Archives for January 2013

Israel must withdraw all settlers or face International Criminal Court, says UN report

The Guardian reports: Israel must withdraw all settlers from the West Bank or potentially face a case at the international criminal court (ICC) for serious violations of international law, says a report by a United Nations agency that was immediately dismissed in Jerusalem as “counterproductive and unfortunate”.

All settlement activity in occupied territory must cease “without preconditions” and Israel “must immediately initiate a process of withdrawal of all settlers”, said the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Israel, it said, was in violation of article 49 of the fourth Geneva convention, which forbids the transfer of civilian populations to occupied territory.

The settlements were “leading to a creeping annexation that prevents the establishment of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state and undermines the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination,” it said.

The UNHRC report broadly restated international consensus on the illegality of Israeli settlements. But its conclusions are likely to bolster the Palestinians following their admission last November to the UN as a non-member state, which potentially gives them recourse to the ICC. [Continue reading…]


Syrian army fires on refugees as they flee


Is Israel baiting Iran?

Last week, Ali Akbar Velayati, an aide to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that an “attack on Syria is considered attack on Iran.”

Yesterday, in a dangerous act of brinkmanship, Israel called Iran’s bluff.

But Israel doesn’t want to be perceived as risking provoking a war and so it portrayed its air strike on Syria as an imperative act of self defense necessitated by Syria’s alleged attempt to transport Russian-made SA-17 missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Syria denies that a convoy carrying such missiles was struck and even though the word of the Syrian government carries little weight these days, there are several reasons to doubt the narrative that U.S. officials have been disseminating.

Soon after Operation Orchard, an Israeli strike on a nuclear facility in Syria on September 6, 2007, U.S. officials told the New York Times that “the most likely targets of the raid were weapons caches that Israel’s government believes Iran has been sending the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah through Syria.” It was weeks later before details of the carefully planned operation became clear.

And here’s the all-important point: the timing of a strike on a convoy is going to be determined by the commanders of the convoy. Israel gets word that missiles are on the move and thus is left with “no choice” but to intervene.

But if the attack is on a stationary facility, then the timing of an attack is much more in Israel’s control.

This week there were multiple indications that Israel was preparing for military action:

So what are we supposed to believe? That in spite of the warnings, Syrian officials decided to try their luck and send a missile-carrying convoy on its way with the slim hope that it might evade attack?

Or, that Israel knew that the target of its choice, a research facility in the area of Jamraya, northwest of Damascus, could be struck at a time of Israel’s choosing and by striking now, Iran’s earlier pledge to defend Syria would be shown as empty — or, if Iran does actually follow through, then a pretext may have been created for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

For Netanyahu, soon to lead a government that will probably be less inclined to support military muscle flexing, this week may have looked like the ideal time to place a wager that he thinks he cannot lose.


Israeli air strike in Syria

The site described by the Syrian government as a research center, north-west of Damascus, bombed by Israel Air Force fighter jets, according to Syrian TV.

The New York Times reports: Israeli warplanes carried out a strike deep inside Syrian territory on Wednesday, American officials reported, saying they believed the target was a convoy carrying sophisticated antiaircraft weaponry on the outskirts of Damascus that was intended for the Hezbollah Shiite militia in Lebanon.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Israelis had notified the Americans about the attack, which the Syrian government called an act of “Israeli arrogance and aggression” that raised the risks that the two-year-old civil conflict in Syria could spread beyond the country’s borders.

In a statement, the Syrian military said a scientific research facility in the Damascus suburbs had been hit and denied that a convoy had been the target.

Israeli officials declined to comment on the airstrike. But they have been warning that they are monitoring the possible movement of weapons in the Syrian conflict, including chemical weapons, and would take action to thwart any possible transfers into Hezbollah’s possession.

It was the first time in more than five years that Israel’s air force had attacked a target in Syria, which has remained in a technical state of war with Israel although both sides have maintained an uneasy peace along their decades-old armistice line.

