Author Archives: Guest Contributor

From the archives: What did Israel know in advance of the 9/11 attacks?

By Christopher Ketcham, March 16, 2007

On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, an FBI bulletin known as a BOLO — “be on lookout” — was issued with regard to three suspicious men who that morning were seen leaving the New Jersey waterfront minutes after the first plane hit World Trade Center 1. Law enforcement officers across the New York-New Jersey area were warned in the radio dispatch to watch for a “vehicle possibly related to New York terrorist attack”:

White, 2000 Chevrolet van with ‘Urban Moving Systems’ sign on back seen at Liberty State Park, Jersey City, NJ, at the time of first impact of jetliner into World Trade Center Three individuals with van were seen celebrating after initial impact and subsequent explosion. FBI Newark Field Office requests that, if the van is located, hold for prints and detain individuals.

At 3:56 p.m., twenty-five minutes after the issuance of the FBI BOLO, officers with the East Rutherford Police Department stopped the commercial moving van through a trace on the plates. According to the police report, Officer Scott DeCarlo and Sgt. Dennis Rivelli approached the stopped van, demanding that the driver exit the vehicle. The driver, 23-year-old Sivan Kurzberg, refused and “was asked several more times [but] appeared to be fumbling with a black leather fanny pouch type of bag”. With guns drawn, the police then “physically removed” Kurzberg, while four other men — two more men had apparently joined the group since the morning — were also removed from the van, handcuffed, placed on the grass median and read their Miranda rights.

They had not been told the reasons for their arrest. Yet, according to DeCarlo’s report, “this officer was told without question by the driver [Sivan Kurzberg],’We are Israeli. We are not your problem.Your problems are our problems. The Palestinians are the problem.'” Another of the five Israelis, again without prompting, told Officer DeCarlo — falsely — that “we were on the West Side Highway in New York City during the incident”. From inside the vehicle the officers, who were quickly joined by agents from the FBI, retrieved multiple passports and $4,700 in cash stuffed in a sock. According to New Jersey’s Bergen Record, which on September 12 reported the arrest of the five Israelis, an investigator high up in the Bergen County law enforcement hierarchy stated that officers had also discovered in the vehicle “maps of the city with certain places highlighted. It looked like they’re hooked in with this”, the source told the Record, referring to the 9/11 attacks. “It looked like they knew what was going to happen when they were at Liberty State Park.”

The five men were indeed Israeli citizens. They claimed to be in the country working as movers for Urban Moving Systems Inc., which maintained a warehouse and office in Weehawken, New Jersey. They were held for 71 days in a federal detention center in Brooklyn, New York, during which time they were repeatedly interrogated by FBI and CIA counter-terrorism teams, who referred to the men as the “high-fivers” for their celebratory behavior on the New Jersey waterfront. Some were placed in solitary confinement for at least forty days; some were given as many as seven lie-detector tests. One of the Israelis, Paul Kurzberg, brother of Sivan, refused to take a lie-detector test for ten weeks. Then he failed it. Continue reading


From the archives: The Kuala Lumpur deceit

By Christopher Ketcham, March, 2007

The possible link between pre-9/11 Israeli warnings and the watch-listing of the hijackers Mihdhar and Hazmi was pointed out in late 2004 by a retired top corporate lawyer named Gerald Shea, who compiled a 166-page memo detailing the alleged operations of the Israeli groups in New Jersey, Florida and elsewhere. In the memo, which is drawn from publicly available source material and which he sent to members of the 9/11 Commission and the joint House and Sen­ate intelligence committees, Shea notes that neither the 9/11 Commission’s final report nor the joint report of the intelligence committees “specifically mentions any such [warnings] from the Israeli government”.

Instead, both reports, hewing closely to the CIA’s public stance, attribute the watch-listing of Mihdhar and Hazmi solely to the bumbling work of U.S. intelligence. But a review of the alleged facts in this route to the watch list, Shea insists, makes one doubt their veracity. “The issue is important”, Shea argues, “because any downplaying of Israeli warnings … draws attention away” from the surveillance role the Israeli groups may have played.

The key element in the CIA’s account is the claim that in January 2001 the agency had identified an operational link between the Mihdhar-Hazmi duo and one of Bin Laden’s most trusted lieutenants, Khallad, a.k.a. Tawfiq bin Attash, who was suspected of masterminding the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. According to the CIA, Mihdhar, Hazmi and Khallad had together attended a high-level al-Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur in January 2000. This meeting was historic in the annals of Islamic terrorism, for it was here that the germ of 9/11 was seeded. Continue reading


The ECHELON trail — Part Four: The Omega Foundation

By Steve Wright

(The first part in this series can be read here, second part here, third part here, and an introduction to the series here.)

The Omega Foundation

It was a long time before I could create the requisite networks of solidarity and understanding, moving to Manchester in 1981 to return to my roots after the riots of the summer when I published a full page article in the Guardian about the hard military policing style which was on the horizon. Oftentimes I felt like a sorcer’s apprentice but in 1984 I succeeded in my application to become Head of Manchester City Council’s Police Monitoring Unit. This provided a firm grounding in politics as ‘the art of the possible’ as well as providing ample opportunities to re-examine police accountability. It also brought me back into contact with Tony Bunyan who had been a central figure in the ABC Defence Committee and a solid source of insight and support during those difficult times. Tony was now the head of London’s Police Monitoring Committee with an awesome remit. He was and is a great teacher on how even small group in civil society can make a political change.

In 1989, after the demise of the Police monitoring initiatives in the UK as the leftwing Labour City Hall Council’s which had originally financed them, lost ground to the Labour political right, I went on to work a trusted friend to set up the Omega Foundation, to track the proliferation of military, police and security equipment to the torturing states.

Scientific And Technological Options Assessment (Stoa) And An Appraisal Of The Technology Of Political Control

In 1996, the Omega Foundation was commissioned by the European Parliament to write ‘An Appraisal of the Technologies of Political Control.’ Late in the day, I decided that maybe the time was right to raise the issue of the interception of communications. Duncan Campbell had returned to the subject in 19881 and recently that work had been extended by the New Zealander Nicky Hager in his book Secret Power.2 It was complete serendipity since I accidentally came across adverts for the book in Washington whilst visiting Terry Allen, then editor of Covert Action Quarterly.

It raised important issues about political control of a system which could technologically bypass any constitutional guarantees any state had protecting citizens from illegal surveillance. Its existence went beyond just privacy, a global network of surveillance which could target financial and political institutions was an instrument for political management: ubiquitous but invisible.

I also wanted to include new work on the FBI’s collusion with EC authorities to get more intimate access to European telecommunications for policing purposes. Tony Bunyan had hundreds of documents on this but in the winter of 1996 had yet to write them up. I inadvertently gate crashed the Statewatch staff Christmas party and in an expansive mood, Tony Bunyan agreed to publish his findings in the next issue of Statewatch. I could then quote his report as an authoritative source in the report I was writing for the European parliament’s Science & Technological Options Panel, which was deadlined for March 1997. However, it did not go to committee until December 1997 and would have been largely ignored had it not been for a Daily Telegraph article by Simon Davies which alerted the international media.


The section dealing with ECHELON in the STOA report only ran to a few pages. The paragraph which drew most attention concluded:

Within Europe, all email, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the United States National Security Agency, transferring all target information from the European mainland via the strategic hub of London, then by satellite to Fort Meade in Maryland via the crucial hub at Menwith Hill in the North York Moors of the UK. Unlike many of the electronic spy systems developed during the Cold War, ECHELON is designed for primarily non-military targets: governments, organisations and businesses in virtually every country. The ECHELON system works by indiscriminately intercepting very large quantities of communications then siphoning out what is valuable using artificial intelligence aids like Memex to find key words. Whilst there is much information gathered about potential terrorists, there is a lot of economic intelligence, notably intensive monitoring of all the countries participating in the GATT negotiations. With no system of accountability, it is difficult to discover what criteria determine who is not a target.

Nothing in the STOA report was new but its packaging in a formal report for the European Parliament led to a ‘tipping point’. Interest in ECHELON mushroomed and all the European Member States had parliamentary debates about it. In September 1998, I was asked to produce an edited study updating the earlier report and included calls for a series of new studies to determine the level and extent of ECHELON’s activities. Of these, Duncan Campbell’s Interception Capabilities 2000 was the most informative and helped to redefine our knowledge of the role, function and activities of ECHELON.3

These reports laid the foundation of the European Parliament’s temporary ECHELON Committee, which created some of the best most informed organised knowledge on the existence of ECHELON, its activities and limitations.4 Almost every serious newspaper in the world has now covered ECHELON. Why? Because one package of organised knowledge, put together in a serious format was able to catalyse subsequent interest. Nevertheless, that package in itself was the fruit of scores of other researchers’ activities, not least, the courageous Menwith Hill Women’s camp activists who gleaned much of the secret documentation on which Duncan Campbell based his studies. The documents were ‘liberated’ via the time honoured research methodology of ‘bin-ology’ – the illegal raiding of bins and plastic rubbish bags inside the base.


The moral of the ECHELON story is that a network of researchers can both model, reinterpret, understand and politically challenge even awesomely funded and politically sensitive surveillance organisations such as the NSA (although I might admit to having second thoughts if I had seen the Gene Hackman movie ‘Enemy of the State’ before I wrote the STOA report.) Even at that juncture, the early reception of the European Parliament was hostile in some quarters with questions about whether ECHELON even existed.

However, the STOA report contained detailed recommendations for further work on understanding new surveillance technologies and their political impact including the commissioning of new work on ECHELON. It was no coincidence that on my recommendation, the author of the key final document proving ECHELON’s role was Duncan Campbell, the original ECHELON researcher and ABC defendant. His report, to STOA, Interception Capabilities 2000 remains one of the clearest expositions on the way that ECHELON works as well as a healthy self-critique of some of the assumptions made including the capacity of the NSA to do continuous real time speech recognition, authentication and direct printout. There were limits but these were burgeoning new research areas too. These reports provoked an intense debate in the European Parliament and the setting up of a Temporary ECHELON Committee5 There is now a rich literature on ECHELON which stretches way beyond what any one researcher could have accomplished. The more important sites are available via Surveillance and Society home pages. How was that paradigm shift achieved? Essentially by a network of researchers working on a variety of different jigsaw puzzle pieces – with one researcher injecting these findings into an appropriate political arena, at the right time.

Has the debate continued? Well yes and no. Immediately after the terrorist attacks on New York in 2001, I requested the STOA committee investigate the political implications of the failure of ECHELON to pre-empt the attack on the basis that such a highly invasive intelligence set up could only justify its existence if it was a prophylactic entity preventing such atrocities before they happened. STOA did commission the report but to its own chosen think-tank. There was not going to be any deeply critical NGO questioning of the role and functioning of sensitive intelligence agencies this time.

After 9/11, the debate rumbles on and many are beginning to fear that in the future such collaborative research will be thwarted by bogus security requirements and restrictions. Research scholars have to take the long view, assemble their findings and grow the supportive networks necessary for sustaining their effective work in the future. To quote my former supervisor, Paul Smoker – every major change requires a happener – and if it has happened – it’s possible! It would be good to see these pages being used to explore the new role of ECHELON post 9/11. At a time when the newly joined former Eastern European states are being used for ‘rendering’ a.k.a. torturing political detainees, we might anticipate that ECHELON is being offered to many more policing and foreign intelligence agencies in the so called ‘War Against Terror’. It is fairly probable that new algorithms for tracking down friendship networks and associates have emerged, based on what could well be dodgy social science assumptions of ‘proximity equals collusion’. How can we locate the new ECHELON in the new world order? In the surveillance world, ECHELON and the NSA are the equivalent of the 900 lb gorilla. It is a challenge that future surveillance scholars will have to face.

1. Campbell, D. 1988 They’ve got it taped, New Statesman, 12 August.

2. Hager, N. (1996) Secret Power: New Zealand’s Role in the International Spy Network, Craig Potton Publishing, PO Box 555, Nelson, New Zealand.

