof. I usually find a lot to admire in his analyses, but some of what he says here strikes me as ill-conceived. Thus. . . .

After assisting in the reopening of Gaza to trade and commerce [Amen to that], the Obama administration must then help bolster Abbas, who Miller believes was weakened by the fighting in the strip. . . .Training Abbas’s security forces to fend for themselves against Hamas will further strengthen the Palestinian president. . . . the Obama administration cannot leap into talks with Hamas, a move that would anger Israelis and undercut the standing of moderate Arabs.

I must disagree, on several counts:

  • 1. Abbas is a dead duck, with zero credibility among too many Palestinians. He's made absolutely no progress of any significance on issues central to a lasting peace, and especially on the creation of a viable Palestinian state. The Israelis have pushed him around as it has suited them, and Condi Rice more than once smacked him down when the Bush administration felt he's stepped out of line - a prime example being in 2007 when he signed on to the unity-government deal with Hamas that the Saudis brokered. To bolster Abbas now, at the expense of Hamas (which was - let's not forget - voted into power - in elections sanctioned by Bush - by a truly democratic process in 2006) is to put money on a horse that has no chance of winning, or even finishing the race.
  • 2. Arming Fatah vs. Hamas without some kind of political reconciliation only serves to promote civil war - which in turn allows the Israelis to trot out their tried-and-true line: We have no partner for peace.
  • 3. The Obama administration must indeed talk to Hamas, and the sooner the better, or else risk being accused of the same kind of hypocrisy that tarred Bush: that the US, with all its talk about promoting democracy, refuses to back (rather than block - and blockade) a duly elected government. And if the litmus test of Obama's policy-making is whether or not an action will anger Israelis . . . well, talk about the tail wagging the dog!

To be fair, Miller does make some other points that ought to be applauded, especially in terms of calling out the Israelis for continuing to expand settlements in the West Bank, and preventing Israel from launching a military intervention against Iran. On the other hand, he also wants the US to promote a peace agreement between Israel and Syria, but his major purpose there seems to be to undercut Hamas and Hezbollah, and thereby, Iran. But instead of one more bilateral peace deal (a la the earlier deals with Egypt and Jordan, which have in actuality produced a cold peace at best, at least as far as the peoples of those countries are concerned), why not throw US support behind the 2002 Saudi proposal, to which many of the Arab countries have signed on?

And rather than continue to trash the Iranians, why not try harder to bring them into the fold by offering them a security deal, an economic package, more cultural exchanges . . . in other words, getting past the mutual demonization and working instead on building a relationship built on common interests, rather than a clash, of the "civilizations" that the US and Iran embody?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

60 Dem Congressmen ask Hillary to intervene for Gaza

This is a big deal, and courageous on the part of the Congressional reps involved, who deserve our support. They are likely to get hammered by the AIPAC/WINEP/Christian Zionist bunch come election time.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Central Asian Valhalla?

The NYT reported today that the Obama administration intends to press Afghan president Karzai to make changes (a report that jives well with the Independent's report a few days ago, which noted the possible new leaders to whom the US might throw its support). Obama also plans to move slowly, and focus on war-fighting in Afghanistan as opposed to reconstruction, which evidently is to be delegated to NATO countries. DefSec Gates might have put it a little less cutely than

"If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose,” . . . . He said there was not enough “time, patience or money” to pursue overly ambitious goals in Afghanistan, and he called the war there as “our greatest military challenge.”

Mr. Gates said last week that previous American goals for Afghanistan had been “too broad and too far into the future,” language that differed from Mr. Bush’s policies.

So much for the exercise of soft power. It looks instead as if Obama has been convinced that Afghanistan needs a military solution - at least as far as US involvement is concerned. That kind of thinking seems very dangerous.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Gaza's damaged children

The WaPo has an up-close report today on the damage suffered by Gaza children at the hands of the IDF. I hate to sound clinical, but I wonder if anyone has done some kind of longitudinal study of Palestinian children who've been confronted at an early age with injury, deaths in the family, imprisonment of parents or siblings by the IDF, to trace how they've "turned out." It can't be pretty.

Joe Biden is preparing the ground for a new "Surge"

Joe Biden is preparing the ground for what now seems to be inevitable - the new "Surge" of US troops into Afghanistan - what Juan Cole is referring to as "Obama's Vietnam." And IMO that's no exagerration. We're looking down a long road, into a region that has been known historically as the "graveyard of empires."

Biden says American deaths in Afghanistan are likely to increase --

A Must-Read from Haaretz - The Racism of the IDF's Rabbinate

This is an absolutely incredible piece, and if it reflects what's being propagated as fact in the ranks of the Israeli army, then President Obama and every member of Congress needs to take note. It's racist nonsense, and from the stand point of historical accuracy (that the Arabs of Palestine are recent arrivals into the land!), it's nonsense as well.

Let's not forget that these racist warriors for God are slaughtering Arabs with the best weapons the US can provide.

w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m

Last update - 13:17 26/01/2009

IDF rabbinate publication during Gaza war: We will show no mercy on the cruel

By Amos Harel, Haaretz Correspondent

During the fighting in the Gaza Strip, the religious media - and on two occasions, the Israel Defense Forces weekly journal Bamahane - were full of praise for the army rabbinate. The substantial role of religious officers and soldiers in the front-line units of the IDF was, for the first time, supported also by the significant presence of rabbis there.

The chief army rabbi, Brigadier General Avichai Rontzki, joined the troops in the field on a number of occasions, as did rabbis under his command.

Officers and soldiers reported that they felt "spiritually elevated" and "morally empowered" by conversations with rabbis who gave them encouragement before the confrontation with the Palestinians.

But what exactly was the content of these conversations and of the plethora of written material disseminated by the IDF rabbinate during the war? A reservist battalion rabbi told the religious newspaper B'Sheva last week that Rontzki explained to his staff that their role was not "to distribute wine and challah for Shabbat to the troops," but "to fill them with yiddishkeit and a fighting spirit."

An overview of some of the army rabbinate's publications made available during the fighting reflects the tone of nationalist propaganda that steps blatantly into politics, sounds racist and can be interpreted as a call to challenge international law when it comes to dealing with enemy civilians.

Haaretz has received some of the publications through Breaking the Silence, a group of former soldiers who collect evidence of unacceptable behavior in the army vis-a-vis Palestinians. Other material was provided by officers and men who received it during Operation Cast Lead. Following are quotations from this material:

"[There is] a biblical ban on surrendering a single millimeter of it [the Land of Israel] to gentiles, though all sorts of impure distortions and foolishness of autonomy, enclaves and other national weaknesses. We will not abandon it to the hands of another nation, not a finger, not a nail of it." This is an excerpt from a publication entitled "Daily Torah studies for the soldier and the commander in Operation Cast Lead," issued by the IDF rabbinate. The text is from "Books of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner," who heads the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in the Muslim quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem.

The following questions are posed in one publication: "Is it possible to compare today's Palestinians to the Philistines of the past? And if so, is it possible to apply lessons today from the military tactics of Samson and David?" Rabbi Aviner is again quoted as saying: "A comparison is possible because the Philistines of the past were not natives and had invaded from a foreign land ... They invaded the Land of Israel, a land that did not belong to them and claimed political ownership over our country ... Today the problem is the same. The Palestinians claim they deserve a state here, when in reality there was never a Palestinian or Arab state within the borders of our country. Moreover, most of them are new and came here close to the time of the War of Independence."

