Tag Archives: Israel

Downtown Cairo in lockdown

The area around Tahrir Square is in lockdown today. The violence has shifted from the square itself to the streets leading to it. Most entrances to the downtown area are sealed off by groups of pro-Mubarak supporters, and the one entrance allowing vehicles in that my nervous taxi driver (though not as nervous as me) could find was manned by the president’s men. They were immediately hostile when they saw a foreigner in the car, and demanded my passport and bag. They found the cameras immediately. “Sahafi, sahafi,” (journalist, journalist), they shouted. Fortunately I’d already fed the taxi driver, pro-Mubarak himself, my cover story. “No, no, he’s a teacher. And he’s African. Look at his passport.” It was the African argument that really swayed them, and they returned my passport and cameras with smiles and apologies. I breathed a sigh of relief and held a brief moment of thanks for the African Union and its spineless inaction on the Egypt issue. If I’d been American, I don’t think I would have got the cameras back. Or Qatari – Qataris are enormously unpopular at the moment because of the role that Al-Jazeera has played in televising the revolution. The line being peddled by the government’s supporters – and there are a lot more of them than I expected – is that the protests are a plot conceived by the US, Qatar and Israel. Despite the smiles, I am still denied entry to downtown Cairo, and I decide it’s not worth pushing it; things are still too unpredictable, tensions too high. Not everyone will buy the African argument.

The situation is very fluid at the moment. The TV coverage is providing perhaps a distorted picture of events. All the major networks have corralled themselves in apartments in Tahrir Square, and aren’t showing anything else. The attention that Egypt has received has been remarkable, but Egypt is bigger than Tahrir Square; and what I don’t know, and what Egyptians don’t know either, is how extensive the anti-Mubarak protests are across the rest of the country. I think that may be because support for the protestors is beginning to dry up; many people are happy to accept the President’s promise to retire in September, and just want their daily lives to return to normal. It seems to me that outside Tahrir Square, you’re more likely to see large crowds outside of functioning ATMS than in protest against the government. And without genuine popular support, the protestors in Tahrir are unlikely to get what they ask for. I hope that’s not true, but I’ve seen and heard nothing today that persuades me otherwise.

For a more extensive account of my day in the square yesterday:

http://www.thedailymaverick.co.za/article/2011-02-03-wednesday-in-cairo-sweat-blood-tears
or http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/MB04Ak03.html

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The Ambassador of Death goes 4th

Apologies everyone for the delay in blogging. Occasionally the real world takes over – it shouldn’t.

However, we can all be heartened by the news that Iran, on the same day that it started fueling its nuclear power plant, has unveiled a new long range drone bomber. Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – a man known for his colourful prose, if not for his subtlety – has called it “An Ambassador of Death”, a title which demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of an ambassador’s role. It may look like something off the set of an Austin Powers movie, but the most salient bit of information released about the Ambassador of Death is that he (it’s definitely a he) can go 620 miles with ease. No, that’s not enough to reach Israel from Iran, but it’s pretty close. And it’s more than enough to reach Israel from Lebanon.

Ahmadinejad’s been having a good few days. He also told Al-Jazeera that Israel was “too weak to face up to Iran militarily“, a comment which set off a firestorm of indignation within Israel. The thing is, the man may sounds crazy, but he’s probably right. Yes, we all know Israel has the technological capacity to do it, but I’m not sure they have the political capital. They spent most of that in Gaza. An unprovoked, premeditated attack on Iran – particularly its nuclear facilities – will create far more immediate problems than it will solve, not least amongst them war in southern Lebanon. Bibi will hold his guns for the time being.

Ahmadinejad is a fascinating politician. His off the wall, inflammatory comments often make him sound like a mad man, but he is anything but; he’s one of a new breed of politicians who have figured out that the crazier they sound, the more the world will hate them but – and this is crucial – the more they will appeal to their core audience, the people who form the basis of their power. Hugo Chavez is another; Julius Malema in South Africa; and even the Tea Party Republicans in the States. None of these people are crazy; they’re just canny politicians, doing what politicians do best – keeping themselves in power.

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Do not Genocide, Do not War Crime – the ICC goes 4th

Even Ocampo's reassuringly steely gaze cannot mask the ICC's problems

In honour of the recent review of the International Criminal Court in Kampala – attended by all sorts of dignitaries, both major and minor, including Ban-Ki Moon and his prosecutorship Luis Moreno Ocampo – it seems appropriate for Third World Goes Forth to conduct its own review of this most recent of all the international institutions.

