Silent Compromises

Many vicious attacks have been reported.

On Friday, Oct. 23, a rabbi named Arik Ascherman was chased by a masked man trying to stab him near the Itamar Israeli settlement. On Oct.,22, a Jerusalem man named Simcha Hodedtov was shot and killed by police as a terrorist. On Oct. 18, a 29 year old named Haftom Zarhum was shot and then beaten to death by a mob in Beersheba. On Oct. 13, Uri Rezken was stabbed in the back while shopping. He screamed “I am a Jew, I am a Jew” to his attacker, but was stabbed four times anyway.

This list of incidents above is selective, though not exhaustive. It consists solely of attacks by Israelis against Israelis who were mistaken for (or in Ascherman’s case thought to be too close to) Palestinians. It does not include the vast majority of deaths and injuries in this latest round of violence, deaths and injuries of Palestinians attacked by Israeli security forces, accompanied by horror stories of children shot while seeking help; children imprisoned without trial; planted weapons after shootings. Nor does it include massive, organized attacks by mobs of settlers against Palestinian villages. It also does not include the deaths and injuries of Israelis killed by Palestinians in the knife attacks that are much more thoroughly covered in the Western media than the much larger numbers of Palestinians killed.

What started this round of violence? Israel’s armed settler movement is attempting to change the way that Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque is run. In fact, they want the mosque torn down, like the Babri Mosque was torn down in India in 1992. The Israeli government, which the settler movement has largely taken over, has a strategy that probably involves ultimately dividing the mosque site and banning Palestinians from it, as has been done in Hebron. As with the second intifada in 2000, Israel put pressure on the al-Aqsa site until Palestinians resisted. When Palestinians resisted, Israel escalated with lethal force, and now continues to escalate with no end in sight.

In the midst of this violence, Israel’s political leaders are attempting to suppress what a George W. Bush advisor called the “reality-based community” and replace it with a set of racist fantasies. The Israeli Justice Minister who last year brought you the genocidal comment that Palestinian children were “little snakes,” this month has said “there never will be a Palestinian state.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu topped this all off with a rehabilitation of Hitler. Offering a denialist version of history, Netanyahu made a speech claiming that Hitler didn’t want to kill the Jews until the Mufti of Jerusalem gave him the idea. German government spokespeople attempted to correct the record, emphasizing that Germany spends time and energy on Holocaust education and does not wish to see politically convenient revisionism undermining those efforts. Max Blumenthal, who has documented Israel’s descent into chaos in his book Goliath, writes about the effects of Netanyahu’s incitement:

“By blaming a Palestinian for the Final Solution, Netanyahu has helped his countrymen adjust to the macabre reality. He reassured them that they were not settler overlords or vigilante brutes, but Inglorious Bastards curb stomping SS officers in the woods outside Krakow. And he sent them the message that those Palestinians lurking behind concrete walls and under siege in ghettoes were not an occupied, dispossessed people, but a new breed of Nazis hellbent on Jewish extermination. Netanyahu’s comments about the Mufti were much more than a hysterical lie; they were an invitation to act out a blood soaked fantasy of righteous revenge.”

Israel was founded to be a refuge for Jews who were persecuted in Europe. Some of its founders had democratic and socialist aspirations that were contradicted by their militarist and colonizing plans and methods. After decades of failure to reconcile these, Israeli society has abandoned pretense, and embraced racism and violence from the highest levels of government to the settler masses celebrating attacks on social media.

It is obvious why such politics and such fantasies would be appealing to right-wing politicians and their constituencies in the West, like the outgoing Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the 5.6 million people who voted for him, or the Democrats and Republicans in the US who support Israel.

What is more difficult to understand is how those who espouse liberal politics can continue to hold on. Some no doubt see Israel as it was decades ago, in some kind of struggle between different kinds of Zionism, one of which sought a two-state solution. Having out-of-date information can be a problem, but refusing to update one’s information is a political decision.

Two months ago when the Canadian election had just begun and the New Democrats were purging pro-Palestine candidates, I argued that they were playing a game they were guaranteed to lose. I strive to stay in the reality-based community: I do not think that being pro-Israel cost them the election. But backing down in the face of right-wing bullying, and declaring unconditional support for a society that is sliding into fascism, form political habits. They broadcast either a lack of courage or the support of a racist and violent project. Julian Assange wrote that “every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love.” Could it be that people so trained make uncompelling candidates for progressive voters?