Hezbollah, which plays a decisive role in Lebanese politics, has long relied on Syria as both a source of weapons and a conduit for weapons flowing from Iran. Hezbollah has supported the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad throughout the uprising against him in part because it does not want to lose that weapons corridor, and some analysts say that Hezbollah may be trying to stock up on weapons now in case Mr. Assad falls. Other analysts say that Hezbollah would be cautious now about receiving arms from Syria because it does not want to risk drawing an Israeli attack or destabilizing its political position in Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, recently urged Lebanese citizens to welcome Syrian refugees regardless of their political affiliation, a move widely interpreted as aimed in part at preserving its relationship with Syria in the event of a rebel takeover, in addition to maintaining political calm in Lebanon. [Continue reading…]


Morsi rejects calls for new unity government in Egypt

The New York Times reports: President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday, rejected calls for a new unity government in response to the violent demonstrations rocking his country and defended his decision to impose a state of emergency and curfew in three cities.

“In Egypt there is a stable government working day and night in the interest of all Egyptians,” Mr. Morsi said. A new government will not be formed before the upcoming parliamentary election, Mr. Morsi said.

At a moment of acute political crisis at home in Egypt, Mr. Morsi found himself on a previously scheduled visit to Berlin, where he also met with the economy minister, Philipp Rösler, and leading representatives of German businesses. Germany is Egypt’s third most important trading partner, and investment and development aid from Germany will be necessary if Egypt hopes to get back on its feet, analysts say.

His visit to Germany was controversial, with newspapers and television commentators questioning whether Egypt was on the path to democracy. In a country conscious of its responsibility for the Holocaust, Mr. Morsi’s past comments about Jews and Zionists have also raised concerns.

After the two leaders met, Mr. Morsi and Ms. Merkel held a joint news conference at the chancellery building on Wednesday afternoon. A German reporter asked Mr. Morsi about comments in which he described Zionists as “bloodsuckers” and “the descendants of apes and pigs.”

Mr. Morsi said his statements had been taken out of context. “I am not against Judaism as a religion,” he said. “I am not against Jews practicing their religion. I was talking about anybody practicing any religion who spills blood or attacks innocent people — civilians. I criticize such behavior.

“My religion instructs me to believe in all the prophets and to respect all religions as well as every person’s freedom of religion,” Mr. Morsi continued. “Everyone believes in and practices his religion the way he sees fit as long as it remains lawful in the country he lives in.”

Ms. Merkel made it clear that Germany would continue its support of Egypt’s transition to democracy only if Mr. Morsi’s government upheld certain democratic ideals.

“One thing that is important for us is that the channels of dialogue are always open with all political forces in Egypt, so that the different political forces can play their role,” Ms. Merkel said. [Continue reading…]


Egypt: Video of snipers in Port Said?

Issandr El Amrani writes: There have been some disturbing reports of what is described as sniper fire (although it may simply be gunfire, not actual snipers) in Port Said in the last two days. The videos below, some of which whose provenance cannot be verified, paint a rather scary picture

The one below, for instance, shows men dressed in black paramilitary garb – perhaps special forces – using a rooftop position to fire on people on the streets (or perhaps merely survey the streets). There is no way to confirm the place and date of the video, although it is an Egyptian flag that is seen and it is plausibly Port Said. The video is titled to suggest the armed men are Muslim Brothers, but there is nothing to confirm that.

Egypt Muslim Brotherhood Snipers Shoot People… by GWHH19

[Continue reading…]


Video: Egypt’s unfinished revolution


Learning democracy in Iraq and Egypt

Rami G Khouri writes: The events in Iraq and Egypt these days are particularly important to follow and understand as best we can, because of what they tell us about how some Arab citizens and leaders behave at stages of the process in which they have the opportunity to shape their own political governance systems. For in Egypt and Iraq, most dramatically, alongside less striking events in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and other Arab countries, the most basic elements of state integrity, national identity and the legitimacy of power are all being challenged and reshaped. The bad news is that process includes political intemperance, violence and death. But the good news is that it mostly occurs nonviolently and will keep moving some Arab countries on the slow path to stable democratic republics.