The conference in Kampala was, of course, self-congratulatory and upbeat. Ocampo was on fine form: “It is only a matter of time [before] Sudan president Omar Al Bashir and LRA’s Joseph Kony will be arrested,” he said, sounding every inch the bullish wild west sheriff that he always reminds me of. But I’m unsure – both of the likelihood of arrests, and of exactly how much the ICC is achieving.

The ICC is, of course, a wonderful concept. That all men and women should be bound by the bare minimun of human dignity. That there is a point where one person’s behaviour is so bad that the world rejects it out of hand. And that punishment will follow for those found guilty of contravening the court’s central tenets – Do not Genocide, Do not War Crime.

The first problem is in the name. The ICC is not ‘international’; it does not represent the world. Specifically, it does not represent the USA, or China, or Israel, or Russia; to name but a few. There was another international institution that didn’t have the support of the USA – it was the League of Nations, the predecessor of the UN which was, somewhat ironically, established largely due to the ferocious campaiging of the then-US president Woodrow Wilson. He persuaded the world to join, but not the US Congress; and from that moment the League of Nations became a lame duck, failing utterly to prevent the the second World War.

Similarly, the ICC suffers massively from the lack of support from key countries, allowing others to ignore it as and when necessary. This was most evident after the March 2009 arrest warrant for Sudan’s Omar Bashir, when all African countries (with the honourable exception of Botswana; again leading the continent in respect for rights for all humans except bushmen) chose to ignore the warrant at the AU conference in Siirte. The refusal of the US and China to participate in the ICC process meant that they would face few repercussions by ignoring the ICC’s arrest warrant.

There is also a distinct whiff of the political in the ICC’s choice of exaclty who to prosecute, and when to do so. African countries have been up in arms at the perceived anti-African agenda of the court. A quick look at the list of faces being prosecuted by the court reveals an astonishing racial bias – they’re all black Africans. According to the ICC, only black people have committed war crimes in the last few years. And bear in mind that not all these faces are from countries which are signatories to the Rome Statute. Sudan “unsigned” the Rome Statute – relieving itself of all obligations to the ICC – in August 2008, six months before Bashir was indicted. Yet the ICC has not gone after the citzens of any other non-signatory nations for atrocities; say in Iraq (Fallujah, perhaps, or Abu Ghraib?), or in the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip. It has also not gone after seemingly obvious targets such as Osama bin Laden. Of course, there are enough people looking for Osama, and enough charges against him, that another one from the ICC would make little real difference [For the record, Osama’s hiding here]. But it would make significant symbolic difference, and this is what the ICC so far has failed to understand. Of course, the UN Security Council must take some responsibility, as one of the primary bodies that can refer cases to the ICC. But by only prosecuting African faces – regardless of the fact that those faces are fully deserving of prosecution – the court is sending a message that citizens of other countries are above the law; defeating the whole point of an impartial, international criminal court, and making it so much easier to ignore.

As soon as the law is applied to everyone, then the ICC will stand a much greater change of gaining the respect it deserves. Investigating the Gaza flotilla incident might be a good place to start.

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Israel goes 4th in international waters

An estimated 19 people are dead. The world united in condemnation (of various degrees; my favourite is the “…regrets the loss of life” formulation, which says nothing at all really: the US, UN, UK and Tony Blair are all culprits). Israel’s really messed this one up. But what exactly did they think was going to happen? How could intercepting a ship full of angry activists, in international waters, not end badly? Surely someone could foresee this.

So: has the famous Israeli PR machine lost the plot? Or, is a more cunning strategy at play here? For the answer to this question, one only needs to look at how Israel usually handles confrontation; that is, how it deals with the Palestinians.

Israeli behaviour toward the Palestinians often appears contradictory. On the one hand, Israel condemned and punished radical groups like Hamas, while on the other Israel’s overt, unnecessary aggression in the Palestinian territories encouraged Hamas’s existence. A minor but illustrative example: every Friday, a group of Palestinians, Israelis and internationals gather outside the mosque of the small West Bank Palestinian village of Bil’in. They’re here with banners and slogans, to protest the incursion of the security wall into traditional village farmland. A disjointed march to the fence ensues, where Israeli troops wait, armed with tear gas, noise machines, rubber bullets and, on occasion, raw sewage. These weapons, in varying combinations, are deployed every week to disperse the protest, despite the fact that the protest is completely peaceful (bar a few poorly-aimed stones). Such a disproportionate response leaves protestors more bitter and angry than when they began; it is a response designed to drive people further away from the middle ground, to make people less amenable to peaceful, moderate solutions.

