Archives for November 2009

The European minaret-missile threat

The European minaret-missile threat

Bigotry is on the rise in “the westerly excrescence of the continent of Asia.”

That unpoetic but topographically-precise description of Europe comes from the Oxford archeologist, Barry Cunliffe.

Whenever voices declaring that European culture is under threat are at their most strident, it’s always worth remembering the actual nature of Europe’s physical form.

As a continent it is nothing more than a malleable contrivance with its ambiguous, historically shifting eastern edge. As a result, it is and always has been, an ethnic and cultural melting pot.

Thus the irony when Europe’s self-appointed protectors take a firm stand in the name of its defense: they so often lack a real appreciation for the very thing to which they have pledged their allegiance.

Why is it that the people who most easily become possessed by ideas about cultural purity are themselves so often culturally impoverished?

Because culture in its richness and complexity is not the real issue.

This is about how individuals respond to the other.

Does the unfamiliar prompt interest and curiosity?

Or does it provoke fear?

Fear in response to the other says more about the fearful than it says about the objects they fear.

The fear of the foreign is at its root a fear of becoming foreign. It is a fear of becoming a stranger in one’s own land.

* * *

In the latest outbreak of European xenophobia, the minaret has become a missile in a campaign to ban their construction — that is, the construction of minarets, not missiles.

This is a curious iconic transformation. Is the Swiss People’s Party suggesting that Switzerland, in which currently there are only four minarets, is at risk of becoming a missile-minaret launching pad threatening the rest of Europe with Islamization? (After all, their posters depict missile-minarets ready for launch — not incoming missile-minarets about to explode.)

By Sunday it became apparent that Swiss voters had little interest in dissecting the visual absurdity of the campaign poster — a majority seemed to have bought the implicit message: Islam = violence, death and destruction.

The campaign’s final week of fear-mongering managed to raise support for the ban from 37% up to 57.5%, with passage in the majority of cantons meaning that a constitutional amendment will follow.

As The Guardian reported:

The controversial referendum on Sunday, accompanied by a prohibition campaign denounced as racist and in violation of human rights, is the latest tussle in Europe over the limits of multiculturalism and immigrant lifestyles.

Pushed by anti-immigrant rightwing populists, it has triggered months of debate in a country that uses direct democracy for single-issue politics. The referendum has turned into much more than a vote on architecture and urban planning.

“The minaret has got nothing to do with religion. It’s a symbol of political power, a prelude to the introduction of sharia law,” argued Ulrich Schlüer, of the rightwing Swiss People’s party, an architect of the campaign.

Two years ago the SPP became the strongest party in Switzerland, with an anti-immigrant election campaign that featured posters of three white sheep kicking a black sheep off a red and white Swiss flag. UN experts and human rights activists condemned the campaign as overtly racist.

This time the SPP has plastered the country with posters showing the same flag as a base for several black minarets, portrayed as missiles, alongside a woman clad in a black burqa. Church leaders, the Jewish community and Muslim leaders have all opposed the campaign. The foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, warned that a vote in favour risked turning Switzerland into “a target for Islamic terrorism”. The city of Basel and other towns have proscribed the incendiary posters.

Amnesty International said: “Freedom of religious belief is a basic human right and changing the Swiss constitution to ban the construction of minarets would clearly breach the rights of the country’s Muslims.”

UN human rights experts have said the proposed ban violates freedom of religion and liberty. The Swiss justice minister, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, has agreed, declaring that it would breach anti-discrimination laws and rights to free religious observance, raising the question of why the campaign has been allowed.

Tariq Ramadan, Switzerland’s most famous Muslim, suggests that what his country’s Muslim population is being told is that the only good Swiss Muslim is an invisible Muslim.

Ramadan was recently interviewed by the Swiss magazine, L’illustré, where Arnaud Bédat asked him to comment on the fears of his fellow citizens. (Translation by Rashed Chowdhury.)

Tariq Ramadan: One must respect the fear of ordinary citizens, while one also must resist in civic fashion populist parties which are instrumentalising fear in order to win elections. The majority of our fellow Swiss citizens are not racists: they are afraid and they would like to understand. Swiss people of the Muslim faith have a real responsibility to communicate and explain…. At the same time, one must refuse to allow populism to install itself. The problem is that the UDC [the Democratic Union of the Centre, another name for the Swiss People’s Party] initiative is using the symbol of the minaret to target Islam as a religion. I have had debates with Mr. Freysinger. [Oskar Freysinger is a parliamentarian in the Swiss People’s Party and a driving force in the campaign.] What does he say? That “Islam is not integratable into Swiss society.” So he says to me, to me, and I am Swiss like him, that “You are not a good Swiss person, you cannot be one, since your quality of being a Muslim prevents you from being a good Swiss person.” That is the foundation of the debate: the problem is Islam, not minarets.

Arnaud Bédat: But the minaret, you write so yourself, is not a pillar of Muslim faith.

