Gaza: Palestinians tortured, summarily killed by Hamas forces during 2014 conflict

Amnesty International: Hamas forces carried out a brutal campaign of abductions, torture and unlawful killings against Palestinians accused of “collaborating” with Israel and others during Israel’s military offensive against Gaza in July and August 2014, according to a new report by Amnesty International.

‘Strangling Necks’: Abduction, torture and summary killings of Palestinians by Hamas forces during the 2014 Gaza/Israel conflict highlights a series of abuses, such as the extrajudicial execution of at least 23 Palestinians and the arrest and torture of dozens of others, including members and supporters of Hamas’s political rivals, Fatah.

“It is absolutely appalling that, while Israeli forces were inflicting massive death and destruction upon the people in Gaza, Hamas forces took the opportunity to ruthlessly settle scores, carrying out a series of unlawful killings and other grave abuses,” said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.

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Erdogan’s escalating war on the press

Stephen Kinzer writes: This was to be an extraordinary week in my career and life. It has turned out to be just that — but hardly in the way I expected.

I arrived here [Gaziantep, Turkey] Tuesday morning to receive a great honor. The mayor and city council decided several months ago to make me an honorary citizen in recognition of reporting I did years ago that resulted in saving exquisite Roman mosaics about to be lost to flooding.

A lavish ceremony was planned. Tickets were printed. A professional interpreter was engaged so I would not have to expose my fractured Turkish.

Upon my arrival, however, my acutely embarrassed hosts sat me down and told me the ceremony, and my honorary citizenship, had been cancelled by personal order of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Gaziantep’s mayor was given the order while attending a United Nations conference in Paris. Later, according to one of my friends here, Erdogan’s office sent her a fax describing me as “an enemy of our government and our country.” Attached as evidence was a Jan. 4 column I wrote for the Boston Globe that included a critical paragraph about Erdogan.

It said, “Once seen as a skilled modernizer, he now sits in a 1,000-room palace denouncing the European Union, decreeing the arrest of journalists, and ranting against short skirts and birth control.” [Continue reading…]

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Music: Jacob Karlzon 3 — ‘A Thousand Conclusions’

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The oil companies and the assassins — BP and Ocensa

The Guardian reports: A Colombian trade union leader is beginning an unprecedented claim for damages against BP in the high court in London, alleging the oil company’s complicity in his kidnap and torture 13 years ago.

Gilberto Torres, 52, was abducted in February 2002 while driving home from an oil-pumping station in Casanare, eastern Colombia, and was released after 42 days, only after workers threatened a national oil strike. The case, which begins on Friday, will throw a spotlight on one of the murkiest periods in Colombia’s history, and the role of big business in it.

His lawyers say that it is the first time a union leader has been able to lodge a claim for human rights abuses against a multinational oil company in the high court. They believe his claim could pave the way for scores more similar actions.

BP denies any involvement. It says it will “vigorously” defend the claim.

Torres tells his story for the first time in a Guardian online documentary. The film includes the extraordinary testimony of his kidnappers when they finally faced trial. [Continue reading…]

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Shell can’t afford to wait until 2050 to adapt its business to climate change

By Steffen Böhm, University of Essex

Shell’s recent AGM was tumultuous. Shareholders voted overwhelmingly for the company to report on whether its activities were compatible with promised government action on climate change. The firm’s board reportedly faced a sometimes-hostile barrage of questions about its approach to the environment.

The key question shareholders are asking is this: what if the majority of Shell’s proven fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground in order to avoid a dangerous global temperature increase of more than 2°C? Shell’s proved reserves are the company’s biggest asset against which it borrows money from banks and attracts investments from shareholders.

Most of the oil and gas majors are struggling to find enough new reserves to keep growing in the future. This is why Shell and all other major players in the industry have to go to more extreme lengths to find the fossil fuels that keep our lights on, cars on the road and their profits growing. Controversial and environmentally very suspect investments into Arctic oil drilling, US shale gas and Canadian tar sands have already tarnished the environmental credentials of Shell.

