Wednesday, December 31, 2008

We must adjust our distorted image of Hamas

Gaza is a secular society where people listen to pop music, watch TV and many women walk the streets unveiled

William Sieghart - The Times Online (no trackback, acquired through a Haloscan blog comment section)

Last week I was in Gaza. While I was there I met a group of 20 or so police officers who were undergoing a course in conflict management. They were eager to know whether foreigners felt safer since Hamas had taken over the Government? Indeed we did, we told them. Without doubt the past 18 months had seen a comparative calm on the streets of Gaza; no gunmen on the streets, no more kidnappings. They smiled with great pride and waved us goodbye.

Less than a week later all of these men were dead, killed by an Israeli rocket at a graduation ceremony. Were they “dangerous Hamas militant gunmen”? No, they were unarmed police officers, public servants killed not in a “militant training camp” but in the same police station in the middle of Gaza City that had been used by the British, the Israelis and Fatah during their periods of rule there.

This distinction is crucial because while the horrific scenes in Gaza and Israel play themselves out on our television screens, a war of words is being fought that is clouding our understanding of the realities on the ground.

Who or what is Hamas, the movement that Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister, would like to wipe out as though it were a virus? Why did it win the Palestinian elections and why does it allow rockets to be fired into Israel? The story of Hamas over the past three years reveals how the Israeli, US and UK governments' misunderstanding of this Islamist movement has led us to the brutal and desperate situation that we are in now.

The story begins nearly three years ago when Change and Reform - Hamas's political party - unexpectedly won the first free and fair elections in the Arab world, on a platform of ending endemic corruption and improving the almost non-existent public services in Gaza and the West Bank. Against a divided opposition this ostensibly religious party impressed the predominantly secular community to win with 42 per cent of the vote.

Palestinians did not vote for Hamas because it was dedicated to the destruction of the state of Israel or because it had been responsible for waves of suicide bombings that had killed Israeli citizens. They voted for Hamas because they thought that Fatah, the party of the rejected Government, had failed them. Despite renouncing violence and recognising the state of Israel Fatah had not achieved a Palestinian state. It is crucial to know this to understand the supposed rejectionist position of Hamas. It won't recognise Israel or renounce the right to resist until it is sure of the world's commitment to a just solution to the Palestinian issue.

In the five years that I have been visiting Gaza and the West Bank, I have met hundreds of Hamas politicians and supporters. None of them has professed the goal of Islamising Palestinian society, Taleban-style. Hamas relies on secular voters too much to do that. People still listen to pop music, watch television and women still choose whether to wear the veil or not.

The political leadership of Hamas is probably the most highly qualified in the world. Boasting more than 500 PhDs in its ranks, the majority are middle-class professionals - doctors, dentists, scientists and engineers. Most of its leadership have been educated in our universities and harbour no ideological hatred towards the West. It is a grievance-based movement, dedicated to addressing the injustice done to its people. It has consistently offered a ten-year ceasefire to give breathing space to resolve a conflict that has continued for more than 60 years.

The Bush-Blair response to the Hamas victory in 2006 is the key to today's horror. Instead of accepting the democratically elected Government, they funded an attempt to remove it by force; training and arming groups of Fatah fighters to unseat Hamas militarily and impose a new, unelected government on the Palestinians. Further, 45 Hamas MPs are still being held in Israeli jails.

Six months ago the Israeli Government agreed to an Egyptian- brokered ceasefire with Hamas. In return for a ceasefire, Israel agreed to open the crossing points and allow a free flow of essential supplies in and out of Gaza. The rocket barrages ended but the crossings never fully opened, and the people of Gaza began to starve. This crippling embargo was no reward for peace.

When Westerners ask what is in the mind of Hamas leaders when they order or allow rockets to be fired at Israel they fail to understand the Palestinian position. Two months ago the Israeli Defence Forces broke the ceasefire by entering Gaza and beginning the cycle of killing again. In the Palestinian narrative each round of rocket attacks is a response to Israeli attacks. In the Israeli narrative it is the other way round.

But what does it mean when Mr Barak talks of destroying Hamas? Does it mean killing the 42 per cent of Palestinians who voted for it? Does it mean reoccupying the Gaza strip that Israel withdrew from so painfully three years ago? Or does it mean permanently separating the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank, politically and geographically? And for those whose mantra is Israeli security, what sort of threat do the three quarters of a million young people growing up in Gaza with an implacable hatred of those who starve and bomb them pose?

It is said that this conflict is impossible to solve. In fact, it is very simple. The top 1,000 people who run Israel - the politicians, generals and security staff - and the top Palestinian Islamists have never met. Genuine peace will require that these two groups sit down together without preconditions. But the events of the past few days seem to have made this more unlikely than ever. That is the challenge for the new administration in Washington and for its European allies.

William Sieghart is chairman of Forward Thinking, an independent conflict resolution agency

Operation Lead Balloon: some likely consequences

Seth Freedman - Guardian
Extremism flourishes in a culture of violence and hostility, as has been witnessed time and again in the region. I found as much the other day – and, when my conversation with a resident of Gaza was interrupted by the roar of an incoming Israeli missile, it was easy to understand why Gaza refugees have swung just as hard to the right as the entrenched citizens of Sderot.

"I don't agree with the Kassam rockets, or with violence at all," Rami told me as the aftershock rumbled through the streets. "But Israel is making a grave mistake here. Hamas's military is still very strong [despite the IAF bombardment]: none of the al-Kassam leaders have been killed, and they're still firing at Israel every day, aren't they?"

"Hamas are much stronger now," he continued. "The public support them more, and Hamas have nothing to lose so they'll keep shooting back".

According to Alia, a resident of the West Bank, it's not just Hamas who have nothing to lose, but the entire populace of Gaza. "Frustrated people will resort to anything if there's nothing else to be done," she told me. "We're humans, not angels. It's not surprising [that Kassams are fired] when the people are in jail, with no futures, living in terrible conditions. Not even animals should live like that."

She felt "totally hopeless", she said, especially with her brother and his family in the line of Israeli fire in Gaza. "He called me today and told me that their house was like a swing last night, no one slept, the children were crying non-stop – no one expected this level of aggression." Her message to the people of Sderot was simple: the Kassams won't stop until the siege on Gaza is lifted and people are allowed to live a normal, free life there. "Pressure your government," she urged. "Because if Gazans have good lives, they won't even think of sending over rockets."

A friend of Alia's preferred not to concentrate on the issue of Kassams, but rather on the wider context in which the two sides exist. "The rockets are not the real issue: the siege is," she explained. In her eyes, the residents of Gaza have no other way to resist, and she believes firing rockets across the border to be legal under international law. "The aim is not to fire at civilians," she asserted, "and, anyway, the territories [aimed at] belong to refugees in the first place."

Neither a supporter of Hamas nor Fatah, she maintained that now was a time for Palestinian unity, for the rival factions to come together and unite against Israel's aggressive actions. Her words reflected the views of a man I spoke to last week in Bethlehem, before the strikes had even begun, who told me that in general there is little love lost between West Bank Palestinians and their Gazan counterparts, "but we come together as one when defending ourselves against Israel".

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Israeli patrol boat rams US aid "ship"

Operation Lead Balloon takes to sea: Israeli Navy first lies, then makes U-turn. Now we're waiting for a statement from Tzipi Livni about their 'superior values'...

Karl Penhaul:

Cynthia McKinney: via Finkelstein.

On Tuesday, December 30, at 5 a.m., several Israeli gunboats intercepted the Dignity as she was heading on a mission of mercy to Gaza. One gunboat rammed into the boat on the port bow side, heavily damaging her. The reports from the passengers and journalists on board is that she is taking on water and appears to have engine problems. When attacked, the Dignity was clearly in international waters, 90 miles off the coast of Gaza.

The gunboats also fired their machine guns into the water in an attempt to stop the mercy ship from getting to Gaza.