It is not realistic to chart a single dynamic that explains disparate events in different Arab countries. However, the developments across half a dozen countries these days suggest to me that we can spot common features amid the political turbulence and violence all around us. The two most dramatic new examples in the past week to my mind have been the events in Fallujah and other parts of west-central Iraq, and the violence and unrest across several Egyptian cities. In both cases, local citizens have not only challenged the decisions of the democratically elected central government represented by the president of Egypt and the prime minister of Iraq; to some extent, they have also questioned the leader’s legitimacy in both cases, or at least challenged the leader to translate legitimacy into credibility. These are not isolated cases, either, for a deeper crisis of political integrity is spreading across many parts of the Arab world these days.

In Egypt, several local municipalities defiantly ignored the president’s curfew and martial law Monday, taking to the streets in the thousands to play football at 9 p.m., when the curfew was supposed to start. A few, like Mahalla, Suez and Alexandria, have even symbolically declared their autonomy or independence from the central government. They are not challenging the integrity of the Egyptian state, but rather the efficacy and equity of the central government’s policies.

The same applies to the tens of thousands of demonstrators in Iraq, who, like their Egyptian counterparts, are protesting the killing of demonstrators by the security services as well as a wider sense that the central government is not addressing the socio-economic and political rights of all citizens with diligence or fairness. In both cases, many ordinary citizens feel that one group is trying to monopolize power and seize control of the state. The Iraqi and Egyptian leaders have both acted with an authoritarianism that remind us of their predecessors’ policies in many ways., which Arabs now wish to leave behind them for good. [Continue reading…]


Video: Egypt’s downward spiral


Chaos in Egypt stirs warning of a collapse

The New York Times reports: As three Egyptian cities defied President Mohamed Morsi’s attempt to quell the anarchy spreading through their streets, the nation’s top general warned Tuesday that the state itself was in danger of collapse if the feuding civilian leaders could not agree on a solution to restore order.

Thousands of residents poured into the streets of the three cities, protesting a 9 p.m. curfew with another night of chants against Mr. Morsi and assaults on the police.

The president appeared powerless to stop them: he had already granted the police extralegal powers to enforce the curfew and then called out the army as well. His allies in the Muslim Brotherhood and their opposition also proved ineffectual in the face of the crisis, each retreating to their corners, pointing fingers of blame.

The general’s warning punctuated a rash of violent protests across the country that has dramatized the near-collapse of the government’s authority. With the city of Port Said proclaiming its nominal independence, protesters demanded the resignation of Mr. Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, while people across the country appeared convinced that taking to the streets in protests was the only means to get redress for their grievances.

Just five months after Egypt’s president assumed power from the military, the cascading crisis revealed the depth of the distrust for the central government left by decades of autocracy, two years of convoluted transition and his own acknowledged missteps in facing the opposition. With cities in open rebellion and the police unable to tame crowds, the very fabric of society appears to be coming undone. [Continue reading…]


Sunni discontent and Syria fears feed Iraqi unrest

Reuters reports: Across Iraq’s western desert, thousands of Sunni Muslims block highways, chant and pray in protests against Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that grow more defiant by the day.

Their demands are many, but the old Iraqi flags from Saddam Hussein’s era and Sunni tribal colours fluttering among them are a clear message to Maliki: Enough, our time has come again.

In Iraqi cities like Ramadi and Falluja, where tribal ties are strong, many Sunnis have harboured a sense of marginalisation ever since Saddam’s fall and the Shi’ite majority’s empowerment.

But the pent-up Sunni anger that erupted a month ago has many worried that Iraq is heading for an explosion of Shi’ite-on-Sunni violence that will divide it along sectarian faultlines.

Already protests are becoming volatile. Iraqi troops shot five people in clashes in Falluja on Friday, illustrating the room for miscalculation with sectarian hardliners and Islamist insurgents trying to steer unrest into crisis.