The IDF rabbinate, also quoting Rabbi Aviner, describes the appropriate code of conduct in the field: "When you show mercy to a cruel enemy, you are being cruel to pure and honest soldiers. This is terribly immoral. These are not games at the amusement park where sportsmanship teaches one to make concessions. This is a war on murderers. 'A la guerre comme a la guerre.'"

This view is also echoed in publications signed by Rabbis Chen Halamish and Yuval Freund on Jewish consciousness. Freund argues that "our enemies took advantage of the broad and merciful Israeli heart" and warns that "we will show no mercy on the cruel."

In addition to the official publications, extreme right-wing groups managed to bring pamphlets with racist messages into IDF bases. One such flyer is attributed to "the pupils of Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg" - the former rabbi at Joseph's Tomb and author of the article "Baruch the Man," which praises Baruch Goldstein, who massacred unarmed Palestinians in Hebron. It calls on "soldiers of Israel to spare your lives and the lives of your friends and not to show concern for a population that surrounds us and harms us. We call on you ... to function according to the law 'kill the one who comes to kill you.' As for the population, it is not innocent ... We call on you to ignore any strange doctrines and orders that confuse the logical way of fighting the enemy."

The Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din has called on Defense Minister Ehud Barak to immediately remove Rabbi Rontzki from his post as chief rabbi.

In response, an IDF spokesman said that: "Overall, letters that are sent to the chief of staff [such as the request for Rontzki's dismissal] are reviewed and an answer is sent to those who make the request, not to the media."

"The Peace Process is over"

Word about Bob Simon's report on 60 Minutes is all over the internet. Paul Woodward's editorial includes the link.
Permit me to add that, in the eyes of many experts, the "peace process" has been a sham for years, especially under George W. Bush.

Netanyahu: Existing West Bank settlements will grow

Talk about provocative! This may be simply electioneering, but methinks Mr. Netanyahu has fired a shot across the bow of the soon-to-arrive George Mitchell - and, of course, President Obama. And by the same token, he's thrust another dagger into the barely beating heart of Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, whose inconsequentiality as a "partner" for negotiating a just settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is now made even more apparent.

Of course, Netanyahu can say that he's simply following in the steps of George Bush's pronouncement that the West Bank settlements will remain in Israel's hands - which forces Obama either to make a sharper break with Bush's policies (and thus rattle the cages of Congressional Republicans, whose support he needs on other fronts) or simply go along, which undercuts his chances of increasing his credibility in the Muslim world.

Israel's Netanyahu: Existing settlements will grow

JERUSALEM (AP) — The front-runner in Israel's election next month said he would allow existing West Bank settlements to expand for "natural growth" — a policy likely to face opposition from the Palestinians and the new U.S. administration.

The comments by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in an Israeli newspaper on Monday, just two days before Washington's new Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, is expected to make his first visit to the region. Mitchell, a critic of Israel's West Bank settlements, is expected to meet with Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, and focus on ways to revive peace talks in the wake of Israel's recent offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu, an opponent of current U.S.-backed peace talks, was quoted by the Haaretz daily as telling international Mideast envoy Tony Blair at a meeting Sunday that he would continue Israel's policy of allowing existing settlements to expand.

"I have no intention of building new settlements in the West Bank," Netanyahu was quoted as saying. "But like all the governments there have been until now, I will have to meet the needs of natural growth in the population. I will not be able to choke the settlements."

A Netanyahu spokeswoman, Dina Libster, confirmed the quotes were accurate. Blair's office did not return messages seeking comment.

Settlement construction in the West Bank has been a key obstacle to peace talks over the years. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank as part of a future independent state that would also include the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. They say Israel's settlements, now home to 280,000 people in the West Bank, make it increasingly difficult for them to establish a viable state.

Nearly all Israeli settlement construction over the past decade has taken place in existing West Bank communities. And Netanyahu's positions do not significantly differ from outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has allowed construction in existing settlements to continue even while holding peace talks with the Palestinians.

Still, Mitchell's appointment has some Israeli leaders worried that the new administration of President Barack Obama will be tougher on Israel than the Bush administration was. In 2001, Mitchell called for a freeze on all Israeli settlement construction when he led an international commission to investigate violence in the Middle East.

Polls show Netanyahu's Likud Party handily winning the Feb. 10 elections, a victory that would allow him to reclaim the premiership he held between 1996 and 1999. Netanyahu has said he would try to refocus peace talks on building the Palestinian economy and governing institutions.

That approach does not sit well with Palestinian negotiators, who want the talks to continue focusing on resolving the key disputes with Israel over settlements, final borders, the fate of disputed Jerusalem and a solution for Palestinian refugees.

Further complicating the peace talks is the Hamas militant group's takeover of Gaza in June 2007. Israel on Jan. 17 ended a devastating three-week military offensive against Hamas.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have agreed that the foundation for any peace accord would be the internationally backed "road map" peace plan, which explicitly bans all settlement construction, including natural growth, and requires the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups. Israel has argued that natural growth should not be included in the ban.

In Gaza, the EU's top humanitarian official, Louis Michel, announced euro58 million ($74 million) in aid to Palestinians, including euro32 million ($41 million) earmarked to "respond to the dramatic humanitarian situation in Gaza" following Israel's offensive. But he said none of the funds would be channeled to Hamas, which he said "is acting in the way of a terrorist movement."

The EU, like Israel and the U.S., considers Hamas a terrorist group. Still, voicing the comments in the heart of Hamas' stronghold carried extra significance.

Michel also called for those responsible for the recent violence to be investigated on both sides. The Israeli offensive, launched to halt years of Hamas rocket attacks, killed nearly 1,300 people, more than half of them civilians, and caused extensive damage to Gaza's infrastructure. Thirteen Israelis also died in the fighting.

De Montesquiou reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Israeli war against Hamas scars Gaza's children

Sad report, and with a dire prediction that's all too obvious: these traumatized kids grow up troubled and angry. . . and become fodder for extremists.

Israeli war against Hamas scars Gaza's children - Yahoo! News

Tom Friedman says "This is not a Test." Wow, really?

Aren't we all all so lucky that Tom is there to clue us in? Here's today's wisdom.

Op-Ed Columnist - This Is Not a Test -

As usual though, some of it can't be let by without comment. Says TF:

We’re getting perilously close to closing the window on a two-state solution, because the two chief window-closers — Hamas in Gaza and the fanatical Jewish settlers in the West Bank — have been in the driver’s seats. Hamas is busy making a two-state solution inconceivable, while the settlers have steadily worked to make it impossible.
Well, bless your heart, thanks for that hot tip. Anybody with eyes to read with has been saying this for at least a few years. IMO, that window has already closed, and TF is indeed perceptive enough to note:
No Israeli government has mustered the will to take down even the “illegal,” unauthorized settlements, despite promises to the U.S. to do so, so it’s getting hard to see how the “legal” settlements will ever be removed.

But, "getting hard to see"? After George W. Bush promised Ariel Sharon several years ago that there'd be no need to remove the "legal" settlements?

What is needed from Israel’s Feb. 10 elections is a centrist, national unity government that can resist the blackmail of the settlers, and the rightist parties that protect them, to still implement a two-state solution.