As the boat limps toward Lebanon, passengers have been in contact with the Lebanese government who have said the captain has permission to dock and are willing lend assistance if needed. Cyprus sea rescue has also been in touch, and has offered assistance as well. The Dignity clearly flies the flag of Gibraltar, is piloted by an English captain and has a passenger manifest that includes Representative Cynthia McKinney from the U.S. The attack was filmed by the journalists, and the crew and passengers will report on Israel's crime at sea once they arrive in Lebanon.

On board the boat are doctors traveling to this impoverished slice of the Mediterranean to provide badly-needed relief at the hospitals there. The crew and passengers were also hoping to take wounded out for treatment, since the hospitals are not coping. In addition, the Dignity was carrying 3 tons of medical supplies at the request of the doctors in Gaza.

The three physicans on board who were sailing to Gaza are: Dr. Halpin (UK), an experienced orthopaedic surgeon, medical professor, and ship's captain. He has organized humanitarian relief efforts in Gaza on several occasions with the Dove and Dolphin. He is traveling to Gaza to volunteer in hospitals and clinics. Dr. Mohamed Issa (Germany), a pediatric surgeon from Germany is traveling to Gaza to volunteer in hospitals and clinics. Dr. Elena Theoharous (Cyprus), MP Dr. Theoharous is a surgeon and a Member of the Cypriot Parliament. She is traveling to Gaza to assess the ongoing conflict, assist with humanitarian relief efforts, and volunteer in hospitals.

Yet Israel thumbs its nose in the face of maritime law by attacking a human rights boat in international waters and has put all of these human rights observers at risk. At no time was the Dignity ever close to Israeli waters. They clearly identified themselves and the Israeli attack was willful and criminal.

The Dignity is still in international waters, 40 miles off Haifa. Everybody on board is safe at the moment as the boat slowly makes its way to safety in Lebanon.

Operation Lead Balloon: more analysis, protest, comment

The Daily Banter
Publicly, Israel has stated it wants to create a new security environment, to deliver the ‘knockout blow’ that will definitively destroy Hamas’ rocket-launching capability. To be sure, Hamas’ military infrastructure has been truly battered in the past couple of days. Yet toppling Hamas’ rule in Gaza is just not feasible. Logistically it would require precisely the sort of costly ground fighting that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have tried to avoid since they withdrew from the territory in 2005. And given the close proximity of military and civilian infrastructure in Gaza, it would inflict a level of human damage (beyond the 56 civilian lives already lost) that would eventually weaken tacit international support for Israel’s ‘right to self-defence’, as happened belatedly in Lebanon two years ago.

The Magnes Zionist
Meretz Flip-Flops on Support of War – Better Late Than Never

Arutz Sheva/Israel National News is reporting here that Meretz ended its support for the Gaza War today, less than a week after it announced it.
The Knesset held an emergency session on Monday and approved the government's decision to embark on Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza. The Knesset session was punctuated by stormy comments made by the Arab Knesset Members, who were repeatedly thrown out of the session. The mixed Arab-Jewish party Hadash boycotted the session entirely.

All Knesset parties except for Meretz and the Arab parties approved the decision to support the action in Gaza. The decision stated: "It is the right of the State of Israel to defend itself just as it is the right of any nation to do so. It is the right of the citizens of Israel to live with security just as it the right of any other citizens to do so."

I haven't seen this on any other website yet, and I don't know whether Meretz voted against or abstained.

Of course, the Meretz folks will tell you that they never endorsed a big operation, only a limited one. How limited?

Apparently 72 hours-worth.

Richard Silverstein (Tikun Olam).
Meanwhile in Crawford, the Bushites are fiddling while Gaza burns:
In Crawford, Tex., a spokesman for President Bush renewed calls for the parties to reach a cease-fire, but said Israel was justified in retaliating against Hamas’s attacks. “Let’s just take this one day at a time,” said the spokesman, Gordon Johndroe.

Good advice for those Gazans too as they hear the thumping of the Apache helicopters hunting down wanted Hamasniks: just ‘take it one day at a time.’

Seumas Milne - Guardian.
Instead, Hamas and the Palestinians of Gaza are held responsible for what has been visited upon them. How could any government not respond with overwhelming force to the constant firing of rockets into its territory, the Israelis demand, echoed by western governments and media.

But that is to turn reality on its head. Like the West Bank, the Gaza Strip has been - and continues to be - illegally occupied by Israel since 1967. Despite the withdrawal of troops and settlements three years ago, Israel maintains complete control of the territory by sea, air and land. And since Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006, Israel has punished its 1.5 million people with an inhuman blockade of essential supplies, backed by the US and the European Union.

Like any occupied people, the Palestinians have the right to resist, whether they choose to exercise it or not. But there is no right of defence for an illegal occupation - there is an obligation to withdraw comprehensively. During the last seven years, 14 Israelis have been killed by mostly homemade rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, while more than 5,000 Palestinians were killed by Israel with some of the most advanced US-supplied armaments in the world. And while no rockets are fired from the West Bank, 45 Palestinians have died there at Israel's hands this year alone. The issue is of course not just the vast disparity in weapons and power, but that one side is the occupier, the other the occupied.

GlobalVoicesOnline offers bits, some pro, some anti, from Israeli bloggers.

Nir Rosen - Guardian:

Nir Rosen has the temerity to go back to the old questions on what constitutes resistance, counterinsurgence or terrorism and concludes that the Emperor isn't wearing any clothes, in this bold piece:

Gaza: the logic of colonial power
The international community is directly guilty for this latest massacre. Will it remain immune from the wrath of a desperate people? So far, there have been large demonstrations in Lebanon, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. The people of the Arab world will not forget. The Palestinians will not forget. "All that you have done to our people is registered in our notebooks," as the poet Mahmoud Darwish said.

I have often been asked by policy analysts, policy-makers and those stuck with implementing those policies for my advice on what I think America should do to promote peace or win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. It too often feels futile, because such a revolution in American policy would be required that only a true revolution in the American government could bring about the needed changes. An American journal once asked me to contribute an essay to a discussion on whether terrorism or attacks against civilians could ever be justified. My answer was that an American journal should not be asking whether attacks on civilians can ever be justified. This is a question for the weak, for the Native Americans in the past, for the Jews in Nazi Germany, for the Palestinians today, to ask themselves.

Terrorism is a normative term and not a descriptive concept. An empty word that means everything and nothing, it is used to describe what the Other does, not what we do. The powerful – whether Israel, America, Russia or China – will always describe their victims' struggle as terrorism, but the destruction of Chechnya, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the slow slaughter of the remaining Palestinians, the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan – with the tens of thousands of civilians it has killed … these will never earn the title of terrorism, though civilians were the target and terrorising them was the purpose.

Counterinsurgency, now popular again among in the Pentagon, is another way of saying the suppression of national liberation struggles. Terror and intimidation are as essential to it as is winning hearts and minds.

Normative rules are determined by power relations. Those with power determine what is legal and illegal. They besiege the weak in legal prohibitions to prevent the weak from resisting. For the weak to resist is illegal by definition. Concepts like terrorism are invented and used normatively as if a neutral court had produced them, instead of the oppressors. The danger in this excessive use of legality actually undermines legality, diminishing the credibility of international institutions such as the United Nations. It becomes apparent that the powerful, those who make the rules, insist on legality merely to preserve the power relations that serve them or to maintain their occupation and colonialism.

Attacking civilians is the last, most desperate and basic method of resistance when confronting overwhelming odds and imminent eradication. The Palestinians do not attack Israeli civilians with the expectation that they will destroy Israel. The land of Palestine is being stolen day after day; the Palestinian people is being eradicated day after day. As a result, they respond in whatever way they can to apply pressure on Israel. Colonial powers use civilians strategically, settling them to claim land and dispossess the native population, be they Indians in North America or Palestinians in what is now Israel and the Occupied Territories. When the native population sees that there is an irreversible dynamic that is taking away their land and identity with the support of an overwhelming power, then they are forced to resort to whatever methods of resistance they can.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Daniel Levy: What Next on Israel/Gaza? Why Should Americans Care?

The Washington Note.

For many people, what has happened today between Gaza and Israel may have all too familiar a ring to it - Israel warns and then retaliates to an alleged or real Palestinian escalation of violence, there is Arab condemnation and international exasperation, eventually things de-escalate but according to Israel's timetable as the U.S. prevents effective early international mediation, and we're back to where we started - with the addition of more blood and death (many innocent, some less so), more wounded and more shattered families.

