News roundup — April 19

New cables released by WikiLeaks reveal the United States’ heavy-handed efforts to help Israel at the U.N.

In the aftermath of Israel’s 2008-2009 intervention into the Gaza Strip, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, led a vigorous campaign to stymie an independent U.N. investigation into possible war crimes, while using the prospect of such a probe as leverage to pressure Israel to participate in a U.S.-backed Middle East peace process, according to previously undisclosed diplomatic cables provided by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

The documents provide a rare glimpse behind the scenes at the U.N. as American diplomats sought to shield Israel’s military from outside scrutiny of its conduct during Operation Cast Lead. Their release comes as the issue is back on the front pages of Israel’s newspapers, following the surprise recent announcement by Richard Goldstone — an eminent South African jurist who led an investigation commissioned by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council — in a Washington Post op-ed that his team had unfairly accused Israel of deliberately targeting Palestinian civilians.

The new documents, though consistent with public U.S. statements at the time opposing a U.N. investigation into Israeli military operations, reveal in extraordinary detail how America wields its power behind closed doors at the United Nations. They also demonstrate how the United States and Israel were granted privileged access to highly sensitive internal U.N. deliberations on an “independent” U.N. board of inquiry into the Gaza war, raising questions about the independence of the process.

In one pointed cable, Rice repeatedly prodded U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to block a recommendation of the board of inquiry to carry out a sweeping inquiry into alleged war crimes by Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants. In another cable, Rice issued a veiled warning to the president of the International Criminal Court, Sang-Hyun Song, that an investigation into alleged Israeli crimes could damage its standing with the United States at a time when the new administration was moving closer to the tribunal. “How the ICC handles issues concerning the Goldstone Report will be perceived by many in the US as a test for the ICC, as this is a very sensitive matter,” she told him, according to a Nov. 3, 2009, cable from the U.S. mission to the United Nations. (Foreign Policy)

A West Bank anachronism

[T]he PLO is as much a part of the crumbling Arab order as any of the collapsing regimes around it; and it is now losing the last vestiges of its founding legitimacy as a product of the era of armed struggle and the contemporary national movement forged by Yasser Arafat. Today the PLO can claim no genuine representative status; (its local arm the Ramallah PA) the PA rules by decree and is sustained by a combination of foreign aid, the power of the Israeli military, and Palestinian police action on the ground; and the factions that once were a credible reflection of the Palestinian political will (such as Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) have faded into ossified insignificance, their power-sharing formula fatally compromised by the absence of Hamas.

The Gaza-West Bank split, the experience of PA rule, the failure to stem the tide of Israeli settlement, and the increasingly strident terms for any final agreement articulated by Israel have all contributed to a new popular Palestinian mood where the goal of statehood has lost most if not all its glitter and resonance. While UN recognition will undoubtedly mark an important stage in the Palestinian struggle, there is a clear and growing realisation that this will neither fulfil Palestinian national aspirations nor address the needs of significant constituencies such as the diaspora and Israel’s Arab citizens – together a majority of the Palestinian people. For those under occupation in the West Bank or besieged in Gaza, moreover, it will have no palpable effect.

What is emerging instead is a slow but sure manifestation of a new transnational movement, centred less on statehood and more on forging a national project that will traverse the existing Palestinian divides – diaspora, occupied territories and Israeli Arab citizens – and bypass the notion of an independent Palestinian state on part of Palestinian soil.

In what may be the beginnings of an unprecedented and fertile exchange of ideas, recent meetings have brought together intellectuals, opinion-formers and policymakers from the different Palestinian constituencies to review the challenges arising from the blocked prospects for negotiations and the surging revolutions changing the map of the Arab world. This has been matched by a renewed spirit of popular activism that is starting to take hold in the occupied territories, spurred and inspired by events elsewhere in the region.

What this approach, still in nascent and tentative form, reflects may be profoundly important for the future of the struggle; a move away from seeking the ever-shifting goalposts of an inevitably constrained and incomplete form of statehood that would come at the expense of equally fundamental rights to a much broader interpretation of self-determination that includes all the divergent Palestinian constituencies, and a much wider and continuing confrontation with the Zionist enterprise in Palestine. (Ahmad Samih Khalidi)

Syria meets new defiance with bullets and a warning

The government in Syria tried to placate protesters with declarations of reform Tuesday while bluntly warning its people to end more than a month of demonstrations, a now-familiar strategy in one of the Arab world’s most repressive countries that has so far failed to blunt the most serious challenge to its 40-year rule.

