Why did the IDF let Hamas dig so many tunnels into Israel?

For years, the Israeli Defense Forces have been aware of the construction of tunnels from Gaza into Israel, it has known where these are located and it has done nothing.

We hear a lot about Israel’s right to defend itself but what about its responsibilities when defending itself?

I refer not simply to the glaringly obvious responsibility of proportionality in the use of violence, but also the responsibility to take prudent steps to avoid conflict in the first place.

Specifically, since Israel asserts that tunnels from Gaza pose a strategic threat, why has it done so little in the past to prevent these tunnels from being constructed, made such feeble attempts to locate those that exist, and left in place tunnels it already identified?

Israelis frequently assert “we have no choice” when justifying the slaughter of hundreds of innocent people, yet those who are attached to victimhood invariably do this: use the cloak of necessity to cover up their own bad choices.

In reality, Israel rarely lacks the opportunity to make choices; what it lacks is sound judgement.

The latest chapter in Israel’s long narrative — casting itself once again as a victim of necessity — is the current campaign in Gaza whose ostensible purpose is to destroy the “infrastructure” of Hamas’s “terror tunnels.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says: “We will not complete the operation without neutralizing the tunnels, the sole purpose of which is the destruction of our civilians and the killing of our children,” reports the New York Times. “It cannot be that the citizens of the state of Israel will live under the deadly threats of missiles and infiltration through tunnels — death from above and death from below.”

The paper goes on to describe how Israelis are now held captive by their fear of the terror tunnels:

In cafes and playgrounds, on social-media sites and in the privacy of pillow talk, Israelis exchange nightmare scenarios that are the stuff of action movies: armed enemies popping up under a day care center or dining room, spraying a crowd with a machine gun fire or maybe some chemical, exploding a suicide belt or snatching captives and ducking back into the dirt.

“It takes us a little bit to our childhood fairy tales of demons,” said Eyal Brandeis, 50, a political scientist who lives on Kibbutz Sufa, a mile from where 13 militants emerged from a tunnel at dawn July 17. “It’s a very pastoral environment I live in, the quiet, the green grass, the trees. It’s not a pleasant thought that you sit one day on the patio drinking coffee with your wife and a bunch of terrorists will rise from the ground.”

Devils who emerge from the bowels of the earth — their sole intention being to kill or kidnap Israelis. There cannot be any doubt that the Israeli government, like any other, would do everything in its power to protect its citizens from such an awful threat.

Yet Israel bombs Gaza now because in the past it did so little to address this issue.

Either the magnitude of the threat has in recent days been wildly exaggerated, or the IDF is guilty of gross negligence.

(Just to be clear, while the current war on Gaza began in the name of halting rocket attacks, it is now squarely focused on tunnel destruction. This is the justification being used for flattening whole neighborhoods.)

The Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar reported yesterday:

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Efraim Barel, a resident of Nirim village, said that the residents of villages the length of the border with Gaza not only heard and sensed the excavations underway beneath their homes, but even uncovered tunnels in their areas. According to Barel and others, the IDF did nothing about it.

“For years, the residents heard noises,” Barel said. “One Friday, I was lying on the couch and heard loud knocking, boom-boom-boom. I really felt it from under the sofa. My dog started to bark, to go crazy. The army came. They were by me under the house for three days. They asked questions, brought all kinds of instruments to hear noises, and that was the end of it. Later on, there was flooding in the area and then one of the tunnels was exposed. Evidently, that was the tunnel I had heard being dug under my house.”

That the subsoil of this area is well suited to tunneling has been known since Alexander the Great’s siege of Gaza in 332 BC. But unlike the protagonists of that era, Israel has access to technology capable of finding existing tunnels and detecting those under construction — although the narrative of necessity is still being promoted through reporting such as this in Haaretz on July 17:

The IDF has tried almost every possible technological solution in its attempt to find tunnels. They have used geologists, experts in the search for oil and gas, and U.S. Army personnel, but so far no guaranteed solution has been found.

A report in the same newspaper a week later undermines this claim.

Even after the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured in a Hamas raid in 2006 and taken back to Gaza through a tunnel, Israel failed to take responsibility for its own defense by preventing new tunnels being constructed and failed to locate and destroy existing tunnels. The means to accomplish both of those goals have long been available and would cost relatively little to implement.

Israel’s failure to shut down the tunnels may even suggest that this was not the result of negligence. On the contrary, by allowing the tunnels to remain in place, Israel’s political and military leadership may have made a conscious choice to retain a pretext for renewed attacks on Gaza — a pretext that could be deployed whenever it suited Israel’s purposes.

How could Israel have addressed this issue before now? Haaretz reports:

There are three main types of technology for locating tunnels; the most common is based on listening for digging. In 2009, scientists at the Technion technology institute’s Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering presented a method for identifying tunnels using a fiber-optic cable.

The Technion’s Assaf Klar and Raphael Linker say the system can even locate narrow tunnels more than 60 feet (18 meters) deep while keeping a lid on false alarms.

“Tunnel excavation is accompanied by the release of stresses that cause permanent — though very tiny — displacements and strains in the ground,” Klar says. “If you can measure these strains in the soil with sensitive equipment, you can find a tunnel’s location.” Tunnel excavation produces a very distinctive signal, he adds.

The research lays the groundwork for an underground fence based on existing technology called BOTDR — Brillouin optical time domain reflectometry. This makes it possible to measure fiber distortion along 30 kilometers using a single device and a standard fiber-optic cable — a cable that costs only a few shekels a meter.

The system is based on so-called wavelet decomposition of the BOTDR signal, a process that breaks down the signal into simpler shapes and filters out irrelevant noise. The signals that remain are then classified by a network that locates tunnels using the computer simulation of tens of thousands of profiles, including disturbances not related to tunneling; for example, raindrops.

“The ability of the BOTDR approach to supply a continuous profile of soil distortions along the fiber-optic line — and the ability of the neural network to identify the relevant profile — are the keys to the system’s success,” Linker says.

In recent days, geology experts have made their own claims; they say technologies indeed exist to locate the tunnels, it’s just that the IDF hasn’t adopted them. “It’s not a challenge and it’s not difficult; solutions are already at hand,” says Dov Frimerman, the former geologist at the Public Works Department.

Frimerman was one of the geologists behind the research into the sinkholes near the Dead Sea. He describes another method for locating underground spaces via radar, which he used to find sinkholes at the Dead Sea.

“If I drive a car or armored personnel carrier with underground radar attached, technically there’s no tunnel I can’t identify up to 10 meters deep,” he says. “You can go over the entire border at 5 kilometers an hour and within three hours mark every tunnel.”

The radar sends electromagnetic waves into the ground and creates a picture of the soil layers — “for example, if there’s a fault. That’s how we found the [hollow] spaces under the parking lot of what was the resort village at Ein Gedi,” Frimerman says.

This American-made radar is relatively simple to use. Frimerman notes that even Hamas’ tunnels more than 10 meters deep can be found by this method when the tunnels slope up into Israeli territory. Also, sealed- and concrete-walled tunnels can be identified this way.

A third method for locating tunnels more than 10 meters deep is microgravimetry, which measures very small variations in gravity.

“The level of precision of this test is in parts of a billion, so there’s no hole or space in the ground up to 100 to 150 meters that can’t be identified with it,” Frimerman says. The equipment was originally developed by NASA and was used to test gravity variations to determine the distribution of minerals in the ground.