Amen to that, but why not go on to clue us in about the Israeli election polls, which see the right-wing Likud and Mr. Netanyahu well ahead of the second-place Kadima, which is actually not so centrist; it was led by Ariel Sharon, then by Ehud Olmert - he of Operation Cast Lead fame. Meanwhile the party that once led Israeli politics (Labor) is running third, effectively tied with the ultra-right Yisrael Beitenu party of Avigdor Lieberman, who's on the record as favoring forced transfer of Palestinians. Why not mention, TF, that the chances of a centrist government - under Netanyahu, no less - emerging after the elections are about as high as my chances of being chosen in the NFL draft.

Because without a stable two-state solution, what you will have is an Israel hiding behind a high wall, defending itself from a Hamas-run failed state in Gaza, a Hezbollah-run failed state in south Lebanon and a Fatah-run failed state in Ramallah. Have a nice day.

Er, pardon me again, TF, but have you noticed that high wall that Israel has been building to separate Israel from the West Bank the last few years? Or that fence they've built around Gaza? Or that "Iron Wall" that Mr. Jabotinsky wrote about 70 years ago?

So if you believe in the necessity of a Palestinian state or you love Israel, you’d better start paying attention. This is not a test. We’re at a hinge of history.

The Palestinians are so fragmented politically and geographically that half of U.S. diplomacy is going to be about how to make peace between Palestinians, and build their institutions, so there is a coherent, legitimate decision-making body there — before we can make peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Gosh, TF, how'd they get to be so fragmented? Didn't they have democratic elections in 2006? Ooops, but those brought Hamas into power, didn't they? Yes indeed, so Israel rounded up and arrested the Hamas legislators, and the US boycotted the Hamas government and declared that Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas (a creature of Fatah, Hamas's rival) was the real, legitimate political authority, and, what'd that produce, TF? Ah, fragmentation, you say? But wait, didn't the Saudis then broker a national-unity deal between Abbas and Hamas? Gee, yeah, that's right, but what happened to that? Ah, George and Condi wouldn't accept that, and whacked Mahmoud back into line?

Second, Hamas now has a veto over any Palestinian peace deal. It’s true that Hamas just provoked a reckless war that has devastated the people of Gaza. But Hamas is not going away. It is well armed and, despite its suicidal behavior of late, deeply rooted.

Hamas provoked that war, TF? Whose blockade was that around Gaza? Whose forces raided Gaza last November and killed 6 "militants"?

The Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank will not make any compromise deal with Israel as long as it fears that Hamas, from outside the tent, would denounce it as traitorous. Therefore, Job 2 for the U.S., Israel and the Arab states is to find a way to bring Hamas into a Palestinian national unity government.

Shouldn't you get real now, TF? Are you seriously suggesting that Hamas would join a national-unity government led Abbas, when he's been basically smacked around by Israel and the US ever since Arafat died, has made zero progress in bringing any justice to the Palestinians, and is now viewed by many Palestinians as (to borrow another commentator's expression) the Palestinian Petain?

But bringing Hamas into a Palestinian unity government, without undermining the West Bank moderates now leading the Palestinian Authority, will be tricky. We’ll need Saudi Arabia and Egypt to buy, cajole and pressure Hamas into keeping the cease-fire, supporting peace talks and to give up rockets — while Iran and Syria will be tugging Hamas the other way.

Gee, TF, is there nothing that Israel could kick in here?

OK, thought not.

JR's latest op-ed at "War in Context"

. . . with thanks to Paul Woodward for posting it.

War in Context - GUEST CONTRIBUTOR - John Robertson: Surging into a perfect storm?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

On the Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan

In the Wall Street Journal, from the words of the commandant of the Marine Corps:
U.S. commanders there say the Taliban run shadow governments and drug revenue allows them to replenish supplies. "When you've got those two elements you've got the potential for a long-term insurgency," Gen. Conway said.
Marines (maybe 20,000) will be moved from Iraq to Afghanistan, and plans are being made for major Army troop withdrawals as well. You can guess where a lot of them are going. Into the belly of another beast.

The Beat Goes On in Iraq

and mostly on the back pages of the paper.

At Least 5 Dead, Others Wounded in Blast in Western Iraq -

Obama wants to start pulling troops out soon, and send them on to Afghanistan, but the upcoming provincial elections are ratcheting up tensions (= killings), and the national elections are planned for late this year. Things to consider:

If violence persists or rises, but Obama nonetheless authorizes withdrawals of troops, how soon will Republicans start screaming that Obama is "losing the war" that George Bush had "won"? How can Obama move ahead with his economic reconstruction if Republicans are pounding him on Iraq?

Can Iraqi prime minister Maliki survive a "surge" in violence? Will Iraqi military and police forces be (a) strong enough and (b) reliable enough to provide security for the elections? Might Maliki decide to impose a kind of martial law? If so, how soon before he's labeled a Shiite "Saddam Lite"?

A Better Way Forward in the Middle East

Excellent essay in the WaPo by Yousef Munayyer, a political analyst for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He makes a crucial, much too forgotten point about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Most Palestinians owe their tragedies to the very genesis of Israel.

Even if their life depended on it, most Americans couldn't tell you a thing about how Israel came to be, except perhaps to talk about the Holocaust and how the Jews of Europe needed a safe place to live.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Test for Obama . . . in Bolivia!

Johann Hari of the British Independent has a very informative and challenging piece on a subject I knew little about: the US's trashing of Bolivia's populist leader Evo Morales, who has fought to regain control of his country's natural gas and water resources - only to be demonized and undercut (during the Bush administration) by hostile US interests. Obama, Hari notes, has an opportunity to climb onto the stage and sing a different tune:

Enter Obama – and his paradoxes. He is obviously a person of good will and good sense, but he is operating in a system subject to many undemocratic pressures. Bolivia illustrates the tension. The rise of Morales reminds us of the America the world loves: its yes-we-can openness and civil rights movements. Yet the presence of gas reminds us of the America the world hates: the desire to establish "full spectrum dominance" over the world's resources, whatever the pesky natives think.

Which America will Obama embody? The answer is both – at first. Morales has welcomed him as "a brother", and Obama has made it clear he wants a dialogue, rather than the abuse of the Bush years. Yet who is Obama's Bolivia adviser? A lawyer called Greg Craig, who represents Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada – the hard-right former president of Bolivia who imposed some of the most extreme privatisations of the 1980s, and is now wanted on charges of genocide. Craig's legal team says Morales is (yes) leading "an offensive against democracy".

Hmmm . . . .

Johann Hari: Is the US about to treat the rest of the world better? Maybe... - Johann Hari, Commentators - The Independent

The skinny on Dennis Ross' aborted liftoff

Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss reports some of the skinny on what's happened to Dennis Ross. Personally, I'm elated if Ross is going to be kept at arm's length by Hillary Clinton at DoS.

I'm also rethinking my earlier elation at George Mitchell's elevation. Although I'm still hopeful that he might be able to move some kind of peace process forward, I'm being reminded that he's more an old war horse than a fresh approach. Compared to the kind of people that George Bush was sending into the fray, Mitchell is surely a big improvement - a breath of fresh air, actually - but I'm not convinced that he - or Obama - is a game-changer.

Mondoweiss: How the Israel lobby shot itself in the foot on Dennis Ross's elevation

Are the Saudis putting Obama on notice?