TR: Yes, but is that a reason to say “Since it is not an obligation, you don’t need it”?… Does it have to be that the only good Swiss Muslim is an invisible Muslim? Is this the future of our pluralism and of our living together?

AB: Numerous Islamic countries forbid other religions on their territory — there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia, for example. Is it not ultimately logical that part of the West reject Islam on its territory?

TR: This is the oft-repeated argument of reciprocity. It is untenable. Respect for the rights and dignity of people is not a question of trade. It falls to us, to us in Switzerland, to preserve our principles of respect, and to not allow ourselves to be colonised by the unacceptable practices of other societies. Let us say first of all that it is wrong to say that religious minorities are always discriminated against in Muslim-majority societies. There are synagogues, churches and temples [there]. However, one should not deny the fact that discrimination and the denial of rights do occur, as in Saudi Arabia. One cannot hold Swiss citizens and residents of Muslim faith responsible for the actions of certain dictatorial governments from which they have often, by the way, fled for political or economic reasons. What one can expect from them [Swiss Muslims], nevertheless, from a moral point of view, is a denunciation of discrimination and ill treatment. That is something I do not stop doing, which has closed the doors of several countries, such as Saudi Arabia, to me.

AB: Do you dream, as you detractors claim, of a world that is entirely Muslim?

TR: No. I was born, have lived and have studied in Switzerland; my whole philosophical education comes from that. I have always believed that those who do not share my beliefs allow me to be more myself. The absolute power or uniformisation of a religion on earth would mean corruption and death. The worst that could happen to Muslims is if the whole world became Muslim! That is not even what God’s project is. There has to be diversity and difference. Because difference teaches us humility and respect.

To which I would add: The cultural ecosystem, or the ethnosphere as Wade Davis has named it, thrives on diversity.

Monoculture is inherently unstable because it lacks the strength that comes from constant adaptation necessitated by complexity and constant change.

Think about it. What would Europe be had it never been open to the influence of foreign cultures?

Christianity wasn’t born in Zurich — it came from the Middle East!

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Iraq Inquiry bombshell: Secret letter to reveal new Blair war lies

Iraq Inquiry bombshell: Secret letter to reveal new Blair war lies

An explosive secret letter that exposes how Tony Blair lied over the legality of the Iraq War can be revealed.

The Chilcot Inquiry into the war will interrogate the former Prime Minister over the devastating ‘smoking gun’ memo, which warned him in the starkest terms the war was illegal.

The Mail on Sunday can disclose that Attorney General Lord Goldsmith wrote the letter to Mr Blair in July 2002 – a full eight months before the war – telling him that deposing Saddam Hussein was a blatant breach of international law.

It was intended to make Mr Blair call off the invasion, but he ignored it. Instead, a panicking Mr Blair issued instructions to gag Lord Goldsmith, banned him from attending Cabinet meetings and ordered a cover-up to stop the public finding out.

He even concealed the bombshell information from his own Cabinet, fearing it would spark an anti-war revolt. The only people he told were a handful of cronies who were sworn to secrecy. [continued…]

Jeremy Greenstock, UK diplomat, says US was ‘hell bent’ on Iraq invasion

The United States was “hell bent” on a 2003 military invasion of Iraq and actively undermined efforts by Britain to win international authorization for the war, a former British diplomat told an inquiry Friday.

Jeremy Greenstock, British ambassador to the United Nations from 1998 to 2003, said that President George W. Bush had no real interest in attempts to agree on a U.N. resolution to provide explicit backing for the conflict.

The ex-diplomat, who served as Britain’s envoy in Iraq after the invasion, said serious preparations for the war had begun in early 2002 and took on an unstoppable momentum. [continued…]

Why Turkey was the Iraq war’s real winner

Turkey’s economy has more than doubled in the past decade, converting the nation from a backwater to a regional powerhouse. At the same time, its financial focus has moved closer to home: Turkey now conducts more trade with Russia, Iraq, and Iran than it does with the EU. Energy politics have also favored the Turks, who find themselves astride no fewer than three competing energy supply routes to Europe—from Russia, from the Caspian, and from Iran. Years of reform and stability are paying off as well. Ankara is on the verge of a historic deal with its Kurdish minority to end an insurgency that has left 35,000 dead in the past quarter century. In turn, Turkey is making peace with neighboring countries that once supported the insurgents, such as Syria, Iran, and Armenia. The principle is simple, says a senior Erdogan aide who’s not authorized to speak on the record: “We can’t be prosperous if we live in a poor neighborhood. We can’t be secure if we live in a violent one.”