The method for locating tunnels by listening for sounds underground is called geo-seismology. It’s based on the use of microphones as underground sensors.

“When you don’t know if there are tunnels you can dig two pits 10 centimeters in diameter and 10 meters deep. You place microphones there, which cost $80 to $100 each, and connect them to equipment that costs $2,500. It’s impossible to reach a distance 100 meters from the microphones without hearing movement in the headphones,” Frimerman says.

“If the tunnel is ready, you can hear whoever is walking in it; you can distinguish between the steps of a person and the steps of a fox, for example. It’s impossible to dig at a distance of 100 to 150 meters from the microphones without noticing the digging.”

For a relatively low price the IDF could spread microphones 100 meters apart and cover the entire Gaza border, Frimerman says. If the position where soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted in 2006 had two microphones near the fence 100 meters apart, no one could have walked through the tunnel without being heard, he adds.

“The technology exists; it’s not clear why they aren’t using it,” he says. “We proposed it 30 years ago.”

Frimerman’s claims are also backed up by one of Israel’s best known geologists, Col. (res.) Yossi Langotsky, the man behind Israel’s massive oil-and-gas discoveries off the coast. He also set up Military Intelligence’s special-operations division and is a two-time winner of the Israel Defense Prize.

The IDF characterizes its current operation as both proactive and defensive: “We’re not willing for [Hamas] to come and meet us in our backyard,” says IDF spokesman Peter Lerner. “We want to meet them in theirs.”

But Israel has been aware of tunnel construction since 2003 and contrary to the IDF spokesman’s claim seems to have been quite content to face Hamas in its backyard. Indeed, one might wonder whether aside from the political value tunnels offer to Israel in providing a ready-made pretext for attacking Gaza at any time, Israel’s unwillingness to prevent tunnel construction may say as much about a more visceral objection: why go to the expense of digging up your own land and installing a network of sensors, when instead you can bomb Gaza, teach Hamas a lesson and show the Palestinians you’re still the boss?

The “terror tunnels” pose less of a threat to Israel than they serve as yet another excuse to ruthlessly bludgeon the residents of Gaza.


The advantage the Palestinians have over the Israelis

Every chapter in the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians provides graphic examples of the extraordinary inequality between the adversaries.

Israel has F-16s, smart bombs, tanks, artillery, drones, Apache attack helicopters and the financial support of the U.S. government. The military force of the Palestinians poses less threat to Israelis than do daily traffic accidents.

By the metrics of war, whether it’s in terms of deaths, injuries, prisoners taken, territory occupied, or property destroyed, Israel is unequivocally and overwhelmingly the dominant power.

And yet in spite of this dominance the Palestinians have an advantage over the Israelis:

Palestinians are not afraid of Israelis.

Israel, on the other hand, is a country governed by fear — fear of Palestinians, fear of Arabs, fear of Muslims, fear of rejection, fear of isolation, fear of the world, fear of annihilation, and fear of peace.

In every conceivable way, Israel has accrued the material of power — militarily, economically, and politically through its alliance with the United States — but all these physical attributes of power cannot conceal its core weakness.

Meanwhile, the less faith Israel has in itself, the louder it shouts.

Paul Mason writes:

The call to prayer started when it was still dark. There’d only been three or four explosions audible overnight, so people came on to the streets quickly, the women into the courtyard, men and boys onto the vast carpet of the Al-Umari mosque.

There’s a mixture of looks on people’s faces, ranging from devout to simply stunned.

“They are trying to crush the nation,” the imam says, in his sermon. “They don’t understand we are a nation that can’t be crushed.”

They’re the kind of words you hear from people who’ve in fact been crushed, but here amid these ancient arches, and on this day, they’re more than rhetoric.

Because it’s quiet: yes the drones are in the sky, yes there’s the crack of tank fire just past the shattered apartment blocks of Shejaiyah, and the occasional rattle of small arms.

But something has, for now, cranked the intensity of the war down. Overnight, Barack Obama called on Israel to cease fire immediately. The Israeli PM, Binyamin Netanyahu rejected it out of hand. The reason why is understood by the smallest Palestinian child skipping in this medieval yard.

If Israel stops now, Hamas wins a massive moral victory. Netanyahu said as much, on US TV. A poll today says 89 per cent of Israelis want their army to carry on fighting until they “topple Hamas”. It’s a fantasy – and a sick one because, to make it happen, you would have to fill these streets with civilian corpses, and on a scale far in excess of the 1,062 deaths so far.

Ameera, aged 15, has lived through night after night of bombing. “I am not frightened,” she says. Why not? “Because I am Palestinian. Palestine will be free, and I say again Palestine will be free, and I am not afraid of any Israeli.” [Continue reading...]


At Iran’s urging, Hezbollah breaks with Assad to support Hamas

As Hamas fighters battle on their home turf against the armed forces of the most militarized state on the planet, most of observers in the region who employ the term “axis of resistance” should have little trouble acknowledging that Hamas is a genuine resistance movement — except that is for Bashar al-Assad.

A few days ago Assad mocked Hamas as “amateurs who wear the mask of resistance.”

Hezbollah, whose own claim to be a resistance movement has been undermined by its willingness to help prop up Assad, has nevertheless reaffirmed its support for Hamas.

Reuters reports:

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah pledged full support on Friday to the Palestinian group Hamas in its conflict with Israel despite a deep rift between the two militant organisations over the civil war in Syria.

“We in Hezbollah will be unstinting in all forms of support, assistance and aid that we are able to provide,” Nasrallah said.

“We feel we are true partners with this resistance, a partnership of jihad, brotherhood, hope, pain, sacrifice and fate, because their victory is all our victory, and their defeat is all our defeat,” he said.

Nasrallah delivered his speech in public in Hezbollah’s stronghold of south Beirut, a rare event for the militant Shi’ite Lebanese leader who has lived in hiding, fearing for his security, after Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel.

That inconclusive 34-day conflict won Hezbollah sweeping support around the Arab world for standing up to Israel’s military superiority. But its more recent military action in neighbouring Syria has eroded that regional backing.

Shi’ite Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters into Syria to fight alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, helping turn the tide against overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels.

But the Hamas leadership, once based in Damascus, refused to support Assad as he confronted with force peaceful protests which broke out in 2011 and descended into an insurgency and civil war. Since then 160,000 people have been killed.

Adnan Abu Amer reports for Al-Monitor:

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah called [Hamas leader Khaled] Meshaal on July 20. This was the first official contact between Hezbollah and Hamas since April, a Hamas official informed Al-Monitor.

Hezbollah’s official website reported that, during his phone call with Meshaal, “Nasrallah praised the steadfastness of the resistance fighters in Gaza,” stressing that he “stands next to the Palestinian resistance and supports its conditions to end the battle.”

Al-Monitor contacted a Palestinian official in Lebanon who mediated Hamas’ troubled relationship with Hezbollah, who said, “It is no secret that the relationship between the officials has not been great because of the crisis in Syria. But Iran contacting Meshaal through the head of the Shura Council Ali Larijani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and a senior Revolutionary Guard officer on July 7 encouraged Nasrallah to call Meshaal despite the Syrian boycott of Hamas. Therefore, Nasrallah contacting Meshaal has not had positive echoes in Damascus.”