Just outside Ramadi, Sunni men sleep in tents and pray along a blockaded highway, wrapping themselves in old three-star Iraqi national flags, chanting slogans and waving migwars, the wooden mace that Iraqis used to fight the British in the 1920s. [Continue reading…]


Mission in Mali far from accomplished

Andy Morgan writes: The National Movement for the Liberation of Azwad (MNLA) are reported to have wrenched control of Kidal back from the Touareg-led Islamist militia Ansar Dine. They also claim to control a number of other strategic towns in northern Mali, including Tessalit and Leré. That’s quite a turn-around for the avowedly secular Touareg nationalist movement who were ousted from the region last June by the Islamist coalition after a bloody gun fight in the city of Gao. Most people thought they were a busted flush, outgunned and outmanoeuvered by better funded, better armed and better disciplined Islamist troops. Not so, it seems.

Although they’re now firmly entrenched in Kidal, the MNLA still fear reprisals from the remnants of the three Islamist groups – AQIM, MUJAO and Ansar Dine – who have held Northern Mali in their puritanical grasp since last April. Mujahedeen who have been fleeing as the main northern cities – Douentza, Gao and Timbuktu – have fallen like nine-pins to the advance of French and Malian forces, are said to be regrouping in the remote Tegharghar mountains north of Kidal. But I doubt they’re planning a counter attack on the town, which has been at the epicentre of all the Touareg uprisings in northern Mali since 1962. The Islamists coalition, or what’s left of it, has already switched from occupation to insurgency mode. Holding cities is no longer part of their strategy.

Somehow, the MNLA has found the finance and backing to take Kidal, from where they will try to negotiate a settlement, even some kind of collaborative partnership with the French in a desperate attempt to avoid their town being handed back to the Malian army and placed under a martial law far worse than the one imposed on it between 1964 and 1990. Either that or Alghabass Ag Intallah, the heir to the chiefdom of the local Ifoghas “nobility” and leader of the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA), has decided to let the MNLA back into Kidal because they see a deal with the nationalists as the best way of saving their own skins and avoiding execution/arrest/the ICC as well as the terrible vengeance of the Malian army. Yesterday’s demonstration in the town in favour of the MNLA and against Malian army occupation, with all the summary brutality against Touareg and Arabs that the local population fear it will bring, is clear proof that the secular nationalists are on the rise again and the Islamists are on the run. [Continue reading…]


French troops in Kidal; 90% of Timbuktu’s manuscripts saved

BBC News reports: The French arrival at Kidal came only 24 hours after securing Timbuktu with Malian forces.

The troops had to secure the streets after hundreds of people looted shops they said had belonged to militant sympathisers.

The retreating Islamist militants were also accused of destroying ancient manuscripts held in the city.

However on Wednesday, Shamil Jeppie, the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project director at the University of Cape Town, said that more than 90% of the 300,000 manuscripts said to be in the region were safe.

Kidal, 1,500km (930 miles) north-east of the capital Bamako, was until recently under the control of the Ansar Dine Islamist group, which has strong ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The Islamist militants had taken advantage of a military coup in March last year to impose Sharia in a number of cities in the north.

However, the Islamic Movement of Azawad (IMA), which recently split from Ansar Dine, says it is now in charge in Kidal.

The IMA has said it rejects “extremism and terrorism” and wants a peaceful solution.

An IMA spokesman confirmed the French arrival in Kidal and said that its leader was in talks with them.

However, another rebel group, the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), is also influential in the area. It is ethnically driven, fighting mostly for the rights of Mali’s minority Tuareg community.

An MNLA spokesman told the BBC its fighters had entered Kidal on Saturday and found no Islamist militants there.

The MNLA has also said it is prepared to work with the French “to eradicate terrorist groups” in the north but that it would not allow the return of the Malian army, which it accused of “crimes against the civilian population”.


Video: Mali’s leading musicians unite against Islamists


2013 World Press Freedom Index — dashed hopes after Arab Spring

Reporters Without Borders: Last year’s index was marked by the Arab spring’s major news developments and the heavy price paid by those covering the protest movements. A range of scenarios has been seen in 2012, including countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, where regime change has taken place, countries such as Syria and Bahrain where uprisings and the resulting repression are still ongoing, and countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Oman, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where the authorities have used promises and compromise to defuse calls for political and/or social and economic change.