The advantages keep compounding. Thanks to judicious diplomacy and expanding business ties throughout the region, Turkey is close to realizing what Davutoglu calls his “zero-problems-with-neighbors policy.” The new stance has boosted Ankara’s influence even further; the Turks have become the trouble-ridden region’s mediators of choice, called in to help with disputes between the Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, between Iraq and Syria—even, before Erdogan’s outburst in Davos, between Israel and Syria. Speaking at a recent press conference in Rome, Erdogan expressed little hope that Turkey could do more for Syria and Israel. “[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu doesn’t trust us,” he said. “That’s his choice.” But others in the region still welcome Ankara’s assistance: Turkish diplomats are excellently trained in conflict resolution. [continued…]

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Zardari turns over nuclear authority

Zardari turns over nuclear authority

Pakistan’s embattled president, Asif Ali Zardari, has transferred command of the country’s nuclear arsenal to the prime minister, as he comes under increasing pressure to step down.

The dramatic move signaled that Mr. Zardari was willing to give up some of his powers to defuse the escalating opposition to him. The move came as an amnesty protecting him and some of his key ministers from corruption charges expired on Saturday. Mr. Zardari shed his powers as chairman of the National Command Authority through a presidential decree issued late Friday night, giving the responsibility to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.

The transfer of authority to the prime minister won’t make much practical difference as Pakistan’s nuclear-weapon program is effectively controlled by the country’s powerful military. [continued…]

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Secret jails and torture under Obama’s watch

2 Afghans allege abuse at U.S. site

Two Afghan teenagers held in U.S. detention north of Kabul this year said they were beaten by American guards, photographed naked, deprived of sleep and held in solitary confinement in concrete cells for at least two weeks while undergoing daily interrogation about their alleged links to the Taliban.

The accounts could not be independently substantiated. But in successive, on-the-record interviews, the teenagers presented a detailed, consistent portrait suggesting that the abusive treatment of suspected insurgents has in some cases continued under the Obama administration, despite steps that President Obama has said would put an end to the harsh interrogation practices authorized by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The two teenagers — Issa Mohammad, 17, and Abdul Rashid, who said he is younger than 16 — said in interviews this week that they were punched and slapped in the face by their captors during their time at Bagram air base, where they were held in individual cells. Rashid said his interrogator forced him to look at pornography alongside a photograph of his mother. [continued…]

Afghans detail detention in ‘black jail’ at U.S. base

An American military detention camp in Afghanistan is still holding inmates, sometimes for weeks at a time, without access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, according to human rights researchers and former detainees held at the site on the Bagram Air Base.

The site, known to detainees as the black jail, consists of individual windowless concrete cells, each illuminated by a single light bulb glowing 24 hours a day. In interviews, former detainees said that their only human contact was at twice-daily interrogation sessions.

“The black jail was the most dangerous and fearful place,” said Hamidullah, a spare-parts dealer in Kandahar who said he was detained there in June. “They don’t let the I.C.R.C. officials or any other civilians see or communicate with the people they keep there. Because I did not know what time it was, I did not know when to pray.”

The jail’s operation highlights a tension between President Obama’s goal to improve detention conditions that had drawn condemnation under the Bush administration and his stated desire to give military commanders leeway to operate. While Mr. Obama signed an order to eliminate so-called black sites run by the Central Intelligence Agency in January, it did not also close this jail, which is run by military Special Operations forces. [continued…]

Matthew Hoh speaks grim truth to power

The rare resignation on principle is always telling in American government. When Matthew Hoh recently left the State Department — a Marine Captain in Iraq who became a diplomat in Afghanistan — his act was significant far beyond the first reports.

Hoh speaks grim truth to power. His message is that to pursue the Afghan war policy in any guise — regardless of the troop level President Obama now chooses — will be utter folly, trapping America in an unwinnable civil war in the Hindu Kush, and only fueling terrorism. [continued…]

Senate report explores 2001 escape by bin Laden from Afghan mountains

As President Obama vows to “finish the job” in Afghanistan by sending more troops, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has completed a detailed look back at a crucial failure early in the battle against Al Qaeda: the escape of Osama bin Laden from American forces in the Afghan mountains of Tora Bora in December 2001.

“Removing the Al Qaeda leader from the battlefield eight years ago would not have eliminated the worldwide extremist threat,” the committee’s report concludes. “But the decisions that opened the door for his escape to Pakistan allowed bin Laden to emerge as a potent symbolic figure who continues to attract a steady flow of money and inspire fanatics worldwide.”

The report, based in part on a little-noticed 2007 history of the Tora Bora episode by the military’s Special Operations Command, asserts that the consequences of not sending American troops in 2001 to block Mr. bin Laden’s escape into Pakistan are still being felt.

The report blames the lapse for “laying the foundation for today’s protracted Afghan insurgency and inflaming the internal strife now endangering Pakistan.”

Its release comes just as the Obama administration is preparing to announce an increase in forces in Afghanistan. [continued…]

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Israel is lying to itself about ‘united Jerusalem’

Israel is lying to itself about ‘united Jerusalem’

Those types have always been seen on big-city streets, talking to themselves, asking and answering, shouting, speaking in a low voice, deliberating and pontificating. As children, we were afraid of them. They were “crazy.” That’s exactly what Israeli public discourse is like. We are talking to ourselves, inventing bogus axioms and sticking with them as if they were decreed from on high, convinced that the whole world accepts them. But we are only talking to ourselves. No one else accepts them. The Israeli collective is not only talking to itself, it’s deceiving itself completely.