A morality lesson on Israel and Hamas from an American four-star general

In spite of this nation’s numerous military misadventures and its corrupt military establishment, many Americans still have an uncritical admiration for this country’s generals — men whose stainless uniforms and steely faces seem to be an outward representation of their trustworthiness and moral stature.

Gen. James T. Conway USMC (Ret)

Gen. James T. Conway USMC (Ret)

Who better to speak in defense of Israel, than a good Christian soldier like retired General James T Conway, former commander of the United States Marine Corps?

Propaganda, which is nothing more than a form of political advertising, works by engaging its target audience emotionally while circumventing any kind of analytical process. It trades in ideas whose truth should seem so obvious that we will accept them without thought. And the easiest way of making an idea seem true is through endless repetition.

The Israeli government and those inside and outside Israel who operate in its service, have settled on two messages — on human shields and tunnels — through which they want to demonize Hamas and cover up war crimes committed by the Israeli Defense Forces.

In “The Moral Chasm Between Israel and Hamas,” an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, this is how Conway regurgitates Israel’s message about human shields:

Israel’s military exists to protect its civilian population and seeks to avoid harming noncombatants, while its adversary cynically uses Palestinian civilians as human shields while deliberately targeting Israeli civilians.

Conway describes the Hamas tunnels, of which Israel is reported to have discovered about 30, as having been “designed for launching murder and kidnapping raids.”

Let’s first consider the claim that Hamas uses human shields, since this has become Israel’s favorite explanation for why the IDF has killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians.

The human shield, as a concept, is a mainstay of American movie and TV drama. We all know how it works.

The bad guys hold women and children at gunpoint and the good guys hold fire because they don’t want to kill the innocents.

It’s an expression of the moral depravity and cowardice of evil men who know how to exploit the good intentions of righteous men. (It’s also a narrative in which the heroes and villains are all men and the powerless women can do no more than hope they fall into the right arms.)

So how does this work in Gaza. The evil Hamas fighters hide behind the women and children and then the Israelis kill the women and children.

Wait a minute! That’s not how it’s supposed to work. What’s the point of holding a human shield if your adversary has little interest in protecting the life of that supposed “shield”?

This gets to the nub of the issue: the only kind of human shield worth holding is one whose life is valued by your adversary.

The Israelis understand this. That’s why, as has been well documented, they have been seen using Palestinians as human shields.

The closest Hamas can come to making forcible use of human shields is by taking prisoners. Which brings us to the tunnels.

The tunnel is the perfect abode of the bogeyman. It has iconic power in the representation of an invisible evil force — a force which emerges out of darkness and might spring up from anywhere. No wonder Israel’s propagandists believe they can use the “terrorist-tunnel threat” to their advantage.

There’s no question that militants in Gaza have constructed tunnels under the fortified perimeter which surrounds the open-air prison of the Gaza Strip. We can also surmise that these have not been constructed to provide “escape” routes to Israel.

What we can deduce is that far more time and effort has been invested in the construction of these tunnels than in their use. Moreover, if or when any of these tunnels gets put into service there is a high probability that the IDF will quickly thereafter discover the tunnel’s location and just as quickly destroy it.

The implication, therefore, is that these tunnels have been constructed as part of a defensive infrastructure to only be used at a time of necessity. That inference is further reinforced by the fact that extended periods of calm during which ceasefires have been in effect, have not been interrupted by the Palestinians going on the offensive and trying to capture Israeli soldiers in the vicinity of the fence.

* * *

I don’t actually know whether General Conway is a Christian soldier. He could believe in the non-dual philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. He could be a Sufi, or he might be an initiate of the Kabbalah.

What I do know is that when Conway left the Pentagon, like so many of his other colleagues, he passed through the revolving door that leads straight into the defense industry. There he became a director of Textron, a corporation one of whose subsidiaries, AAI, manufactures drones used by Israel.

I have little doubt that when sales reps for AAI tout the effectiveness of their products, they proudly point out how they have been “battlefield tested” by the IDF.

In other words, to be absolutely blunt, when General Conway takes to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to offer lessons on the morality of Israel’s current war on Gaza, I have little doubt that this is a war from which Conway is personally profiting — and therein, I would suggest, lies the real morality tale.


Israel’s economic interests come first, airline safety considerations second

The FAA has lifted its ban on U.S. airlines flying to Israel. It issued this statement last night:

The FAA has lifted its restrictions on U.S. airline flights into and out of Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport by cancelling a Notice to Airmen it renewed earlier today. The cancellation is effective at approximately 11:45 p.m. EDT.

Before making this decision, the FAA worked with its U.S. government counterparts to assess the security situation in Israel and carefully reviewed both significant new information and measures the Government of Israel is taking to mitigate potential risks to civil aviation.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has followed the FAA’s lead — sort of.

EASA had previously recommended that airlines refrain from using Ben Gurion. Now they recommend that National Aviation Authorities should “base their decisions for flight operations to and from Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport (LLBG) in Israel on thorough risk assessments, in particular using risk analysis made by operators.” They say that their revised recommendations are based on “information provided by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of Israel and following coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration.”

Individual airlines may still choose to avoid Israel. In its most recent statement, Lufthansa said: “At the present time no adequate authoritative new information is available that would justify a resumption of flights.”

Hamas has pointed out that since the airport is being used by Israeli military aircraft, it remains a military target.

Israel’s military use of a civilian airport must also mean that by Israel’s definition of the term, passengers and staff at Ben Gurion are being used as “human shields.”

What kind of “new information” could the Israeli government have provided in order to reverse the FAA’s earlier decision? Was it this?

“We knew about that rocket,” said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. “We were tracking it for about three minutes, our Air Force. We could have taken it down, but because we saw that it wasn’t going to hit inside the airport, we let it through.”

When the rocket struck Yehud, just north of the airport, Col. Effi Mishov, the commander of the Dan district in the Home Front Command, said: “The Iron Dome is a great answer to the threat, but it is not 100 percent effective.”

Was Mishov lying when he suggested that the rocket had slipped past Iron Dome, or was Regev lying when he said “we let it through”?

Regev’s claim is wildly implausible. If the air force was tracking the path of this rocket with pinpoint accuracy, then they could see it was going to land in a residential neighborhood. Their mission isn’t just to protect the airport; it is to protect Israelis. Moreover, if they believed they could allow a rocket to come down so close to the airport without airlines and aviation authorities seeing this as a security threat, the Iron Dome operators must be delusional.

Mishov provided the only plausible explanation: the missile shield is not completely effective. No such shield exists in Israel or anywhere else.

Given that no evidence has been presented which could lead anyone to conclude that the safety risk at Ben Gurion airport is any less today than it was yesterday, it seems reasonable to infer that the FAA yielded to political pressure.

Meanwhile, Hamas spokesman Osama Hamden is hopefully correct in saying that the partial closure of Israel’s vital gateway to the world should give Israelis a better idea of what it means to live under siege.


Israel Air Force didn’t see any need to protect Tel Aviv suburb from rocket strike

Following yesterday’s rocket strike that resulted in most foreign airlines cancelling flights to Ben Gurion International Airport, the Israeli government says they let the rocket through without intercepting it because they could see it wasn’t going to hit the airport.

The Jerusalem Post reported:

Similarly to an incident last week, when a large chunk of shrapnel crashed through the roof a house in the Tel Aviv area, this strike was also in a run-down neighborhood of dilapidated houses.