TAKE NOTE! The author of this piece is no shmuck (as the Financial Times notes, Prince Turki is chairman, King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies, Riyadh. He has been director of Saudi intelligence, ambassador to the UK and Ireland and ambassador to the US). And unless I'm misreading it completely, he's for all intents and purposes threatening Obama and the US with some pretty dire consequences from Saudi Arabia (as a major Arab/Islamic leader) if Obama doesn't take a strong stand against what Israel has done in Gaza. I can't imagine that Prince Turki would be coming forward like this without King Abdullah's go-ahead.

Mr. Obama - to use an expression that as a hoopster you can appreciate - the ball's in your court.

Saudi Arabia's patience is running out

By Turki al-Faisal

Published: January 23 2009 02:00 | Last updated: January 23 2009 02:00

In my decades as a public servant, I have strongly promoted the Arab-Israeli peace process. During recent months, I argued that the peace plan proposed by Saudi Arabia could be implemented under an Obama administration if the Israelis and Palestinians accepted difficult compromises.

But after Israel launched its bloody attack on Gaza, these pleas for optimism and co-operation now seem a distant memory. Unless the new US administration takes forceful steps to prevent any further suffering and slaughter of Palestinians, the peace process, the US-Saudi relationship and the stability of the region are at risk.

Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Saudi foreign minister, told the UN Security Council that if there was no just settlement, "we will turn our backs on you". King Abdullah spoke for the Arab and Muslim world when he said at the Arab summit in Kuwait that although the Arab peace initiative was on the table, it would not remain there for long.

America is not innocent in this calamity. Not only has the Bush administration left a sickening legacy in the region, but it has also, through an arrogant attitude about the butchery in Gaza, contributed to the slaughter of innocents. If the US wants to continue playing a leadership role in the Middle East and keep its strategic alliances intact - especially its "special relationship" with Saudi Arabia - it will have to revise drastically its policies vis a vis Israel and Palestine.

The US administration will be inheriting a "basket full of snakes" in the region, but there are things that can be done to help calm them. First, President Barack Obama must address the disaster in Gaza and its causes. Inevitably, he will condemn Hamas's firing of rockets at Israel. When he does that, he should also condemn Israel's atrocities against the Palestinians and support a UN resolution to that effect; condemn the Israeli actions that led to this conflict, from settlement building in the West Bank to the blockade of Gaza and the targeted killings and arbitrary arrests of Palestinians; declare America's intention to work for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, with a security umbrella for countries that sign up and sanctions for those that do not; call for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Shab'ah Farms in Lebanon; encourage Israeli-Syrian negotiations for peace; and support a UN resolution guaranteeing Iraq's territorial integrity.

Mr Obama should strongly promote the Abdullah peace initiative, which calls on Israel to pursue the course laid out in various international resolutions and laws: to withdraw completely from the lands occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem, returning to the lines of June 4 1967; to accept a mutually agreed just solution to the refugee problem according to UN resolution 194; and to recognise the independent state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital. In return, there would be an end to hostilities between Israel and all Arab countries, and Israel would get full diplomatic and normal relations.

Last week, President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad of Iran wrote a letter to King Abdullah, explicitly recognising Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds and calling on him to take a more confrontational role over "this obvious atrocity and killing of your own children" in Gaza. The communiqué is significant because the de facto recognition of the kingdom's primacy from one of its most ardent foes reveals the extent that the war has united an entire region, both Shia and Sunni. Further, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's call for Saudi Arabia to lead a jihad against Israel would, if pursued, create unprecedented chaos and bloodshed.

So far, the kingdom has resisted these calls, but every day this restraint becomes more difficult to maintain. As the world laments once again the suffering of the Palestinians, people of conscience from every corner of the world are clamouring for action. Eventually, the kingdom will not be able to prevent its citizens from joining the worldwide revolt against Israel. Today, every Saudi is a Gazan, and we remember well the words of our late King Faisal: "I hope you will forgive my outpouring of emotions, but when I think that our Holy Mosque in Jerusalem is being invaded and desecrated, I ask God that if I am unable to undertake Holy Jihad, then I should not live a moment more." Let us all pray that Mr Obama possesses the foresight, fairness and resolve to rein in the murderous Israeli regime and open a new chapter in this most intractable of conflicts.

The big upsides of George Mitchell

Jim Lobe of IPS has posted on his blog his take on President Obama's (I'm still getting used to saying that - but damn it feels good) remarks on his appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy for the Middle East. If his analysis here is as dead-on as I sense it is), Mr. Obama is moving quickly to change the parameters and basic operating assumptions underlying US involvement in trying to bring peace. Mitchell brings a new - and much needed (and feared by the AIPAC bunch) - sense of balance as well as prestige to the US presence at the table (the don't screw with me kind - a bit reminiscent, actually, of James Baker when he dipped his oar into the Israeli-Palestinian maelstrom under Bush 41).

And it's especially heartening that Mitchell is evidently being trusted with some room to run, and is answering directly to Obama (and not Hillary, whose bona fides as a fair broker were trashed a while ago) - whereas Richard Holbrooke, who's been handed a position as a special representative in re Pakistan and Afghanistan, will evidently be on a tighter leash.

Still undecided, as far as I can make out, is whom Obama may appoint to deal with Iran, but if these appointments are any indication, I'm betting it won't be Dennis Ross, or anyone else too close to the WINEP crowd.

Still though, Obama is treading into a minefield, not only in terms of unforeseen developments and consequences on the Middle Eastern front, but also because he has to fear tweaking the fears of senators and congressmen with constituencies susceptible to being riled by the Zionist and Christian Rightist spokespeople who can loudly insist that Israel be defended at any price. (Of course, some of those same congressmen eagerly count themselves among those spokespeople.)

Why be concerned? Because Obama has another, very important agenda, as we all know - the economic rescue of the USA. He wants to move quickly and decisively, and to do that he will need bipartisan support in Congress. Showing too much sympathy to Palestinian suffering and grievances vs. Israel - as proper and as long overdue as it is - just might siphon away some of that support. And a failure to make progress on that front will surely hurt him more with the American electorate than will failure to bring justice to the Palestinians.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What were the Israelis expecting?

I've pasted below a very disturbing report from the NYT - although, I must add, it very much confirms what I've been reading in the Israeli press.

January 21, 2009

Few Israelis Near Gaza Feel War Achieved Much

NIR OZ, Israel — The wheat and potato fields of this kibbutz, or communal farm, in southern Israel stretch right up to the Gaza border fence. In almost surreal proximity on the other side rise the apartment buildings, water towers and minarets of the Palestinian village of Abasan.

Israel’s deadly offensive against Hamas in Gaza ended on Sunday, with each side having unilaterally declared a cease-fire. Yet there was little sense of triumph here in the days after, more a nagging feeling of something missed or incomplete.

Elad Katzir, a potato farmer, was nervous as he drove through the lush fields, agreeing to stop the car only behind clumps of trees or bushes as cover in case of sniper fire. By one thicket, nestled among wildflowers, was a memorial to a soldier who was shot dead here while on patrol seven years ago.

“I do not feel any victory,” Mr. Katzir said. “I still do not feel safe.”

Israel began its three-week campaign on Dec. 27 after border communities like this one had suffered eight years of rocket, mortar and sniper fire, and after Hamas expanded its arsenal with imported rockets that reached major southern cities like Ashkelon and Ashdod.

The Israeli government’s stated war goals were relatively modest: to reduce Hamas’s ability and will to fire rockets and to change the security equation in southern Israel.