3. See accessed December 2005

4. For the final report see accessed December 2005

5. A full copy of interception capability 2000 can be found at accessed December 2005


Campbell, D. (1988) They’ve got it taped, New Statesman, 12 August.

Hager, N. (1996) Secret Power: New Zealand’s Role in the International Spy Network Nelson, New Zealand: Craig Potton Publishing

Inglis, B. (1986) The Hidden Power London: Jonathon Cape Laurie, P. (1970) Beneath the City Streets, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Lawrence, B. (1977) Nasty Branch hit Bailrigg, Scan 1, 26 April: 1

Snow, C.P. (1959) The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wood, D. (2001) The Hidden Geography of Transnational Surveillance, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. [Accessed 01/12/05]

(This article originally appeared in Surveillance & Society 3 (2/3) and is republished here with the permission of the author.)


The ECHELON trail — Part Three: The Special Branch raid on Lancaster University

By Steve Wright

(The first part in this series can be read here, second part here, and an introduction to the series here.)

The Special Branch Raid On Lancaster University

Not all knowledge is from rational sources. Even the term paranoia literally means ‘beyond knowledge (para: beyond; noia: knowledge). On the night of 5th April 1977 I had a stormy, seemingly pointless argument with my wife. In frustration I declared that my wife didn’t understand the work in which I was engaged and ‘one day my work would walk through the front door.’ The instant response, quite deservedly, was ‘you’re being melodramatic – I’m going to bed!’ I reflected on this afterwards thinking it was a bit melodramatic and that I was making needless emotional waves.

A few hours later loud knocks on the door heralded the arrival of six Special Branch officers who make it clear that they wanted co-operation otherwise they will use ‘blatant search techniques’. This implied that not only would they turn the place over but that the search would become very obvious to the neighbours. Without the argument of the night before, I might have caved in. Because of it and a silly sense of ‘I told you so’ I calmly suggested that what they were doing infringed academic freedom and was unprecedented. This episode of déjà vu was so well documented in the light of subsequent events, Brian Inglis used it in his book, the Hidden Power. The lesson here is whilst one should never give way to paranoia, it is useful to develop and trust your intuition. Our minds are capable of intuitive leaps which are ours to use even if we can not necessarily rationally explain them and the history of science is full of such episodes. Our challenge is to use hunches as a methodology to conjecture with or refute.

In fact my then neighbours were so alarmed by the presence of six burly strangers strolling around our house they called the local police! The officer knocked on our door and was given short shrift by Detective Chief Inspector Moffat of Scotland Yard, who told him, ‘It’s official so piss off’. I queried what it was that I was alleged to have done and the Kafkaesque atmosphere was heightened by the response that it is an official secret and I cannot be told. In the meantime, my diaries and entire research correspondence were removed. I discovered later that the police don’t steal, the technical term is detinue – i.e. they hold on to items longer than they should, a matter which can be devastating if a researcher is working to pre-set deadlines.

In this heavy atmosphere of confrontation with secret police officers, it would have been easy to roll over but I felt it was important to stand up to their infringement of my rights to research. How was another matter. I could easily see how my academic future could be blown out of the water if a full secrets trial resulted from what was to all intents and purposes a fishing expedition.

I was taken by car to Lancaster University. It was the Easter holiday period and the special branch officers expected ‘that a bit of arm twisting’ would give them easy access to my offices in an otherwise empty campus. But the politics department was crawling with academics who were demanding proper procedures be followed. After some delay, I thanked the officers for their lift to campus and announced that I had work to do and proceeded to exit the car. This forced their hand and I was arrested under the official secrets legislation and taken to meet with Professor Phillip Reynolds the Pro-Vice Chancellor, together with various university and college officials who had assembled: Dr Roxbee Cox, Fylde principal and Mr. Forrester, Academic Registrar.

The atmosphere was tense. Special Branch demanded access to my room and I pointed out that principles of academic freedom were involved. After all I had only ever used open sources, had simply followed the university motto and no one had explained the nature of any charges laid against me. Detective Chief Inspector Moffat replied that ‘this was an issue of national security’ and told me that they had a warrant. Professor Reynolds demanded that they go through the proper channels, to which Moffat replied that he had six men present and would start breaking down doors in the department if access was denied. People began sweating – it was an unforgettable moment. I broke it by emphasizing that I had nothing to hide and suggested that they could search to their hearts’ content.1 The atmosphere was thankfully lightened a bit later with the arrival of my supervisor, Dr Paul Smoker, who amidst the hub bub in the corridors managed to give me a burst of the Beatles hit, ‘Listen Do You Want To Know A Secret – Do you Promise Not to Tell?’ Perfect: but I was later held in Lancaster Police Station for several hours, refused a solicitor and when finally released was told, sometimes you fellows are too clever for your own good.’

The raid turned my research plans upside down not to mention the impact it had on my personal life. However it was many times worse for the main researchers, Crispin Aubrey, John Berry and Duncan Campbell (now deemed the ABC defendants), who were facing the full rigours of an official secrets act trial. And yet there was a puzzle: why had Special Branch undertaken such a foolhardy exercise as to raid a British University – how come I’d touched on a raw nerve? It quickly dawned on me that I had inadvertently stumbled on a network connected with the configuration of the antennae I had photographed on the Quenmore Moor, which the authorities were desperate to keep secret. It seemed incomprehensible. I knew that Menwith Hill was a US base, but what was the link with UK phone lines, and especially the link to Northern Ireland? Just where were the results being transmitted – to the US, but how – by satellite? The system must be huge. It felt like a science fiction movie. Continue reading


The ECHELON trail — Part Two: Truth lies open to all?

By Steve Wright, Surveillance & Society, 2005

(The first part in this series can be read here and an introduction to the series here.)

Truth Lies Open To All?

Lancaster University’s motto – ‘Omnibus Patet Veritas’ very much appealed to me. It means ‘truth lies open to all’. I was fascinated by the contradictions between this ideal and the hidden dimensions of political control – especially in the UK where civil servants were required to sign the Official Secrets Act.

I was working on a range of different techniques for assessing new technologies of political control. This included an examination of the growth of surveillance in the UK, which had significantly changed over the last two decades. It is useful to look at the context in which this research was taking place. For example in 1957 when Lord Birkett produced the official report on telephone interception in the UK, telephone tapping was very much a cottage industry. Since then telephone interception has grown into today’s hitech networks.

Nevertheless when figures were officially updated in 1980, many MP’s were surprised by the relatively modest official increase over the intervening 23 years: from 129 warrants in 1958 to 411 in 1979 for England and Wales. However the 1980 paper on the Interception of Communications did admit that one warrant could cover multiple intercepts on an entire organisation and its members e.g. CND. It was also revealed that the Secretary of State ‘may delegate’ to the civil service the power to amend a warrant. Thus the total number of lines monitored was going to be substantially more than the number of warrants issued.

Another anomaly was revealed when MP Clement Freud asked whether the number of interception orders currently in force was cumulative or whether the number given simply indicated how many new orders had been published. The then Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, refused to answer leaving open the possibility that key permanent warrants for MI5 & Special Branch were only issued once. It might also have been supposed that the development of international terrorism in the early Seventies had further fuelled the growth of telephone surveillance. However the public record showed a different story. The sharp boom in UK telephone tapping came immediately after Birkett, who recommended that in future official figures on tapping should not be made public.

Thus the main growth period in telecommunications surveillance occurred in the Sixties before international terrorism – the ostensible reason for official surveillance in the Eighties – had become a major problem. If anything, the official record shows that the growth rate slackened in 1970, just as terrorism, particularly in Northern Ireland, had intensified. It could not be the full story. In this respect the White Paper gave a clue. It did not cover telephone tapping in the Province, nor did it cover warrants signed by the Foreign Secretary for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ1) and the Secret Intelligence Services, nor tapping warrants signed by the Prime Minister.

These were particularly significant omissions, given that just one permanent warrant signed in 1967 authorized GCHQ to intercept all overseas telegrams. Indeed the sudden drop in Home Secretary warrants after 1975 can be partially explained by this transfer of the surveillance workload from MI5 to GCHQ in conjunction with the US National Security Agency (NSA) and without reference to parliament.

Bypassing formal democratic authorisation and transparency of interceptions thus became a state norm – but how could surveillance researchers ever hope to get evidence of such a top secret network – especially since the penalties under the Official Secrets Act were draconian – up to 14 years in jail? The short answer, as is often the case, was by accident. Continue reading


The ECHELON trail — Part One: An illegal vision

By Steve Wright1, Surveillance & Society, 2005


This article tells the story behind the uncovering of the US operated global telecommunications interceptions system now known as ECHELON. It begins with the use of fieldwork techniques in the early 1970’s exploring the configuration of Britain’s Post Office towers – these were ostensibly the microwave links through which Britain’s long distance telephone calls were made. This modelling process revealed a system within the system of microwave towers linked to the American base of Menwith Hill in the North York Moors. All the key researchers were then promptly arrested, a raid by Special Branch on the author’s university at Lancaster ensued and later a show trail for the other main researchers, most notably Duncan Campbell. Eventually in 1988, Duncan wrote up the ECHELON story, which for its time was an incredible piece of detective work using materials lifted from waste bins by the women activists campaigning around the Menwith Hill Base. Little notice was taken until 1997 when an obscure book by Nicky Hager, Secret Power explained the role and function of ECHELON in more depth. The author represented these findings in a policy report to the European Parliament on the technology of political control that led to a process of political debate and disagreement of the ethics of such a system which continues even today.


Studies of surveillance are challenging, and often demand a sustained research commitment. It is no coincidence that many of the key British researchers active in this field in the early 1970’s remain so today. I am currently still working on issues of what are essentially tools of social and political control – both professionally as an Associate Reader at Leeds Metropolitan University in the Praxis Centre, ethically as a lecturer in the School of Applied Global Ethics and politically as chair of the Board of Trustees of Privacy International.

This article describes how I became engrossed in studying ‘technologies of political control’, and tracked the members of the security industrial complex, responsible for proliferating it to some of the world’s most unsavoury regimes. More specifically, it relates how a lowly postgraduate researcher stumbled across the entrails of a global telecommunications interception system; precipitated the first Special Branch police raid on a British University; provoked the first ever parliamentary debate on the British secret police; and accidentally detonated a worldwide political and ethical debate on the existence of a futuristic global electronic spying network, now known as ‘ECHELON’. In relating my personal experience of researching the ECHELON trail, I hope to illustrate how many of the challenges facing surveillance scholars during critical periods of their work can be faced and eventually overcome without the researcher becoming part of the food chain of the process they are watching.

ECHELON is a (now out-of-date) code name given to the US National Security Agency’s worldwide facility for the mass interception of electronic telecommunications including, phone, fax and email using key words and context. It works on the basis that other telecommunication links can be used to siphon off messages travelling by satellite, microwave relay link or fibre optic cable, if they intercept such streams at a key node, and can work at a prodigious rate of more that 2 million intercepts per hour. Essentially, the system can work because for some of its journey, telecommunications traffic is travelling as an electronic stream that can be intercepted if the appropriate infrastructure is in place. However, the current wisdom is that ECHELON does not exist in the way it was originally construed but is a now thought to be a collection of subsets of interception capabilities using a range of code names of which we remain ignorant. Nevertheless, for the sake of simplicity, it makes sense to continue to use the generic label ‘ECHELON’ whilst recognizing that new surveillance algorithms have evolved since the early researchers built their crude paradigms.

My interest in surveillance studies began over three decades ago when no such field existed. I was a student at Manchester University on an unusual course, entitled ‘Liberal Studies in Science’. The course attempted to bridge the communication gap between science and the humanities, and create ‘literate scientists’ (in the wake of C.P Snow’s famous critique of the ‘two cultures’). The training given by the course certainly paid off in the years which followed, since it enabled its students to look at specific technical problems with perspectives from many different disciplines.