It would appear that for low-income Israelis, their government doesn’t believe it’s worth the expense of firing Iron Dome missiles that may themselves be worth more than the houses likely to be destroyed. The government appears to have as little regard for the occupants of those houses.

“We knew about that rocket,” said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. “We were tracking it for about three minutes, our Air Force. We could have taken it down, but because we saw that it wasn’t going to hit inside the airport, we let it through.”

In an interview on CNN, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had just flown to Israel on El Al, said: “If you don’t feel safe here, I don’t know where you would feel safe.”

He also said: “If you have a standard [like the FAA is applying to Ben Gurion] you would close every airport in the United States. You’d close down every airline.”


Yehud, where the Hamas rocket struck yesterday, is on the north side of the airport. That means that during its descent, the rocket almost certainly passed within hundreds of feet of aircraft touching down, taking off, taxiing on the runway, or at their departure gates.

What Bloomberg is calling an “overreaction” by the FAA would by most people’s standards be a prudent and necessary response to what was in fact a very close call.

If what Mark Regev said is true — that the rocket was being tracked — then however effective Iron Dome might be when deployed, the judgement of its operators seems to be severely impaired.

Meanwhile, when Bloomberg claims that Israel is the safest country in the world, how does that square with the repeated claims that Israelis are living in an intolerable situation?

It would appear that what really worries Israel more than Hamas is a hit to the economy and a dip in tourism.

Everybody seems comfortable, everybody thinks they are well protected by a army and an air force that knows how to fight and is out there trying to protect them. And when they walk down the streets and they send their kids to school and they go to the parks, when they get to a concert, they feel safe.

Who cares about the rockets? Just don’t shut down the airport.


Hamas has shattered the Israeli illusion that the status quo is sustainable

Noam Sheizaf writes: I’ve exchanged emails with people in Gaza in the past few days. These are people who don’t care much for Hamas in their everyday lives, whether due to its fundamentalist ideology, political oppression or other aspects of its rule. But they do support Hamas in its war against Israel; for them, fighting the siege is their war of independence. Or at least one part of it.

The demand that the people of Gaza protest against Hamas, often heard in Israel today, is absurd. Even if we disregard the fact that Israelis themselves hate protests in times of war, they still expect the Palestinians to conduct a civil uprising under fire. The people of Gaza support Hamas in its war against Israel because they perceive it to be part of their war of independence. A Hamas warrior who swears by the Quran is no different from a Vietcong reciting The Internationale before leaving for battle. These kind of rituals leave a strong impression, but they are not the real story.

Israelis, both left and right, are wrong to assume that Hamas is a dictatorship fighting Israel against its people’s will. Hamas is indeed a dictatorship, and there are many Palestinians who would gladly see it fall, but not at this moment in time. Right now I have no doubt that most Palestinians support the attacks on IDF soldiers entering Gaza; they support kidnapping as means to release their prisoners (whom they see as prisoners of war) and the unpleasant fact is that most of them, I believe, support firing rockets at Israel.

“If we had planes and tanks to fight the IDF, we wouldn’t need to fire rockets,” is a sentence I have heard more than once. As an Israeli, it is unpleasant for me to hear, but one needs to at least try and understand what lies behind such a position. What is certain is that bombing Gaza will not change their minds. On the contrary.

“But if they didn’t fire rockets or launch terror attacks there would be no siege. So what do they want?” the Israeli public asks. After all, we already left Gaza. [Continue reading...]

When Israelis say “we left Gaza,” it’s as though the territory was granted independence and political autonomy. Of course withdrawal meant no such thing.

“The disengagement [from Gaza] is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians,” said Dov Weisglass, adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Indeed, by removing a few thousand vulnerable Jewish settlers and Israeli troops, one of the most tangible effects of this so-called withdrawal was to make Gaza easier to bomb.

As soon as Israel puts troops back on the ground in battle, the clock starts ticking. Sooner or later, the price — in terms of Israeli casualties — risks becoming unsustainable. The alternative — occasional air strikes — is as easy as mowing the lawn.

All that Hamas can do is try and make the cost of the latest operation as high as possible and by this measure, in the eye of some observers, Hamas can already declare victory.

Ariel Ilan Roth, Executive Director at Israel Institute, who has served in the Israeli navy, writes:

War is not an exercise in fairness, but in the attainment of strategic objectives.

And, on that score, Hamas has already won. It has shattered the necessary illusion for Israelis that a political stalemate with the Palestinians is cost-free for Israel. It has shown Israelis that, even if the Palestinians cannot kill them, they can extract a heavy psychological price. It has also raised the profile of the Palestinian cause and reinforced the perception that the Palestinians are weak victims standing against a powerful aggressor. Down the road, that feeling is sure to be translated into pressure on Israel, perhaps by politicians and certainly by social movements whose objective is to isolate Israel politically and damage it through economic boycotts.

As multiple airline now cancel flights to Israel because of safety concerns, they might not be joining the boycott movement (BDS), but the effect could to some degree be the same.


‘Israeli Defense Forces should be given the Nobel Peace Prize’

Granted, when Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, addressed the Christians United for Israel Summit in Washington on Tuesday, he would have been warmly received whatever he said. Indeed, had he gone on stage and simply let out one long mellifluous fart, he would surely have won extended applause from such an uncritical audience.

Nevertheless, when claiming that the Israeli army should be given the Nobel Peace Prize for its “unimaginable restraint” in Gaza, Dermer was not just speaking to his evangelical friends — he was addressing and insulting all Americans.

Sure, ever since Barack Obama was prematurely awarded the prize it has been a tarnished honor, but this refrain that Israel exercising restraint as it kills hundreds of civilians, including more than a hundred children, is an effort to make people doubt what they are through news reports and social media being shown many times a day.

The Israelis like Dermer, with unimaginable conceit, are saying: don’t believe your own eyes; listen to our message of peace because really, unless you’re an Israeli, you couldn’t possibly understand what’s happening in our neighborhood.

What this conceit amounts to is self-deification and a conviction in the god-like authority of ones own beliefs.


Gaza, the mainstream media, 2009 and 2014

A reader comments:

Remarkably, coverage by the AP, NYT, and Washington Post make it hard to escape the conclusion that the Israelis are remorseless thugs. Does this reflect a shift in mainstream attitudes?

I think the shift has less to do with changing attitudes than with a change in location.

In 2009 during Operation Cast Lead, the Israelis prevented the international media from entering Gaza. The only on-the-ground reports in English were coming from Al Jazeera’s Ayman Mohyeldin and Sherine Tadros. Even though they did an incredible job in reporting the war, the Western media was virtually all camped on the Israeli side of the border.

In 2014, there are now dozens of American and other Western reporters inside Gaza.

As much as many observers are in the habit of maligning the mainstream media for its bias and its subservience to government officials, generally speaking, journalists are inclined to report what they see.

In Gaza what they see is the carnage and destruction wrought by Israel. What else can they report?


U.S. media execs prefer biased reporting on Gaza

Michael Calderone reports: CNN has removed correspondent Diana Magnay from covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after she tweeted that Israelis who were cheering the bombing of Gaza, and who had allegedly threatened her, were “scum.”

“After being threatened and harassed before and during a liveshot, Diana reacted angrily on Twitter,” a CNN spokeswoman said in a statement to The Huffington Post.