The mix of concession and coercion came hours after police, army and the other forces of an authoritarian state were marshaled to crush one of the biggest gatherings yet by protesters bent on staging an Egyptian-style sit-in in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city. At least two people died as security forces cleared the square, protesters said, but there were conflicting accounts on casualties.

The warning by the Interior Ministry — forbidding protests “under any banner whatsoever” — suggested that the government was prepared to escalate a crackdown, even as the promised repeal of emergency law, in place since 1963, went far in meeting at least some of the demands of protests that have mirrored uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world and reverberated across a region where Syria’s influence outstretches its relative power. The repeal must still be formally approved by Parliament or the president, but that amounts to a formality.

Since the uprising began, the government has vacillated between compromise and crackdown, a formula that proved fatal for strongmen in Tunisia and Egypt. But the combination Tuesday was most remarkable for how divergent it was. Even as protesters buried those killed in Homs, the reforms ostensibly granted civil liberties, curbed the power of police and abolished draconian courts. The reforms also legalized peaceful protests — coded language for those approved by the government — as the Interior Ministry warned that it would bring to bear the full breadth of the law against any other kind of demonstration.

“The street is in one world and the president and the regime are in another,” said Wissam Tarif, executive director of Insan, a Syrian rights group, reached by telephone.

The statements followed another government crackdown on protests, this time in Homs, an industrial city near the Lebanese border.

For days, organizers in Syria have sought to replicate the experience of Tahrir Square in Cairo, where hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered to demand the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule. The square became symbol and instrument of the demonstrations, eventually forcing him to resign in February. Organizers envisioned as their equivalent Abbassiyeen Square, a crucial artery in the capital, Damascus, but were prevented by security forces. Some organizers said they turned instead to Homs, where funerals Monday for 14 demonstrators killed a day earlier drew thousands.

Some protesters said the security forces seemed taken aback by the crowds, which grew through the day. “A sit-in, a sit-in, until the government falls!” some shouted. Mr. Tarif cited witnesses who said protesters served tea and sandwiches as night fell, and organizers said mattresses were carted in so that protesters could serve in shifts.

Security forces made some attempts to disperse the crowds but relented until after midnight. Then, protesters said, a mix of soldiers, security forces and police officers attacked the crowd with tear gas and live ammunition after the crowds had dwindled. Videos posted on Facebook showed scenes of chaos as volleys of gunfire echoed over a square faintly lit by yellow streetlights. Mattresses were strewn across the square, where a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad superimposed on a Syrian flag read, “Yes to living together, no to strife.”

“This is reform? This is reform?” asked a protester in one of the videos. (New York Times)

Bashar al-Assad’s strategy in Syria is self-defeating

The regime’s double-edged strategy of cracking down hard on protesters (200 have reportedly died in the last month), while simultaneously promising reform, is not working.

The protesters seem undeterred by memories of the Hama massacre in 1982, which showed just how brutal this regime can be, and each new attack fuels their anger. Monday’s protest in Homs was triggered by the deaths of 17 people in a protest on Sunday – and that protest in turn had been triggered by the death in custody of a prominent tribal figure. Deaths mean funerals, funerals mean protests and protests mean more deaths.

At the same time, the regime’s efforts to blame the demonstrations on foreign conspiracies, armed gangs, sectarian elements, militant Salafists and the like, are self-defeating. Disinformation of that kind might have worked years ago when the state had total control over the media, but today its absurdity is far too obvious.

On the reform front, protesters have every reason to be sceptical of the president’s promises: they have heard it all before and won’t take it seriously unless or until it actually happens. (Brian Whitaker)

Gaddafi’s Tripoli lives under pall of fear

The armed men arrived this month, pounded on the door and took Ibrahim’s cousin away. There was not a word of explanation and not a word since about where he has been taken.

“I can’t even ask anyone where my cousin is. It’s too dangerous,” the 33-year-old told two reporters who had briefly slipped away from their government minders, on a chance encounter in the mazelike streets of Tripoli’s walled old town.

“Everyone is scared,” he added, looking furtively to the right and left, wary of government informers. “We can only talk to a few close friends. We can’t trust anyone else.”

Human rights groups say the Libyan government embarked on a systematic and widespread campaign to imprison critics in Tripoli after protests against Moammar Gaddafi’s rule erupted — and were violently put down — in February. Ibrahim’s account, and that of other Tripoli residents, suggests that the campaign is continuing this month, albeit at a slower pace.