Most of those involved, often including Israel, tend to regret things not coming to a halt sooner. The Israel Defense Forces with their modern weaponry try to pinpoint targets but invariably, predictably, and painfully there are plenty of "misses"; the Palestinians - well their weaponry is by definition more crude, they use what is available and the results are correspondingly messy and indiscriminate. Bottom line - Arabs and Jews are killing each other - so what's new?

And why on earth would America want to be involved?

Here's the bad news folks - America is involved, up to its eyeballs actually. Today, after Israeli air-strikes that killed over 200 Palestinians in Gaza, the Middle East is again seething with rage.

Recruiters to the most radical of causes are again cashing in. If Osama Bin Laden is indeed a cave-dweller these days then U.S. intel should be listening out for a booming echo of laughter. Demonstrations across the Arab world and contributors to the ever-proliferating Arabic language news media and blogosphere hold the U.S., and not just Israel, responsible for what happened today (and that is a position taken, for good reasons, by sensible folk, not hard-liners).

America's allies in the region are again running for cover. America's standing, its interests and security are all deeply affected. The U.S.-Israel relationship per se is not to blame (that is something I support), the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict is - and thankfully we can do something about that.

Why did today's events occur?

The list of causes is a long one and of course depends who you are asking. Here are five of the most salient factors as I see them:

(1) Never forget the basics - the core issue is still an unresolved conflict about ending an occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state - everything has to start from here to be serious (this is true also for Hamas who continue to heavily hint that they will accept the 1967 borders).

(2) The immediate backdrop begins with the Israeli disengagement from Gaza of summer 2005, ostensibly a good move, except one that left more issues open than it resolved. It was a unilateral initiative, so there was no coordinating the 'what happens next' with the Palestinians. Gaza was closed off to the world, the West Bank remained under occupation and what had the potential to be a constructive move towards peace became a source of new tensions - something many of us pointed out at the time (supporting withdrawal from Gaza, opposing how it was done).

(3) U.S., Israeli and international policy towards Hamas has greatly exacerbated the situation. Hamas participated in and won democratic elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006. Rather than test the Hamas capacity to govern responsibly and nurture Hamas further into the political arena and away from armed struggle, the U.S.-led international response was to hermetically seal-off Hamas, besiege Gaza, work to undemocratically overthrow the Hamas government and thereby allow Hamas to credibly claim that a hypocritical standard was being applied to the American democracy agenda.

American, Israeli and Quartet policy towards Hamas has been a litany of largely unforced errors and missed opportunities. Hamas poses a serious policy challenge and direct early U.S. or Israeli engagement let alone financial support was certainly not the way forward, but in testing Hamas, a division of labor within the Quartet would have made sense (European and U.N. engagement, for instance, should have been encouraged, not the opposite).

Every wrong turn was taken - Hamas were seen through the GWOT prism not as a liberation struggle, when the Saudi's delivered a Palestinian National Unity Government in March 2007 the U.S. worked to unravel it, Palestinian reconciliation is still vetoed which encourages the least credible trends within Fatah, and unbelievably Egypt is given an exclusive mediation role with Hamas (Egypt naturally sees the Hamas issue first through its own domestic prism of concern at the growth of the Muslim Brothers, progress is often held hostage to ongoing Hamas-Egypt squabbles).

(4) Failure to build on the ceasefire. Israel is of course duty bound to defend and protect its citizens, so as the intensity of rocket fire in 2007-8 increased, Israel stepped up its actions against Gaza. But there was never much Israeli military or government enthusiasm for a full-scale conflict or ground invasion and eventually a practical working solution was found when both sides agreed to a six-month ceasefire on June 19th 2008. Neither side loved it. Both drew just enough benefit to keep going. That equation though was always delicately balanced.

For the communities of southern Israel which bore the brunt of the rocket attacks, notably Sderot, the ceasefire led to a dramatic improvement in daily life, and there were no Israeli fatalities during the entire period (only today, following the IDF strikes did a rocket hit the town of Netivot and kill one Israeli). Israel was though concerned about a Hamas arms build up and the entrenching of Hamas rule (which its policies have actually encouraged). For Gaza the calm meant less of an ongoing military threat but supplies of basic necessities into Gaza were kept to a minimum - just above starvation and humanitarian crisis levels - an ongoing provocation to Hamas and collective punishment for Gazans. The ceasefire needed to be solidified, nurtured, taken to the next level. None of this was done - the Quartet was busy with the deeply flawed Annapolis effort.

(5) A disaster was waiting to happen, and no-one was doing much about it. There was of course a date for the end of the ceasefire - December 19th. As that date approached both sides sought to improve their relative positions, to test some new rules of the game. Israel conducted a military operation on November 4th (yes, you had other things on your mind that day), apparently to destroy a tunnel from which an attack on Israel could be launched, Hamas responded with rocket-fire on southern Israeli towns.

That initiated a period of intense Israeli-Hamas dialogue, albeit an untraditional one, largely conducted via mutual military jabs, occasional public messaging and back-channels. Again though the main reliance was on Egypt - by now in an intense struggle of its own with Hamas. When Hamas pushed the envelop with over 60 rockets on a single day (December 24th), albeit causing no serious injuries and mostly landing in open fields (probably by design), Israel decided that it was time for an escalation. That happened today - on a massive scale - with an unprecedented death toll.

Israel clearly felt it was time to make a point, there was pressure (often self-generated) to act, and don't forget that Israel is in an election campaign (the vote is on Feb 10th). Hamas too had scores to settle - not only with Israel, but it was also time to pressure Egypt, Fatah, and Arab actors who had done little to address the blockade of Gaza.

So here we are, in a dangerous escalatory cycle that is already sweeping the region, with scores of Palestinian dead, horrific images, a highly-charged blame-game and no obvious exit-strategy. Both Israel and Hamas are looking to emerge with a better deal than what previously prevailed - both are preparing their publics to take harsh hits over the coming days, weeks or even longer, and over 200 families in Gaza and one family in Israel already know what that means, first-hand.

So, what needs to happen next?

Sadly it is too late for preventive action but there is an urgent need for a de-escalation that can lead to a new ceasefire - and that will not be easy.

Useful lessons can be drawn from some very recent, and ugly, Middle East history - though it seems that to its dying day the Bush Administration is refusing to learn (today the White House called on Israel only to avoid civilian casualties as it attacks Hamas - not to cease the strikes, Secretary Rice was more measured).

In the summer of 2006 an escalation between Israel and Hezbollah led to a Lebanon war whose echoes still reverberate around the region. There were well over one thousand civilian casualties (1,035 Lebanese according to AP, 43 Israelis), thousands more injured, and other fatalities including the Israeli government which never recovered its poise, what little American credibility remained in the region (Secretary Rice was literally forced to return to Foggy Bottom as allied Arab capitals were too embarrassed to receive her) and much Lebanese infrastructure. That time it took 33 days for diplomacy to move and for a U.N. Security Council Resolution (1701) to deliver an end to fighting. The U.S. actively blocked diplomacy, Rice famously called this conflict "the birth pangs of a new Middle East" - it was no such thing, and the Middle East itself did not know whether to laugh or cry (the latter prevailed).

Just as in 2006, Israel needs the international community to be its exit strategy - and there is no time to waste. Even what appears as a short-term Israeli success is likely to prove self-defeating over a longer time horizon and that effect will intensify as the fighting continues. Over time, immense pressure will also grow on the PA in Ramallah, on Jordan, Egypt and others to act and their governments will be increasingly uneasy.

Demonstrations across the West Bank are calling for a halt to all Israeli-Palestinian talks and for Palestinian unity.

If the U.S. is indifferent or still under the neocon ideological spell then Europe, the rest of the Quartet, Arab States and other internationals must act - with a variety of players using leverage with Israel and Hamas to de-escalate. Escalation poses dangers at a humanitarian and regional-political level. International leaders should head to the region before the new year, even if the warring parties discourage it, and for some of them Gaza must be on the itinerary, the boycott (anyway unwise) is a secondary matter now. High-level visits in themselves can create a de-escalatory dynamic.