“She deeply regrets the language used, which was aimed directly at those who had been targeting our crew,” the spokeswoman continued. “She certainly meant no offense to anyone beyond that group, and she and CNN apologize for any offense that may have been taken.”

The spokeswoman said Magnay has been assigned to Moscow.

Magnay appeared on CNN Thursday from a hill overlooking the Israel-Gaza border. While she reported, Israelis could be heard near her cheering as missiles were fired at Gaza.

After the liveshot, Magnay tweeted: “Israelis on hill above Sderot cheer as bombs land on #gaza; threaten to ‘destroy our car if I say a word wrong’. Scum.” The tweet was quickly removed, but not before it had been retweeted more than 200 times.

If Magnay’s use of the word “scum” was so regrettable, what would have been a more appropriate way of describing this group of Israelis?

Bloodthirsty. Savage. Callous. Inhumane. Hateful. Vengeful. Sadistic.

Any of those terms could have been accurately used by Magnay and yet there’s no doubt that CNN would have been just as apologetic.

The only way she could have reported what she was witnessing right next to her and avoided criticism, would have been to say nothing at all.

This is what American media too often now demands from its reporters who cover Israel: silence or unabashed bias in favor of the Jewish state.

Might Magnay’s removal — preceded by NBC removing Ayman Mohyeldin from Gaza — prompt a rebellion among mainstream American journalists?

If only… Unfortunately, having been duly warned, it’s much more likely that nearly everyone will decide it’s not worth taking the risk of stepping out of line.

The exceptions will remain a few curmudgeons like AP’s Matt Lee who is afforded some latitude precisely because he is an exception. (Unfortunately, Lee’s acts of rebellion are confined to briefing rooms in Washington where they get less attention than they deserve.)

But having said that, what are we to make of the vile behavior of Israelis who celebrate carnage?

Do they reveal something about the nature of Israel and the meaning of Zionism?

To some extent, yes.

Palestinians, the enemy, the other, have been reduced to a sub-human status. Their lives are viewed as worthless.

Is this not an inevitable consequence of founding a state on the idea that the rights of one group of people, of one religious identity, have the exclusive authority to run that state?

And yet, should we not also acknowledge that there are base instincts that make people everywhere capable of acting with the same callousness displayed by the “scum” in Sderot?

If you think it couldn’t happen here — wherever that might be — you’re probably wrong.


Human microbes. Who is the host?

Imagine New York City with the lights all on, but nobody home — indeed, nobody anywhere. A city fully intact and yet uninhabited. Would it still be a city, or would we refer to it as the place formerly known as New York City?

The image I’m conjuring up is not meant to represent the aftermath of some catastrophe, but rather, if we were to think of NYC as representing a human body, what that body would be like if it was stripped of its microbial life.

When the human body is described as being a host to a multitude of microbial organisms, by implication those organisms are viewed as guests. We might have some sense that we need these guests — even that we cannot survive without them — but they belong to us rather than us to them.


The “I” that stands at the center, possessed — or so it imagines — with some kind of regal authority over this domain called a person, is really a fiction.

Life in the city which is the body, continues just the same whether the monarch is awake or unconscious.

Jane Brody writes: We may think of ourselves as just human, but we’re really a mass of microorganisms housed in a human shell. Every person alive is host to about 100 trillion bacterial cells. They outnumber human cells 10 to one and account for 99.9 percent of the unique genes in the body.

Katrina Ray, a senior editor of Nature Reviews, recently suggested that the vast number of microbes in the gut could be considered a “human microbial ‘organ’” and asked, “Are we more microbe than man?

Our collection of microbiota, known as the microbiome, is the human equivalent of an environmental ecosystem. Although the bacteria together weigh a mere three pounds, their composition determines much about how the body functions and, alas, sometimes malfunctions.

Like ecosystems the world over, the human microbiome is losing its diversity, to the potential detriment of the health of those it inhabits.

Dr. Martin J. Blaser, a specialist in infectious diseases at the New York University School of Medicine and the director of the Human Microbiome Program, has studied the role of bacteria in disease for more than three decades. His research extends well beyond infectious diseases to autoimmune conditions and other ailments that have been increasing sharply worldwide.

In his new book, “Missing Microbes,” Dr. Blaser links the declining variety within the microbiome to our increased susceptibility to serious, often chronic conditions, from allergies and celiac disease to Type 1 diabetes and obesity. He and others primarily blame antibiotics for the connection. [Continue reading...]

Want to diversify your own ecosystem?

It’s easier than you might imagine. Just start making your own kefir — a fermented milk drink. There’s very little skill required.


Israelis take pride in ‘how few’ Palestinians they kill

Israel takes greater care to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza than the United States did in Iraq and Afghanistan, Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel said today.


And so what?

Is Israel facing a barrage of criticism from the Pentagon? If it was, Harel might have a point. But it is not. Indeed, many of those who currently criticize Israel for abusing its own power, have been equally critical of America’s military excesses.

Uriel Heilman, managing editor for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, attempts to explain the disparity in casualties between Palestinians and Israelis — currently 213:1 — by saying:

[T]he most important element in interpreting the death toll: While Hamas measures its success by how many Israelis it is able to kill, Israel measures its success in part by how few Palestinian civilians it kills.

By this measure, Israel could achieve the greatest success by not bombing Gaza in the first place.

The effectiveness of Iron Dome is well established. Israel, in its position of unassailable dominance, is perfectly capable of de-escalating by refraining from acts of provocation or retaliation.

The current assault on Gaza, like previous ones, has little to do with destroying Hamas or establishing “quietness,” as Benjamin Netanyahu puts it. It is a ritual beating whose purpose is to re-assert the authority of the Palestinians’ military overlord.

In spite of this, or in fact, because of this, many Israelis want to be seen and to see themselves not as brutes crushing their weak opponents. Instead, they prefer the image of restrained and compassionate human beings who only use violence when they “have no choice.”

Thus the ongoing effort to mask the evidence and paint a picture in which one side, Hamas, is lashing out with the use of indiscriminate violence, while the other, Israel, keeps count of the number of missiles it hasn’t fired because it takes so much care to protect innocent life.

Contrary to Heilman’s claim, Hamas measures its success by retaining the ability to mount some form of defense. If they possessed guided weapons systems and had the surveillance capabilities to identify targets, there is little reason to doubt that Hamas would act differently than any other actor in a similar situation: it would maximize the strategic and political value of striking military targets.

On the other side, in spite of Israel’s assertions that it exercises restraint, every day we witness new examples of senseless violence — today with the deaths of Ahed Bakr, aged 10; Zakaria, 10; and two other boys from the Bakr family, both named Mohammad, aged 11 and nine. These children were struck down by an Israeli missile while playing on a beach.

How can Israel which kills “so few” Palestinians, explain why so many are children and babies?


Israel and Gaza — a failure of imagination

In an interview with Fox News presenter Mike Huckabee, Naftali Bennett, a right-wing extremist who is currently Israel’s Minister of the Economy, held up the tail of a Palestinian rocket and said:

I’d like everyone of your viewers to imagine this missile — this rocket, it’s about eight feet long filled with explosives and shrapnel — and imagine how they’d feel if one of these rockets fell in their neighborhood, in their children’s kindergarten, or school, or God forbid on their own home. That’s what Israel is facing today. And we’re not really seeing the world act against that, so we understand that we are on our own. And Mike, we will defend ourselves and we will win.