Most Israelis are satisfied that action was taken. But with Gaza’s death toll at more than 1,300, many of them civilians, according to Palestinian health officials, and with 13 Israelis, including three civilians, killed, many here were wondering what had been achieved.

“So they changed the security situation for the next six months, bravo,” said another potato farmer, Eyal Barad. He added, “They should have gone on longer and finished the job.”

After such a tremendous show of force, many Israelis were hoping to see a more definitive picture of victory, like a scene of Hamas leaders coming out of their bunkers and raising a white flag. At the very least, several said, Israel should not have left Gaza without Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal who was captured in a cross-border raid and taken into the Palestinian enclave in 2006 and has been held hostage by Hamas ever since.

Residents of the south, in particular, were sober about how long the peace would last. Some spoke in terms of weeks or months. In Sderot, the Israeli border town that has suffered the most from rocket attacks, a supermarket owner, Yaakov Dahan, said this time he was “optimistic that a cease-fire would hold up even more than a year.”

Israel had long been wary of taking on Hamas in Gaza, knowing that a decisive blow against such a broad and popular movement would be elusive at best.

So the campaign focused instead on crushing the military machine of the Islamist group. Even then, as a senior Israeli military official recently said, it was considered a matter of “cutting the grass.”

Israel says it blew up most of the tunnels beneath Egypt’s border with Gaza that were used for smuggling in weapons, and destroyed a significant portion of Hamas’s rocket manufacturing facilities and stockpiles. Its diplomatic efforts are now focused on obtaining an internationally guaranteed mechanism to stop the weapons smuggling across the Egyptian border and to ensure that Hamas cannot rearm.

Many people’s expectations, however, are low. Israel will now be under pressure to open its own border crossings with Gaza for goods. Martin Kramer, of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, argued in a briefing for reporters during the campaign that with the crossings open, Hamas by itself “will find ways to manufacture rockets that have reach.”

Some Israelis express regret over the number of civilian deaths in Gaza. But a broader sentiment heard in the south was that “Hamas deserved everything it got.”

David Moshe, the field crops manager at Nir Oz, said that Hamas had won on one level, by hardening the feelings of Israelis against the suffering of others. Mr. Moshe said that the military operation was “absolutely necessary,” but that it was too long and too much.

But he acknowledged that even in the relatively left-wing environment of the kibbutz, most people “felt it was not enough.”

In an effort to show average Gazans that the war was not aimed against them, Israel on Sunday opened a regional medical clinic for the people of Gaza in the huge new passenger terminal at the Erez border crossing.

By Monday afternoon only three people had shown up for treatment, according to medical officials there, none of them casualties of the war.

There have been efforts to try to make the place cheerful, with colorful plastic jungle gyms for children. But when a group of children passed through on Monday, all cancer patients on their way to a hospital in East Jerusalem, the parents accompanying them had stony expressions on their faces, and the jungle gyms and a table of Israeli candies and snacks were left untouched.

In nearby Sderot, the atmosphere seemed somewhat deflated compared with the near euphoria some residents displayed during the war.

Rachel Uliel, 75, was leaning on the front gate of her house, which was festooned with Israeli flags. “I feel very good now,” she said, “though I do not know what will come next.”

Then, lowering her voice, perhaps not wanting to seem unpatriotic, she added that the Israeli military “almost did not touch” Hamas.

“I do not understand why the army went out now,” she said. “We should have finished them off.”

With Hamas still in control of Gaza, nobody here saw any real end in sight.

Out in the fields abutting the Gaza border fence, Mr. Katzir, the potato grower, predicted that within two years, the Hamas rockets “will get to Tel Aviv.”

Barack Obama and the burden of excessive expectation

Besides the crushing burden of a crippled economy, leaders around the world are expecting Mr. Obama to follow through on his promises to reach out to the world and rebuild the US's reputation. I cannot remember another president in my lifetime for whom the bar was set so high even as a situation in such complete shambles was being handed off by his predecessor. Add to that the fact that the Hannitys and Limbaughs of the world - as well as every racist or semi-racist blogger and organization out there - are hoping he will fail, waiting for his first misstep or slip, and more than willing to give him a little push down those stairs . . . well, the enormity of the tasks confronting him is obvious.

And while many have such high hopes and expectations, just as many are sure that he will fail, because, they believe, the US and its allies, despite the talk of change, are determined to keep Muslim countries under their heel.

But some very positive signs are emerging:
1. As of last evening, even as he was waltzing with Michelle to the crooning of Beyonce, Obama has called a halt to the Guantanamo trials.
2. The indications are that Obama is poised to appoint former senator George Mitchell as his special envoy for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Several years ago, Mitchell was the co-author of a report that, among other recommendations, called upon Israel to stop expanding its settlement project in the West Bank.

As one report has noted, Israel is likely worried that Obama may be bringing Mitchell on board. But the question remains: how aggressive (some would say, balanced) can Obama be in addressing this crisis? He also is expected to take huge steps in addressing the economic crisis, and to do that effectively, he needs to garner and keep on board all the support he can muster in Congress. Congress, of course, has signalled its overwhelming support for Israel against Hamas in recent days, and seems to be in no mood to relax that stance - even when polls show that the American people have a much more balanced (or, at least, evenly split) take on what Israel did in Gaza. AIPAC, WINEP, and the Israel lobby (including Fox News "all-stars" like Charles Krauthammer of the WaPo and William Kristol of the NYT) are going to be watching closely.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Gaza: IDF leaving, Gazans see what's left

As the WaPo reports, bodies are being pulled out of the rubble. People are going back to find their houses destroyed - the work of a lifetime in rubble - and they have nowhere to go. For those whose houses still stand, some find that members of the self-styled "most moral army in the world" have acted more like burglars on a rampage:

Hundreds of Palestinians tried to return Sunday to their homes in destroyed neighborhoods northwest of Gaza City. Taken aback by the devastation, many went back to U.N. emergency shelters after retrieving clothes and blankets from the rubble. At least 35 bodies were recovered in the two neighborhoods by late Sunday afternoon, local health officials said.

Residents stumbled down streets strewn with demolished vehicles and chunks of collapsed buildings. Some people mumbled to themselves or simply stared at the places where they had once lived. Others stood in place and cried.

Israeli soldiers had withdrawn early Sunday from the area, residents said. Inside homes where soldiers had been staying, furniture and computers were smashed and Hebrew slogans were scrawled on the walls. Israeli jets periodically passed overhead, loud and low, causing those in the streets to scatter or drop to the ground.

Khadija Saker, 55, and six relatives returned to find their three-story house in ruins. She had fled at the start of the ground invasion, when her husband was wounded by an Israeli shell, she said.

"Thirty years of work we put into this home is gone," Saker said. Her fruit trees out back had been bulldozed. "We thought we'd be safe because my sons were not Hamas. We are peaceful, not activists at all. Why would they do this?"

Her cousin, Yusef Saker, shook his head. "We will need 20 years to undo what 20 days of war did," he said.

Rising Tensions between Kurds and the Baghdad government

Reuters reports that an angry Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, has criticized Iraq prime minister al-Maliki for his continuing efforts to establish tribal support councils in the Kurdish provinces, and will consider as traitors any tribal leaders who join them.