One reason Westerners find themselves with an out-of-date idea of Israel’s society and its trajectory is that we are not allowed to talk about it anywhere, including university campuses. A report called The Palestine Exception, by Palestine Legal, documents 292 incidents of the suppression of free speech on campuses, used against advocates of human rights for Palestinians. The report groups the incidents into nine categories of tactics: 1. False accusations of antisemitism and terrorism; 2. Official denunciations; 3. Bureaucratic barriers; 4. Administrative sanctions; 5. Cancellations and alterations of events; 6. Threats to academic freedom; 7. Lawsuits and legal threats; 8. Legislation; 9. Criminal investigations and prosecutions. The report is important, especially for student activists who are starting out and should know what to expect. The Palestine Exception reveals many things. One of them: the unconditional defense of Israel regardless of what it does and what it becomes, has political consequences. The more indefensible Israel’s behaviour, the more debate has to be avoided, the more taboos have to be established, and the more those who speak about it have to be punished. This is true on campuses, where the freest possible research is supposed to take place and where students are supposed to be taught to think critically and contribute their knowledge to society. It is also true in the media, which is supposed to inform our decisions about what to do in the world. It is true in democratic politics, in which we are supposed to be able to deliberate with the widest possible range of discussion in order to make decisions. The farther Israel slides down its current path, the more unfree we will all have to be, the more disconnected from reality we will have to become, in order to continue to accept it.

First published TeleSUR English:

Syria and Afghanistan: The Limits of Bombing

Just a few days before the 14th anniversary of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, U.S. planes bombed a hospital run by the extremely credible, competent international organization, Medicins Sans Frontieres, in the country’s north, in the city of Kunduz. The bombing was, apparently, requested by the Afghan government, who had lost the city to the Taliban and whose initial counterattack had failed.

Fourteen years before, the U.S. invasion of 2001 had the explicit goal of regime change, of getting rid of the Taliban. Fourteen years and thousands of lives later, the Taliban are still here, and are still able to take a city well outside of their traditional zone of influence in the south. There are many causes for this failure. Ahmed Rashid wrote in his book “Descent into Chaos” about “Operation Evil Airlift,” in which the Taliban’s Pakistani patrons were allowed to escape to Pakistan in 2001. The people running the Taliban went back to Pakistan, while thousands of civilians perished under the bombs.

But more important than the fact that the Taliban dispersed to Pakistan to return and fight another day was the fact that when NATO ousted the Taliban, they installed their opponents: warlords who were as misogynist and violent as the Taliban were. That reality has only slowly and partially changed despite several elections since 2001: senior posts and elected offices are still populated by the warlords, and the occupation-created Afghan army apparently shares many of the problems of corruption with the Iraqi army created by the U.S. around the same time and in approximately the same way. It is an army more efficient at enriching commanders than defending the country’s sovereignty.

2001, the year the U.S. invaded, is a key year for Afghanistan, but it was not the beginning of the horrors Afghanistan had been living. The wars of the 1980s, as the U.S.-Saudi-Pakistan coalition poured ever more investment into groups of fighters who were fighting against a Russian-backed regime, were decisive. Once those fighters succeeded in regime change in 1992, they spent the next decade fighting one another and completing the destruction of the country. The Taliban had established a shaky control over most of the country when the U.S. invaded in 2001.

Today, the U.S., Israel, the Saudi Kingdom, Turkey, and a few other countries are similarly pouring ever more investment into groups of fighters (some of the same groups as fought in Afghanistan, including al-Qaida) trying to change a regime in Syria. There is every reason to believe that if regime change succeeds, the winners will be al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. Whether they then fight among themselves as the Afghan mujahadeen did, or consolidate an Islamic State group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond, they, too, will complete the destruction of their country. In a few decades, we will be looking at pictures of Syria in the 1990s and early 2000s that will be completely unrecognizable as Syria, like the 1960s and 1970s photos of Afghanistan are unrecognizable today.

Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the New York Times famously called global public opinion the “second superpower”. But the anti-war movement failed and has not recovered. Anti-war principle has weakened among progressives, replaced by limited support for limited Western intervention in specific cases, where bombs might be able to do some good. Numerous progressive voices that might have been expected to take an anti-war stance supported bombing and regime change in Libya in 2011 and continue to support regime change in Syria today. Some even cite Libya as a success story.

I have seen writers who I respect arguing or retweeting that because Syria has had many more deaths and refugees than Libya since 2011, overthrowing Assad (the “how” of this overthrow remains unspecified) would have prevented the refugee crisis. The counterfactual is also presented: that without regime change in Libya in 2011, Libya would have produced a refugee crisis of the same magnitude as Syria had.