Bennett is not alone in feeling that Israelis are failing to receive the global sympathy they deserve.

In its effort to try and raise international awareness of Israel’s plight, the Israel Defense Forces has been putting videos on YouTube such as this:

“Hamas Rockets Disrupt Summer Vacation in Southern Israel”:

In Gaza there are no air-raid warning sirens. There is no air defense system that would alert the population to incoming strikes, but even if there was, sirens wouldn’t be any use blaring without interruption when there is nowhere to run.

In what should be regarded as Israel’s latest PR stunt, some air strikes are now being preceded by so-called “warning missiles” — missiles that have a greater destructive impact that the typical Palestinian rocket.

If the occupants of a building don’t get killed or maimed by the “warning,” the idea, supposedly, is that they have been afforded the opportunity to take cover. If it’s difficult to imagine how this works, imagine what you would do if you happened to be inside this house:

This is what Gaza is facing today.

And this is what Israel faces:

And as Gaza rockets interrupt a wedding in Ashdod, this is how daily life is being interrupted in Gaza:

Back in Ashdod, Israelis run for cover:

While so far not a single Israeli has been killed in a rocket attack, one of the latest strikes on Gaza killed eighteen people in one building:

In one of the most destructive attacks on Israel, a gas station in Ashdod was hit:

Meanwhile, in Gaza, as first responders attempted to rescue the victims of an Israeli air strike, more missiles fell:

An Israeli mother in Sderot tells a CNN reporter about her fears for her children:

This is how Abeer Ayyoub describes what it’s like to face direct threats from the IDF:

Enjoying the relatively calm hours in the early morning following a noisy sleepless night, everyone in the house was sleeping when my brother, who lives in the same building, came to wake us. He told us that our neighbor got a phone call from the IDF asking him to evacuate his house, which was about to be bombed. Our neighbor’s house is only couple of meters away; getting ready for the closest bombardment yet was so traumatizing.

My mother opened all the windows so the strike wouldn’t break them; broken glass is usually the main cause of injuries in such cases. The 20 members of my extended family gathered in the living room waiting for the awful event. Taking care of the children who didn’t know what was going on was the hardest challenge. As I write this, a couple of hours have passed since the call, and we are still, surprisingly, waiting for the strike so we can get rid of the massive panic everyone at home is suffering.

Last night wasn’t like any other night. The extremely noisy drones haven’t stopped circling the sky of Gaza for a second, F16s haven’t stopped targeting for a single hour, and the gunboats continued to shell the area near the beach for the whole night.

I could not sleep for a second as the explosions were surrounding us; in the besieged coastal enclave, the furthest point in Gaza is still close by, as the territory is so small. I was following the news on social media, TV and radio channels. For the whole night, the rockets were targeting buildings with tens of people sleeping inside. Nothing changed from one area to another, except for the family names.

Curiously, I was looking for Israeli spokesperson interviews online to see how they connected the announced goals of Operation Protective Edge, stopping the rockets from Gaza and damaging the infrastructure of Hamas, and killing dozens of children and other innocent civilians while sleeping. I watched an interview with IDF spokesman Avichay Adrey on one of the Arabic channels, and I was totally surprised by him talking about the success of the operation so far.

I don’t know what success Israel is talking about when most of the 86 people killed (through early Thursday) were children and women. What was more surprising, and even more rude, was that Adrey justified the IDF shelling on civilian homes by saying that the army usually hit the house with a warning shot before it starts damaging the house. I don’t know how an army that warns people by shooting them can respect itself.

Through social media, I could know that most of the Israelis are totally misled about what’s going on in Gaza. My Israeli followers on Twitter keep telling me that I should move away from Hamas if I want to stay alive, as Hamas is a monster that lives somewhere here. In contrast, I could always understand how it feels for an Israeli child to be killed. I never excluded humanity from how I look at the Israeli-Palestinian scene.

After dozens of houses were demolished, I started to feel real danger; my siblings did, too. Israel always claimed that civilians are only hurt when they are near areas where Palestinian fighters fire rockets, yet this narrative is not acceptable anymore. I think that Israel is trying to place more pressure on Hamas to seek a cease-fire by killing more civilians.

Visiting the main hospital in the central Gaza Strip, I could zoom in on the Israeli craziness more and more. Injured babies, burnt flesh and children who still don’t know they lost their parents and siblings are everywhere in the hospital. Much worse, I am told that the hospital has run through over 35 percent of its medicine and 55 percent of its medical supplies. Surprisingly, yet maybe not, none of the Arab or international countries around seem to be paying attention to what’s happening to the 1.8 million-plus human beings living in Gaza.

Being left under crazy rockets, the lack of regional and international support and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ disappointing attitude is leaving people here hopeless and desperate. I now know why Israel is violating international human rights laws, because no one in the world dares to cast a veto on its actions.

Human beings have an innate capacity to recognize the suffering of others. Lack of empathy has to be learned.

Having become lost in their own sense of victimization, what Naftali Bennett and those who think like him perceive as a global disregard for the welfare of Israelis, is in fact a projection of their own callousness.

Were he and those who sanction Israel’s current military actions to fully imagine their effects, they could not do so without recognizing their own brutality.

They prefer instead to hide behind self-serving delusions — we have no choice; we are exercising great restraint; we issue warnings; we attack with great precision.

The world is not failing to see what is happening in Israel. On the contrary, it is Israel that refuses to truly see what it is doing in Gaza.


Israel’s assault on Gaza: None of our business?

The Palestinian politician, Mustafa Barghouti, made an appeal to the world this week:

The international community should intervene to restrain Israel’s army, which has called up 40,000 reserve soldiers. World leaders must stop the escalation to protect the Palestinian people and prevent further slaughter, the like of which we have witnessed this week.

Surely Barghouti is fully aware that when it comes to pro-Israeli Western governments (along with their autocratic Arab allies), his appeal will mostly fall on deaf ears.

But if he expects to be ignored by those governments, he is also speaking in solidarity with his people and with those across the world who are right now protesting against Israel’s brutal use of military force in Gaza.

Even if these hopes and appeals might be in vain, who would now argue against some form of international intervention to halt the Israeli assault?

And yet, with much of the Middle East now in turmoil, there is a broad sentiment in the United States which views these interlocking conflicts as conflicts we can only make worse — that the best way of doing least harm is to do nothing at all.

This sentiment was recently articulated thus:

The United States and other liberal states would do a much better job of promoting their most cherished political values if they concentrated on perfecting these practices at home instead of trying to export them abroad. If Western societies are prosperous, just, and competent, and live up to their professed ideals, people in other societies will want to emulate some or all of these practices, suitably adapted to local conditions.

In some countries, this process may occur rapidly, in others only after difficult struggles, and in a few places not for many decades. This fact may be regrettable, but is also realistic. Trying to speed up a process that took centuries in the West, as the United States has been trying to do since 1992, is more likely to retard the advance of liberal values than it is to advance them.

These words could come from the Left or the Right, from Dennis Kucinich or Rand Paul — a call for a humbler America that resonates with every self-reliant, mind-your-own-business American — but they actually come from political scientist Stephen Walt.

Who can fault this do-no-harm and lead-by-example approach to foreign affairs?

It sounds good, but it seems to rest on a fictional representation of the world — a world in which people’s political aspirations are supposedly being driven by false hopes inspired by Western liberals.