I became fascinated by the process of technology assessment: the attempt to examine unforeseen impacts of technological innovation. For example, the course examined nuclear arms races, and the parallels with arms races emerging in counter-insurgency conflicts, which were then in the news, fired my imagination. The course’s coverage of the Vietnam War highlighted a new generation of military systems which had potential domestic uses such as helicopter-mounted flight stabilized CCTV night vision cameras, already beginning to find a market in policing the U.S. home front.

At the same time on the UK home front, the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS) was just beginning to examine the deployment of new weapons and technologies in the burgeoning ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland: a province that was about to become the most surveilled zone in Europe. BSSRS conceptualized this new equipment as a ‘technology of political control’. According to BSSRS, this technology encompassed new crowd control technologies designed to appear safe (rather than be safe), new torture technologies designed to induce psychological breakdown; and new surveillance and telecommunication systems that provided a powerful nervous system for ‘the strong state’. Continue reading


Elliot Abrams’ plan to divide the Palestinians

By Mark Perry

Some stories you have to work for – while others just fall in your lap. That was the case for me in the summer of 2006, when a senior source inside the Pentagon laid out the Bush administration’s covert program to arm and then set loose a Fatah militia in Gaza. It was hoped that the resulting coup would reverse the January 2006 Palestinian election, which Hamas had won, and buttress the fortunes of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The story came complete with documents and enraged officials. That is to say: it fell into my lap.

What was so shocking about the story was that, at least here in the U.S., the details of the Bush administration’s initiative were almost unknown. That wasn’t true in the Middle East, where regional leaders openly questioned the covert program’s necessity. Egypt’s then-President Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah bluntly told U.S. officials that they believed the program would backfire – staining America’s already sullied regional reputation.

In early January of 2007, just months after being fed details of the covert program, I wrote and published a summary of what I had found. Elliot Abrams was at the center of my story because he was at the center of the covert program. It was his brainchild, his “baby.”

That same month I sent the details of what I knew to my colleague David Rose, who was following the same leads. His article, “The Gaza Bombshell,” was published by Vanity Fair in April 2008 and contained new details of the Bush administration’s plan – and how it had failed. “The Gaza Bombshell” was, in fact, a bombshell.

Sorting through the history of the Bush administration’s adventures in the Middle East is crucial to understanding how and why America lost its footing in the region and continues to struggle to recoup its credibility. But you wouldn’t know that from reading Elliot Abrams’ new tome, Tested By Zion, on his time as President Bush’s most powerful Middle East advisor. Touted as a “diplomatic tour de force” and “definitive,” the book’s promoters elegantly ignore a larger truth: that Abrams authored one of the most ill-conceived Middle East interventions in American history.

Elliot Abrams, former Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy in the Bush Administration, 2005-2009.

January 7, 2007: Is the Bush administration violating the law in an effort to provoke a Palestinian civil war?

Deputy National Security Advisor, Elliott Abrams — who Newsweek recently described as “the last neocon standing” — has had it about for some months now that the U.S. is not only not interested in dealing with Hamas, it is working to ensure its failure. In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas elections, last January, Abrams greeted a group of Palestinian businessmen in his White House office with talk of a “hard coup” against the newly-elected Hamas government — the violent overthrow of their leadership with arms supplied by the United States. While the businessmen were shocked, Abrams was adamant — the U.S. had to support Fatah with guns, ammunition and training, so that they could fight Hamas for control of the Palestinian government.

While those closest to him now concede the Abrams’ words were issued in a moment of frustration, the “hard coup” talk was hardly just talk. Over the last twelve months, the United States has supplied guns, ammunition and training to Palestinian Fatah activists to take on Hamas in the streets of Gaza and the West Bank. A large number of Fatah activists have been trained and “graduated” from two camps — one in Ramallah and one in Jericho. The supplies of rifles and ammunition, which started as a mere trickle, has now become a torrent (Haaretz reports the U.S. has designated an astounding $86.4 million for Mahmoud Abbas’s security detail), and while the program has gone largely without notice in the American press, it is openly talked about and commented on in the Arab media — and in Israel. Thousands of rifles and bullets have been poring into Gaza and the West Bank from Egypt and Jordan, the administration’s designated allies in the program.

At first, it was thought, the resupply effort (initiated under the guise of “assist[ing] the Palestinian Authority presidency in fulfilling PA commitments under the road map to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism and establish law and order in the West Bank and Gaza,” according to a U.S. government document) would strengthen the security forces under the command of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Officials thought that the additional weapons would easily cow Hamas operatives, who would meekly surrender the offices they had only recently so dearly won. That has not only not happened, but the program is under attack throughout the Arab world — particularly among America’s closest allies.

While both Egypt and Jordan have shipped arms to Mahmoud Abbas under the Abrams program (Egypt recently sent 1,900 rifles into Gaza and the West Bank, nearly matching the 3000 rifles sent by the Jordanians), neither Jordan’s King Abdullah nor Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak believe the program will work — and both are now maneuvering to find a way out of it. “Who can blame them?” an administration official told us recently. “While Mubarak has no love for Hamas, they do not want to be seen as bringing them down. The same can be said for Jordan.” A Pentagon official was even more adamant, cataloguing official Washington’s nearly open disdain for Abrams’ program. “This is not going to work and everyone knows it won’t work. It is too clever. We’re just not very good at this. This is typical Abrams stuff.” This official went on to note that “it is unlikely that either Jordan or Egypt will place their future in the hands of the White House. Who the hell outside of Washington wants to see a civil war among Palestinians? Do we really think that the Jordanians think that’s a good idea. The minute it gets underway, Abdullah is finished. Hell, fifty percent of his country is Palestinian.”

Senior U.S. Army officers and high level civilian Pentagon officials have been the most outspoken internal administration critics of the program, which was unknown to them until mid-August, near the end of Israel’s war against Hezbollah. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld learned about it he was enraged, and scheduled a meeting with President Bush in an attempt to convince him the program would backfire. Rumsfeld was concerned that the anti-Hamas program would radicalise Muslim groups among American allies and eventually endanger U.S. troops fighting Sunni extremists in Iraq. According to our reports, Rumsfeld was told by Bush that he should keep his focus on Iraq, and that “the Palestinian brief” was in the hands of the Secretary of State. After this confrontation, Rumsfeld decided there was not much he could do.

The Abrams program was initially conceived in February of 2006 by a group of White House officials who wanted to shape a coherent and tough response to the Hamas electoral victory of January. These officials, I am told, were led by Abrams, but included national security advisors working in the Office of the Vice President, including prominent neo-conservatives David Wurmser and John Hannah. The policy was approved by Condoleezza Rice. The President then, I am told, signed off on the program in a CIA “finding” and designated that its implementation be put under the control of Langley. But the program ran into problems almost from the beginning. “The CIA didn’t like it and didn’t think it would work,” I was told in October. “The Pentagon hated it, the US embassy in Israel hated it, and even the Israelis hated it.” A prominent American military official serving in Israel called the program “stupid” and “counter-productive.” The program went forward despite these criticisms, however, though responsibility for its implementation was slowly put in the hands of anti-terrorism officials working closely with the State Department. The CIA “wriggled out of” retaining responsibility for implementing the Abrams plan, I have been told. Since at least August, Rice, Abrams and U.S. envoy David Welch have been its primary advocates and the program has been subsumed as a “part of the State Department’s Middle East initiative.” U.S. government officials refused to comment on a report that the program is now a part of the State Department’s “Middle East Partnership Initiative,” established to promote democracy in the region. If it is, diverting appropriated funds from the program for the purchase of weapons may be a violation of Congressional intent — and U.S. law.

The recipients of U.S. largesse have been Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammad Dahlan, a controversial and charismatic Palestinian political leader from Gaza. The U.S. has also relied on advice from Mohammad Rashid, a well-known Kurdish/Palestinian financier with offices in Cairo. Even in Israel, the alliance of the U.S. with these two figures is greeted with almost open derision. While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has hesitantly supported the program, many of his key advisors have made it clear that they want to have nothing to do with starting a Palestinian civil war. They also doubt whether Hamas can be weakened. These officials point out that, since the beginning of the program, Hamas has actually gained in strength, in part because its leaders are considered competent, transparent, uncorrupt and unwilling to compromise their ideals — just the kinds of democratically elected leaders that the Bush Administration would want to support anywhere else in the Middle East.

Of course, in public, Secretary Rice appears contrite and concerned with “the growing lawlessness” among Palestinians, while failing to mention that such lawlessness is exactly what the Abrams plan was designed to create. “You can’t build security forces overnight to deal with the kind of lawlessness that is there in Gaza which largely derives from an inability to govern,” she said during a recent trip to Israel. “Their [the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority] inability to govern, of course, comes from their unwillingness to meet international standards.” Even Middle East experts and State Department officials close to Rice consider her comments about Palestinian violence dangerous, and have warned her that if the details of the U.S. program become public her reputation could be stained. In fact, Pentagon officials concede, Hamas’s inability to provide security to its own people and the clashes that have recently erupted have been seeded by the Abrams plan. Israeli officials know this, and have begun to rebel. In Israel, at least, Rice’s view that Hamas can be unseated is now regularly, and sometimes publicly, dismissed.

According to a December 25 article in the Israeli daily Haaretz, senior Israeli intelligence officials have told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that not only can Hamas not be replaced, but that its rival, Fatah, is disintegrating. Any hope for the success of an American program aimed at replacing Hamas, these officials argued, will fail. These Israeli intelligence officials also dismissed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s call for elections to replace Hamas — saying that such elections would all but destroy Fatah. As Haaretz reported: “Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin told the cabinet Sunday [December 24] that should elections be held in the Palestinian Authority, Fatah’s chances of winning would be close to zero. Diskin said during Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting that the Fatah faction is in bad shape, and therefore Israel should expect Hamas to register a sweeping victory.”

Apparently Jordan’s King Abdullah agrees. On the day this article appeared, December 25, Abdullah kept Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waiting for six hours to see him in Amman. Eventually, Abdullah told Abbas that he should go home — and only come to see him again when accompanied by Hamas leader and Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh. Most recently, Saudi officials have welcomed Haniyeh to Saudi Arabia for talks, having apparently made public their own views on the American program to replace Hamas. And so it is: one year after the election of Hamas, and one year after Elliot Abrams determined that sowing the seeds of civil war among a people already under occupation would somehow advance America’s program for democracy in the Middle East, respect for America’s democratic ideals has all but collapsed — and not just in Iraq.

Mark Perry is a Washington-based author and reporter. His most recent book is Talking To Terrorists. His forthcoming book (Basic Books, 2013) is a study of the relationship between President Franklin Roosevelt and General Douglas MacArthur. Perry served as an unofficial advisor to PLO Chairman and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat from 1989 to 2004.


Will Damascus go the way of Baghdad?

By John Robertson, War in Context, October 23, 2012

For centuries, the region that we have come to refer to (with unduly homogenizing overgeneralization) as the “Arab world” was dominated, and energized, by three great and ancient cities: Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo. Cairo (Arabic “al-Kahira,” or “victorious”) was founded officially by the new Shi’i conquerors of Egypt during the 10th century (although the area roundabout had been a heartland of great cities for millennia, going back to Memphis, the capital of the earliest pharaohs). Founded a couple of centuries earlier by the Arab conquerors of Mesopotamia, Baghdad too lay in the original heartland of cities (to borrow the phrase of the great American anthropologist/archaeologist Robert M. Adams); Babylon lies close by. Damascus is the most ancient city of them all, its roots extending into the Early Bronze Age, but its fame is most associated with the first truly imperial Muslim Arab dynasty, the Umayyads, who in 661 made Damascus the capital of their already vast, yet still-expanding empire.

Today, all three cities are pale reflections of what they were at their respective apogees. Cairo’s impoverished population are awash in trash, even as the new Islamist-led government likewise tries to dig itself out from under a long-depressed national economy and decades of corrupt authoritarianism under Egypt’s preceding military-based rulers.