“Gaddafi and his security forces are brutally suppressing all opposition in Tripoli, including peaceful protests, with lethal force, arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Given Libya’s record of torture and political killings, we worry deeply about the fate of those taken away.”

The rebel Transitional National Council — the de facto government in eastern Libya — says 20,000 people have been “kidnapped” by the Gaddafi government and are being held in inhumane conditions in several prisons across the capital, as well as in police and army camps and in an old tobacco factory. That figure could not be independently confirmed, but Human Rights Watch said the detentions have been significant and widespread. (Washington Post)

With U.S. in support role, NATO’s Libya mission ‘going in circles’

A month ago in Libya, troops loyal to Moammar Kadafi were advancing on opposition-held areas, tens of thousands of civilians feared for their lives, and rebel forces appeared in disarray with little prospect of driving Kadafi from power.

After four weeks and hundreds of airstrikes by the U.S. and its NATO allies, in many ways little has changed.

Kadafi’s tanks and artillery no longer threaten the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi in eastern Libya, and Kadafi’s combat aircraft and helicopter gunships are grounded. But the disorganized rebel forces are still outmatched and outnumbered by Libyan army units, which, along with their leader, show no sign of giving up.

Rather, Kadafi has intensified his counteroffensive in recent days. Human rights groups accused Kadafi’s military of using cluster bombs and truck-mounted Grad rockets to bombard residential areas of Misurata, the only city in western Libya still in rebel hands.

“We rushed into this without a plan,” said David Barno, a retired Army general who once commanded U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. “Now we’re out in the middle, going in circles.” (Los Angeles Times)

A new Arab generation finds its voice

Escalating violence has tempered the regional euphoria that followed the youth-led revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. And yet, young people will continue to play an important role in the Arab Spring. This month, The New York Times interviewed more than two dozen of them, from Morocco to the West Bank, to find out how they consider their moment in history and their generation’s prospects for the future.

For those who’ve forgotten what real journalism looks like, Matt Lee provides a welcome reminder

How to save a trillion dollars

Numbers alone tell much of the story: we are now spending 50% more (even excluding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) than we did on 9/11. We are spending more on the military than we did during the Cold War, when U.S. and NATO troops stared across Germany’s Fulda Gap at a real super-power foe with real tanks and thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at U.S. cities. In fact, the U.S. spends about as much on its military as the rest of the world combined.

And yet we feel less secure. We’ve waged war nonstop for nearly a decade in Afghanistan — at a cost of nearly a half-trillion dollars — against a foe with no army, no navy and no air force. Back home, we are more hunkered down and buttoned up than ever as political figures (and eager defense contractors) have sounded a theme of constant vigilance against terrorists who have successfully struck only once. Partly as a consequence, we are an increasingly muscle-bound nation: we send $1 billion destroyers, with crews of 300 each, to handle five Somali pirates in a fiberglass skiff.

While the U.S.’s military spending has jumped from $1,500 per capita in 1998 to $2,700 in 2008, its NATO allies have been spending $500 per person over the same span. As long as the U.S. is overspending on its defense, it lets its allies skimp on theirs and instead pour the savings into infrastructure, education and health care. So even as U.S. taxpayers fret about their health care costs, their tax dollars are paying for a military that is subsidizing the health care of their European allies. (Time)

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2 thoughts on “News roundup — April 19

  1. Norman

    Gosh, where to begin? All these adventures, wasting $$$$$’s to keep the Military/Industrial cabal going. Misery, suffering, death. Somehow, this has to stop, but short of a successful revolution here at home, these drunken Government types will continue to plunder the treasury until someone drops the bomb, be it friend or supposed foe. Then we end up watching 60 minutes. It seems to portray the ways of the U.S.A. Starts out with the best of humanitarian intentions, but always ends up a fraud. I think it’s a fitting end to this series of vignette’s, though I’m sure I may be the only one who thinks so.

  2. BillVZ

    Paul,

    Your new format for the War in Context is just right for me.In fact I find it even better than the previous one. Of course the reason for its implementation is key- are you and your health concerns doing and feeling better because of it? Golly, I sure hope so!
    Along with others I found your film clips from yesterday were right on target and so informative for the likes of me. Thanks..I will catch up on today’s -with the assurance they too will be excellent.
    Get well!

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