Jerusalem is a perfect example of this. It’s a neglected city, filthy and in parts frightfully ugly, stricken by poverty and ignorance. Nationalist, religious and social tensions are tearing it asunder, and part of the city is under the burden of occupation with all its most violent characteristics. The purported education, culture, openness and prosperity – far from the actual situation – are the locus of our national aspirations.

It’s a capital city which not a single country in the world recognizes, but it’s “our eternal capital,” in the words of the prime minister. It’s a relatively marginal city, certainly when compared to Tel Aviv. From many standpoints it’s a city on the margins which secular Israelis don’t exactly flock to for a good time. It’s a city even the prime minister preaches about. But he doesn’t practice what he preaces when he flees the city for the weekend, whenever he can. It’s the “heart of the nation,” but a city that has gradually become the city of the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs, society’s two poorest minorities. [Read more…]

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Avi Shlaim in conversation with Shlomo Sand

Avi Shlaim in conversation with Shlomo Sand

Shlomo Sand, author of Invention of the Jewish People, and Avi Shlaim, author of Israel and Palestine, in conversation about their new books at a packed Frontline Club yesterday. Chaired by Jacqueline Rose, author of The Last Resistance.

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Luladinejad

Luladinejad

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Release of secret reports delayed

Release of secret reports delayed

President Obama will maintain a lid of secrecy on millions of pages of military and intelligence documents that were scheduled to be declassified by the end of the year, according to administration officials.

The missed deadline spells trouble for the White House’s promises to introduce an era of government openness, say advocates, who believe that releasing historical information enforces a key check on government behavior. They cite as an example the abuses by the Central Intelligence Agency during the Cold War, including domestic spying and assassinations of foreign officials, that were publicly outlined in a set of agency documents known as the “family jewels.’’

The documents in question – all more than 25 years old – were scheduled to be declassified on Dec. 31 under an order originally signed by President Bill Clinton and amended by President George W. Bush. [continued…]

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Jerusalem’s Jewish bigots

Mouths filled with hatred

Father Samuel Aghoyan, a senior Armenian Orthodox cleric in Jerusalem’s Old City, says he’s been spat at by young haredi and national Orthodox Jews “about 15 to 20 times” in the past decade. The last time it happened, he said, was earlier this month. “I was walking back from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and I saw this boy in a yarmulke and ritual fringes coming back from the Western Wall, and he spat at me two or three times.”

Wearing a dark-blue robe, sitting in St. James’s Church, the main Armenian church in the Old City, Aghoyan said, “Every single priest in this church has been spat on. It happens day and night.”

Father Athanasius, a Texas-born Franciscan monk who heads the Christian Information Center inside the Jaffa Gate, said he’s been spat at by haredi and national Orthodox Jews “about 15 times in the last six months” – not only in the Old City, but also on Rehov Agron near the Franciscan friary. “One time a bunch of kids spat at me, another time a little girl spat at me,” said the brown-robed monk near the Jaffa Gate.

“All 15 monks at our friary have been spat at,” he said. “Every [Christian cleric in the Old City] who’s been here for awhile, who dresses in robes in public, has a story to tell about being spat at. The more you get around, the more it happens.” [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Larry Derfner underlines: “Every Christian cleric interviewed for this article stressed that they weren’t blaming Israeli Jewry as a whole for the spitting attacks; on the contrary, they said their general reception by Israeli Jews, both secular and religious, was one of welcome.”

Even so, the historical resonances of these particular expressions of Jewish bigotry, with their anti-Semitic European, segregated American and Apartheid South African counterparts, are inescapable:

A nun in her 60s who’s lived in an east Jerusalem convent for decades says she was spat at for the first time by a haredi man on Rehov Agron about 25 years ago. “As I was walking past, he spat on the ground right next to my shoes and he gave me a look of contempt,” said the black-robed nun, sitting inside the convent. “It took me a moment, but then I understood.”

Since then, the nun, who didn’t want to be identified, recalls being spat at three different times by young national Orthodox Jews on Jaffa Road, three different times by haredi youth near Mea She’arim and once by a young Jewish woman from her second-story window in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter.

But the spitting incidents weren’t the worst, she said – the worst was the time she was walking down Jaffa Road and a group of middle-aged haredi men coming her way pointed wordlessly to the curb, motioning her to move off the sidewalk to let them pass, which she did.

Derfner adds: “Christians in Israel are a small, weak community known for ‘turning the other cheek,’ so these Jewish xenophobes feel free to spit on them; they don’t spit on Muslims in the Old City because they’re afraid to, the clerics noted.”