Walt says:

because most liberals are convinced that their cherished beliefs are beyond debate, they fail to recognize that non-liberal societies may not welcome these wonderful gifts from abroad.

It’s easy enough to identify non-liberal rule — where there is little or no tolerance for political dissent — but what is a non-liberal society? A society in which there is a collective lack of interest in human rights? A society in which most people have little interest in being able to vote?

To characterize democracy as a “gift from abroad” has a decidedly colonial flavor — as though the natives couldn’t possibly develop these “Western” political aspirations without foreign guidance or inspiration.

Are we to imagine that Libyans would now still be living peacefully under the paternal care of Muammar Gaddafi were it not for the meddlesome interference of NATO and its misguided liberalism?

Why, I would ask, even if we had we minded our own business would Libyans also have ignored what was happening in Tunisia and Egypt?

The image that the anti-interventionists so often conjure up is one of docile native populations who apparently lack the capacity to rise up themselves without the misguided meddlesome hand of Western neoliberals.

Absent Western interference, people across the Middle East might still be enjoying civil tranquility, while their rulers used just enough discreet torture and well-established corruption to allow for government to operate smoothly.

It strikes me that many of the Western anti-interventionists are no less conceited and self-absorbed than the neoconservatives in seeing a world, powerless to shape itself, forever being molded or messed up by an all-powerful West.

If Walt really believes in this mind-your-own-business foreign policy he articulates, I’m curious how this translates to an issue in which he has shown great interest: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In an interview with the Harvard Gazette this week, Walt was asked: “What can and should the international community be doing right now to diffuse tensions?” He responded:

Unfortunately, the international community has rarely been willing to take bold action to end the seemingly endless cycle of violence. The United States and European Union have considerable leverage over both sides, but neither group has been willing to use its influence constructively. Halting the present violence will save lives in the short-term and would therefore be desirable, but only a genuine peace agreement will prevent it from breaking out again at a later date.

He acknowledges that the U.S. and EU do possess considerable leverage and would presumably support the application of that pressure as a form of intervention at the current time — he simply has no expectation that this is about to happen.

No doubt there are many Israelis who believe that democracy “suitably adapted to local conditions” requires the continuing occupation of Palestinian land. They regard the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank as “unready” for self-rule. They’d probably tell the Harvard professor to go mind his own business and if he was true to his anti-interventionist principles he probably should.

But frankly, the debate for or against intervention seems like a vacuous endeavor — it’s like arguing about whether you support or oppose the use of medicine.

But which medicine prescribed for what and taken for how long?

If the medicine turns out to be toxic because the diagnosis was faulty, that doesn’t make it bad medicine — it simply means it was used in the wrong way.


ISIS declares: ‘there will be no World Cup in Qatar’


A profile of the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is now the self-declared Caliph Ibrahim, included these details about his past:

His friends remember him as polite and rather quiet. In fact, few took notice of the bespectacled student who would sit at the back of the classroom.

The only time he shone was on the football field, playing for the team from the local mosque where he would also occasionally, though not very impressively, lead the congregation in prayer.

“He was the Messi of our team,” said Abu Ali, a fellow player and worshipper at the mosque, making comparison with the Lional Messi, the Argentinian striker. “He was our best player.”

If Baghdadi’s zealotry was fueled in part by his own unfulfilled ambitions — a form of psychological corruption that could be described as the metastasization of talent — maybe he traded in fantasies about playing in the World Cup in exchange for the higher goal of becoming Caliph.

Whatever the motive, he now is apparently intent on making sure his followers won’t get distracted by the 2018 World Cup.

At The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, James M. Dorsey reports:

A purported letter by the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls chunks of Syria and Iraq, has warned world soccer body FIFA not to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, reviving concerns first raised in a FIFA security assessment warning two weeks before it was awarded the tournament that there could be a high risk of terrorist attacks.

The letter, first published on Alplatformmedia.com, a jihadist website, and reprinted in an Egyptian newspaper, suggested that soccer would be banned in areas controlled by the group because it constituted “a deviation from Islam.” The letter further indicated that conservative, energy-rich Gulf states were on the target list of the Islamic State, which has conquered parts of northern Iraq with lightning speed and declared a caliphate in territories it controls.

The letter, if genuine, comes amid heated Islamist debate about whether soccer is a legitimate sport according to Islamic precepts; the targeting by some Islamist groups, including the Islamic State, Somalia’s Al Shabab and Nigeria’s Boko Haram of soccer fans; and mounted controversy about the integrity of the Qatari bid to host the World Cup.

Anyone who happens to have watched the current World Cup on the BBC might — like me — have been perplexed by a detail in the iconography they have used for promoting Brazil 2014: toy footballers including one with no head. Another threat from ISIS?



Holder pushes for witch-hunt against potential terrorists

For several decades, thousands of Americans — some of them religious extremists, some ethnic supremacists and most believing that they have God on their side — have been traveling to the Middle East to fight in a foreign army notorious for committing war crimes and abusing human rights.

Americans are free to join the Israel Defense Forces so long as Israel does not declare war on the United States. There is no law that stands in the way of this kind of foreign military enrollment, even though some radicalized Americans who have followed this path went on to become terrorists.

Never is an American who moves to Israel, even one who illegally constructs a home on Palestinian land in the West Bank, referred to as a “potential terrorist” — that potentiality supposedly can only be found in Muslims.

The New York Times now reports:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Tuesday implored more European countries to adopt American-style counterterrorism laws and tactics, including undercover stings to prevent potential terrorists from traveling to Syria.

Mr. Holder’s speech in Oslo amounted to a full-throated endorsement of America’s pre-emptive counterterrorism strategy, which began in earnest under President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks. The F.B.I. has created elaborate ruses to ensnare people who express interest in joining terrorist groups or attacking America. That has led to a number of high-profile cases but has also attracted criticism that the United States is manufacturing terrorism cases and entrapping Muslims.

Prosecutors have also arrested people before they boarded international flights, charging them with providing support to terrorist groups. Such laws do not exist in every country.

“In the face of a threat so grave, we cannot afford to be passive,” Mr. Holder said in prepared remarks. “Rather, we need the benefit of investigative and prosecutorial tools that allow us to be pre-emptive in our approach to confronting this problem. If we wait for our nations’ citizens to travel to Syria or Iraq, to become radicalized, and to return home, it may be too late to adequately protect our national security.”

Try and unpack the meaning of the phrase become radicalized and some mangled reasoning quickly surfaces.

If the process of radicalization had not begun before an individual decided to abandon their home and travel to Syria or Iraq, does that mean that the U.S. or any other Western government should view, for instance, anyone who wants to go and work in a refugee camp in Syria as a potential terrorist?

On the other hand, if it is conceded that this mysterious psychological transformation called radicalization is determined not so much by where an individual is physically located as much as what they are influenced by and how they perceive those people they identify with as being under threat, then the premise of the geographically located terrorist breeding ground starts to fall apart.

In those cases where individuals have had the opportunity to explain their motives for turning towards extremism, the most common explanations are that it has been a response to witnessing the impunity with which Israel uses violence to subjugate the Palestinian people, or because they believe that the United States used 9/11 to launch a war on Islam. In other words, they became radicalized by watching the news — not by traveling to Syria or by participating in online jihadist forums.