But Shell needs to find more oil and gas to keep its asset base growing and its profit potential intact. So it agreed to buy UK-based oil and gas exploration group BG Group for a staggering £47bn. To quote recent analysis, this “gives Shell a presence in the productive zone off the coast of Brazil, and will ensure that Shell’s own production is maintained over the medium term, taking away the requirement to make large discoveries to offset natural depletion”.

But now an entirely new threat hangs over Shell’s future viability as a leading fossil fuel company. A high-profile campaign has argued that most of the proven reserves by oil and gas majors are “stranded assets” – something Shell has denied in the past. This would render Shell’s acquisition of BG Group and its investments in the Arctic wasted capital.

[Read more…]

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Why Obama changed course on the ‘red line’ in Syria

Frontline: In August of 2013, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus was attacked with sarin gas — a nerve agent that causes lung muscle paralysis and results in death from suffocation.

The attack killed 1,400 men, women and children, and at the White House, officials asserted “with high confidence” that the government of Bashar al-Assad was responsible.

One year earlier, President Barack Obama had described Assad’s potential use of chemical weapons as “a red line” that would have “enormous consequences” and “change my calculus” on American military intervention in Syria’s civil war.

When Assad appeared to cross that line, Obama ordered the Pentagon to prepare to attack.

“Our finger was on the trigger,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells veteran FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith in Tuesday’s new documentary, Obama at War. “We had everything in place and we were just waiting for instructions to proceed.”

But as FRONTLINE details in the below excerpt from Obama at War, the president had second thoughts. [Continue reading…]

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Jihadists vs. the Assad Regime: Syria’s rebel advance

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How ISIS’s win in Ramadi reveals new weapons, tactical sophistication and prowess

The Wall Street Journal reports: In late April, a commander for Islamic State said his forces were ready to launch an offensive to take Ramadi, and the group called for fighters to redeploy to Iraq from Syria.

Three weeks later, the jihadist group seized the capital of Anbar province after relentless waves of suicide bombings.

U.S. defense chief Ash Carter has blamed Ramadi’s fall mainly on Iraqi forces’ lack of will to fight. But Islamic State’s battlefield performance suggests the terrorist group’s tactical sophistication is growing—a development the Iraqis and the U.S.-led coalition have so far failed to counter, said Iraqi officials, former U.S. officials and military analysts studying the organization.

An examination of how Ramadi fell indicates that Islamic State commanders executed a complex battle plan that outwitted a greater force of Iraqi troops as well as the much-lauded, U.S.-trained special-operations force known as the Golden Division, which had been fighting for months to defend the city.

Islamic State commanders evaded surveillance and airstrikes to bring reinforcements to its front lines in western Iraq. The group displayed a high degree of operational security by silencing its social media and propaganda teams during the Ramadi surge.

The group also churned out dozens of formidable new weapons by converting captured U.S. military armored vehicles designed to be impervious to small-arms fire into megabombs with payloads equal to the force of the Oklahoma City bombing. [Continue reading…]

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For an ISIS fighter, a paid honeymoon in caliphate’s heart

The Associated Press reports: The honeymoon was a brief moment for love, away from the front lines of Syria’s war. In the capital of the Islamic State group’s self-proclaimed “caliphate,” Syrian fighter Abu Bilal al-Homsi was united with his Tunisian bride for the first time after months chatting online. They married, then passed the days dining on grilled meats in Raqqa’s restaurants, strolling along the Euphrates River and eating ice cream.

It was all made possible by the marriage bonus he received from the Islamic State group: $1,500 for him and his wife to get started on a new home, a family — and a honeymoon.

“It has everything one would want for a wedding,” al-Homsi said of Raqqa — a riverside provincial capital that in the 18 months since IS took control has seen militants beheading opponents and stoning accused adulteresses in its main square. Gunmen at checkpoints in the city scrutinize passers-by for signs of anything they see as a violation of Shariah, or Islamic law, as slight as a hint of hair gel or an improperly kept beard. In the homes of some of the IS commanders in the city are women and girls from the Yazidi religious sect, abducted in Iraq and now kept as sex slaves.