Anyone who’s paid attention over the last few decades knows of the devastation the people of Baghdad have endured, beginning with Saddam Hussein’s war launched against Iran in 1980. Those horrors culminated in the Anglo-American conquest of the city in 2003, which touched off a massive breakdown of political and social order that led to Baghdad’s self-cannibalization. With the demons of Iraq’s sectarianism resurrected, the city’s Sunni and Shi’i populations turned against each other – and against the American occupiers of the city. The evidence of the carnage looms everywhere across the city, which has lost a huge portion of its Sunni Arab – and Christian – population.

As this New York Times report today indicates, Damascus is now poised at the brink of its own self-cannibalization. The civil war that has been tearing at what was an already loosely woven Syria national fabric is now beyond Damascus’ lintel and making its way into the city’s ancient interior. Like Baghdad, Damascus has been the abode of a plethora of sectarian groups, all of whom had been living in relative harmony. That harmony is fraying:

The reality of war has crept into daily life, and there is a sense of inevitability. Even supporters of the government talk about what comes next, and rebels speak of tightening the noose around this city, their ultimate goal.

Damascus was once known for its all-night party scene. Now, few people venture out after dark, and kidnappings are rampant. Gasoline is increasingly scarce, and as winter approaches, people are worried about shortages of food and heating oil. Streets are closed at a moment’s notice, traffic diverted, bridges shut down. Even longtime residents and taxi drivers get lost and have to weave in and out of parking lots to avoid barriers and dead-end streets. Shelling and machine-gun fire are so commonplace, children no longer react. Continue reading


Blanket thinkers

In Yarmouk camp in Damascus on Saturday, July 14, Palestinians denounced Bashar al Assad and Kofi Annan.

Robin Yassin-Kassab has written an important piece that deserves to be widely read — especially by those who struggle to understand why anyone who is pro-Palestinian should also be pro-Syrian or for anyone who is confused about what being pro-Syrian actually means. PW

Blanket thinkers

By Robin Yassin-Kassab

One of my infantile leftist ex-friends recently referred to the Free Syrian Army as a ‘sectarian gang’. The phrase may well come from Asa’ad Abu Khalil, who seems to have a depressingly large audience, but it could come from any of a large number of blanket thinkers in the ranks of the Western left. I admit that I sometimes indulged in such blanket thinking in the past. For instance, I used to refer to Qatar and Saudi Arabia as ‘US client states’, as if this was all to be said about them. I did so in angry response to the mainstream Western media which referred to pro-Western Arab tyrannies as ‘moderate’; but of course Qatar and Saudi Arabia have their own, competing agendas, and do not always behave as the Americans want them to. This is more true now, in a multipolar world and in the midst of a crippling economic crisis in the West, than it was ten years ago. Chinese workers undertaking oil and engineering projects in the Gulf are one visible sign of this shifting order.

(My talk of ‘infantile leftists’ does not include the entire left of course. Simon Assaf of the Socialist Workers, for instance, understands what’s happening. So does Max Blumenthal. And many others.)

The problem with blanket thinkers is that they are unable to adapt to a rapidly shifting reality. Instead of evidence, principles and analytical tools, they are armed only with ideological blinkers. Many of the current crop became politicised by Palestine and the invasion of Iraq, two cases in which the imperialist baddy is very obviously American. As a result, they read every other situation through the US-imperialist lens.

Qaddafi had opened up Libyan oilfields to Western exploitation, he bought Western weapons, and he tortured rendered suspects for the CIA. Inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the Libyans rose against the tyranny with incredible courage. When Britain and France, for their own reasons, helped to hasten the end by degrading Qaddafi’s mercenary forces (important but not decisive help – Qaddafi’s fall was effected by a rising in Tripoli and an influx of fighters from the Jebel Nafusa), blanket thinkers very insultingly painted the popular revolution as a foreign plot. Some even retrospectively raised Qaddafi to the rank of anti-imperialist hero. And since the fall of the old regime they’ve done everything they can to paint Libya as a failed state, a site of genocide, a new Iraq. It’s pretty insulting to Iraq as well as to Libya.

The fact that politics and civil society were effectively banned for decades, and the fact that Qaddafi imposed a civil war on his people, traumatising them and causing thousands of young men to take up arms, means that the new Libya faces imense problems. This is not news. Whenever a dictatorship ends violently, all the problems which have been repressed will burst forth. It’s like taking the lid off a steam cooker: all the good and evil in the society, all the intelligence and stupidity that was previously hidden, will spill out. This is not an argument for keeping the dictatorship. Several hundred have been killed in Libya since the fall of Qaddafi, mainly in battles between rival militias. Sometimes this has had a tribal or revenge aspect, but there has been no Iraq-style ethnic cleansing. There is a small separatist movement in the east. Fringe Islamist extremist groups have made a lot of noise. Many of the armed young men are reluctant to give up their arms. But there has been a very successful election. If the new government is able to absorb the militias into a national army and to resolve tribal, regional and other disputes within an accepted political process, Libya can look forward to a much better future. Opinion polls and conversations with Libyans show that an overwhelmingly large majority are happy that Qaddafi has gone and are optimistic about the future. But what does Libyan opinion matter to blanket thinkers?

After 17 months of slaughter in Syria, there is no no-fly zone. The extent of Western and ‘client’ intervention is this: Saudi Arabia and Qatar may be providing a small amount of light weaponry. The Turks may be helping to coordinate the weapons deliveries. The CIA appears to have a few men on the ground watching where the weapons are going and hoping (vainly) to ensure that they’ll never end up in the hands of anti-Zionist militants. On the other side stands a nakedly sectarian regime which considers its people slaves and murders them and destroys their cities with Russian weapons. Imperialist Russia, which has oppressed Muslims in the Caucuses and central Asia, and which bears half the blame for all the Cold War hot wars in Africa, is resupplying the regime with attack helicopters, tank parts and ammunition as the death toll surpasses seventeen thousand. Russia also protects the regime from condemnation at the UN security council. It plays the same role with regards to Syria that the United States plays with Israel. But how do the blanket thinkers see the situation? For them it’s yet another clear cut case of American imperialist aggression against a noble resistance regime, and once again the people are passive tools.

At best they are passive tools. They are also depicted as wild Muslims, bearded and hijabbed, who do not deserve democracy or rights because they are too backward to use them properly. Give them democracy and they’ll vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, and slaughter the Alawis and drive the Christians to Beirut. The blanket thinkers search for evidence of crimes committed by the popular resistance, and when they find them (usually on very flimsy evidence) they use them to smear the entire movement. They demand the resistance negotiate with a regime which has proved again and again that its only strategy is slaughter. They demand that the people remain peaceful as their children are tortured, their women raped, their neighbourhoods levelled. Leftist blanket thinkers do not apply the same criteria to the popular resistance of the Palestinians. It’s Zionists who do that.

To call the Free Syrian Army a sectarian gang is tantamount to calling the Syrian people a sectarian gang. It betrays a willed ignorance of reality. The FSA was formed in response to the sickening violence perpetrated by the Syrian regime, which at this stage is certainly a sectarian gang. Its Alawi military units work with armed Alawi civilians to slaughter Sunnis. This is a disaster for the Alawis and everyone else; it sows the seeds of a potential war which would destroy the country for generations, and it’s one of the first reasons why the regime must go as soon as possible. But the FSA is in reality hundreds of local militias which sometimes cooperate. It consists of defected soldiers (these people are heroes – they fled the army at huge personal risk because they were unable to stomach murdering their people; most soldiers who try to defect are killed before they leave base) and local men who have taken up arms to defend their neighbourhoods. Because the FSA is made of ordinary men, it covers an enormous range of political opinion. Some fighters are disillusioned Baathists, some are secularists, some leftists, some support the Muslim Brotherhood and some are attracted by extremist Wahhabi rhetoric. Some, I’m sure, are criminals, because some of the Syrian people are criminal. Some will be in it in the hopes of financial or sexual profit, because that’s the way people are.

Most are apolitical people, except for the fact that they want to bring down the tyranny. They fight because they have no choice. Of course, there is a huge danger that apolitical people will be easily manipulated by sectarian rhetoric, especially given that their enemy instrumentalises sectarianism. This is certainly a difficult period for revolutions in the Muslim world and internationally. The collapse of leftist thinking and reach, and the shrinking of public debate by dictatorships and consumerism, has left the way open to retrograde forms of religious or nationalist politics. Some of the battle videos labelled ‘Free Syrian Army’ look and sound depressingly similar to jihadist videos from Iraq. But for now it’s mainly a problem of style and ignorance, and it can easily be misinterpreted by an orientalist eye. Most Syrian people are religious, whether we like it or not. But most Syrian people are also aware that a sectarian war would produce no winners. The Allahu Akbar chant expresses a faith which is necessary to overcome the fear of being shot. It doesn’t autmomatically mean ‘Kill the Kuffar’. (But who am I talking to? The Palestinians use religious rhetoric and talk about ‘the Jews’ rather than ‘the Zionists’, and it doesn’t bother the blanket thinkers for a moment).

The longer the necessary fight goes on the more brutalised the people will become, and the more likely that vengeful sectarian voices will dominate. It is the duty of any right-thinking person, leftist or otherwise, to support the oppressed people in their struggle. Anyone who does so, and who respects the Syrians enough to base their comments on knowledge rather than assumption, will have earned the right to offer political advice to the Syrians.

The FSA is inevitably disorganised and outgunned. But it’s a lot more organised than it was a few months ago, and it is liberating territory. It fights with commitment and incredible resilience. Today the battle is in inner Damascus.

And a few days ago it was in the Yarmouk and Palestine refugee camps, which brings me finally to the strange fact that blanket thinkers persist in thinking of the Syrian regime as in some way a threat to Israel. It’s true that Syria helped Hizbullah stand firm, and this is not a small thing. It’s also true that the Syrian regime has massacred Palestinians in Tel Zaatar and other Lebanese camps, that since 1973 the border with the occupied Golan has been quieter than borders with states enjoying peace agreements with Israel, and that Syria has never even tried to shoot at the Israeli planes which have bombed its territory since Bashaar inherited power. But things have become clearer since the uprising began. Rami Makhlouf told the New York Times that Israeli security depended on the Syrian regime’s security.

Paul Woodward at War in Context quotes Reuters on the regime’s recent transportation of chemical weapons: An Israeli official said however the movements reflected an attempt by President Bashar al-Assad to make “arrangements to ensure the weapons do not fall into irresponsible hands”.

“That would support the thinking that this matter has been managed responsibly so far.”

Woodward then comments: So, while the word from Damascus is that “terrorists” armed with “Israeli-made machine guns” conducted the massacre in Tremseh yesterday, the word from Tel Aviv is that Syria’s chemical weapons are nothing to worry about so long as they remain in the responsible hands of the government.

There might be a certain amount of truth in that statement. Still, it’s not exactly the rhetoric one might expect from a representative of an alliance that is supposedly gunning for Assad’s downfall. On the contrary, it reflects the fact that Israel would be much happier to see Assad remain in power.

Here’s a simpler proposition for the blanket thinkers: Hizbullah won victories because it respects its people, because it is of its people. A regime which murders its people and destroys the national infrastructure, which plays with the dynamite of sectarian conflict and puts the whole people’s future in question, would be incapable of winning a victory even if it wanted to.

On Friday tens of thousands protested against regime barbarism in the Palestinian camps of Damascus. Regime forces opened fire, murdering eleven. Many more were dragged from their homes to be tortured in detention. Professional liar and regime spokesman Jihad Maqdisi then described Palestinians as ‘impolite guests,’ outraging Syrians and Palestinians, who are the same people, now more than ever.

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes at Qunfuz and Pulse and is the author of the novel, The Road from Damascus.


Thomas Friedman, all-American pundit: A review of Belen Fernandez, The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work

By John Robertson, Professor of History, Central Michigan University

With the publication of Belen Fernandez’s The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, Verso Press inaugurated a new series, called Counterblasts, with the intention of reviving a tradition of polemic that it traces back to the fiery political pamphleteers of the 17th century. Obviously, then, Ms. Fernandez was not supposed to produce an impartial, dispassionate analysis of the collected works of the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning chief foreign affairs correspondent. Rather, she has come up with something that the American public in general (and students of US foreign affairs and public diplomacy especially) undoubtedly need more: a systematic, detailed take-down of the neo-liberal bias, myopic US-Israeli chauvinism, and general intellectual shallowness that almost scream to be noticed in Friedman’s writing. Yet, lamentably, Friedman has been enshrined as a sort of American “Everyman’s” go-to guy for understanding what’s happening in the world, what needs fixing, and how “we” can and should do it.