The targets of such expressions of contempt are however not confined to members of the Christian clergy.

Anne Barker, a reporter for Australia’s ABC News, described an incident this summer in which she became a victim of ultra-Orthodox Jewish hatred while she covered what have become frequent demonstrations in Jerusalem by Jews intent on preserving the sanctity of the Shabbat which they see threatened by secularism.

I was mindful I would need to dress conservatively and keep out of harm’s way. But I made my mistake when I parked the car and started walking towards the protest, not fully sure which street was which.

By the time I realised I’d come up the wrong street it was too late.

I suddenly found myself in the thick of the protest – in the midst of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews in their long coats and sable-fur hats.

They might be supremely religious, but their behaviour – to me – was far from charitable or benevolent.

As the protest became noisier and the crowd began yelling, I took my recorder and microphone out of my bag to record the sound.

Suddenly the crowd turned on me, screaming in my face. Dozens of angry men began spitting on me.

I found myself herded against a brick wall as they kept on spitting – on my face, my hair, my clothes, my arms.

It was like rain, coming at me from all directions – hitting my recorder, my bag, my shoes, even my glasses.

Big gobs of spit landed on me like heavy raindrops. I could even smell it as it fell on my face.

Somewhere behind me – I didn’t see him – a man on a stairway either kicked me in the head or knocked something heavy against me.

I wasn’t even sure why the mob was angry with me. Was it because I was a journalist? Or a woman? Because I wasn’t Jewish in an Orthodox area? Was I not dressed conservatively enough?

In fact, I was later told, it was because using a tape-recorder is itself a desecration of the Shabbat even though I’m not Jewish and don’t observe the Sabbath.

It was lucky that I don’t speak Yiddish. At least I was spared the knowledge of whatever filth they were screaming at me.

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Intel Inside? Prove it.

Intel Inside? Prove it.

Here is a thought experiment. It is Sunday, and various employees of Intel’s R&D and consulting facility in Chantilly, VA, just outside of Washington, are working through the week-end. The facility is suddenly surrounded by several thousand evangelical Christians–mainly educated at Regent University, and led by the aged Pat Robertson–who demand that the company shut down the facility, so as not to violate the holy Sabbath. Windows are shattered by rock throwers. State police move in, but do not disband the mobs.

So Intel’s senior management go into a huddle. They authorize the local management team to meet with Robertson’s representatives, along with representatives from the Virginia governor’s office, now in the hands of rightist Republicans. At first Intel threatens to pull out of Virginia. But finally they approve a compromise agreement. The facility can stay open, the agreement states, but the shifts will be reduced. Also, on Sundays, only non-Christians can work there.

Imagine, in this fantasy, what the Intel board would face at the next shareholders’ meeting. Or imagine the employee emails the corporation’s global “Director of Diversity,” Rosalind Hudnell, would be fielding the next morning.

Well, if haven’t already heard, something quite like this just happened in Jerusalem.

A week ago Saturday, Intel’s facility on Har Ha’Hotzvim–a technology park in a belt of land near (but not at all in) the burgeoning ultraOrthodox neighborhood of Sanhedria–was surrounded and vandalized by acolytes of various Haredi rabbis, most notably, the leader of Eda, Rabbi Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss. Intel met with representatives of the Haredi groups, facilitated by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin–both rightists tied to Haredi voters. The Sabbath shift, so the “compromise” stipulates, will be cut from 120 employees to 20. None of them will be Jews. (By the way, this absurd agreement may have satisfied most, but not Rabbi Weiss. His mobs were back yesterday demanding a complete shut down.) [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The more exposed the conflict becomes between the forces of secularism and religious fundamentalism inside Israel, the more it would seem that Israel depends on durable external enemies as the indispensable means for forging national unity.

Bring an end to the Israeli-Arab conflict and Israel might well then rip itself apart.

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South Africa: Israel actions in East Jerusalem akin to apartheid

South Africa: Israel actions in East Jerusalem akin to apartheid

The South African government has issued an unusually harsh statement condemning Israel for approving 900 new housing units in Gilo and evicting Palestinians from their East Jerusalem homes, comparing Israel’s actions to the “forced removals” of the apartheid era.

“We condemn the fact that Israeli settlement expansion in East Jerusalem is coupled with Israel’s campaign to evict and displace the original Palestinian residents from the City,” the statement said. “South Africa is deeply concerned that these activities by Israel will only serve only to deepen the cycle of violence in the region.”

Israeli officials and Jewish leaders in South Africa condemned the statement.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said: “We deeply regret this unexplainable statement, which ignores key facts while presenting as realities nonexistent matters. It is highly misleading not to take cognizance of Israel’s repeated calls to renew peace talks unconditionally and without deferral. It is simply unjust to call the neighborhood of Gilo a ‘settlement,’ or to conjure a phantasmagorical ‘campaign to evict Palestinians.'” [Read more…]

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Barghouti: Shalit abduction achieved what no dialogue could

Barghouti: Shalit abduction achieved what no dialogue could

Fatah strongman Marwan Barghouti said in an interview on Wednesday that he intends to run in the next Palestinian presidential election, and remarked that the abduction of Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit by Gaza militants achieved what no negotiations could ever achieve.