The Islamic State group is notorious for the atrocities it committed as it overran much of Syria and neighboring Iraq. But to its supporters, it is engaged in an ambitious project: building a new nation ruled by what radicals see as “God’s law,” made up of Muslims from around the world whose old nationalities have been erased and who have been united in the “caliphate.” [Continue reading…]

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Shakedown: Israel seeks funding surge in U.S. security support

DefenseNews reports: Israel is seeking a hefty surge in annual security assistance from Washington and has begun preliminary talks with the US administration on a long-term package that would provide up to $45 billion in grant aid through 2028.

In recent months, working-level bilateral groups have begun to assess Israel’s projected security needs in the context of a new 10-year foreign military financing (FMF) deal that will kick in once the current agreement expires in 2017.

Under the existing, $30 billion agreement signed in 2007, annual FMF grant aid to Israel grew from $2.4 billion to $3.1 billion minus, in recent years, rescissions of some $155 million due to a government mandated sequester.

Under the follow-on package, endorsed in principle by US President Barack Obama during a March 2013 visit to Tel Aviv, Israel wants “$4.2 billion to $4.5 billion” in annual FMF aid, a security source here said. [Continue reading…]

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Why won’t Israeli peace groups talk about the Nakba?

Tom Mehager writes: Israeli non-profit organizations that strive for a society based on coexistence most often focus on the most pressing issues vis-a-vis Jewish-Arab relations: educating toward democratic values, mutual recognition and teaching the Arabic language; equal allocation of resources and land; integration into the workforce and strengthening economic investment in Arab towns and villages; proper representation in decision-making processes; legitimacy for Arabic in the public sphere; changing state symbols, and more. In this respect, these organizations are making important conversations.

But what those same organizations, which demand equality between Jews and Arabs, do not speak about or deal with is the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland. 1948 is the elephant standing in the center of the room. Many of our Palestinian colleagues in these organizations come from families who were uprooted from their homeland, with much of their nation still living in the diaspora.

I do not want to speak in the name of Palestinians and claim that they want to open up a conversation with us, Jewish Israelis, about the right of return. But I do want to ask why it is that we never raise questions about 1948 when speaking of a life of coexistence or about our vision of equality.

Jews realized and continue to realize their right of return in the wake of several historic events: most of us are here after 2,000 years of exile, as per the Zionist movement’s definition, due to the Law of Return, which allows the Jews of the world to receive Israeli citizenship. Moreover, many young Israelis who are the grandchildren of the victims of World War II have obtained citizenship in their grandparents’ countries of origin in Europe. And let’s not forget that the government of Spain has announced that it will allow the descendants of the victims of the expulsions in the 15th century to apply for Spanish citizenship. Thus, if we believe in true equality between Jews and Arabs, we must support the right of return for Palestinians to their homeland. [Continue reading…]

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Afghans form militias and call on warlords to battle Taliban

The New York Times reports: Facing a fierce Taliban offensive across a corridor of northern Afghanistan, the government in Kabul is turning to a strategy fraught with risk: forming local militias and beseeching old warlords for military assistance, according to Afghan and Western officials.

The effort is expected to eventually mobilize several thousand Afghans from the north to fight against the Taliban in areas where the Afghan military and police forces are losing ground or have had little presence. The action is being seen as directly undermining assurances by officials that the security forces were holding their own against the Taliban.

Further, the plan to turn to irregular forces is stoking anxieties of factional rivalries and civil strife in a nation still haunted by a civil war in the 1990s in which feuding militia commanders tore the country apart. Some of the commanders involved in that bloodletting a generation ago now hold senior government positions and are encouraging the current effort to mobilize and rearm militias.

“We have experienced this failed experiment of militia-making before,” said Fawzia Koofi, a member of Parliament from Badakhshan, one of the provinces where the government is planning to form the militias. “This will spread the war from house to house, starting rivalries as everyone begins arming their own groups.” [Continue reading…]

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Organized crime on Wall Street

James Kwak writes: One of the central dramas of the early seasons of The Wire is the cat-and-mouse game between Avon Barksdale’s drug operation and the detectives of the Major Crimes Unit. The drug dealers started off using pagers and pay phones. When the police tapped the pagers and the phones, Barksdale’s people switched to “burner” cell phones that they threw away before the police could tap them. By Season 4, Proposition Joe advised Marlo Stanfield not to use phones at all.