Fernandez’s take-down is based on an almost exhaustive winnowing of Friedman’s NY Times columns as well as his several best-selling books (starting with his 1989 From Beirut to Jerusalem). She structures her presentation within three principal yet frequently overlapping categories of Friedman’s supposed expertise: America, the Arab/Muslim World, and the Special Relationship (i.e., the US-Israel relationship). Throughout, she bolsters her arguments with detail so profuse and tightly packed that a brief review such as this can hardly do it justice. But from that skein of specifics Fernandez is able to draw out specific tropes, methods, and assumptions that are woven throughout Friedman’s work:

  • “USA! USA!” : The United States is almost always (and, in Friedman’s view, most obviously) the right model for the rest of the world, and “we” have the right and obligation to fix the world – the Middle East, in particular – whenever and wherever we choose. Just as obviously the right model is Neoliberal free-market capitalism and globalization; just ask the countless factory owners and local elites who tend to be Friedman’s go-to people for sourcing his analyses.
  • “They” can “Suck.On.This”: Especially when it comes to the Middle East, Friedman’s prescriptions (all too often posited as what “we should do”) frequently combine the aforementioned assumption that America has the right “to do” something with the swaggering machismo that comes with knowing that “we” have the biggest and shiniest tools in the military box. Teddy Roosevelt spoke of America walking softly and carrying a big stick. Thomas Friedman, on the other hand, has been too eager for “us” to whomp someone (usually a Middle Eastern someone) with that stick, and in the aftermath trumpet “Suck on This” (as he did so infamously during an interview with Charlie Rose after the US invasion of Iraq).
  • When push comes to shove, Israel good, Arabs bad. Surely, Friedman has written critically of Israeli policies at times, and he deserves credit for doing so. But over the long haul, he has maintained an almost bred-from-birth conviction in the rightness of Zionism and Israel that he seems completely unable to examine or question. Individual Israelis whom he singles out tend to be heroes, in his estimation. Unfortunately, Friedman consistently couples that with a tendency (which Fernandez is able to spotlight consistently in Friedman’s work) toward a homogenizing reductionism and essentializing of Muslims, Arabs, and “their” culture that would make Bernard Lewis or Fouad Ajami proud. Nor does Friedman’s work tend to demonstrate much breadth or real depth in his understanding of Middle Eastern history. That’s surprising – and disappointing – in the work of someone who undertook Middle East studies at both Brandeis and Oxford. It’s also why the vast majority of mainstream scholars of modern Middle Eastern history cite his work only as a target for criticism.
  • Collateral damage. Friedman’s work all too often reflects his seeming refusal to recognize – or inability to empathize with – the suffering and human toll taken by US and Israeli military action. In Friedman’s world view, death and destruction (unless it happens to Americans or Israelis) is all collateral damage for the greater good. This stands in stark contrast to the work of other journalists (such as Gideon Levy, Amira Hass, Robert Fisk, and Nir Rosen, all of whom Fernandez recognizes) whose work reflects not only their long experience “on the ground” in the Middle East, but also their much greater capacity to bring basic humanity to bear in their commentary and analyses.

Ironically, among the foremost in this regard was Friedman’s late colleague at the New York Times, Anthony Shadid. (One wonders if they had much contact with each other; it surely doesn’t show in Friedman’s work.) Shadid possessed a remarkable ability to connect with people on the ground, and seemingly in their souls, and then to share those encounters in lyrical, moving prose. Fernandez’s prose, though surely not as lyrical as Shadid’s, is in its own way very moving. It is more precise and intense – and often searingly sarcastic. It is also suffused with impassioned conviction that sometimes bleeds into anger and even ad hominem put-downs that, one might argue, detract from the incisiveness of her analysis.

Nonetheless, what Belen Fernandez makes plain as she scalpels into Friedman’s opus is that his position atop the pyramid of the American foreign-affairs commentariate rests more on attitude than on intellect. Moreover – and much more troubling – it is symptomatic of biases that widely infect the American mainstream media’s coverage of the US’s actions, policies, and attitudes toward the rest of the world in general, and the Middle East in particular.

Fernandez’s book deserves to be read widely and discussed in depth. After doing so, one may be much less prepared to say the same for the work of Thomas Friedman.


Avi Shlaim: Obama must stand up to Netanyahu

By Avi Shlaim, War in Context, March 5, 2012

It is clear what kind of Israeli prime minister President Obama will be receiving at the White House today. Benjamin Netanyahu is a bellicose, right-wing Israeli nationalist, a rejectionist on the subject of Palestinian national rights, and a reactionary who is deeply wedded to the status quo. Nationalism has an in-built tendency to go to extremes and Netanyahu’s brand is no exception. A nation has been defined as ‘a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours’. This definition fits the Likud leader on both counts: he has a selective and self-righteous view of his own country’s history and he is driven by distrust and disdain, if not outright hatred towards the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular. This hostility towards Arabs is the central thread that runs through his public utterances, books, and policies as prime minister.

Netanyahu does not believe in peaceful co-existence between equals. He views Israel’s relations with the Arab world as one of permanent conflict, as a never-ending struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. In his 1993 book – A Place among the Nations: Israel and the World – the image he presents of the Arabs is consistently and comprehensively negative. Nor does he admit any possibility of diversity or change. The book does not contain a single positive reference to the Arabs, their history or their culture. Autocracy, violence, and terrorism are said to be the ubiquitous facts in the political life of all the Arab countries. A democratic shift on the Arab side is a precondition to genuine peace with Israel, wrote Netanyahu, in the confident expectation that such a shift is beyond the realm of possibility. The Arab Spring has proved him wrong.

The coalition government headed by Netanyahu is the most aggressively right-wing, diplomatically intransigent, and overtly racist government in Israel’s history. His Foreign minister is Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the far-right party Yisrael Beiteinu, Israel is Our Home. Lieberman has set his face against any compromise with the Palestinians and he also favours subjecting Israel’s 1.5 million Palestinian citizens to an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state. Netanyahu’s Defence Minister is Ehud Barak who destroyed and then defected from the Labour Party to form a small break-away faction called Independence. A former chief-of-staff, Barak suffers from a déformation professionelle: he regards diplomacy as the extension of war by other means. Barak is a bitkhonist, a security-ist who wants 100 per cent security for Israel which means zero security for the Palestinians.

The ideological make-up of this coalition government militates against a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians. It is a government of militant nationalists whose aim is to redraw unilaterally the borders of Greater Israel. The government is democratically elected but by putting nationalism above morality and international legality, and by relying on military power to subjugate another people, it is in danger of drifting towards fascism. And it is already drifting away from the common values that constitute the foundation of the special relationship between the United States and the State of Israel.

On 14 June 2009, Netanyahu gave a speech at Bar-Ilan University in which, under strong American pressure, he grudgingly endorsed a ‘Demilitarized Palestinian State’. This was hailed as a reversal of his government’s opposition to an independent Palestinian state. But the change was more apparent than real. Judged by his deeds rather than rhetoric, Netanyahu remained the relentless rejectionist that he had been throughout his singularly undistinguished political career. The litmus test of commitment to a two-state solution is a freeze of settlement expansion on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, the capital of the future Palestinian state. Under Netanyahu’s leadership, however, settlement expansion has gone ahead at full tilt, especially in and around Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is the most sensitive issue in this tragic, hundred year-old conflict. By putting Jerusalem at the forefront of his expansionist agenda, Netanyahu knowingly and deliberately blocks progress on any of the other ‘permanent status issues’ such as borders and refugees. Netanyahu is not a peace-maker; he is a land-grabber who rides roughshod over Palestinian rights. It is he who has turned the so-called peace process into an exercise in futility. He is like a man who pretends to negotiate the division of a pizza while continuing to gobble it up.

Barrack Obama reiterates at regular intervals that the bond between America and Israel is ‘unbreakable’. If anyone can break this bond, it is Benjamin Netanyahu. Early on in his presidency, Obama identified a settlement freeze as the essential precondition for progress in the American-sponsored peace process. During his Cairo speech, on 4 June 2009, he made it clear that ‘The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements’. Obama had three confrontations with Netanyahu over the demand for a settlement freeze and he backed down each time. Moreover, Obama has all but turned over to Netanyahu the American veto on UN Security Council. Since 1978 America has used the veto forty-two times to defeat resolutions critical of Israel. The most egregious abuse of this power happened in February 2011 when a resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion was supported by fourteen members and killed by America. That was a veto of America’s own foreign policy.

How can a jimcrack politician from a small country defy the most powerful man in the world and get away with it? At least part of the answer lies in the enduring power of the Israel lobby. Ever since 1967 the lobby has opposed every international plan for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute that was not to Israel’s liking. But any proposal for a military strike against Israel’s enemies can count on the support of Israel’s friends in Washington, Iraq in 2003 and Iran today being the most obvious examples. In the case of Iran, Netanyahu is the war-monger in chief and he is doing his utmost to drag America into a dangerous confrontation that cannot possibly serve American interests. The region is like a tinder box and one spark could set off a major conflagration.

On 5 March, President Obama is due to receive the Israeli prime minister in the White House. At their first meeting, on 19 May 2009, Obama’s priority was Palestine whereas Netanyahu only wanted to talk about the Iranian threat. Subsequently, Netanyahu succeeded in imposing his agenda on his ally. Today the peace process is in tatters and the war hysteria against Iran is gathering force. The challenge for Obama is to reign in his reckless junior ally and to reorder American priorities in the Middle East. The main threat to regional stability is not Iran but the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. And the main source of hostility towards America throughout the Arab and Muslim lands is Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and America’s complicity in this oppression. If Obama cannot stand up to Bibi Netanyahu in defence of vital American interests, who will he stand up to? His own credibility as the leader of the free world is on the line.

Avi Shlaim is an Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and the author of Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (Verso).

An edited version of this op-ed appears in The Independent today. The complete version is published here with the author’s permission.


Flotilla controversy within Occupy Wall Street shows Palestine continues to be a fault line


At about midnight Palestinian time, all was quiet on the Mediterranean Sea. All reports coming from the Tahrir and Saoirse indicated that the two unidentified (possibly Israeli) ships and planes, which had been trailing the humanitarian vessels an hour before, had receded into the distance, and posed no immediate threat. The international activists aboard the Canadian and Irish vessels announced they were heading off to sleep, as journalist Hassan Ghani, aboard the Canadian Tahrir, tweeted that “I remember these feelings a year ago onboard the Mavi Marmara; the tension but also the hope of reaching Gaza the next morning”. Folks eyeing the Twitter-sphere found themselves “praying that this is not the calm before the storm”, and encouraging the 27 crew members to “stay steady in your tracks and strong in your minds”.

In the midst of this calm, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement posted a surprising and exhilarating tweet:

“We support and would like to express #solidarity to #FreedomWaves #Palestine #ows”.

Moments later, the Twitter representative of the Canada Boat to Gaza posted an appreciative response, “We are thrilled to receive the support of #OccupyWallStreet Looks like only the 1% support the Israeli blockade of Gaza.” The Twitter-sphere flared up with expressions of praise and affirmation, proving that the 99% naturally link the struggle for the Occupation of Wall Street with the struggle against the Occupation of Palestine as two facets of a single universal liberation struggle.