Shalit was kidnapped in a cross border raid in 2006, and has been held prisoner by Hamas for over three years. Recent reports suggest that Israel and Hamas are closer than ever to reaching an agreement on a deal that would see hundreds of Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for Shalit’s freedom. It is unclear whether Barghouti will be among those prisoners, as he is currently serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison for his role in murderous terror attacks. [Read more…]

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Why can we talk to Hamas about Shalit, but not peace?

Why can we talk to Hamas about Shalit, but not peace?

hy is it permissible to talk to Hamas about the fate of one captive soldier and another several hundred prisoners, but forbidden to talk to them about the fate of two nations? Never has Israeli logic been so distorted. Now, when our hearts look forward to the deal’s implementation, when every human heart should look forward to Gilad Shalit’s release – and yes, to the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, some of them political prisoners for all intents and purposes, not just “terrorists with blood on their hands” – now is the time to finally rid ourselves of some of the foolish prohibitions we have imposed on ourselves and the entire international community.

It is now clear that there is someone to talk to. In Gaza and Damascus sit tough but reasonable statesmen. They are also concerned, in their own way, about the fate of their people, they too aspire to bring them freedom and justice. When the deal is implemented we will also discover that they can be taken at their word. Were it not for the fact that Israel is holding tens of thousands of prisoners – some who used base means to achieve a just objective – who are judged differently from Jewish murderers and criminals, perhaps Hamas would not have had to use the weapon of kidnapping. [Read more…]

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West Bank settlers carry on building as new freeze is proposed

West Bank settlers carry on building as new freeze is proposed

At the small Jewish community of Revava in the northern West Bank, it was difficult to see yesterday what difference Israel’s freeze on settlement building would make. Construction continued on 20 housing units and the locals were apparently unperturbed by politicking between Jerusalem and Washington.

Under the proposal announced by Binyamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, no new residential permits will be issued and no new residential construction can start for ten months in the West Bank, excluding east Jerusalem. This was not stopping an American-Israeli homeowner and his family, who were working on the shell of their new house — one of 3,000 that have already been started and which will, therefore, continue.

The settlers of Revava admitted that existing curbs on building were beginning to bite. “It is a big problem,” said David, an armed private security guard. “There’s a great demand for housing here. There are lots of people applying for housing. My family lived in a three-room apartment but the family grew and now it is too small.”

The settlers, who call the West Bank area Judea and Samaria, said that they would do their best to continue building, despite the Government’s plans. “This is the heartland of our national claim, and the essence of Zionism is the return to the heartland where we once lived,” said David Ha-Ivry, a spokesman for the Jewish community in the northern West Bank. “There are things that can be done [by the Government] to make it difficult for us to proceed, but we find solutions. It’s part of the game. We’re doing pretty well.” [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Anywhere else in the world, what the Israeli government calls a “freeze” would be called a development plan.

Even if this ten-month pause is actually enforced (and that, as the article above suggests, seems unlikely), to stop housing construction while continuing infrastructure and services expansion is transparently a plan to further entrench the policy of colonization.

Haaretz reports: “Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday ordered the IDF to issue a temporary freeze order, but at the same time allowed the construction of 28 new public buildings in settlements.”

Perhaps the Israeli government should adopt a new expression for their practice of animated suspension: a fluid freeze.

Can Obama stand up to Israel?

President Obama urgently needs to distance Washington from the provocative – and illegal – actions the Israeli government has been undertaking in Jerusalem.

He needs to do this to save the two-state solution that he supports between Israelis and Palestinians. He needs to do it, too, because it will help protect US troops around the world. Jerusalem is a core concern for many of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, and with US forces now facing tense situations in several majority-Muslim countries, Washington has a stronger need than ever to keep the goodwill of the peoples of those lands. [continued…]

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Approval of Obama on Afghan war dives

Approval of Obama on Afghan war dives

Public approval of President Obama’s handling of the war in Afghanistan has plummeted, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, amid rising pessimism about the course of the conflict.

The nation is divided over what to do next: Nearly half of those surveyed endorse deploying thousands of additional U.S. troops, while four in 10 say it’s time to begin withdrawing forces. [continued…]

Two sides of the Coin

The proponents of Coin – or “Coinistas”, as they have come to be known – point to the success of the 2007 US military “surge” in troop numbers in Iraq under the leadership of General David Petraeus, which they credit with reducing the levels of violence and insurgency across the country.

It is this “surge narrative” that has emboldened the Coinistas, but traditionalists, such as Colonel Gian Gentile, director of the military history programme at the US Military Academy at West Point, remain unconvinced.