This is no minor squabble. Since the creation of the modern country of Iraq, the Kurds have resisted control by the central government in Baghdad, which historically has treated them poorly, resorting to sending in troops and, under Saddam, ethnic cleansing that some would classify (IMO, justifiably) as genocide. Maliki has made huge strides in recent months in strengthening his hand, much aided by the fact that the Iraqi military and police forces have been steadily growing larger and better trained and that he seems ready to wield them as he sees fit. (Witness the very scary confrontation between central-government troops and Kurdish peshmerga forces at Khanaqin a few months ago.)

Another point to be noted here is that despite all the neocon jubilation (see William Kristol's column in yesterday's NYT - and for that matter, the not-so-neocon Peter Beinart in the WaPo) that the "Surge worked" and "we won" in Iraq, Iraq is by no means "fixed." The tribal supporting councils are but one of a number of possible flash-points that reflect ongoing, unresolved tensions that are truly not significantly closer to being resolved than they were a few years ago.

Iraq Kurd leader condemns councils backed by Maliki

Mon Jan 19, 2009 10:29am EST
By Shamal Aqrawi

ARBIL, Iraq, Jan 19 (Reuters) - The head of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region spoke out on Monday against tribal councils backed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a sign of worsening tensions between the Kurds and the central government.

Kurdish President Massoud Barzani threatened to treat any tribal leaders who join such councils in the three Iraqi Kurdish provinces as "traitors", and warned that Arabs joining such councils in other neighbouring provinces could trigger war.

Maliki, a Shi'ite Arab who has presided over a recent sharp drop in violence, has made high profile bids to set up tribal "support councils" throughout Iraq, which his political rivals say undermine the elected institutions of the state.

"Talk about establishing supporting councils in Kurdistan is forbidden and we consider it as treason against us," Barzani told Arab tribal leaders from neighbouring Nineveh province attending a conference in the Kurdish capital Arbil.

"We have a free parliament and a government of institutions in Kurdistan, and we will never permit anyone to interfere in our region to create a conflict," he said.

"As for Arabs, if they contribute in forming supporting councils in adjacent areas to the Kurdistan region, so they will help to trigger a conflict."

Maliki says the tribal councils are a way of winning the support of local leaders and increasing the strength of the state as it recovers from years of insurgency and sectarian bloodshed unleashed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

But his critics say ousted dictator Saddam Hussein used similar structures to place the country under his personal rule.

Relations between Barzani's Kurdish regional government and the central government in Baghdad have become increasingly fraught in recent months, with unresolved disputes over oil and territory leading to increasingly bitter rhetoric.

Tensions between Arabs and Kurds have also threatened to ignite violence in disputed areas along the "green line" that separates Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq, especially ahead of provincial elections at the end of this month.

In Nineveh, Iraq's most violent province, a boycott by Arabs during the last election put Kurds in control of the provincial government despite making up just a quarter of the population. They are expected to see their grip loosened by the election. (Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; writing by Peter Graff; editing by Michael Christie)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ehud Barak's rehabilitation?

So, Livni seems to have lost ground in the elections while Barak's stock has risen. Still more than 2 weeks to the election though. I suspect Hamas will still have something to weigh in with.

Obama's feet to the Fire?

The Jewish Daily Forward publishes a well-detailed account of Ehud Olmert's public dissing of Condi Rice. Old news by now. More disturbing are the statements by leaders of various groups that comprise the "Israel lobby" - all of whom seemed to feel that Rice was fair game and that Olmert's actions and words were appropriate, and excoriated the Bush administration for failing to veto the 8 January Security Council resolution. As the author, Nathan Gutman, notes:

The tough words from Israel and Jewish groups toward the outgoing administration will make little difference for Bush and Rice, who leave office January 20. But they will serve as a message to the incoming administration led by President-elect Barack Obama and his choice for secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“This is a battle that needed to be taken,” Foxman said. “We don’t win all our battles, but we can’t simply accept that the Security Council is what the Security Council is.”

I expect guys like Abe Foxman and his ilk to come gunning for Obama at the first sign of a swerve from the AIPAC/ADL line. Maybe this is where Rahm Emanuel earns his spurs.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Tarring Obama with Hamas connection?

The Jerusalem Post seems to have wasted no time jumping onto an AP dispatch - perhaps hoping to throw Obama onto the defensive even during his inauguration. Ingrid Mattson, a Muslim scholar and the president of the Islamic Society of North America, is slated to to speak at Obama's inaugural prayer service at Washington's National Cathedral on Wednesday. But it seems there's some alleged connection between ISNA and those horrible people at Hamas.

The logic must be then that Obama supports terrorists, and can't be trusted to be Israel's friend, or a fair broker, especially after the events of the past 3 weeks.

I'm betting that Hannity and O'Reilly (aka, to borrow Keith Olberman's moniker for him, Bill-O the Clown) will be on this like a bad suit.

The costs of "Cast Lead"

Truly amazing - and IMHO, wonderful - is the fact that, no matter how much the Israeli government has tried to keep journalists out of Gaza and otherwise shape the messages that the world is receiving about the IDF's rampage in Gaza, journalists are nonetheless finding ways to get at "the story" and bring it to the world's attention. For thousands of Gazans who have lost their lives, limbs, families, houses . . . like the children described in the Daily Telegraph story below, or the doctor from Gaza, a gynecologist at an Israeli hospital no less, whose daughters were killed by the IDF . . . it's happened much too late, of course, to make a difference to them. But for decades since 1967, when Israel in effect conquered the West Bank and Gaza and embarked upon their colonization and occupation, observers sympathetic to the Palestinians' cause have been trying to bring to light the brutality of Israel's policies, only to be shouted down most of the time as anti-Semites, anti-democracy (a shining example of which Israel has been supposed to be), anti-"freedom", supporters of terrorism, etc., etc.

Well, here's hoping that the world is finally waking up. The IDF's demolition of Lebanon in summer 2006 perhaps got some sleepy eyelids fluttering awake, although the Bush administration worked long and hard to shape US opinion in favor of an Israel whom they saw as inducing (in the memorable phrase of Condoleeza Rice) the "birth pangs of a new Middle East" (even while it was bombing hundreds of Lebanese to their deaths, as well as parts of Lebanon back to Stone Age lifestyles). But journalists from across the world were able to get into Lebanon, and with the ever-growing panoply of modern information-gathering and communication technologies, they were able to make available for us, in "real time," accounts and pictures from "on the scene" that painted a picture, not of birth pangs, but of an overwhelming modern military machine that could inflict wholesale devastation yet at the same time be stymied and harried by the outnumbered, outgunned, highly motivated guerrillas of Hezbollah.

It's now abundantly documented that after the military setbacks and public-relations disaster it suffered in Lebanon in 2006, the IDF - with the help of the US, who built (at US taxpayers' expense) a model urban-warfare set to help them train - went to work straightaway to prepare for the assault on Hamas in Gaza. This time, the IDF's overwhelming superiority was to be made plain, both for the world to see and for the people of Gaza to be educated properly and once and for all in the utter hopelessness of their situation. The Israeli home-front citizenry were psyched up, convinced of the righteousness of whatever tactics their boys in the IDF had to employ in the mission of teaching Gaza and Hamas a lesson.

And the mistakes of the 2006 Lebanon campaign were not to be repeated. The press were not to be allowed into Gaza to witness the inevitable "collateral damage." The IDF was determined to limit the visuals, to censor the reporting, to shape the message of how the self-proclaimed "most moral army in the world", with its "purity of arms," would be able to impose its will by wielding its arsenal with pinpoint precision and excruciating care for civilian life.