Well, apparently, Wall Street currency traders don’t watch The Wire. I don’t think anyone was surprised to learn that major banks including JPMorgan, Citigroup, Barclays, RBS, and UBS conspired to manipulate currency prices — something that regulators have been investigating for over a year and a half. One common strategy was cooperating to time large transactions in order to manipulate daily benchmark rates at which other client transactions are executed.

What is surprising is that these traders — supposedly the smartest people around — carried out their criminal conspiracy in online chat rooms whose contents could be discovered by investigators. (In this day and age, the last thing any bank’s general counsel wants to be accused of is destroying evidence, so you should assume that everything you do over a bank’s networks will be tracked.) Even using their personal cell phones would have been much safer. (Apparently they do watch The Sopranos, however: one of the chat rooms was nicknamed “The Mafia, which is probably not a good idea when you are actually engaged in a criminal conspiracy.)

The game is still to make money any way you can. “If you aint cheating, you aint trying” is the new money quote. The clients are just collateral damage — whether or not JPMorgan says, “Throughout our long and distinguished history, we have been steadfastly committed to putting our clients’ interests first.” The offenses described in the settlement documents extended at least into 2013 — more than four years after the financial crisis. [Continue reading…]

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Extreme athletes gain control through fear – and sometimes pay the price

By Tim Woodman, Bangor University; Lew Hardy, Bangor University, and Matthew Barlow, Bangor University

The death of famed “daredevil” climber and base jumper Dean Potter has once again raised the idea that all high-risk sportspeople are hedonistic thrill seekers. Our research into extreme athletes shows this view is simplistic and wrong.

It’s about attitudes to risk. In his famous Moon speech in 1962, John F Kennedy said:

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked [by a New York Times journalist] why did he want to climb it. He said, ‘Because it is there.’ Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there …

Humans have evolved through taking risks. In fact, most human actions can be conceptualised as containing an element of risk: as we take our first step, we risk falling down; as we try a new food, we risk being disgusted; as we ride a bicycle, we risk falling over; as we go on a date, we risk being rejected; and as we travel to the moon, we risk not coming back.

Human endeavour and risk are intertwined. So it is not surprising that despite the increasingly risk-averse society that we live in, many people crave danger and risk – a life less sanitised.

[Read more…]

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Were we happier in the Stone Age?

Yuval Noah Harari writes: Over the last decade, I have been writing a history of humankind, tracking down the transformation of our species from an insignificant African ape into the master of the planet. It was not easy to understand what turned Homo sapiens into an ecological serial killer; why men dominated women in most human societies; or why capitalism became the most successful religion ever. It wasn’t easy to address such questions because scholars have offered so many different and conflicting answers. In contrast, when it came to assessing the bottom line – whether thousands of years of inventions and discoveries have made us happier – it was surprising to realise that scholars have neglected even to ask the question. This is the largest lacuna in our understanding of history.

Though few scholars have studied the long-term history of happiness, almost everybody has some idea about it. One common preconception – often termed “the Whig view of history” – sees history as the triumphal march of progress. Each passing millennium witnessed new discoveries: agriculture, the wheel, writing, print, steam engines, antibiotics. Humans generally use newly found powers to alleviate miseries and fulfil aspirations. It follows that the exponential growth in human power must have resulted in an exponential growth in happiness. Modern people are happier than medieval people, and medieval people were happier than stone age people.

But this progressive view is highly controversial. Though few would dispute the fact that human power has been growing since the dawn of history, it is far less clear that power correlates with happiness. The advent of agriculture, for example, increased the collective power of humankind by several orders of magnitude. Yet it did not necessarily improve the lot of the individual. For millions of years, human bodies and minds were adapted to running after gazelles, climbing trees to pick apples, and sniffing here and there in search of mushrooms. Peasant life, in contrast, included long hours of agricultural drudgery: ploughing, weeding, harvesting and carrying water buckets from the river. Such a lifestyle was harmful to human backs, knees and joints, and numbing to the human mind.

In return for all this hard work, peasants usually had a worse diet than hunter-gatherers, and suffered more from malnutrition and starvation. Their crowded settlements became hotbeds for new infectious diseases, most of which originated in domesticated farm animals. Agriculture also opened the way for social stratification, exploitation and possibly patriarchy. From the viewpoint of individual happiness, the “agricultural revolution” was, in the words of the scientist Jared Diamond, “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”.