Approximately four hours later, however, Occupy Wall Street’s tweet mysteriously disappeared from its home page on Twitter. The Twitter-sphere was instantly taken aback — “didn’t realize #OWS is non-political!!” remarked one tweeter, while another insisted that “If #OWS can not support #FreedomWaves and #Gaza then they should not compare themselves to #ArabSpring or #Tahrir.” The Canada Boat to Gaza, who earlier had nodded in satisfaction, now, shook its head in disappointment, offering, in the face of Occupy Wall Street’s fear of involving itself in the Israel-Palestine conflict, a few words by Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Many tweeps asked “Why did @OccupyWallSt delete a tweet showing solidarity with #FreedomWaves?” or “@OccupyWallSt Did you seriously delete the tweet supporting #FreedomWaves WHY?” The closest official answer came from Daniel Sieradski, a new media activist who has been central to the OccupyJudaism activities. Sieradski explained, the “#FreedomWaves tweet was unauthorized, did not have reflect #OWS community consensus and was subsequently deleted.” He added, “#OWS does not have a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” and “#OWS is a consensus based movement. The GA has never discussed the I/P issue & even if it did, it would never reach consensus.” Sieradski acknowledged he was not speaking as a spokesperson from Occupy Wall Street but he had “heard what happened from people close to it.” I was not able to receive an official explanation from the Occupy Wall Street movement about why tweet being deleted.

As the controversy blazed across Twitter, it opened a space for the 99% to express the obvious connections between the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the global dominance of the 1% — “#OWS is inseparable from #Palestine. 1% funding Israeli settlements and extremist settlers? Priceless.”; “#OWS is inseparable from#Gaza. The 1% diverts resources from the 99% by Israel’s blockading and shelling 100% of Gaza”; “The Tear Gas used in #Oakland is the same tear gas used in#Palestine, when protesters demonstrate non violently”, to cite a few among the myriad examples. Not everyone on twitter was upset however. The tweeter ‘Fatima600’, who had been using this racist name to fire verbal attacks at the flotilla throughout the night, responded, “They are tired of having their movement hijacked!!!!! I love you #OWS!!!!”

Hours later, @OccupyFortWorth expressed its support for Freedom Waves for Gaza — “Our support for #Gaza and #Freedomwaves is limitless. It emanates and echoes from the deepest purest regions of our heart. Love. Solidarity”, asserting, in contrast to #OccupyWallSt’s hesitancy, that “we don’t mind losing followers who are uncritical or unwilling to engage the issues (Or who are reflexively pro-Zionist.)”.

Ben Lorber is an American activist with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank and a journalist with the Alternative Information Center in Bethlehem. Visit his blog at

This post originally appeared at Mondoweiss and is reposted here with permission.


John Robertson: Elliot Abrams bangs the drum for war against Iran

By John Robertson, War in Context, July 11, 2011

Once again, from one of those worthies privileged to call themselves “fellows” of the Council on Foreign Relations, a call for America to suck it up, be strong, hammer those bad guys into submission (and not a word about how much it costs, or how little the US can afford it).

Days ago, it was Max Boot, pounding on the guilt button of America’s supposed humiliation in Somalia, and imploring Obama to steer our military and economy more deeply into the black hole that is nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. (For my take on that, I invite you to read this.) Now we have Elliot Abrams, another “expert” hailing from the so-called mainstream of the public diplomacy establishment, who is shocked – SHOCKED – by the deaths of US soldiers at the hands of Shii militias in Iraq, and intent on shaming Obama into doing something about it – by killing Iranians, those nefarious evil-doing people who surely are behind it all.

Here’s his historical context:

There must be very few times in American history when a foreign government is accused of killing American troops, and absolutely nothing is done about it.

Every school kid used to learn lines like “Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead,” or “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.” The War of 1812 was fought in large part due to the “impressment” of American sailors by the British, a similar example of denial of freedom that fell far short of actually killing American sailors.

Are you serious, Mr. Abrams? For those who don’t know, Mrs. Perdicaris and children were, in perspective, a minor incident; they were held captive by a local sheikh in northern Africa and were rescued, unharmed, when Teddy Roosevelt sent in a small force. There was no danger of instigating a horrific war. British impressment of American sailors did contribute to starting the War of 1812, which soon entailed a British invasion of US territory and a real threat to the American republic.

The deaths of a few US soldiers in Iraq at the hands of Shii militias with ties to – and supplied by – Iran is deplorable, but it bears absolutely no real comparison to either of these two incidents. Abrams would have us believe that any Iranian involvement in the killing of US soldiers in Iraq is unprovoked. You want to cite history, Mr. Abrams? Try this out:

  • Even as US forces were rolling into Baghdad in 2003, the word among the neocon set was that “real men go to Tehran.” This, after the Khatami government had cooperated with the US post-9/11 and had been reaching out to the US during the Clinton administration – only to be rewarded with the idiocy of Bush’s “axis of evil” SoU address in 2002.
  • Between 1980 and 1988, the US provided huge support to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after his unprovoked invasion of Iran. The war cost as many as 1 million Iranian lives, and featured attacks by the US navy on Iranian oil installations and naval forces in the Persian Gulf. It also featured Iraqi use of poison gas against Iranian troops – a horrific violation of international law, at which the Reagan administration essentially winked and looked the other way. And, it also featured the incident of a US warship (the USS Vincennes) launching anti-aircraft rockets that destroyed an Iranian passenger plane, killing 200 passengers – an incident the Iranian government commemorated only a few days ago.
  • Speaking of the Reagan administration, and history – under Reagan, the US secretly facilitated the illegal sale of weapons to Iran and then (again, illegally) funneled the profits to anti-communist CONTRA movement in Nicaragua. When it was discovered, this bit of chicanery brought us the Iran-CONTRA scandal, which came close to trashing the Reagan administration and led to the censure and convicting of some Reagan officials, including . . .
  • Elliot Abrams! Gee, you don’t remember that, Elliot? You don’t remember that there was once a time when you were up to your neck in unseemly dealings with Iran?

Outraged by Iran now, Abrams is calling for retaliation. Want some more historical context for that?

  • An article at the time of Iran-CONTRA also noted that on his office wall, Abrams proudly featured a Likud Party poster.
  • Anyone who reads Abrams’ stuff over the last several years knows that he is one of Israeli hard-right’s most ardent defenders in the press as well as the foreign-policy mainstream. He completely backs Netanyahu/Lieberman on the issue of West Bank settlements (i.e., Israel should keep them all, and anyone who raises the issue of settlements is simply trying to distract us from the issues of Palestinian/Islamist/Iranian perfidy).
  • He would love nothing better than to see the US either back Israel’s play in a proposed military strike against Iran or launch its own such strike.

So now, Abrams conjures up the ghosts of 1812 and Teddy Roosevelt to bang the war-drum for retaliation against Iran. He says, it’s to salvage American honor.

I betcha that Bibi – that great promoter of American honor – is smiling.

John Robertson is a professor of Middle East history at Central Michigan University and has his own blog, Chippshots.


When Montgomery comes to Nabi Saleh

By Mark Perry

On March 24, the Israeli government arrested Bassem Tamimi, a 44-year-old resident of the small Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, which is just west of Ramallah. Tamimi was arrested for leading a group of his neighbors in protest marches on a settlement that had “expropriated” the village’s spring — the symbolic center of Nabi Saleh’s life.

Tamimi was brought before the Ofer military court and charged with “incitement, organizing unpermitted marches, disobeying the duty to report to questioning” and “obstruction of justice” — for giving young Palestinians advice on how to act under Israeli police interrogation. He was remanded to an Israeli military prison to await a hearing and a trial. The detention of Tamimi is not a formality: under Israeli military decree 101 he is being charged with attempting “verbally or otherwise, to influence public opinion in the Area in a way that may disturb the public peace or public order.” As in Syria, this is an “emergency decree” disguised as protecting public security. It carries a sentence of 10 years.

The arrest of Tamimi marked only the most recent escalation in Israel’s campaign to suffocate the Nabi Saleh movemen: in the two months prior to his arrest, Israeli officials detained more than 18 Nabi Saleh youths; over the last two years, nearly 15 percent of Nabi Saleh’s population has spent time in Israeli jails; half of those arrested have been under the age of 18 and the youngest of them was 11. But what is extraordinary about the Nabi Saleh campaign is its effectiveness. The protestors are trained in non-violent tactics. “Our strategic choice of a popular struggle — as a means to fight the occupation taking over our lands, lives, and future — is a declaration that we do not harm human lives,” Tamimi has said. “The very essence of our activity opposes killing.”

Tamimi’s arrest has not stopped the movement. On the morning of April 8, about 80 villagers marched from Nabi Saleh’s main street towards the settlement. As they crossed into some nearby fields, they were attacked by IDF soldiers with teargas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades. The villagers fled, but then reorganized themselves, defiantly linking arms in front of the soldiers. Again, the IDF responded harshly and, by that evening, had arrested six villagers. But these are small incidents in a continuing battle. The protests go on day after day, week after week — and have over the course of the last four years.

Nabi Saleh does not stand alone. The non-violent protests actually began eight years ago in small communities near Israel’s security wall, then took root in the villages of Mas’ha and Budrus; the protests have now spread to towns and villages across the West Bank, encompassing mass rural movements from Hebron in the south to Nablus in the north. The protests have involved dozens to hundreds, and on rare occasions, thousands of villagers. But pride of place for this widespread non-violent resistance movement belongs to Bil’in, a village that (like Nabi Saleh) has seen much of its land taken over by a settlement. The leader of the Bil’in protests is Abdallah Abu Rahmah, the head of Bil’in’s Popular Committee Against the Wall. Like Tamimi, Abu Rahmah has trained his young activists in the principles of non-violence, sparking movable protests that the IDF has found impossible to suppress.

Abu Rahmah, a high school teacher at the Latin Patriarch School in Ramallah, began organizing Bil’in’s protests in 2004, even as the violence of the Second Intifada was beginning to wane. Every Friday after prayers, Abu Rahmah would lead a group of Bil’in residents on a protest march towards a local settlement — and every Friday his march would be intercepted by the IDF.

In one demonstration, an IDF sniper used a .22 caliber rifle to disburse the protesters, killing a Palestinian boy. Twenty-one unarmed demonstrators, among them five children, have been killed in non-violent West Bank demonstrations since the beginnings of the movement. In the village of Nil’in in 2008, American activist Tristan Anderson was paralyzed after an IDF soldier fired a high velocity tear gas canister at his head from a distance of 15 meters. In December of 2009, IDF soldiers raided Abu Rahmah’s home, arrested him for incitement, and sentenced him to 12 months in prison. At the end of his sentence, the IDF asked his sentence to be extended for another four months, describing Abu Rahmah as “dangerous.” The court agreed.

Abu Rahmah has become a symbol of the protests. While in prison, he smuggled letters to his supporters, including one — written this last February — that has become a kind of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” of the movement. “Ofer is an Israeli military base inside the occupied territories that serves as a prison and military court,” he wrote. “The prison is a collection of tents enclosed by razor wire and an electrical fence, each unit containing four tents, 22 prisoners per tent. Now, in winter, wind and rain comes through the cracks in the tent and we don’t have sufficient blankets, clothes, and other basic necessities. Food is a critical issue here in Ofer, there’s not enough. We survive by buying ingredients from the prison canteen that we prepare for our tent. We have one small hot plate, and this is also our only source of warmth.”

One month after penning this letter, Abu Rahmah was released, but it’s only a matter of time before he’s arrested again — and shut inside one of the half-dozen Israeli military prisons and administrative facilities that dot the West Bank. Israeli tactics, the mass arrests, and the use of live fire have been condemned by a long list of human rights organization. But not by the United States.

Just how much do the Bil’in-Nabi Saleh protests worry Israel? One widely circulated article from the popular Israeli political daily Yediot Ahronot described Naji Tamimi, who helped his cousin Bassem organize the Nabi Saleh movement, as “a pied piper” who “fans the flames of violence.” (Despite the fact that not one Israeli has died as a result of the protests.) The article went further: “Even though it hasn’t been proven, it seems that sources connected to the Palestinian Authority are directing the activities and that the funds paid out to the youths is coming from donations from organizations registered abroad.” Not proven — because it’s not true. In fact, while Fateh and Hamas officials monitor the protests (PA officials have come to Nabi Saleh — before scuttling back to their offices in Ramallah), they have been careful not to interfere in them. They view the protests as a credible and powerful movement that is better left alone. Hamas leaders agree. “We wish them well. We hope they succeed. We support them. We are staying away,” a senior Hamas official says.