The dramatic drop in violence in Iraq was the result of “a decision by senior American leaders in 2007 to pay large amounts of money to Sunni insurgents to stop attacking Americans and join the fight against al-Qaeda”, says Gentile, who remains an outspoken critic of Coin despite being an active-duty officer. “Coupled with this was the decision by the Shia militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr to refrain from attacking coalition forces.”

Gentile, who commanded a cavalry squad­ron in west Baghdad before the surge, says his “fundamental mission was to protect the people” and the “overall methods that the US army employed at the small-unit level where [he] operated were no different from the so-called new counter-insurgency methods used today”.

Aside from the Iraq surge, Coinistas also point to earlier examples from history where counter-insurgency methods seem to have succeeded – in particular, the British colonial experience in Malaya (now Malaysia) between 1948 and 1960.

“Malaya is the ‘gold standard’ for Coin,” says the historian Michael Vlahos, a member of the national security assessment team at Johns Hopkins University. But, he argues, this is a mistaken view: the Chinese Communist insurgents were a tiny and unpopular outside movement removed from the population, the British had a close and credible relationship with the ruling princes, and the local people were politically passive. And, it should be noted, it still took the British a dozen years to prevail. [continued…]

Merkel under fire as general resigns over Kunduz massacre

The head of Germany’s armed forces has resigned over allegations of a military cover-up following a Nato air strike in Afghanistan that killed dozens of civilians. General Wolfgang Schneiderhan’s resignation caps a deeply embarrassing episode for Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government over the country’s policy in Afghanistan.

The 4 September bombing of two oil tankers in the northern Afghan town of Kunduz caused carnage, and was the deadliest incident involving German troops since the Second World War. At first the German Nato forces, which had ordered the attack, claimed that all those killed in the incident were insurgents, although later the government in Berlin expressed regrets if innocent people had been among the victims.

Yesterday General Schneiderhan, the highest ranking official in the Germany armed forces, asked to be relieved of his duties for failing to pass on crucial information to ministers. Peter Wichert, a deputy defence minister who was in office at the time of the attack also stepped down. The resignations came after Bild newspaper published photographs from a secret army video indicating that civilian deaths were known about even as the then defence minister, Franz Josef Jung, was insisting that there was no evidence to show anyone but Taliban fighters had died. [continued…]

Taliban leader says U.S. faces defeat in Afghanistan

As President Obama prepares to unveil his long-deliberated war strategy, the Taliban’s supreme commander declared Wednesday that U.S.-led forces would find only defeat, dishonor and “a bed of thorns” in Afghanistan.

The statement came as the White House announced that Obama will deliver a televised speech about the war Tuesday from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He is expected to announce higher troop levels for Afghanistan and detail a plan for ultimately withdrawing U.S. forces. [continued…]

Pakistan Taliban regrouping outside Waziristan

Since the Pakistani army launched a long-awaited offensive last month to destroy the Taliban in South Waziristan, many militants have fled to nearby districts and begun to establish new strongholds, a strategy that suggests they will regroup and remain a potent threat to the country’s weak, U.S.-backed government.

Pakistani Taliban militants have escaped primarily to Kurram and Orakzai, districts outside the battle zone but still within Pakistan’s largely ungoverned tribal areas along the Afghan border, villagers there say. The military lacks a significant presence in much of these areas, making them an ideal environment for the Islamic militants to regroup.

Newly arrived militants have terrorized Pashtun residents and replenished their coffers through kidnappings and robberies, villagers said during interviews in the Kurram and Orakzai districts. With AK-47s and rocket launchers slung over their shoulders, the militants have begun patrols through the new territory and have set up checkpoints. [continued…]

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Why we should still talk with Iran

Why we should still talk with Iran

Since I was released from Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison last month, the questions have come again and again: Can we still talk to these people? Should the Obama administration engage in dialogue with Iran? What should the West do in nuclear negotiations? After being jailed, interrogated and beaten by the Revolutionary Guards for 118 days for reporting honestly on the disputed June 12 presidential elections, I am often expected to oppose any dialogue. But the West still needs Iran and should continue talking to it — no matter what it has done to people like me.

Inside Evin, I was forced to confess that I was part of an insidious Western media conspiracy to overthrow the regime. I was forced to apologize to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. I was released as suddenly as I was arrested, without explanation. But my interrogator told me to send a message to the world: “We are a superpower. America’s power is waning, and we will soon overtake them. Now that Americans have started this war against us, we will not let them rest in peace.” He paused, perhaps realizing that he sounded defensive. I was a jailed journalist wearing a blindfold, not some sort of spy. (I’m not even American.) He changed the subject to “soft” war, a term Tehran uses to refer to an imaginary war that it says is promoted by the media against the “holy government of the Islamic Republic.” “We will answer their attacks with all our might,” he said.