The case of the agricultural revolution is not a single aberration, however. Themarch of progress from the first Sumerian city-states to the empires of Assyria and Babylonia was accompanied by a steady deterioration in the social status and economic freedom of women. The European Renaissance, for all its marvellous discoveries and inventions, benefited few people outside the circle of male elites. The spread of European empires fostered the exchange of technologies, ideas and products, yet this was hardly good news for millions of Native Americans, Africans and Aboriginal Australians.

The point need not be elaborated further. Scholars have thrashed the Whig view of history so thoroughly, that the only question left is: why do so many people still believe in it? [Continue reading…]

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Music: Jacob Karlzon — ‘Still Hope’

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Only Iran is confronting ISIS, says commander of Quds Force

Reuters reports: The general in charge of Iran’s paramilitary activities in the Middle East said the United States and other powers were failing to confront Islamic State, and only Iran was committed to the task, a news agency on Monday reported.

Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force responsible for protecting the Islamic Republic’s interests abroad, has become a familiar face on the battlefields of Iraq, where he often outranks local commanders.

“Today, in the fight against this dangerous phenomenon, nobody is present except Iran,” the Tasnim news agency quoted Soleimani as saying on Sunday in reference to Islamic State.

Iran should help countries suffering at the hands of Islamic State, said Soleimani, whose force is part of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Mehr news agency reported.

The Sunni militant group has taken key cities in Iraq and Syria in the past week, routing regular forces in both countries with apparent ease.

“Obama has not done a damn thing so far to confront Daesh: doesn’t that show that there is no will in America to confront it?” Mehr quoted Soleimani as saying, using a derogatory Arabic term for Islamic State.

“How is it that America claims to be protecting the Iraqi government, when a few kilometres away in Ramadi killings and war crimes are taking place and they are doing nothing?” [Continue reading…]

Christian Science Monitor adds: The comments have created a “Twilight Zone”-esque conversation in which former US military officers – whose troops were killed during the height of the Iraq War by the roadside bombs that Quds force advisers helped Iraqi insurgents make – say that Soleimani may have a point.

“Quite frankly, Soleimani is correct,” says retired Col. Peter Mansoor, who served as the executive officer for Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq.

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Far from facing the truth, the U.S. is telling new lies about Iraq

Gary Younge writes: A couple of weeks ago, the Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush was asked in an interview with Fox News whether, knowing what he knows now, he would have invaded Iraq. It’s the kind of predictable question for which most people assumed he would have a coherent answer. They were wrong. Jeb blew it. “I would have [authorised the invasion],” he said. “And so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody. And so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”

For the next few days, as he was hammered from left and right, he flailed around like a four-star general in search of a plausible exit strategy. In a number of do-overs, he answered the same question with “I don’t know”, “I didn’t understand the question”, and “no” before finally falling back on the perennial Republican default of blaming everything on Barack Obama.

“You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever,” writes Tim O’Brien in his novel about Vietnam, The Things They Carried. “In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unravelling the deeper meaning.”

Iraq is one such story. The troops may have left, but the fallout from the conflict lingers in the American polity, clinging to its elites like stale cigarette smoke to an Aran sweater – it stinks, and they just can’t shake it. Not only did it trip Jeb up, it remains the abiding, shameful legacy of his brother George Bush’s administration. And, as Jeb hinted, it dogged Clinton during her 2008 presidential bid, too.

Back then, she claimed if she’d known what George Bush would do with the authority to go to war (ie go to war with it) she would never have given it to him. That didn’t fly. Now she concedes her vote was an unqualified “mistake”.

Extracting a moral from this disaster would demand “unravelling the deeper meaning” of America’s military impulses, the popular consent it enjoys and the craven political assent it is accorded.

It would require an assessment of why so many Americans supported the war for so long, how an ostensibly independent media not only failed to challenge the state but actively capitulated to it, and why nobody has paid the price for any of these mistakes. In short, it would demand a reckoning with American power – how it works, as well as whom it works for, and to what end. [Continue reading…]

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