Both sides will want to land the final big punch and both will need a dignified narrative for home consumption - any ceasefire deal will have to take this into account (and this during an Israeli election campaign, with violence usually helping the right, and the centrist government desperate for an image make-over after that Lebanon 2006 debacle).

The obvious ingredients will have to be creatively re-configured for this to be possible, including ending rocket fire at Israel and removing the blockade on Gaza. New ingredients may also be necessary and while extending the ceasefire to the West Bank is (unfortunately) probably out of the question, it might be possible this time to establish a monitoring mechanism for the ceasefire. Such a mechanism could serve both sides' interests (Israel gets a more solid guarantee, Hamas gets more recognition).

There is a precedent for this - after the April 1996 Israel-Hezbollah conflict a formal Ceasefire Understanding was reached that included the establishment of a Monitoring Group consisting of the U.S., France, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel (with Syria basically acting as guarantor for Hezbollah). That mechanism proved useful and met with constructive IDF cooperation - something similar might be needed now.

In addition efforts need to be revived for achieving Palestinian national reconciliation (which itself could ease the management of the Gaza situation) and for allowing Gaza greater access to the outside world through Egypt via the Rafah border crossing.

But there is a bigger picture - and it is staring at the incoming Obama administration. Today's events should be 'exhibit A' in why the next U.S. Government cannot leave the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fester or try to 'manage' it - as long as it remains unresolved, it has a nasty habit of forcing itself onto the agenda.

That can happen on terms dictated to the U.S. by the region (bad) or the U.S. can seek to set its own terms (far preferable). The new administration needs to embark upon a course of forceful regional diplomacy that breaks fundamentally from past efforts. A consensus of sorts is emerging in the U.S. foreign policy establishment that this conflict needs to be resolved - evidenced in the findings of a recent Brookings/Council of Foreign Relations Report or the powerful statements coming from elder statesmen like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, themselves building on the findings of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group.

It will require tenacity and bold ideas - in framing the solution, bringing in previously excluded actors, creating mechanisms to implement a deal (such as international forces) and utilizing the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative - but the alternative is far worse, its what we see today and it guarantees ongoing instability in a region of paramount importance to the United States.

-- Daniel Levy

Sunday, December 28, 2008

What Israel must now do...

The Palestinian cause for own Nationhood is basically lost. Divided among themselves, defeated in Gaza, incapable of stopping any further Israeli colonisation of Judea and Samaria and without any serious support from the International Community (IC, the International Cowards in this case), any dreams the Palestinians may still have fostered should now be firmly laid to rest. Paying lip service to the Two State solution by figures like Tony Blair or Washington is deeply immoral. The Palestinians are powerless in the face of all this and no one is going to hand them statehood on a silver platter. Without at least some negotiating and bargaining clout, coming to the table is simply asking for another smack in the face. The powerful have choices the weak don't have; it's a moral imperative the powerful put these choices to best use: to their own advantage.

Israel must now capitalise on the momentum it's gained at a moment when clearly the direction it has taken a long time ago goes unopposed. If only to give some meaning to the latest round of bloodletting, Israel must now make good on the advantage it has acquired in 40 years of Occupation.

Firstly it must finish off the job in Gaza: merely killing 280 or so Hamas fighters isn't good enough when later it transpires that its rocket launching capabilities haven't been diminished sufficiently. A fully fledged invasion and renewed military occupation of Gaza, until the last Hamas fighter has either been killed, expelled or captured is the only thing that will do. Considering that half-measures will only strengthen Gazan support for Hamas, this is logically, strategically and even morally the only right thing to do.

Secondly but more importantly, in Judea and Samaria, Israel, spearheaded by their "finest" (the current settlers), must accelerate Jewish colonisation: the mood in the country is clearly ready for it. The Far Right, increasingly both vocal and active in securing more settlements is on a roll and will need little encouragement: even covert condoning by any Israeli government should be enough; these people will know when to take a hint. Perhaps the government could even set its finest linguists to work to come up with a euphemistic term for this operation, something a la previous 'disengagement' or 'realignment'? Any resistance from Palestinians can and should be used to Israeli advantage: the old 'freedom fighter or terrorist' dilemma isn't really a dilemma, it's more matter of putting the desired spin on things. Nothing a well-oiled PR campaign cannot achieve.

Israeli settlers must occupy at least fifty percent of actual territory in Judea and Samaria within the next five years and ensure that enough Palestinians are expelled/transferred to guarantee that subsequent annexation of the colonised and the remaining territory and any Palestinians therein contained cannot lead to a demographic nightmare for Greater Israel.

Time is of the essence: some Americans are starting to grumble about 'Israel's diminishing strategic importance' and assorted dangerous talk. The new President elect, although currently clearly very stum on the I/P subject may want to get a second term legacy project out of the I/P conflict. But we know the Americans love winners and if Israel acts swiftly and creates a 'fait accompli', Judeo-Christian sentiment and sympathy will prevail.

Israel has nothing to fear but fear itself. Unassailable on the ground, air and sea by either the Palestinians or any neighbouring Arab state, and in possession of nuclear weapons (including second strike capability), it must now give some real value to Palestinian suffering by ensuring that forty years of it have served at least some purpose: the realisation of the restoration of Biblical Israel.

And for the Palestinians there remains one glimmer of hope at the end of a long tunnel: that by 2020 or so their situation will have deteriorated so much that the International Community may at last do more that just take notice and take notes: it may decide to act but by then it'll be too late, at least in all likelihood...

Update: Israelis that condemn the action:

Gideon Levy - Ha'aretz

Blood will now flow like water. Besieged and impoverished Gaza, the city of refugees, will pay the main price. But blood will also be unnecessarily spilled on our side. In its foolishness, Hamas brought this on itself and on its people, but this does not excuse Israel's overreaction.

The pictures that flooded television screens around the world yesterday showed a parade of corpses and wounded being loaded into and unloaded from the trunks of private cars that transported them to the only hospital in Gaza worthy of being called a hospital. Perhaps we once again need to remember that we are dealing with a wretched, battered strip of land, most of whose population consists of the children of refugees who have endured inhumane tribulations.

For two and a half years, they have been caged and ostracized by the whole world. The line of thinking that states that through war we will gain new allies in the Strip; that abusing the population and killing its sons will sear this into their consciousness; and that a military operation would suffice in toppling an entrenched regime and thus replace it with another one friendlier to us is no more than lunacy.

Hezbollah was not weakened as a result of the Second Lebanon War; to the contrary. Hamas will not be weakened due to the Gaza war; to the contrary. In a short time, after the parade of corpses and wounded ends, we will arrive at a fresh cease-fire, as occurred after Lebanon, exactly like the one that could have been forged without this superfluous war.

Amira Hass - Ha'aretz

In the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood alone, there were 43 fatalities. One mourning tent was set up for all of them. Most of them were young policemen who had joined the civilian police and were killed during the course commencement ceremony.

Training camps of the Izz-al Din al-Qassam and interrogation and detention centers were deserted when they were bombed. But police centers in the Strip, which give services to people, were teeming. No one believed that they would be bombed.

In the afternoon, they were still looking for bodies in the debris. Khalil Shahin rushed to the police station in the center of the Strip. "A huge building, and all of it on the floor," he said. Some 30 people were killed there. He knew that his nephew, a civilian, was killed when he went to clear up some matter at the station.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Eyewitness: Chaos in Gaza


The BBC's Rushdi Aboualouf in the Gaza Strip described the chaos as Israeli warplanes fired missiles at Hamas targets, killing at least 155 Palestinians.

Israeli planes are still flying over Gaza and they have just targeted another Hamas [security] compound in the middle of the Gaza Strip, in a place called Khan Younis.

We can see from our office here in Gaza, in the middle of Gaza City, ambulances are still evacuating the injured from buildings and school kids are trying to find secure places.

People who were going to their work were turned back and went home, and most of the residents in Gaza have been ordered by the Ministry of Health to stay indoors.