The Revolutionary Guards are a schizophrenic bunch, plagued by both deep insecurities and a superiority complex. They have ambitions to take over the government and expand their business empire in Iran. At the same time, they are terrified of individuals and groups that question their grip on power. The Guards are the real power base of Khamenei. They are the main supporters of his claim to be Allah’s representative on Earth. One of the most serious charges against me was insulting Khamenei. In a private e-mail I had wondered whether Khamenei has been blinded by power and had lost touch with his people, and if that was why he was answering people’s peaceful demands with brute force. That was enough for my interrogator to kick and punch me for days and to threaten me with execution. [continued…]

Iranian-American faces new spying charge

An Iranian-American scholar, Kian Tajbakhsh, already serving a 15-year prison sentence for spying, is facing a new charge of spying, a family member said Wednesday.

Mr. Tajbakhsh told his wife during a visit at Evin prison in Tehran that he was taken before the Revolutionary Court on Monday, where a judge read new charges against him of “spying for the George Soros foundation,” a reference to the Open Society Institute, a pro-democracy group founded by Mr. Soros, a prominent financier and philanthropist. The accusation was brought by the intelligence section of the Revolutionary Guards, said the family member, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of complicating the case.

Mr. Tajbakhsh, an urban planner with a doctorate from Columbia University, was arrested in June after protests broke out over that month’s disputed presidential election, which the opposition says was fraudulent. [continued…]

Hezbollah’s Man in Iran

Ever since his right arm was blown off in Iran’s Damascus embassy in the early 1980’s, he has become more careful about where he goes, and whom with. Some Iranians believe that the beautiful book on Shiite Islam which contained the bomb was sent by the Israelis to Iran’s embassy in Damascus, where he had been working. According to Mohtashamipour, he is lucky that he placed the book on the table first, and opened it sideways. Had he opened it in front of his face, his head would have been ripped off from the explosion.

Although it cannot be confirmed, there is reason to believe the accusations suggesting Israel’s involvement. Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour is, after all, the Iranian who established Hezbollah in Lebanon. The first man who tried and failed was Mostafa Chamran. The U.S.-educated Chamran had a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. He was then hired as a senior research staff scientist at Bell Laboratories and NASA. However, once the Islamic opposition against the Shah grew, the religious Chamran found his calling back in Iran amongst his fellow revolutionaries. A fervent Islamist who later became Iran’s Defense Minister, he tried at the beginning of 1980 to establish a pro-Iranian group amongst Lebanon’s Shiites. His main target was the Amal movement, which back then was the main representative of the Shiites in Lebanon’s political arena. However, he found that he was unable to convince them to accept Iran’s Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurists) system, whereby Iran’s Supreme Leader would be accepted by them as God’s representative on earth to all the Shiites. Chamran was killed on the battlefront during the war against Iraq in 1981.

In 1982, Mohtashamipour succeeded where Chamran had failed by convincing the new Hezbollah movement to accept Ayatollah Khomeini’s religious authority. The rest, as they say, is history.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Mohtashamipour is treated like a hero in Iran, but the reality is quite different. Many conservatives hate him; despite the fact that he created what many believe is Islamic Iran’s most successful political and military ally in the Middle East. The reason is simple: he is a reformist. [continued…]

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Switzerland to vote on Islamophobic plan to ban minarets

Switzerland to vote on plan to ban minarets

On Sunday Swiss voters will have their say on a controversial proposal to impose a constitutional ban on the building of minarets.

The proposal is backed by conservative Christian groups and by the biggest party in Switzerland’s parliament, the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which says allowing minarets would lead to the Islamisation of the country.

There are an estimated 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland, most from the former Yugoslavia or Turkey. Islam is the country’s most widespread religion after Christianity, but although there are Muslim prayer rooms, proper mosques with minarets are few and far between.

There are just four across Switzerland, and in recent years, all applications to build minarets have been turned down. [continued…]

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Turkey’s shifting diplomacy

Turkey’s shifting diplomacy

While the United States and Europe have been struggling to find a path forward in the Israel-Palestine conflict, Afghanistan and Iran, the strategic ground upon which their assumptions about the region rest has begun to shift dramatically.

Most significantly, Turkey has finally shrugged off the straightjacket of a tight U.S. alliance, grown virtually indifferent to E.U. membership and turned its focus toward its former Ottoman neighbors in Asia and the Middle East.

Though not primarily meant as a snub to the West, this shift does nonetheless reflect growing discomfort and frustration with U.S. and E.U. policy, from the support of Israel’s action in Gaza to Iran to the frustrated impasse of the European accession process. It also resonates more closely with the Islamic renaissance that has been taking place within Turkey. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Has Turkey grown virtually indifferent to EU membership? I don’t think so. Much more plausible is the likelihood that in pursuing its strategy “zero problems”, Turkey is merely following the paths of least resistance.

The indifference to Turkey’s EU membership is rooted inside Europe and among politicians who are pandering to the Christian right. Unless Europe utterly forgets its secular roots, sooner or later it will recognize that Turkish membership of the EU is in everyone’s interests.

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