Could they truly have been so foolish, so clueless, to think that they could pull the wool over the eyes of the entire world, and keep it pulled down, day after day, week after week? What kind of hubris clouds the minds of IDF commanders - not to mention the troika of Olmert, Livni, and Barak - for them to believe that they could dictate their version to the world? Did they truly believe that they could control the message so completely? Or were they so sure of their own righteousness that they assumed they could convince the world that the destroyed humanity of Gaza were simply stage props, necessarily expended for the imagined greater good - that, of course, being the perpetuated dominance of a Jewish state?

The world finally seems to be catching on. Whatever the lofty intentions and historical humanitarian imperatives that fostered the long Zionist project and the creation of a Jewish state in 1948, people around the globe have begun to conclude that they have surely been superseded by another imperative - specifically, the right of the people of Gaza, and the West Bank, to what we in the USA have long proclaimed to be "inalienable rights" to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Ironically, and tellingly, those same rights are enshrined and celebrated in the holiest scriptures of Judaism. How is it then that an Israel that purports to bind its own identity so intimately to the principles of Judaism, can so cavalierly deny those rights to its Arab neighbors?

Bullets in the brain, shrapnel in the spine: the terrible injuries suffered by children of Gaza Doctors at a hospital near Gaza are almost overwhelmed by the number of Palestinian children needing treatment for bullet wounds to their heads.

1 of 2 Images
An injured Palestinian boy - Bullets in the brain, shrapnel in the spine: the terrible injuries suffered by children of Gaza
An injured Palestinian boy is one of those who has made the 40 mile round trip from Gaza to a hospital in Egypt

On just one day last week staff at the El-Arish hospital in Sinai were called to perform sophisticated CAT brain scans on a nine-year-old, two 10-year-olds and a 14-year-old - each of whom had a bullet still lodged in their brain, after coming under fire during the Israeli ground assault on Gaza.

Dr Ahmed Yahia, the head of the trauma team, broke the news to the grandmother of Anas, aged nine, that the girl was not expected to live.

"Anas was deeply comatose when she came in, and she remains deeply comatose," said Dr Yahia. "The bullet has damaged a big part of her brain. It came in, hit the skull wall and then changed direction downwards. I've seen a lot of gun injuries and the damage here is so extensive I think it may be fatal."

Dr Yahia, a professor of neurosurgery who has worked in both the United States and Britain, believes that the bullet was shot from close range. "If it changes course inside the brain it has high velocity and its penetrative force is also high," he said.

"I can't precisely decide whether these children are being shot at as a target, but in some cases the bullet comes from the front of the head and goes towards the back, so I think the gun has been directly pointed at the child."

As Israel prepared for a possible ceasefire yesterday its officials continued to deny that its soldiers had deliberately targeted civilians, blaming Hamas fighters for sheltering in the houses of ordinary Gazans and using them as human shields.

But there is no disputing the scale of the suffering in Gaza, or its heavy impact on the young. The United Nations has counted 346 Palestinian children killed since the Israeli assault began, while Hamas, the radical Islamic movement that Israel has been trying to dislodge, says there are 410 children among the 1,201 Palestinian dead.

An even larger number of children have been wounded - 1,630, according to Hamas - and a disturbing number of them have suffered serious injuries to the head.

Hundreds of victims of Israel's three-week campaign in Gaza have been transferred across the Egyptian border at Rafah for urgent treatment. They are seen first at El-Arish, nearly 40 miles from the border. For patients who are often on ventilators it is a hazardous journey across a war zone.

One of the medical team leaders at the hospital, Dr Ayman Abd al-Hadi, said that this was the worst conflict he had experienced. "We've had one child with two bullets in the head and nowhere else," he said. "We think that this shows something."

He praised the medical teams in Gaza for managing to save so many lives despite a shortage of staff, supplies and equipment. "But only a very small percentage of children can survive bullet wounds to the head," he said. "If we see three children here who have survived bullet wounds to the head, there are probably 97 still in Gaza who have not."

Doctors at the small but well equipped hospital do not attempt to remove the bullets, but perform a full assessment and attempt to stabilise their patients - most of whom are unconscious - before sending them to hospitals in Cairo, and in some cases abroad, for more complex treatment. Of those who survive, few are likely to recover fully. Most child victims of such injuries are likely to be paralysed for life.

Other children have different but horrific injuries - like Samer, not yet three years old, who lay playing with an inflated surgeon's glove as her Egyptian doctor tried to distract her from the suffering he was about to inflict upon her as he inserted a drip containing painkillers into her hand.

After she was shot in the back outside her Gaza home, it took three hours for medical help to reach the captivatingly pretty child. Her uncle, Hassan Abedrabo, said that Samer was hit by an Israeli bullet which damaged her spinal cord and has left her paralysed. Her two sisters, aged two and six, were shot dead in the same close-range attack as they tried to escape from tanks bombarding their home in Jabaliya, north of Gaza City.

The girls' mother was hit twice but survived; Mr Abedrabo said that their grandmother, waving a white flag at the front of the terrified family procession, lost an arm to another bullet.

Samer has now been transferred to a Belgian hospital but the Egyptian doctors who treated her in El-Arish believe she will never walk again. If she is too young to grasp what her future now holds, Samer thinks she knows what happened to her. "The Jewish shot me," she said in Arabic. "And they killed my little sister."

Mr Abedrabo, Samer's uncle, insisted that there were no Hamas fighters in their home when Israeli tanks opened fire last week. He is a supporter of Hamas's bitter political rivals Fatah, led by the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

"The tanks opened fire on the fourth storey," said Mr Abedrabo, as he watched over his niece in hospital. About 30 people were sheltering on the ground floor as the tanks began pounding the third floor; then the second; then the first.

"The house began to shake and we were terrified," he said. "The women and children were screaming as they thought the house was going to collapse.

"I speak Hebrew so I shouted to the Israelis. The officer said, 'Come out' so the women went first, waving a white flag. They opened fire from just 15 metres away. How could they not tell they were children? They could see them."

Three hours later, when a cousin arrived with Palestinian doctors, eight people remained in the house. At that point, Mr Abedrabo said, missiles fired by Israeli F16 jets destroyed what was left of the building, killing those still inside.

The hospital's psychiatrists, who see every patient, were particularly concerned about a 13-year-old boy who lay trapped, terribly wounded by shrapnel, for three days beneath the rubble of his home. Other family members lay dead around him, and he saw dogs begin to gnaw their bodies.

As international pressure grew on both sides to agree a ceasefire last week, there was little sign within Israel of public opinion turning against the campaign.

In a controversial move, the country's Association for Civil Rights launched a protest over the plight of Palestinian children by taking out a full-page, obituary-style advertisement in the daily newspaper Haaretz. It lamented the deaths of children of various ages and featured the word "Stop" in bright red letters.

"There is little desire to address the price the civilian population in Gaza is paying," said Nirit Moskovitz, a spokesman for the group. "Israeli society needs to be reminded that actual people and innocent children are getting hurt. Children are everyone's soft spot and therefore we chose to focus on them."

The doctors in El-Arish cannot independently verify the accounts given by Gazan victims. But nothing they have seen discredits claims by civilians that they have been deliberately targeted.