The mosques in Gaza are calling the people here to go to the hospitals and to donate blood. There is no room in the hospitals as far as we've heard from Hamas sources to treat the people.

No safe places

It's a very bad situation... There were Israeli aeroplanes everywhere, hitting everywhere. You could see smoke from north to south, from west to east. The people are really in a panic. The main object for the people now is to find a secure place to secure their family.

It's hard to find a secure place in Gaza. Gaza has no shelters, it has no safe places. The Hamas security compounds are in the middle of the city - it's not the kind of place where you see compounds outside the cities.

I have witnessed one of the compounds - which is 20m away from my house - I was standing on the balcony and I have seen the Israeli airplanes hitting the place.

Some of my balcony was damaged and my kid was injured and it's a very, very serious situation here in Gaza, the people can't do anything except stay indoors.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Iranian president to deliver Channel 4's alternative Christmas message


In a rather bold move Channel 4's now traditional 'alternative' Xmas message this year will be delivered by Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president. For this they'll catch a lot of flack and heads may roll too. Personally I think it's a good idea: we need to understand Iran better (understanding does not imply condoning or supporting). Perhaps he'll spout a lot of complete baloney, perhaps not, perhaps both. But the 'talk to the hand strategy' the West has adopted with respect to Islamic countries it has a beef with hasn't worked, predictably in my opinion. Diplomacy is more than worth a shot. If I'm not watching it, I'll definitely be recording it. And will he be dressed up as Father Christmas, that's another pressing question...

And if it doesn't lead to anything then I'd like at least to be a fly on the wall when Melanie Phillips blows a gasket or two while watching Mr A. (she will watch the program, she can't help herself).

Channel 4 has opted to end the year on a controversial note by inviting the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to give the broadcaster's alternative Christmas message tomorrow.

But the channel has shied away from scheduling the president's address against the Queen's Christmas speech at 3pm. Unlike most years, it is not airing its alternative Christmas message at the same time as the Queen, but is instead scheduling Ahmadinejad's message at 7.15pm.

Channel 4 has said that the Muslim president, who has a hostile relationship with many western countries, will deliver a spiritual address that will feature a message of seasonal goodwill.

It will be preceded by a short introduction designed to place his speech in context, the broadcaster added.

Read on...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

My Christmas message? There's probably no God

It is neither emotionally nor spiritually deficient to reject religions that seek to infantilise us with impossible beliefs.

Polly Toynbee

(All emphasis is mine)

Antidisestablishmentarianism is on the march. Which is odd, considering there is only the faintest whiff of disestablishmentarianism to fight. The Archbishop of Canterbury set this hare running with his usual confused mumbling into his beard. To disestablish the church would be "by no means the end of the world", he said bravely. He hastened to add that he did not want the church sundered from the state right now. And he would oppose "secularists [boo, hiss] trying to push religion into the private sphere". This sent the Telegraph and Mail into a spin, claiming a devilish distestablishment plot on the Labour backbenches - though they could find only three usual suspects. These MPs say the likely move to end the 1701 Act of Settlement that bars Catholics from the throne will make an established church impossible.

How likely is this? Look at how Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have promoted faith and religiosity as "community", and ask yourself if there is the faintest chance that Labour spends untold parliamentary time unpicking the cat's cradle of a relationship between church, Lords and crown? Frankly, if Labour had the inclination for constitutional reform, first priority should be ending our disastrous first-past-the-post voting system.

True, it is embarrassing to be the only western democracy that has theocracy built into its legislature. The 26 bishops in the Lords interfere regularly: they are a threat on abortion, and their campaign sank the Joffe bill, giving the terminally ill the right to die in dignity. Of course they should not be there, when only 16% of people will grace the pews on Christmas Day, and Christian Research forecasts church attendance falling by 90%. But a dying faith clings hard to its inexplicable influence on public life.

Labour has encouraged the power of the religions to a remarkable degree, consulting them on endless committees. To be an atheist is now unacceptable in a political leader: when Nick Clegg confessed his non-belief, he had to recant and re-define himself as an "agnostic". The BBC is increasing religious broadcasting; Radio 4 already does 200 hours. Is this by popular demand? No. An Ofcom survey put religion last in the public's interests. Expect a worsening clash in the new Equality Commission between religious rights and gay and women's rights. The Islington registrar who refused to conduct civil partnerships for religious reasons was an ominous landmark case.

This has been the year of religion's fightback against secularism - a word made almost synonymous with the spiritual and moral decadence of materialism. Angered by the runaway success of anti-God books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, AC Grayling and others, the different faiths - though each believes it has the one and only divinely revealed truth and often fights to the death to prove it - combine in curious harmony against secularists.

They blame us for all the evils of modernity, as if they could point to some morally better time when people feared God and sinned less. There is, of course, no evidence that God-fearers ever behaved better than the ungodly. One of the great mysteries of religion is why, even when people believed that heaven awaited the virtuous and everlasting torment was the destiny of sinners, there is no sign it made them any less prone to all the sins flesh is heir to. Yet they turn on atheists for lacking any moral base without a God.

I could say we are mortally offended and demand protection from such insult. But it is the prerogative of religions to be protected from feeling offended. Priests, imams and rabbis reserve for their beliefs a special respect, ringfenced from normal public argument. It is [considered, Ed.] abusive and insulting to suggest that belief in gods and miracles is delusional, or that religions are inherently anti-women and anti-gay. Meanwhile, non-believers suffer the far worse insult that we inhabit a moral vacuum. But we will live with the insult if we are free to reply that there is no inherent virtue in being religious either: it does not make people behave better.

The unctuous claim there is a special religious ethos that can be poured like a sauce over schools and public services to improve them morally has been bought, to a depressing extent, by Labour, and over a third of all state schools are now religious institutions - despite overwhelming evidence that their only unique quality is selection of better pupils, storing up trouble with ever more cultural segregation.

Here is an enjoyably impudent piece of research from Innsbruck University. People were observed buying newspapers, using an honesty box to pay. They were interviewed later - so the person with the clipboard seemed unconnected with the newspaper purchase - and asked about age, occupation and attitudes. Men cheated more than women; people over 50 cheated more than the young; higher education made no difference; and by a long chalk churchgoers cheated most. This may be a statistical anomaly. But we all know one thing: religion no more makes people good than lack of it makes the rest of us bad.

Secularists take offence too at the way the religious paint unbelievers as poor desiccated rationalists, not only without values, but joyless, lacking a sense of mystery, devoid of awe. Yet, earthbound, there is enough wonder in the infinite capacity of the human imagination, in a magical world of thought, dream, hope, memory and fantasy. To be human is not to be particularly rational, the senses often overwhelming common sense. There is no emotional or spiritual deficiency in rejecting religions that infantilise the imagination with impossible beliefs.

In January many more atheist buses - an advertising campaign launched on Comment is Free - will roll on to the street than expected. The British Humanist Association is astonished at the response - a target of £5,500 has swelled to £130,000, most in small donations. The buses will bear as good a message as any this Christmas: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life".

• Polly Toynbee is president of the British Humanist Association and honorary associate of the National Secular Society

Monday, December 22, 2008

The despicable Paul Britton

Of the largely pseudo-science 'psychology' and it's slightly more dignified variation 'psychiatry' I've never had a high opinion. Crass as it may sound I'm convinced that, if progress in the hard sciences and technology had been in the hands of the men in white coats and their seniors with the chaise longue, I wouldn't be sitting here typing away on a computer keyboard. Mathematics, mathematical statistics, hard methodologies, ardent corroboration and combining rigorous empiricism with rationalism just isn't these guys' strong suit.

But as a pseudo-science it remains perhaps the perennial favourite in the vox populi. After all, who isn't fascinated (dumbfounded would be a more appropriate way of putting it) by the workings of the mind? And because the 'science' that concerns itself with this wondrous but still largely poorly understood organ avoids formulas, abstract representations and at first glance impenetrable models (as hard science does), reverting instead to woolly formulations prone to multiple interpretations (no matter how self-contradictory), shards of half-familiar Greek mythology and a geekish but apparently understandable tone, the common gardener often comes away with the impression he has learned something of significance. A bit like that popular Uncle of yours when he expounds on some intriguing story: true or complete baloney, you're inclined to listen and believe. The astonishing popularity of fictional crime programs in which 'forensic profilers' solve 'cold cases' and the most horrific of crimes almost single-handedly are another testimony to the credulity of the audience when it comes to all matters 'psychological'.