Even during the era of McCarthyism when conservatives were whipping up anti-communist hysteria in America, the question posed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, was: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?”

If Eric Holder had been on that committee maybe they would have been asking: “Are you now, have you ever been, or might you ever become a member of the Communist Party of the United States?”

In truth, the U.S. government has no business nor skill in predicting the future and hunting for potential terrorists.

The growth of ISIS has been driven by its success on the battleground — not the failure of foreign governments to monitor their own citizens.

And the challenge ISIS presents will not be met by hoping it destroys itself.

More than anything else, Americans are victims of simplistic narratives — analysis all too often gets reduced to kindergarten language about “good guys” and “bad guys,” while reference to “moderates” and “extremists” passes for nuanced interpretation.

In large part this results from the fact that the actors on the ground are so rarely included in the discussion.

As a recent conversation on Britain’s Channel 4 News illustrates, however, it is possible to talk about what is happening in Syria and Iraq while acknowledging that despite the gruesome headlines, the participants in this conflict are by-and-large self-motivated, autonomous adults.


A new window for diplomacy in Syria?

As the advance of ISIS continues to alarm governments across the Middle East and outside the region, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is probably viewing events with a certain amount of satisfaction. His counterterrorism narrative, long echoed by his closest allies, Iran and Russia, now resonates more widely.

So long as ISIS does not acquire aircraft and start dropping barrel bombs (in which event Assad would have the awkward task of differentiating his own use of random violence from that being used by “the terrorists”), in relationship to the most dangerous terrorist group in history it becomes increasingly easy to anticipate the reinvention of Assad as some kind of “moderate.”

No doubt he was never among the highest echelon of dictators. His fluent English and well-tailored suits suggested that if he held onto power for long enough, he might eventually be allowed back into the international club of moderates.

After all, Assad is more moderate than Pol Pot — though as the Cambodian leader illustrated, appearances can be deceptive.

David W. Lesch recently met with top Syrian officials in Beirut. He writes: Ever since it became clear that Assad was not going to fall anytime soon, the central question for any political settlement has been this: Can the Syrian regime give up enough power to satisfy at least the minimum requirements of a critical mass of the opposition? In the end, it may prove impossible to find a satisfactory formula, but it is certainly something worthy of careful exploration. War weariness has softened what had been a litany of hard-line positions by each side, creating a potential bargaining situation where the government’s political power can be traded between the provinces and Damascus. Much work remains on both sides, however, in terms of generating ideas that can potentially form the basis for compromise.

There is certainly reason to doubt the sincerity of the regime’s feelers to Western contacts, as Damascus often pursues several options at once, in an effort to have its cake and eat it, too. And the regime will bargain hard in an excruciatingly tedious process wherein it will try to seem as if it is giving up power without actually doing so in a meaningful way. There is also still the question of finding — and meticulously developing — viable negotiating partners on the opposition side amid increasing opposition polarization. And a “new” Syria cannot just replicate sectarian authoritarianism in another form, as happened in Iraq. But what other realistic option is there for ending a conflict in a way that contributes to the Middle East’s stability, rather than simply watching the war add to the regional conflagration?

If a negotiation can eventually be organized, the devil will be in the details. The problem is that neither side has really been compelled to think about the substance of its preferred form of governance in a systematic, coordinated fashion. This will take time and perseverance, as international mediators shuttle between the sides, away from the Geneva-type grand-bargain spotlight. The initial steps are quite basic: Learn about the real interests of the stakeholders, especially those on the ground, and then work with both sides to develop options that hopefully begin to reconcile competing political interests and engender further discussion — perhaps within each side first before moving on to the bilateral level.

Assad is a key. Only he can convince regime hard-liners to realize this is the only way forward. Recent history suggests the Syrian president may not be willing or able to do this if it means him giving up power. According to a senior official in Ankara, a top Turkish official met with Assad early in the uprising in 2011 to encourage him to enact political reform. He told Assad that a Syrian president would have more legitimacy by winning 40 percent of the vote in a true pluralist democracy than the usual 98 percent of the vote in Syria’s typical single-candidate referendums. Assad reportedly reacted to this by saying, “Well, what happens if I lose?” The Turkish official responded, “Then you retire.”

To date, Assad has found the option of “retiring” at some point unacceptable. [Continue reading...]


The ISIS threat: How great is it, who should respond, and how?

The crisis in Iraq can be resolved quite easily. All we have to do is master time-travel.

There are differences of opinion on whether or not history has to be reversed back to 2003 or 1914, but either way, the ability to go back into the past is key.

If time-travel can be accomplished through an act of will, we can remain hopeful that this great challenge will soon be surmounted. After all, there is a growing movement of people who clearly want to re-live the past, so maybe we can all soon get back there, reverse the mistakes which were made and reset history on a more reliable course.

Meanwhile, just in case the time-travel solution happens not to bear fruit, it might be worth considering some kind of Plan B.

Among young Americans — those whose interest in the future can be assumed to be far greater than their interest in the past — the World Cup is apparently almost twice as interesting as events in Iraq. Maybe the 2018 World Cup in Russia will be a game-changer on the geopolitical landscape.

Maybe the assessment that the danger posed to America by ISIS is now greater than that posed by Al Qaeda in the summer of 2001 is an overstatement. After all, while Al Qaeda’s focus was on provoking and challenging American power, ISIS is much more intent on establishing and expanding its caliphate than in seeking military engagement with the U.S..

The fact that ISIS has already drawn the support of hundreds of Westerners flooding initially to Syria, does not necessarily mean many of these individuals will be returning to their countries of origin to engage in terrorism. After all, one of their favorite ways of declaring their commitment to their Islamic state is to destroy their passports. With a measure of realism, they seem to be showing that they have already arrived in the place where they expect to fight and die.

Among critics of the war in Iraq there seems to be far greater concern about the danger of the U.S. once again becoming militarily engaged in Iraq, than there is concern about ISIS. Indeed, few seem to want to say much about the group other than assert that it wouldn’t have come into existence had it not been for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. True. But the invasion did happen and ISIS does now exist and is growing in strength — and the clock cannot be turned back.

Claims that ISIS poses a threat to the world may be viewed with some justified skepticism, but when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says that the group now threatens every state in the region, that sounds to me like an accurate assessment.

Iraq is a state on the brink of collapse. The Kurds are already constructing their own borders and there are no indications that a unifying government can be formed in Baghdad.

Military intervention by Russia and Iran might save Maliki yet destroy Iraq.

That an Iranian general has already promised to use “the same winning strategy used in Syria” sends a chilling message to Iraq’s Sunni population as a whole.

Americans who imagine that so long as our borders are secure, we can ignore what happens elsewhere in the world are living in denial about the interconnected planet on which we live.

Anti-interventionists who imagine that the only issue that matters in relation to Iraq is that the U.S. not get sucked in, are unwilling to confront the fact that ISIS will have to be confronted.

If you want to place your confidence in Russia and Iran, then remember Grozny and Aleppo and picture what might become of Mosul.

ISIS could not have advanced this far without the support of a wider Sunni insurgency and rather than the Russians, Iranians, Maliki’s security forces, Shia militias, or the U.S., it is the Sunnis who need expose the fact that this newly constructed Islamic state has no real foundations. But this isn’t going to happen without Iraq’s Sunni population receiving a tangible reward. The longer that takes to materialize, the less chance there is that it’s going to happen.