I have read other progressive writers arguing that the “world’s powers” should have set a “red line” for Assad much sooner than they did, and if they had done so, again, the Syria crisis would have been averted.

The trouble with this analysis is the assumption that Syria’s regime existed at the whim of the “world’s powers” – that these “world’s powers” could, once the “red line” was set, press a button and exchange Assad for a democratic regime that respects human rights. It is this flawed assumption that leads to magical thinking about what the West can do in countries that it bombs.

Vijay Prashad has argued that the Libyan regime was already collapsing when NATO’s bombs arrived to finish it off. The Libyan armed groups, for which NATO provided the air force, committed massacres after their victories in Sirte and elsewhere. These armed groups are still an ongoing concern, as the U.S. knows. And there were many local and international consequences of what happened in Libya in 2011. One of these was that powers outside of the West, especially Russia, saw how seamlessly Western support for “moderate rebels” led to regime change.

Syria’s regime was not collapsing when the West started backing the rebellions there. Syria is, evidently, not Libya. But not for lack of trying by the West, and its Saudi, Israeli, and Turkish allies. Regime change has been the goal, but only chaos has been the result. There is a lesson to be learned from these decades of regime change. Twelve years since the invasion of Iraq, 25 since the first U.S. war on Iraq. Fourteen years since the invasion of Afghanistan, 35 since the Western backing of the Afghan mujahadeen. The outcomes: the Islamic State group and the Taliban ruling over de-developed, devastated areas, corrupt governments extracting wealth from the rest of the country, with the U.S. occasionally flying over and bombing something – a wedding here, a hospital there. If Libya looks different from this in a decade or two – and that is far from certain – it will be in spite of NATO’s bombs, not because of them.

People who don’t like these outcomes should not put faith in these means. The West’s bombs are instruments of chaos.

First published on TeleSUR English:

The Uses of the Islamic State Group

Who is really fighting ISIS? In Iraq and Syria, ISIS faces Kurdish forces, the Iraqi Army and the Western air forces supporting it, and the Syrian Army and its allies from Hizbollah, Iran, and Russia. The Kurds of Rojava have been fighting for survival, and while outgunned, they have both political and military preparation, and something to fight for. They have been successful in their battles with ISIS, even though they have suffered immensely in the process.

The Iraqi Army? ISIS's spectacular rise coincided with the Iraqi Army's collapse. To understand this, as with so much about ISIS, it is necessary to look back at the early days of the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, when the decision was taken to disband the Iraqi Army that had existed under Saddam Hussein and create a new one. The old army had training, organization, most of their weapons, and had just reached the point of having nothing to lose. Many of them joined the insurgency against the US. Among those who did, many were killed, many were tortured and killed, and many survived. Some of those survivors, now battle-hardened veterans, are now part of ISIS. One of those who made his way through the US prison system in Iraq is ISIS's leader. These veterans, joined by al-Qaeda fighters, with Saudi and Qatari funding, and Turkish help getting across the border, have become ISIS, the force that controls a big part of Iraq and dominates and absorbs all other opposition forces in Syria.  

What about the new army, the one built by the US during the occupation? That army was built, like post-2003 Iraq, as an experiment in a new kind of neoliberal occupation. George W Bush had declared that the US occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan were not "nation building" exercises. The trillions of dollars that were spread around in Iraq went to contractors and subcontractors, and the Iraqi army was built on the same principles. Commanders bought their way in, collected money for more soldiers' salaries than he had under command, and kept the difference. Other commanders paid for their posts and recouped the money at checkpoints on the roads: the army became, as Patrick Cockburn wrote in his new book The Jihadis Return, "a money making machine for senior officers and often an extortion racket for ordinary soldiers" (pg. 51). As it turned out, the "money making machine" didn't prove especially effective as a fighting machine. Instead, as the Iraqi army fell apart and ran from ISIS in the early battles, most of the equipment they received ended up in ISIS's hands.  