It should come as no surprise then that sometimes things go horribly wrong: when the naive are easily duped things often do. Ask Colin Stagg.

Nick Cohen - The Observer

A man condemned by psychobabble

In September 1994, I went with Ian Jack, the then editor of the Independent on Sunday, to present awkward questions to a senior officer at New Scotland Yard. A few days earlier, Mr Justice Ognall had accused his force of seeking to incriminate a suspect with "deceptive conduct of the grossest kind". Its attempt to convict Colin Stagg of the murder of Rachel Nickell was "misconceived", "wholly reprehensible" and "redolent with danger".

"You blundered," we said.

"No. Absolutely not."

The authoritative expression on his face has stayed with me ever since. He was convinced that Stagg was guilty and we had to pinch ourselves to stop him convincing us as well. He showed no hint of doubt, no sign of suppressed panic or remorse.

On the contrary, he looked down on his critics from a position of knowing superiority. "Exactly who is the fool here?" he seemed to ask. Not the police, led by Detective Inspector Keith Pedder and supervised by Assistant Commissioner Ian Johnston, who told a pretty constable to turn herself into "Lizzie James", a sadistic temptress who might seduce admissions from the lonely Stagg.

Not Dame Barbara Mills, then Director of Public Prosecutions, who thought the covertly collected evidence was worth presenting to a court, even though when "Lizzie" said she enjoyed hurting people, all Stagg could say was: "Please explain, as I live a quiet life. If I have disappointed you, please don't dump me. Nothing like this has happened to me before."

To our senior officer, his colleagues and all the tame hacks who went along with them, the real fool was the judge who let off a guilty man on a technicality.

When the police go for the innocent, the guilty go free. We now know that while detectives encouraged the tabloid press to spend years pillorying Stagg, and tabloid television demanded he sit lie detector tests, the real killer grew ever more dangerous. Robert Napper murdered Rachel Nickell in front of her son in July 1992. In November 1993, he broke into the flat of Samantha Bissett and stabbed her to death, then sexually assaulted and murdered her four-year-old daughter Jazmine. How many women he attacked before the courts finally jailed him in the autumn of 1995 is an open question. Chastened officers believe he may be responsible for assaults on about 80 victims, including rapes, and possibly other murders.

Dozens of women may have paid a price - in some cases the highest price - for the smug look on my senior officer's face and the cocksure accusations of his followers in the media.

Paul Britton, a forensic psychologist practising the fashionable discipline of offender profiling, gave them their self-confidence, although even now commentators do not understand the full brazenness of his behaviour.

Operating on his instructions, "Lizzie" told Stagg to say anything because "my fantasies hold no bounds and my imagination runs riot. If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder, if only you had killed her, it would be all right".

To which Stagg, replied: "I'm terribly sorry, but I haven't."

Detectives discounted his denial, which was convincing when you consider he had an incentive to say anything that might please his strange girlfriend. The point of the undercover exercise was not to extract a confession from Stagg, as no judge would have allowed a jury to hear evidence from a honey trap. Britton's pseudo-science aimed at securing more than a mere admission. He believed that his academic insights had given him the psychological profile of the killer.

Detectives set "Lizzie James" on Stagg to see if he matched Britton's description of a murderer, who was excited by his victim's fear and had a "deviant interest in buggery". When Britton ruled that the local loner did, the police believed him. Police say that Britton also told them that the murders of Rachel Nickell and Samantha and Jazmine Bissett were not the work of the same man, although Britton disputes this.

The specifics of Britton's folly are gruesome enough. As professor David Canter of Liverpool University said at the time, he barely mentioned the most striking and revolting aspect of the case: that the killer murdered Rachel Nickell in front of her child. As William Clegg, Stagg's QC, added at the trial, the transcripts of the conversations between his client and "Lizzie James" showed only that Stagg was a friendless man going along with a domineering but beautiful woman.

But dwelling in the detail misses the wider point. Just as dissenting economists are asking by what right their conventional colleagues demand to be taken seriously when no more than a handful warned of a coming banking crisis, so Parliament and the public should be wondering by what right psychologists demand a hearing.

It is not a reputable profession. The British Psychological Society dismissed all charges of misconduct against Britton in 2002, and no-one else has held him to account for what he did to Stagg and, indeed, to "Lizzie James", who went on to suffer a nervous breakdown.

If psychology is a reliable science - and frankly I doubt its credentials - it is a science "redolent with danger", to use Ognall's words. Britton would never have impressed detectives if he had said that Stagg was a bit of a weirdo. When he dressed up that same thought in psychological language and talked of "deviant interests" and "sexual dysfunctions", he sounded fatally convincing.

A cold-case review team caught Napper because it found a DNA sample, which the assiduous technicians at LGC Forensics proved beyond reasonable doubt came from Rachel Nickell's killer. Their evidence was the anthithesis of the psychologist's speculative theories: hard, testable and incontrovertible.

Genetic fingerprinting catches the guilty and frees the innocent. Psychological profiling traps the innocent and sends the guilty out to kill again. The Home Office might offer a small redress to the raped and murdered women if it resolved in future to tell the police to stick to what works.

And there's more: about a year ago, The New Yorker published a article titled Dangerous minds: Criminal profiling made easy, which carefully deconstructs ('tears into little shreds' would be an equally valid way of putting it) a few famous US cases, 'solved' by means of criminal profiling.

Apart from the debunking of the methodology of an infamous profiler, James Brussel, it also touches on the uncanny resemblance between techniques used by Paul Britton and cohorts and a particular class of even less bona fide 'fortune tellers', the so-called cold readers.

And somewhat deeply buried in the essay lays the following gem:
A profile isn't a test, where you pass if you get most of the answers right. It's a portrait, and all the details have to cohere in some way if the image is to be helpful. In the mid-nineties, the British Home Office analyzed a hundred and eighty-four crimes, to see how many times profiles led to the arrest of a criminal. The profile worked in five of those cases. That's just 2.7 per cent, which makes sense if you consider the position of the detective on the receiving end of a profiler's list of conjectures. Do you believe the stuttering part? Or do you believe the thirty-year-old part? Or do you throw up your hands in frustration?

2.7 per cent.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Remove the blinkers and see the truth

Seth Freedman is back. Seth's a British Aliyah with four years under his belt in Israel. Author of a series of Comment is Free articles on the injustices meted out to the Palestinian people by Israel's Occupation, he appears now to have written his last word (at least for now?) on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It's perhaps not his best piece ever, slightly succumbing to the Manichean trap that those with strong opinions on the I/P conflict tend to fall into (undersigned pleading guilty too, at least occasionally).

The most interesting (but also the most predictable) part of Seth's pieces (or any other pieces on I/P in The Guardian) is almost always the comment section, in particular the commentary flowing from the 'Israel-can-do-no-wrong' crowd. There is in the expression of their opinions such a vehemence and accompanying tendency to smear, slur and slime their opponents, to the extent that an uninformed onlooker would have to conclude that those who are critical of Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza are all potential, if not de facto, mass Jew-murdering scum.

Remove the blinkers and see the truth

For two years on Cif, I've detailed the miscarriages of justice I've witnessed. But many are still convinced Israel can do no wrong

I find people over here who keep harping on about 'human rights' violations by Israel conveniently forget or ignore that if Seth were to live in any, yes, ANY Arab or Iranian country in the neighbourhood, he would have been jailed, abused and then deported, if not accused of being a 'zionist' spy and then condemned to capital punishment.

Two years after penning my first piece for Cif, there is still no getting away from the kind of criticism seen in the comment above. No matter that the thrust of georgeindia's rant had nothing to do with the subject of my article, anyone perusing the thread is encouraged to believe that the fact that the Israeli regime has not beheaded me for my dissent is ample proof that all is well in our little corner of the Middle East. Which, of course, it isn't, despite the best efforts of Israel's squadron of cheerleaders to convince the world otherwise.