The UN, the US, and Israel: This is the song that never ends

Same old, same old in the UN. The General Assembly adopts a resolution critical of Israel; resolution is adopted overwhelmingly (142 countries in favor); 4 opposed = Israel, USA, Nauru (a Pacific island that depends on the US), and Venezuela, which voted no because the resolution wasn't tough enough.

U.N. assembly urges Gaza truce, drops radical text

Sat Jan 17, 2009 3:52am GMT

By Patrick Worsnip

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. General Assembly called in a nonbinding resolution on Friday for an immediate, durable ceasefire in Gaza, rejecting a more radical text proposed by a group of Muslim and Latin American states.

Although the resolution has no teeth, diplomats who supported it said the overwhelming majority in favor presented a cohesive moderate world viewpoint that would strengthen Egyptian mediating efforts in the Gaza crisis.

The assembly's electronic scoreboard showed 142 countries in favor, four opposed and eight abstaining. But the exact figures were not immediately clear as several countries said their votes had not registered due to electrical faults.

Voting against were Israel, the United States and the Pacific island of Nauru, which believed the resolution was biased against Israel. Venezuela, which thought it was too soft on the Jewish state, was also shown by the board as voting against although the country's delegate said he abstained.

The assembly's resolution followed closely the text of a Security Council resolution adopted last week. The council's ceasefire call has not been heeded either by Israel, which attacked the Gaza Strip on December 27 to try to stamp out Palestinian rocket fire, or by Israel's Hamas foes.

Like the council's text, Friday's resolution calls for "an immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip."

The adopted text was hammered out in negotiations between the European Union and the Palestinian Authority's ambassador, Riyad Mansour, and was supported by moderate Arab states.

Its backers narrowly headed off an attempt by a small group of radical Muslim and Latin American states, headed by Ecuador, to have the assembly vote on a text sharply critical of Israel.

Mansour told the session that resolution would have split the assembly and made a "gift" to Israel.

The EU-Palestinian text included a phrase, opposed by the radicals, that "the Palestinian and Israeli civilian populations must be protected and their suffering must end."

Israeli envoy Meirav Eilon Shahar nevertheless dismissed the resolution as "deeply flawed and flagrantly one-sided."

U.S. envoy Alejandro Wolff said the resolution was "neither necessary nor helpful" because the Security Council had already spoken and peace efforts were under way.

Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari, one of the radical group, said the majority that supported the adopted resolution "is not the one that the Palestinian people need."

I'll say it again: A major reckoning awaits, and Obama needs to act . . . NOW!

I'll say it again: a major reckoning lies ahead. Alastair Crooke's fine essay (see below) makes it plain, but no one should be surprised by his conclusions. Israel, the US, and the EU cannot continue to overlook, overrule, and squelch the aspirations and legitimate concerns of millions of Muslim Arabs across the Middle East without expecting some major blowback, rejection, and payback. It's only a matter of time.

Mr. Obama says he's going to tackle the crisis in the Middle East from day 1. He must follow through, and he must come at the solution by thinking way outside the D.C. insiders' box. To my mind, that means jettisoning any ideas about bringing Dennis Ross onto his team, bringing on--board some fresh thinking from non-AIPAC-approved experts, and keeping Sec of State Hillary Clinton on a short leash.

The middle ground is eroding fast

By Alastair Crooke, London Review of Books, January 15, 2009

‘We have to ask the West a question: when the Israelis bombed the house of Sheikh Nizar Rayan, a Hamas leader, killing him, his wives, his nine children, and killing 19 others who happened to live in adjoining houses – because they saw him as a target – was this terrorism? If the West’s answer is that this was not terrorism, it was self-defence – then we must think to adopt this definition too.’

This was said to me by a leading Islamist in Beirut a few days ago. He was making a point, but behind his rhetorical question plainly lies the deeper issue of what the Gaza violence will signify for mainstream Islamists in the future.

Take Egypt. Mubarak has made no secret of his wish to see Israel teach Hamas a ‘lesson’. Hamas are sure that his officials urged Israel to proceed, assuring Amos Yadlin, Israel’s Head of Military Intelligence, at a meeting in Cairo that Hamas would collapse within three days of the Israeli onslaught.

Islamists in Egypt and other pro-Western ‘moderate’ alliance states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan have noted Israel’s wanton disregard for the deaths of civilians in its desire to crush Hamas. They have seen the barely concealed pleasure of the regimes that run those states. The message is clear: the struggle for the future of this region is going to be uncompromising and bloody.

For all Islamists, the events in Gaza will be definitive: they will tell the story of a heroic stand in the name of justice against overwhelming odds. This archetype was already in place on the day of Ashura – which fell this year on 7 January — when Shi’ites everywhere commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson, killed by an overwhelming military force at Kerbala. The speeches given by Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s secretary general, were avidly followed; the ceremony of Ashura drove home the message of martyrdom and sacrifice.

Islamists are likely to conclude from Gaza that Arab regimes backed by the US and some European states will go to any lengths in their struggle against Islamism. Many Sunni Muslims will turn to the salafi-jihadists, al-Qaida included, who warned Hamas and others about the kind of punishment being visited on them now. Mainstream movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hizbullah will find it hard to resist the radical trend. The middle ground is eroding fast.

At one level Gaza will be seen as a repeat of Algeria. At another, it will speak to wider struggles in the Arab world, where elites favoured by the West soldier on with no real legitimacy, while the weight of support for change builds up. The overhang may persist for a while yet, but a small event could trip the avalanche.

Alastair Crooke is co-director of Conflicts Forum and has been an EU mediator with Hamas and other Islamist movements. Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution will come out next month.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Obama's Middle East missteps

The conservative columnist Georgie Ann Geyer in today's Washington Times takes on Obama's foreign-policy appointments - especially as they relate to the Middle East and the "peace process" - as the disappointments that they truly are. In Dennis Ross and Hillary Clinton, the "change" president is sticking with the "tried and [well, maybe not so] true." As I've noted before, Ross, though an "old hand," is stained in Arab eyes by his association with Bill Clinton's 2000 Camp David negotiations, during which he was seen as more of an agent for Israel's interests than as a fair broker. And as Geyer points out, his current association with WINEP (the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy) stains him more deeply, given that WINEP is joined at the hip to the Israel lobby and is widely (and validly) recognized as providing think-tank "cover" for the promotion of Israeli policy in D.C. and beyond. Hillary Clinton, especially as a senator from New York, has consistently put herself firmly in Israel's camp (although the fact that she at least gave a nod toward the suffering in Gaza during her confirmation hearings was a welcome departure from the Bush administration's tone).

And as Geyer also points out, by so quickly and early choosing Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff, Obama wrong-footed himself with Arab leaders - and an Arab public - who had embraced his candidacy with great hope, only to see him choose in Emanuel a man who had served with the Israeli army in Lebanon, and whose father had been a member of the Irgun, the Zionist terror organization responsible for (among other acts) blowing up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946. On the other hand, his father's past surely provides Emanuel a nice ice-breaker when he hooks up with Tzipi Livni, both of whose parents were with the Irgun as well - her father, in fact, as chief operations officer.

I suspect that the image of Livni and Emanuel sitting down and swapping tales of their parents' escapades "taking out" Arabs back in the day is not going to sit well with either Hamas or Fatah leaders with whom the US and Israel will need to engage. That Obama is either oblivious to this, or simply doesn't give a rip, does not bode well for the trust level with which he's about to join the fray of Arab-Israeli politics.


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