What about the Syrian Army? Russia, having supplied Syria's government for years, has now entered the war on Syria's side. Lebanon's Hizbollah, with Iran's help, entered Syria to help Syria's government some time ago, judging that the fall of Syria to ISIS would be the loss of their own lines of supply and support. These forces are holding territory against ISIS, but the government's way of fighting mirrors their enemies. For several decades war has not primarily been about armies fighting each other, but about the unarmed getting killed by the armed. One siege in 2014, written about by Patrick Cockburn, illustrates this:  

"Rather than taking over rebel-held areas, the government simply bombards them so that the civilian population is forced to flee and those who remain are either families of fighters or those too poor to find anywhere else to live. Electricity and water is then cut off and a siege is mounted. In Adra on the northern outskirts of Damascus in early 2014, I witnessed Jabhat-al-Nusra forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians. The government did not counterattack but simply continued its siege." (pg. 76)

In the West, ISIS videos are used to stoke nightmares and justify police powers, and are politically valuable to fear-mongering politicians. As the collapse of Syria proceeds under the weight of the war and millions of Syrians are on the move, Westerners are being led to believe that every refugee family might be a secret ISIS cell. Local countries are hit far harder by the refugee crisis: Western countries are only taking a small fraction of the refugees.  

Despite the horrors of their videos, and the airstrikes that have been organized against ISIS, the West, and its allies, have found several uses for ISIS.  

ISIS provides Western allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar a way to advance their influence in the region against Iran. ISIS provides an outlet for the people that Saudi clerics have fired up to hate everyone but their sect, people who might otherwise stay in their own Gulf countries and take up arms.  

ISIS provides the troops for Western ally, Turkey, to fight the Kurds, who created an autonomous zone in Iraq, have recently done so in Syria and have long been trying to advance their agenda of self-determination in Turkey.  

For Western ally, Israel, ISIS bleeds Hizbollah and has helped destroy Syria, creates massive numbers of refugees, and so diverts and destroys military forces that might otherwise be facing off with Israel.  

The Gulf countries and Israel are also not taking refugees. Israeli soccer fans proudly display banners that say "Refugees Not Welcome", and Saudi Arabia is running its own murderous war in Yemen, creating refugees of its own.  

For the West, these alliances with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, are more important than fighting ISIS. For Israel, the possibility that Assad might be overthrown and Hizbollah harmed is more important than fighting ISIS.

Diplomatic solutions, the latest of which has been written about by Vijay Prashad, have floundered on the Western insistence on Assad's departure as a precondition. That insistence has amounted to an acceptance of this destruction over a negotiated end to the war. Syria is on its way to complete destruction. Most of its population is on the move. Responsibility for this is shared between Assad's regime and those fighting him.  

More than Gulf funds and captured weapons, more than twisted religious ideology and military corruption, ISIS has thrived because of the chaos of war and the collapse of society. ISIS will not be part of a negotiated solution, but an agreement between its Western sponsors and those of the Syrian government would isolate and contain ISIS, and make peace in the region imaginable.  

What could be more important than an end to the war and the defeat of ISIS? For the West, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel, many things: weakening Iran and Hizbollah, showing toughness to Russia, the chance of overthrowing Assad, destroying the basis for Kurdish independence. To those steering the Syrian war, these are higher priorities than the plight of millions of refugees and the destruction of several countries.

Originally published on TeleSUR English

A breakthrough in Colombia’s peace talks

On Sept. 23, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cuba to sign an agreement with the FARC on transitional justice. “Peace is close,” he told the press. An agreement on justice and reparations for victims was one of the most contentious areas of discussion, and one on which Santos and FARC had exchanged some harsh public words over recent months. The FARC announced their willingness to lay down their arms; the possibility of a truth commission has also been discussed. Coming at one of the most dangerous points in the talks, and on one of the most difficult areas of negotiation, this agreement is a breakthrough moment.

The 40th round of negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla organization ended on August 30th. Ten days before, the FARC had declared another unilateral ceasefire, one of many that have taken place during these multi-year negotiations. Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the ELN, have also been in secret negotiations with the government and may begin an official negotiation soon, according to Colombian newspaper El Tiempo (Sept 7).

There continue to be signs of significant investment in peace by the government and reasons for optimism about an accord. A package of constitutional reforms to facilitate a peace accord was scheduled to be debated in Colombia’s Congress on Sept 11.

El Tiempo also reported an unusual step taken by the U.S. Ambassador, who on September 8 hosted Colombian government representatives as well as ex-president Alvaro Uribe Velez to try to win Uribe over to the peace accord. Uribe has been the leader of the opposition to peace, running his own intelligence network, leaking information, and posting inflammatory tweets. While Uribe was in office, from 2002-2010, his policies aligned seamlessly with the U.S. of the War on Terror. If the U.S. Ambassador is, as El Tiempo reports, trying to coax him into acting less of a spoiler, that is a sign of strong support for an accord from the U.S.