Read on. And don't forget to read the near-endless list of comments...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Adolf Hitler is three years old...

Ever wondered whether there is someone in the world with the first name 'Adolf' and middle name (or surname) 'Hitler'? Well, there is: 3 year old Adolf H. Campbell, son of Heath and Deborah Campbell, in which the 'H.' (I kid you not) really does stand for Hitler.

The Campbells ultimately got their cake decorated at a Wal-Mart in Pennsylvania, Deborah Campbell said. About 12 people attended the birthday party on Sunday, including several children who were of mixed race, according to Heath Campbell.

"If we're so racist, then why would I have them come into my home?" he asked.The Campbells' other two children also have unusual names: JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell turns 2 in a few months and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell will be 1 in April.

Looks to me like little Adolf Hitler, Joycelynn Aryan Nation and Honzlynn Hinler won't be playing Cowboys and Indjuns together...

Nought queerer than folk, as they say in Yorkshire.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

An accord with the entire Arab world would be a prize worth Israel's effort

With a four-state problem impeding any two-state solution, the best hope for peace may be to make the stakes even higher

Jonathan Freedland.

Forget the two-state solution: start thinking about the four-state problem. The phrase comes from Palestinian negotiator and analyst Ahmad Khalidi, who has toiled for decades to see two states side by side, one for Palestinians, the other for Israelis. Now, though, he sees one strong state, Israel, surrounded by three statelets. The first is the West Bank, ruled by the secular nationalists of Fatah. The second is Gaza, for nearly two years the fiefdom of Islamist Hamas. The third is the surprise: still in embryo, we got a glimpse of its future earlier this month.

Militant Jewish settlers in Hebron resisted their eviction from a disputed house by not only hurling stones and debris at Palestinians nearby - and daubing black stars of David on Muslim gravestones in what Israel's prime minister Ehud Olmert called a "pogrom" - but also by turning their fire on the soldiers of the Israel Defence Forces. These images were a shock to the Israeli system, confirmation that a hard core of Jewish settlers now exists that has next to no loyalty to the state of Israel, and that indeed regards the state as godless and illegitimate - and which is prepared to raise its hand to the teenage men and women who comprise the bulk of Israel's conscript army. Soon we might speak of Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and a new, zealous, rebel entity: call it Judea.

We are not quite at that point yet. But add it to the long list of developments causing veterans of the Middle East peace process - a saga so long-running that it's the Mousetrap of international negotiations - to lose faith in the two-state solution, even as that model enjoys near global support among the world's governments, restated again yesterday, whether at the United Nations security council or at Olmert's meeting in London with Gordon Brown.

The causes for despair are numerous, starting with that fragmentation cited by Khalidi. Palestinians who once believed the split between Fatah and Hamas was transient and reparable now worry the division is hardening, that there is no figure on the horizon capable of putting this sundered people back together. They ask why Hamas would come back under the authority of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. What would be in it for them?

And yet so long as the Palestinians remain divided, Abbas is too weak to do a meaningful deal with Israel, one that would bind all Palestinians. Indeed, conversations with those on both sides in the last week have told a remarkably similar story: neither Israelis nor Palestinians believe they are capable of reaching an agreement.

The mood is hardly conducive. A month-long blockade of Gaza, with Palestinians there denied access to fuel, medical equipment and much else, may not have garnered a great deal of attention here but the rising human cost, of sick patients and darkened schools, is a staple of the nightly news on television around the Arab world. The anger is directed mostly at Israel, for enforcing the sanctions, imposed in response to the discovery of secret tunnels into Israel from Gaza. But Egypt is blamed too, for failing to open its border, thereby bringing respite to those in desperate need - as are the European Union and the US, both of which are party to the embargo of Hamas. On Friday, Hamas's six month-long ceasefire, which has mainly held, will expire. Few would bet on it being extended.

Meanwhile, Abbas faces an expiration date of his own: his presidential term runs out on 9 January. He is hinting that he will step aside, allowing elections for a new leader. Even those unimpressed by Abbas - by his remoteness, his inability to act as a unifying, national figure - see his departure as an invitation for more division and paralysis.

The stalemate has roots on the other side, too. Olmert's time is also running out; Israel will have new elections on 10 February. Polls predict a return to power for Binyamin Netanyahu and Likud, whose defining trait is a nationalistic scepticism about the peace process. Even if that were to be overcome, Israel has its own inbuilt divisions, expressed in coalitions perennially too fragmented to make the concessions that have to be made.

Besides, there are plenty in Israel's policy establishment who think the status quo is bearable, that Palestinians pose nothing like the existential threat of, say, a nuclear Iran. They're happy enough to have a process but are not really serious about peace. As I heard one senior Israeli official put it recently: "Negotiations are good, results are bad."

Some respond to this bleak landscape by focusing on individual elements within it and imagining how they might be improved. Maybe new Palestinian elections would produce a useful outcome. After all, the latest survey from pollster Khalil Shikaki has Fatah leading Hamas by 42% to 28% - with Fatah polling especially strongly on Hamas's turf in Gaza. Or perhaps Netanyahu will follow the Nixon-to-China principle and, as a man of the right, do the deal. After all, when he last served as PM a decade ago, he proved to be more pragmatic than his reputation had suggested. Or there will be a miracle and the new, dovish party founded by former Camp David negotiator Gilead Sher, and backed by literary giants Amos Oz and David Grossman, will sweep to unexpected victory.

Dream on. Rather than hoping the factors thwarting a two-state solution might change, it is surely more rational to step back and rethink the entire approach. Britain's foreign secretary, David Miliband, is fond of quoting Eisenhower's maxim that, when faced with an intractable problem, the first move is to make it bigger. Frustrated by the impossibility of making peace between two peoples, why not up the ante and seek to make peace between Israel and the entire region? A comprehensive peace or, as Miliband put it in a speech last month, "a 23-state solution - 22 members of the Arab League plus Israel".

This is not as fanciful as it might seem. The Arab peace initiative of 2002, which offered full normalisation of relations in return for Israel's withdrawal to its 1967 borders, is still on the table. Indeed the Arab League wrote to Barack Obama just last week, urging him to work for Middle East peace, with their initiative as the basis.

There are problems with the Arab plan. For one thing, there has been no public diplomacy for it, no public face for it - no equivalent of Anwar Sadat's breakthrough visit to Israel, proving the sincerity of his desire for peace. And how would it work in practice? Khalidi wonders how on earth 22 Arab countries are meant to reach "simultaneous orgasm", coming to an agreement with Israel all at the same time.

And yet the logic behind it is compelling. Right now, the Palestinians don't have enough to offer Israel to make the sacrifices required for a peace deal worthwhile. But an accord with the entire Arab world, that would be a prize worth bending for. And, while today's Palestinian leadership is too weak to make compromises on, for instance, Jerusalem, united Arab support would give the Palestinians all the cover they need.

Fear of Iran might motivate the Arabs to come together. A falling oil price could concentrate the mind too. And as always, the sine qua non is the active intervention of the US. Some Israeli officials believe that, after the Bush era, the US is no longer capable of imposing its will on the Middle East. Starting next month, President Obama will have a chance to prove them wrong - and solve one of the world's most persistent problems into the bargain.

Monday, December 15, 2008

I'm in Popular Science Magazine!

No, that's a slight exaggeration on my part, but allow me to briefly indulge in a little self-aggrandisement right now.

After months of waiting, guiding and toing and froing, it's finally happened: Theodore Gray (from fame, Ig Noble Prize infamy and contributor to Popular Science) made good on his promise to publish an article on backyard titanium production in Popular Science, the... erm... #1 US popular science magazine! The article is based on Theo's own experiments with my calcium sulphate boosted TiO2 thermite formulation.

The article made it to the cover, with photo! It will shortly be followed by publication in the online edition (, with cloaked link to my how-to guide...

With special thanks to Tim, forum master at the ABYMC forum to get the ball rolling on all this, all these months ago...

Here's the online version of the article.