Some of the new governments spawned by these protests movements have turned on the journalists and netizens who covered these movements’ demands and aspirations for more freedom. With legal voids, arbitrary appointments of state media chiefs, physical attacks, trials and a lack of transparency, Tunisia (138th, -4) and Egypt (158th, +8) have remained at a deplorable level in the index and have highlighted the stumbling blocks that Libya (131st, +23) should avoid in order to maintain its transition to a free press.

The deadliest country for journalists in 2012 was Syria (176th, 0), where journalists and netizens are the victims of an information war waged by both the Assad regime, which stops at nothing in order to crack down and impose a news blackout, and by opposition factions that are increasingly intolerant of dissent. In Bahrain (165th, +8) the repression let up slightly, while in Yemen (169th, +2) the prospects continue to be disturbing despite a change of government. Oman (141st, -24) fell sharply because of a wave of arrests of netizens.


Video: Mossad’s bungled assassination attempt on Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal


On culture and artifacts

The Olokun Head discovered in Nigeria in 1910 and initially regarded by European scholars as too great a masterpiece to have originated from Africa.

One of the conceits of Western societies is that our museums and galleries and private collections represent our appreciation of culture. Indeed, our appreciation of culture is supposedly so refined that we have often asserted the right or even duty to become self-appointed custodians of artifacts whose protection demanded, we claimed, that they be removed from their place of origin.

It is reasonable to assume that in the coming months and years, artifacts from Timbuktu will find their way into the hands of art collectors who rationalize their actions with the idea that only individuals with the finest taste recognize the real value of such rare treasures.

What those who either buy such artifacts or merely view them while wandering around museums are inclined to believe is that culture and its material expressions are one and the same.

Even so, such objects only become artifacts as culture falls apart. Our museums serve less to preserve human genius and function more as cultural graveyards.

In cultures that no longer sustain oral tradition, we have forgotten that the written word was not intended to subordinate the value of the spoken word — it merely expands the voice’s reach. Language’s rhythmical structure serves first to allow thought to be housed in memory before being left to reside on the page.

Yes, it will be an immense loss if Timbuktu’s manuscript collections have been decimated, but there as elsewhere, the real cultural loss long preceded the effort to breath life into dead remains.

The culture most in jeopardy and most in need of protection lives in what Wade Davis calls the planet’s “ethnosphere”: the cultural web of life which is the “sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, ideas, inspirations, intuitions brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness.”

This is culture which no museum can house and no collector can buy because it exists solely through its ability to animate human life.


Tuareg rebels say they’re now in charge of Kidal

The Associated Press reports: As French and Malian soldiers held control of the fabled desert city of Timbuktu following the retreat of Islamist extremists, Tuareg fighters claimed Tuesday that they seized the strategic city of Kidal and other northern towns.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad — the Tuareg group’s name for northern Mali — appears to have taken advantage of a French-led bombing and ground campaign to dislodge al- Qaida-linked Islamist fighters from the towns in northern Mali.

Phone lines were down in Kidal, making it difficult to independently confirm the group’s claim.

The Tuareg movement said on its website that it was ready to work with French troops and fight terror organizations.

However, it said it would refuse to allow Malian soldiers in Kidal, and the other towns under its control in northeastern Mali, following allegations that the troops killed civilians suspected of having links to the Islamists.

Reuters adds: The International Monetary Fund has approved an $18.4m loan to strife-torn Mali to help the West African nation stabilise its economy over the next 12 months, the IMF said.

It said on Monday that approval of the loan, under its Rapid Credit Facility, should send a signal that Mali’s economy is on the right path, prompting other donors to offer financial assistance to Mali.

“Mali’s economy is traversing a particularly difficult period as a result of the 2011 drought, insurgent attacks in the north of the country and political instability in the wake of the military coup in March 2012,” the IMF said in a statement.

Note that this is just a loan and it’s for an amount that in this case is deemed sufficient to prop up a West African economy, but in the hands of the 1% would buy a townhouse in Greenwich Village.