A group of international activists have been helping the Nabi Saleh protests. Jonathan Pollak, a 29-year-old native of Tel Aviv, has found himself at the center of the protests — and has written about them extensively. “I grew up in a progressive home,” he says, “but I don’t think that anyone in my family could be described as a radical. I came to Nabi Saleh and realized I had to help. What’s happening here is just wrong.” Joseph Dana, a New York native and journalist, works alongside Pollak. He came to Israel to find his Jewish identity. “I haven’t found it,” he says. “What I found instead was an army that arrests children.”

Pollak, Dana, and other international activists are working to bring attention to the Nabi Saleh movement and have escorted diplomats from Europe through the village. A few low-level American diplomats from Jerusalem have come to Nabi Saleh, but no senior American officials have visited. “The international community has been asking for years where the Palestinian nonviolent movement is,” Joseph Dana says from his home in Jerusalem. “Well, here it is. And the Americans are nowhere to be found.”

Pollak and Dana are being modest. While the events at Nabi Saleh and Bil’in have been largely ignored in the United States, they have sparked a simmering conflict between Palestinian villagers and Israeli settlers. The IDF has taken the side of the settlers, arresting hundreds of young Palestinians (many of them minors) and using (in one case) the testimony of a 14-year-old boy to condemn the movement’s leadership. “They kept him up all night, shouting at him,” Dana says. “He was frightened, alone. Finally, he did what they wanted. If you can imagine, Israeli soldiers subjecting a child to mental torture.” While the world’s attention has been diverted by the events in Tahrir Square, Israeli officials have struck back against what may well be the greatest threat to their settlement project — condemning non-violent protesters as “terrorists” and standing aside while settlers have taken more and more land from unarmed and defenseless people. Israel has poured increased funds into countering the protests, deployed more and more soldiers to stop them, and escalated the arrest of its leaders — breaking down the doors of their homes in pre-dawn raids designed to frighten and intimidate them. Nothing has worked.

Unfunded and unnoticed, Bassem Tamimi, his cousin Naji, Abdallah Abu Rahmah, and a handful of others have organized and trained battalions of young men and women in the art of non-violent resistance. Bassem Tamimi’s arrest has not stopped the protests. They are growing, and spreading. The movement is now in the hands of Bassem’s wife, Nariman, who vows to fight on. She has already spent time in an Israeli jail, but remains undeterred. “There is no knowing what the future holds,” she says from her home in Nabi Saleh, “but our path is clear and so is our goal. We know well that it is possible to achieve it, and we will continue to fight for it. To a great extent, the question of our victory is also one that should be directed to the American people and their government — are you on the side of justice and victory, or on the side of continued oppression?”

The Arab Spring has seen revolutions come to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. In each revolution, U.S. President Barack Obama has praised the crowds seeking democracy and freedom. Again and again he has talked of the need to fight extremist violence. He has paid homage to the young men and women who have brought freedom to Egypt and Tunisia. He has supported those defending themselves in the streets of Benghazi, Sanaa, and Damascus. His talisman has been non-violence, his pole star the American civil rights movement. In Cairo, in June of 2009, President Obama linked the Palestinian quest for freedom to the American civil rights movement. “Palestinians must abandon violence,” he said. “Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed.” He was right. So why is it that now — when finally, Montgomery has come to Nabi Saleh — he chooses to remain silent?

Mark Perry is a military and political analyst and author of eight books, including Partners In Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace, and most recently Talking To Terrorists.


Mark Perry: Inside the Palestine Papers debate

Before publishing the Palestine Papers, Al Jazeera invited a group of experts and journalists to Doha to study the documents. The group included political and military analyst, Mark Perry, who provided analysis in this week’s special report and the following background for War in Context. He is the author of eight books, including Partners In Command and the recently released Talking To Terrorists.

We Better Get Used To It
Inside The Palestine Papers Debate
By Mark Perry

Back in 1989, I was the recipient of hundreds of State Department cables dealing with nearly every aspect of American foreign policy. The material was breathtaking: cables on CIA support for the non-communist Cambodian resistance, a DIA report on a PLO political team in Central America, the theft of U.S. monies by Thai Generals in Bangkok – accounts of changes of government in half-a-dozen developing countries. The cables were marked “Top Secret” and provided me with the opportunity to write a series of articles for a number of major dailies. Until the leaker was caught.

What surprised me the most was not the subject matter of the cables, but the rumors surrounding them. The then-head of the Senate Intelligence Committee blamed “State Department officials” for the leak, the State Department blamed the Senate. Everyone was convinced – the cables were leaked by top officials for political purposes. In truth, the leaker was an overweight late-20s State Department polymath named Bill with a habit of dribbling salad dressing on his tie. His one notable tic was an uncontrollable stutter. Worried that his discovery would lead to his arrest, I felt itmy duty to warn him that his actions would mean the end of his career. “Why are you doing this, Bill?” I asked him. He blinked for a moment, hesitated, then told me: “Shhhh . . .she . . . mmm … makes fffff . . . fun of me.” There you have it: the reason he was leaking the cables was because his supervisor at the Cable Secretariat, cruelly caricatured his stutter in front of his fellow workers – to their great amusement. “I . . I . . . I’m going to gggggee . . . get her,” he said.

I was reminded of Bill when Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat requested the U.S. and U.K governments investigate Al Jazeera reporter Clayton Swisher (a U.S. citizen) and Alastair Crooke (a former British government employee – wink, wink), for leaking over 1600 documents on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to Al-Jazeera. This is complete eyewash. As a part of a group of experts and journalists invited to Doha two weeks ago by Al-Jazeera to study the documents, it was clear to me then that the leaker was probably an employee in the PLO’s Negotiations Department. Of course, I could be completely wrong: I have no idea who the leaker is and was given no hint of his (or her, or their) identity by anyone at the network. That hasn’t stopped me from speculating: the leaker could be a Palestinian employee who wants to embarrass the Palestinian Authority, a translator who sat in on the meetings, a janitor with access to offices and files, or Erekat himself – who wanted to embarrass George Mitchell.

Even so, Erekat’s demand that the U.S. and U.K. search for the leaker provides an interesting sidebar to the papers’ release: for having initially denounced the 1600 documents in Al-Jazeera possession as “fabrications,” Mr. Erekat is now willing to concede their authenticity. His response might be a model for all those caught out by the truth – a narrative reminisicent of that common to terminal patients: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. In truth, while the identity of the leaker has now become a kind of cottage industry in the Arab press, the leaker’s name is not nearly as important as the leaker’s motives.

This came through clearly during my reading of the documents, for I focused initially on on a series of six meetings in September and October of 2009 between Saeb Erekat and George Mitchell. For me those documents showed Erekat as a tough, savvy, committed and stubborn nationalist, while George Mitchell appeared and talked like “Israel’s lawyer” – abandoning prior U.S. positions on the negotiation’s terms of reference and on the Road Map. I argued to my colleagues that Al-Jazeera’s “lead” should focus on Mitchell and the U.S., as Israeli supplicants. Whoever leaked these documents, I said, wanted to show us the depravity of the American position. My colleagues disagreed, though not because they had a different agenda – they had simply read different documents. For them, Erekat was a serial compromiser, having conceded traditional Palestinian positions on Jerusalem, refugees and borders.

I did not win this argument, but on reflection it’s easy to understand why. If the Palestine Papers had been leaked to CBS, NBC, ABC or CNN (for example), there’s no doubt in my mind that Mitchell (and the Obama administration) would have been the focus of subsequent reports. If the papers had been leaked to the BBC, the focus would have been on Tony Blair and MI-6. In a sense, then, my initial discomfort with Al-Jazeera’s coverage is a reflection of America’s discomfort: we say that Al-Jazeera has an “agenda” – that their journalism is not as credible as ours. And we’re right, but only to this degree: Al-Jazeera is an Arab network with an Arab viewership that covers Arab politics and leaders. Their coverage of the world isn’t less credible – it’s different. What we’re really uncomfortable with (and what I was uncomfortable with) is that Al-Jazeera doesn’t put America at the center of the world. What we have to say is less important to them than what they have to say – their focus is on what is happening outside of their door, not ours. We better get used to it.

Here’s a coda: after feting my own leaker through six months of dinners and discussions, I showed up at his apartment to find him gone. There was simply no trace of him, and all of my attempts to reach him by other means led to nothing. But one day, in 1994, I received a call from him from his mother’s home in Nevada. He confirmed that the State Department had identified him as my leaker and he’d been summarily fired. He told me he was lucky he hadn’t been prosecuted – but he seemed happy and was starting his life over again. “So,” I asked. “Did you ever get her? You know, your supervisor – the woman who made fun of you.” There was a moment’s hesitation: “Oh yeah,” he said. “I got her good. She got a bad evaluation and left her job.” It was only after I hung up that I realized: his stutter was gone.


Chas Freeman: Engaging the Middle East — after the Cairo speech

By Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.), Tufts University, October 15, 2010

As an American, I look at the results of U.S. policies in the Middle East and they remind me of the T-shirt someone once gave me. It said: “Sinatra is dead. Elvis is dead. And me, I don’t feel so good.”

The Middle East is a constant reminder that a clear conscience is usually a sign of either a faulty memory or a severe case of arrogant amorality. It is not a badge of innocence. These days, we meticulously tally our own battlefield dead; we do not count the numbers of foreigners who perish at our hands or those of our allies. Yet each death is a tragedy that extinguishes one soul and wounds others. This deserves our grief. If we cannot feel it, we may justly be charged with inhumanity.

All that is required to be hated is to do hateful things. Apparent indifference to the pain and humiliation one has inflicted further outrages its victims, their families, and their friends. As the Golden Rule, common – in one form or another – to all religions, implicitly warns, moral blindness is contagious. That is why warring parties engaged in tit for tat come in time to resemble each other rather than to sharpen their differences.

War is in fact not the spectator sport that the fans who watch it on television or on big screens in theaters imagine. Nor is it the “cakewalk” that its armchair advocates sometimes suggest it might be. War is traumatic for all its participants. Recent experience suggests that 30 percent of troops develop serious mental health problems that dog them after they leave the battlefield. But what of the peoples soldiers seek to punish or pacify? To understand the hatreds war unleashes and its lasting psychological and political consequences, one has only to translate foreign casualty figures into terms we Americans can relate to. You can do this by imagining that the same percentages of Americans might die or suffer injury as foreigners have. Then think about the impact that level of physical and moral insult would have on us.

Consider, for example, the two sides of the Israel-Palestine struggle. So far in this century – since September 29, 2000, when Ariel Sharon marched into the Al Aqsa mosque and ignited the Intifada of that name, about 850 Israeli Jews have died at the hands of Palestinians, 125 or so of them children. That’s equivalent to 45,000 dead Americans, including about 6,800 children. It’s a level of mayhem we Americans cannot begin to understand. But, over the same period, Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed 6,600 or so Palestinians, at least 1,315 of whom were children. In American terms, that’s equivalent to 460,000 U.S. dead, including 95,000 children.

Meanwhile, the American equivalent of almost 500,000 Israelis and 2.9 million Palestinians have been injured. To put it mildly, the human experiences these figures enumerate are not conducive to peace or goodwill among men and women in the Holy Land or anywhere with emotional ties to them.

We all know that events in the Holy Land have an impact far beyond it. American sympathy for Israel and kinship with Jewish settlers assure that Jewish deaths there arouse anti-Arab and anti-Muslim passions here, even as the toll on Palestinians is seldom, if ever, mentioned. But, among the world’s 340 million Arabs and 1.6 billion Muslims, all eyes are on the resistance of Palestinians to continuing ethnic cleansing and the American subsidies and political support for Israel that facilitates their suffering. The chief planner of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, testified under oath that a primary purpose of that criminal assault on the United States was to focus “the American people . . . on the atrocities that America is committing by supporting Israel against the Palestinian people . . . .” The occupation and attempted pacification of other Muslim lands like Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the shocking hate speech about Islam that now pervades American politics lend credence to widening Muslim belief in a U.S. crusade against Islam and its believers.