And here's Theodore Gray carrying out titanium thermite reactions using my method:

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Cyberspace has buried its head in a cesspit of climate change gibberish

Back in the early eighties when I was still a chemistry student (oh, halcyon days!) the first reports about climate change started to be issued. Back then, the (climate) science was still in its infancy and I was deeply sceptical, as budding scientists are, as scientists tout court are, as the method dictates. Entire methodologies still had to be developed to enable science to construct a thermal history of the planet, reaching deep into the mists of past times. At that point, drawing any conclusions with regards to the cause of the emerging picture, would have been seriously premature and few, as I recall, did so.

But what I certainly do recall is that from the US, very prematurely came emanating books denouncing the emerging science, not from a scientific point of view but essentially from a simple and simplistic capitalist, ideological point of view. I say ideological because even today the US is the only country in which many still elevate a basic (and successful) wealth generation system (the free market) to the status of an ideology and possible basis for a system of Governance.

And so I read deeply self-serving and simplistic scenarios depicting the economic ruin that would surely follow addressing (the then not even yet well-established) consequences of man made global warming. These doctrines predicted the demise of Big Oil, with all the subsequent losses of jobs and economic prowess that this would entail in the overheated imaginations of these American authors. It became very quickly very bon ton to associate climate change science with the Far Left, a group that when mentioned tends to send post-Cold War and post-McCarthy shivers down the spines of many a common gardener variety Republican, not to mention more hardnosed Conservatives.

In essence, a conspiracy theory was born, in which a cabal of Far Left scientists, aided and abetted by Marxists, Cultural Marxists [sic], the Looney Left, Environutz and assorted progressive cohorts, were attempting to bring down all that was good and wholesome about the US of A, from freedom to economic prosperity, by means of fabricated pseudo-science. Ultimately, the culprits of the far Left were seeking to achieve that other taboo, wealth redistribution and possibly World Domination, in a bid to turn the post Cold War tables by dealing the US economy a decisive blow.

In addition, in this narrative the Far Left had created a climate of fear in which dissenting scientists were excoriated, spewed out, barred from jobs or promotions, in order to keep a lid on the New Usurpers real intentions. This Masonic Lodge type multi-tentacle monster is now so all-powerful it has even managed to recruit people like President George W. Bush...

Meanwhile I kept on studying chemistry (and the rest of the hard sciences, of course) and kept my eye on climate change theory. I found simply that these scientists refined their methods, followed the evidence, built up an impressive body of evidence and provided effective models as well as plausible underlying mechanisms and strong explanatory and predictive power. These are more or less the prerequisites any other established scientific paradigm has to meet to gain credence in the wider scientific community, there are no exceptions. That recognition soon started to follow, swelling into river of consensus in the science community that man-made green house gas emissions are indeed largely to blame for the average increase in global temperatures of the most latter part of Earth's thermal history.

But while consensus in the science community is high, dissent in mainstream society in general and the blogosphere in particular has reached fever pitch.

George Monbiot tells it better than I can...

We all create our own reality, and shut out the voices we do not want to hear. But there is no issue we are less willing to entertain than man-made climate change. Here, three worlds seem to exist in virtual isolation. In the physical world, global warming appears to be spilling over into runaway feedback: the most dangerous situation humankind has ever encountered. In the political world - at the climate talks in Poznan, for instance - our governments seem to be responding to something quite different, a minor nuisance that can be addressed in due course. Only the Plane Stupid protesters who occupied part of Stansted airport yesterday appear to have understood the scale and speed of this crisis. In cyberspace, by contrast, the response spreading fastest and furthest is flat-out denial.

The most popular article on the Guardian's website last week was the report showing that 2008 is likely to be the coolest year since 2000. As the Met Office predicted, global temperatures have been held down by the La Niña event in the Pacific Ocean. This news prompted a race on the Guardian's comment thread to reach the outer limits of idiocy. Of the 440 responses posted by lunchtime yesterday, about 80% insisted that manmade climate change is a hoax. Here's a sample of the conversation:

"This is a scam to get your money ... The only people buying into 'global warming' have no experience with any of the sciences."

"If we spend any money or cost one person their job because of this fraud it would be a crime. When will one of our politicians stand up and call this for what it is, bullshit!"

"What a set of jokers these professors are ... I think I understand more about climate change than them and I don't get paid a big fat salary with all the perks to go with it."

And so on, and on and on. The new figures have prompted similar observations all over the web. Until now, the "sceptics" have assured us that you can't believe the temperature readings at all; that the scientists at the Met Office, who produced the latest figures, are all liars; and that even if it were true that temperatures have risen, it doesn't mean anything. Now the temperature record - though only for 2008 - can suddenly be trusted, and the widest possible inferences be drawn from the latest figures, though not, of course, from the records of the preceding century. This is madness.

Scrambled up in these comment threads are the memes planted in the public mind by the professional deniers employed by fossil fuel companies. On the Guardian's forums, you'll find endless claims that the hockeystick graph of global temperatures has been debunked; that sunspots are largely responsible for current temperature changes; that the world's glaciers are advancing; that global warming theory depends entirely on computer models; that most climate scientists in the 1970s were predicting a new ice age. None of this is true, but it doesn't matter. The professional deniers are paid not to win the argument but to cause as much confusion and delay as possible. To judge by the Comment threads, they have succeeded magnificently.

There is no pool so shallow that a thousand bloggers won't drown in it. Take the latest claims from the former broadcaster David Bellamy. You may remember that Bellamy came famously unstuck three years ago when he stated that 555 of the 625 glaciers being observed by the World Glacier Monitoring Service were growing. Now he has made an even stranger allegation. In early November the Express ran an interview with Bellamy under the headline "BBC shunned me for denying climate change". "The sad fact is," he explained, "that since I said I didn't believe human beings caused global warming I've not been allowed to make a TV programme." He had been brave enough to state that global warming was "poppycock", and that caused the end of his career. "Back then, at the BBC you had to toe the line and I wasn't doing that."

This article, on the web, received more hits than almost anything else the Express has published; so 10 days ago the paper interviewed Bellamy again. He took the opportunity to explain just how far the conspiracy had spread. "Have you noticed there is a wind turbine on Teletubbies? That's subliminal advertising, isn't it?"

There is just one problem with this story: it is bollocks from start to finish. Bellamy last presented a programme on the BBC in 1994. The first time he publicly challenged the theory of manmade climate change was 10 years later, in 2004, when he claimed in the Daily Mail that it was "poppycock". Until at least the year 2000 he supported the theory.

In 1992, for instance, he signed an open letter, published in the Guardian, urging George Bush Sr "to fight global warming ... We are convinced that the continued emission of carbon dioxide at current rates could result in dramatic and devastating climate change in all regions of the world." In 1996 he signed a letter to the Times, arguing: "Continued increases in the global emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels are likely to lead to climate change at a rate greater than the Earth has experienced at any time during the last 10,000 years." In the same year he called for the replacement of fossil fuels with wind power. In 2000 he announced that he was supporting a plan to sue climate change "criminals": governments and industries that blocked attempts to stop global warming (all references are on my website). But Bellamy's new claims about the end of his career have been repeated as gospel in several newspapers and all over the web.

In his fascinating book Carbon Detox, George Marshall argues that people are not persuaded by information. Our views are formed by the views of the people with whom we mix. Of the narratives that might penetrate these circles, we are more likely to listen to those that offer us some reward. A story that tells us that the world is cooking and that we'll have to make sacrifices for the sake of future generations is less likely to be accepted than the more rewarding idea that climate change is a conspiracy hatched by scheming governments and venal scientists, and that strong, independent-minded people should unite to defend their freedoms.

He proposes that instead of arguing for sacrifice, environmentalists should show where the rewards might lie: that understanding what the science is saying and planning accordingly is the smart thing to do, which will protect your interests more effectively than flinging abuse at scientists. We should emphasise the old-fashioned virtues of uniting in the face of a crisis, of resourcefulness and community action. Projects like the transition towns network and proposals for a green new deal tell a story which people are more willing to hear.

Marshall is right: we have to change the way we talk about this issue. You don't believe me? Then just read the gibberish that follows when this article is published online.