But there are negative signs as well. During the previous unilateral ceasefire declared in July, the FARC killed Afro-Colombian activist Genaro Garcia – an act for which FARC took responsibility and vowed to punish its perpetrators. A coalition of social movement groups marched in Genaro’s name at the end of August, demanding a bilateral ceasefire and a role in the negotiations.

The Indigenous movement also suffered a major blow at the hands of the state when, on Sept. 15, Feliciano Valencia was detained by the court on a charge of “kidnapping” a soldier, which carries a sentence of 192 months. In fact, Valencia is one of many Indigenous leaders in Northern Cauca, a territory that has suffered tremendous military aggression over the years. In the incident for which Feliciano is being charged, the Indigenous foiled an aggressive plot by an armed soldier, tried him, punished him according to their traditions, and released him. Their rights to do this are protected by the Colombian constitution: this is an illegal persecution of an Indigenous leader, occurring in the middle of a breakthrough in the peace process.

At the end of June, after the breakdown of a ceasefire and a series of battles, a Gallup poll showed a drop in public support for the peace process, with a nearly even split over support for a military vs. a diplomatic solution (46% favoring military, 45% favoring a negotiated solution), and only 33% believing that the peace process would successfully end the armed conflict. Agreements on transitional justice, ratification, and how to actually end the armed conflict are all ahead, and none of these are easy, as the mainstream think-tank the International Crisis Group argued in July.

More dangerous than any of these, however, are the regional dynamics. The Colombia-Venezuela border remains closed at the time of writing and, although here, too, there are encouraging signs of diplomacy, media operations in Colombia are adding heat to the conflict. So too, in this arena, is Colombia’s ex-president Uribe. The Colombia-Venezuela border has been militarized and dangerous for more than a decade. In 2004, when Uribe was in power, he pursued an arms deal for a large number of Spanish-made tanks to be deployed to the border. Then president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, convinced the incoming Spanish government to cancel the deal and de-escalated the tensions, although there have been armed border conflicts and closures in the decade since.

The military dimension of the long-standing border problem is linked to the paramilitary problem, given the long historical links between Colombia’s military and paramilitaries. Paramilitary forces control the smuggling trade on the Colombian side and have suborned Venezuelan border guards on the Venezuelan side, to the point where smuggling has done severe damage to Venezuela’s economy. The Venezuelan government has enacted an operation to stop smuggling, but the problems on the Colombian side remain. The current border crisis erupted when Colombian paramilitaries attacked Venezuelan soldiers on the border on August 19.

Colombian paramilitarism is responsible for much more than the violence on the border, however. It is as old as Colombia’s armed conflict, beginning in the 1960s with advice from a U.S. military delegation. Colombian paramilitaries are responsible for the worst atrocities of the civil war, for most of the displacement, and most of the killings of noncombatants. They are also intertwined with Colombia’s military and intelligence services and brought large numbers of politicians under their control: this was exposed during Uribe’s presidency and called the Para-Politica scandal. Colombian paramilitaries have been seen in other countries in the Americas: Colombia, having developed expertise in the violent repression of social protest with U.S. help, has been exporting it. The Colombian paramiltiaries were supposed to have disarmed long ago, and their links to the Colombian establishment are officially denied. The Colombian government calls them "criminal bands" (Bacrim) and claims to be fighting them. Because of this official denial, it will be difficult to resolve the issue at the negotiating table. The paramilitary strategy is one that the U.S. has found invaluable since the 1960s. It will not disappear even if an accord is reached.

What really might sink the accord, though, are changes in regional politics. What brought Colombia’s government to the negotiating table in the first place probably had to do with not wanting to be isolated as a right-wing, U.S.-manipulated holdout in a continent that was taking steps in the direction of independence and social progress, with progressive regimes in many countries and Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution leading the group. Today the Bolivarian revolution is threatened like never before, and left writers like Raul Zibechi argue that "the cycle of Latin American progressive politics appears to be coming to an end," soon to be replaced with a "repressive right wing environment." If Zibechi is right, then the Colombian government need not sign an accord: it need only wait for the rest of Latin America to catch up to its own "repressive right wing environment." If he is wrong, and there is still some progress left in progresismo, there is still a chance for peace.

But if it does come, Colombia’s peace, however welcomed, will be a violent and unequal one, as I have argued before. Many problems will remain, but peace still deserves support. With peace there are greater possibilities for democratic struggle and civil resistance.

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