No one knows how many Iraqis have died as a direct or indirect consequence of the U.S. invasion and the anarchy that followed it. Estimates range between a low of something over 100,000 to a high of well over 1 million. Translated to comparable proportions in the United States, that equates to somewhere between 1 and 13 million dead Americans. Over two-and-a-quarter million Iraqis fled to neighboring countries to escape this bloodbath. An equal number found shelter inside Iraq. Few Iraqis have been able to go back to Iraq or to return to their homes. In our terms, that equals an apparently permanent flight to Canada and Mexico of 24 million Americans, with another 24 million driven into homelessness but, years later, still somewhere inside the country. I think you will agree that, had this kind of thing happened to Americans, religious scruples would not deter many of us from seeking revenge and reprisal against whoever had done it to us.

The numbers in Afghanistan aren’t quite as frightful but they make the same point. We’re accumulating a critical mass of enemies with personal as well as religious and nationalistic reasons to seek retribution against us. As our violence against foreign civilians has escalated, our enemies have multiplied. The logic of this progression is best understood anecdotally.

I am grateful to Bruce Fein (a noted constitutional scholar in Washington, DC) for calling attention to the colloquy of convicted Times Square car bomber Faisal Shahzad with United States District Judge Miriam Cederbaum. She challenged Shahzad’s self-description as a ‘Muslim soldier’ because his contemplated violence targeted civilians,

“Did you look around to see who they were?”

“Well, the people select the government,” Shahzad retorted. “We consider them all the same. The drones, when they hit …”

Cedarbaum interrupted: “Including the children?”

Shahzad countered: “Well, the drone hits in Afghanistan and Iraq, they don’t see children, they don’t see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody. It’s a war, and in war, they kill people. They’re killing all Muslims.”

Later, he added: “I am part of the answer to the U.S. terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people. And, on behalf of that, I’m avenging the attack. Living in the United States, Americans only care about their own people, but they don’t care about the people elsewhere in the world when they die.”

No amount of public diplomacy, no matter how cleverly conducted, can prevail over the bitterness of personal and collective experience. The only way to reverse trends supporting anti-American violence by the aggrieved is to reverse the policies that feed it. That means finding alternatives to military intervention as the principal instrument of U.S. foreign policy, and it means returning to the American tradition of respect for the sovereignty and ways of life of other nations.

That perspective was best stated by John Quincy Adams in his speech to the U.S. House of Representatives of July 4, 1821. Adams said, with pride, that: “America . . . has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, [even] when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart . . . She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. . . . She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” In my view, Adams was right in both his prescription and his prognosis.

We are now a nation with unmatched military capabilities. Perhaps that is why we are the only country in the world to have proclaimed that our conflict with terrorists is a “war,” or to have dismissed civilian victims of our violence as “collateral damage.” Other nations have joined us in Afghanistan to demonstrate their solidarity with us, not because they see the piecemeal pacification of the Muslim world as the answer to the extremist non-state actors in its midst. It is not simply that terrorism is a tactic, not a cause against which one can wage war. Weapons are indeed tools with which to change men’s minds, but to do this they must be employed with care, otherwise they can entrench animosity and justify reprisal against the nation that wields them. No other people has so powerful a military establishment that it could even begin to persuade itself, as many Americans have, that guns can cure grudges or missiles erase militancy.

If you view the world through a bombsight, everything looks like a target. Yet the lesson of 9/11 is that if you drop bombs on enough people – even on people with no air force – the most offended amongst them will do their best to bomb you back. Security challenges far from our shores now challenge domestic tranquility. The lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is that there are some problems for which invasion and occupation are not appropriate or effective responses. Far from demonstrating the irresistible might of the United States, as their neo-conservative champions intended, these wars have revealed the considerable limits of American power. Over-reliance on military instruments of statecraft has become a major problem for us. It is one we need to address.


Michael Vlahos: Chilean transcendence

By Michael Vlahos*

Miners. Trapped. No way out. Miraculously rescued. Happy end. End of story.

Not so fast.

The resurrection of Chile’s lost miners is a testament to the power of belonging and meaning in human life.

We humans live singularly evanescent lives. Our consciousness is like to the Moth: Done in the flicker of candlelight on a summer night. Gone in an instant.

Yet we live on because eternal hope lives in our collective self. We draw meaning from the river of humanity. Only in this way can we take comfort from the desperate enterprise of life — because our life is eternally shared. Because we belong to a river of life that must go on, our single summer night has meaning. In the end it is all right — because we go on together.

We know this is true. We know this is our prime directive because the shadows of our forgotten ancestors are still there to remind us. They proclaim the river of us in the cave paintings of Lascaux and at the seat of celebration that was Stonehenge.

We all have the same deep-wired drive to make our lives make sense joining ourselves to the river of sacred identity.

My work focuses on how “civilization” — complex post-Neolithic groups of societies — created a celebratory ritual we call war. In history war has always served to create identity, to celebrate identity, and to help identity migrate and transform. War is perhaps our most special human vehicle for framing and reframing consciousness, and for helping consciousness to change.

Since about 1800 war has served the nation-state, and since about 1800 our vision of the “nation” has been our collective benchmark of sacred identity. Peg the U.S. at 1776, France at 1789, and Latin America at 1810-1821. Then the rest followed.

Like it or not we in the West still inhabit a world where the nation is sacred. Our world, tarnished as it is, is still a realm ruled by religious nationalism. We are the reluctant inheritors of a tradition that once corralled hundreds of thousands of young men into a place so that they might selflessly clamber out of trench lines to certain death. We framed and wove for them the most perversely grand human sacrifice in all of humanity’s religious experience: All for the sake of our nations’ transcendence. All for us.

The West blindly drove through two world wars before it could truly see how self-destructive and primitive was its terrible blood ritual. War can celebrate identity and it can also kill it. But thankfully war is not our only ritual of identity.

Chile tells us that. The nation in modernity no longer needs battle to clear our pathways for collective meaning and national transcendence. In fact it never did. Blame Napoleon. His answer to the dispiriting bloodbath of Robespierre revolution was the gloriously bloodbath of battle where the whole nation might transcend.

But Napoleon’s vision brought European civilization to its knees — to its very last gasp — by 1945.

Latin America, Western twin of European Modernity in the early 19th century, never fully embraced Napoleon’s victory-or-death vision. Sure there were skirmishes and scraps like the “War of the Pacific” between Chile and Peru, and of course the notorious Chaco War, but in retrospect these seem like outlier flare-ups compared to European civilization’s drive to self-immolation. Latin America still enshrines the passion of religious nationalism — but without its death-march wars.

So uniting a nation in the rescue of its lost miners makes perfect sense.

Look at the awful contrast. In the wars of religious nationalism the nation would be renewed by the sacrifice of its most precious children on the field of battle. It was an unimaginable blood-sacrifice — a collective ritual that demanded the most horrifying sacrifices for the nation to transcend.

But the miners offer an alternative ritual venue — and an alternative take on nationalism and sacred identity.

If the sacrifice of millions to shrapnel and machine guns in the world wars was for nothing, it was always, always lovingly conveyed and compared to a barely-disguised imagery of Jesus on the Cross.

Like him they died for us. Our own, our beautiful boys died so we might live and ascend as a nation.

But consider the Chilean alternative in the same sacral Christian-national context.

Jesus also came back from the dead out of a tomb in stone. Buried, the miners have come back to Chile — to the body of the nation — from a Stygian sarcophagus. Moreover the lingering and overhanging evil that may have placed them there — Latin America’s daunting legacy of racism and iniquity and latifundial-corporate evil — was instantly expunged by a Presidential commitment to Chile’s buried own.

Ancient legacies can be cast off. The nation can find celebration and renewal without war — and create that sacred moment when the people are one and whole again. The President — with his badge of office signifying the body of the nation — ritually embraces each miner as he emerges into the light of resurrection: Reclaiming them to the body of the nation.

The miracle that ties Chileans to the deep currents of their river is not in blood-sacrifice but rather the promise of a nation transcendent in new life.

*Michael Vlahos is Professor of Strategy at the United States Naval War College. This article first appeared at Huffington Post and is republished here with the author’s permission.


America’s flawed Afghanistan strategy

By Dr Steven Metz

Despite the lavish time and attention that the Obama administration devoted to reviewing its Afghanistan strategy, the result was more continuity than change. The administration adjusted U.S. troops levels and shifted some operational methods but accepted the most basic — and questionable — assumptions of the Bush strategy. Unfortunately, these do not hold up under close scrutiny. The new strategy, like the old one, totters on a dangerously flawed foundation.

Both the Bush and Obama strategies assume that al-Qaeda needs state support or sanctuary. That, after all, is the fundamental rationale for continued American involvement in Afghanistan. But throughout the “war on terror,” no one has made a persuasive case that the September 11, 2001, attacks would not have happened had al-Qaeda not had bases in Afghanistan. While it may take meetings and phone calls to plot terrorism, these can be done from nearly anywhere. Al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan sanctuary was a convenience, not a necessity. Destroying the sanctuary has not stopped bin Laden and his henchmen from plotting new attacks.

Why, then, should the United States devote billions of dollars fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan if doing so has little effect on al-Qaeda’s ability to launch terrorism? The answer says more about the way Americans think than it does about how terrorists operate. The United States has expended great effort to eradicate al-Qaeda’s bases and training camps less because they were important than because we are effective at it. There is an old saying that, “when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” America has an amazing hammer — its military — which is very good at seizing and controlling territory. So, we reasoned, eradicating bases and training camps will cripple al-Qaeda. Yet there is no evidence to validate this idea.

The Obama strategy also assumes that without U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban will regain control. But the Taliban came to power in 1996 because the warlords opposing it had little outside support and, more importantly, because Afghans did not understand just what Taliban rule would mean and thus did little to resist it. Now they do know and will resist, at least outside Afghanistan’s Pashtun areas. Simply funding the Afghan government and providing it with training and advice can prevent an outright Taliban victory without a large U.S. military presence.

The Obama strategy then assumes that if the Taliban regains control of Afghanistan, it will again provide bases and sanctuary to al-Qaeda. The Pentagon’s newly released Quadrennial Defense Review warned of al-Qaeda “regaining sanctuary in Afghanistan.” In his December 2009 speech at West Point, President Obama stated that al-Qaeda would “operate with impunity” if the region “slides backward.” This is only true if the Taliban is remarkably stupid. Before September 11, 2001, the Taliban allowed al-Qaeda to train and plot in Afghanistan because it was profoundly ignorant of American intentions and power. The United States, Taliban leaders believed, understood enough history to not intervene in Afghanistan. Now they know better. If the Taliban somehow returned to power, it would face enemies enough without provoking another American assault or intervention by giving al-Qaeda a free hand.

Finally, the Obama strategy assumes that if the Taliban regained control of some or all of Afghanistan and did, for some reason, provide support and sanctuary to al-Qaeda, this would increase the threat to the United States and the other NATO countries. Again, this overlooks history. Al-Qaeda was able to plot terrorism from Afghanistan because the United States was unaware of the impending danger. Had America known what was coming, it certainly would have rendered al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan bases useless even without a full scale invasion. There is no reason to believe that if al-Qaeda somehow recreated its pre-September 11 Afghanistan sanctuary that the United States would not quickly destroy it.

Ultimately, then, the basic rationale of American strategy in Afghanistan is questionable. Certainly America cannot ignore that country as it did before September 11, 2001, and should continue supporting the national government and other Afghans opposed to the Taliban. But in strategy, balance is the key — the expected security benefits of any action must justify the costs and risks. Today, America’s Afghanistan strategy, with its flawed assumptions, is badly out of balance.

Dr Steven Metz is a Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the United States Army War College. The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Reprinted with permission of the Strategic Studies Institute Newsletter, U.S. Army War College.