This template is repeated in almost all of Israel’s actions in Palestine, from the aggressive settlement expansion policy to the alleged war crimes committed in the 2009 war on Gaza, with each overly aggressive reaction pushing more people away from compromise into the arms of radical groups such as Hamas. In other words, Israel’s actions and reactions help to create the very radical groups which it claims to despise.

This much is an observable conclusion, and not particularly revelatory; what is more interesting is the motivation for this strategy of radicalisation. Underpinning it is a truth which is whispered but rarely vocalised: that Israel is happy with the status quo. That Israel – with all the land, all the prosperity, and now with increasingly effective security – sees peace as bringing not benefits but concessions, concessions which pose a much more serious threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Israeli state than do Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Imagine a Palestine united under a peaceful, moderate and forgiving political party; the international pressure on Israel to strike a deal and to make real concessions would be near irresistible. However, a fractured Palestinian opposition, with the radical, militant and terrorist Hamas in the ascendancy is easy to ignore; indeed, under the rubric of the war of terrorism, Israel is actively encouraged to ignore such groups. By pushing Palestinians towards radicalism, Israel is carefully ensuring that there is no partner on the Palestinian side with whom it must strike some kind of meaningful bargain.

This tactic isn’t new. The apartheid government in South Africa employed it to great effect, pushing the ANC from a relatively peaceful and moderate opposition party to a fully-fledged militant organisation; a move which allowed the ANC and its members to be demonised, a key factor in securing the continued support from white South Africans and the international community for apartheid’s racist policies.

And this is the policy that Israel tried to enact today in the seas (just) outside Israel. Board the boats; use some violence; pin it on Al-Qaeda and Hamas links; and push otherwise moderate, peaceful protestors further away from the middle ground, making them even less of a threat. But Israel has – perhaps fatally – misjudged the international mood, and does not realise that they have turned into the bad guys. And far from pushing opponents away from the middle ground, they have just pushed themselves away from the middle ground, and are increasingly seen as stubborn, selfish and abusive.

What has worked for so long against the Palestinians will not work against the whole world. Israel’s misjudged this one, and it is only a matter of time before they will pay the price in the form of serious political concessions, be it lifting of the blockade or real talks with the Palestinians (including Hamas).

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The South African Zionist Front goes 4th

Richard Goldstone, author of the controversial Goldstone Report, has agreed not to attend his grandson’s bar mitzvah after immense pressure from the South African Zionist Forum (SAZF), who threatened to protest outside. Clearly, they don’t consider him a real Jew after his report which detailed both Palestinian and Israeli war crimes in the 2009 Gaza war. The report was not inherently controversial, but the Israeli PR machine immediately kicked up a storm, invoking anti-semitism and the Holocaust to explain away the report’s contents as malicious fabrication. Israel – and the SAZF, who are just echoing Israel’s time-honoured tactics – would like us all to believe that Israel and Judaism are one and the same thing. But this is just not true. It is possible for a person to be both Jewish and anti-Israel, just as it is possible to be anti-Israel and not anti-semitic. One such man is Richard Goldstone, who did not let his religion interfere with the content of his work. As Goldstone’s grandson comes of age, he should follow his grandfather’s fine example and not the narrow-minded, prejudiced views espoused by the likes of the SAZF.

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Hamas going forth responsibly

Ina move that verges on being sensible and responsible, Hamas has summarily ordered the closure of all the tunnels coming in to Gaza to prevent the possibility of less sensible elements kidnapping Israeli tourists. This is a bold move: the tunnels are Gaza’s primary lifeline in the face of the intensive Israeli blockade, and their closure will not be a popular move. However, if this prevents a kidnapping then it is a necessary decision, because the likely Israeli reaction would be vicious. Hamas, of course, is sensible and responsible a lot more often than they are generally given credit for, and decisions like this are important in increasing their international legitimacy. If a Palestinian solution is going to be reached, it is going to have to be with their involvement, and the easier they are for the West to trust the more likely they are to be involved.

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