In his first report card, Abbas gets praise and a little gold star
Saturday, January 29, 2005, 00:38
While following the situation in Iraq, let us not forget about Palestine, where something is always happening – usually to the detriment of the Palestinian people.

The first Israeli appraisal of the Palestinian president’s performance has come in (no, not the verdict of the Palestinian people, but that of their occupier); Mahmoud Abbas still hasn’t passed with flying colors, and he can certainly do better if he applies himself, but he’s on the right track. Considering he’s only been in power for two weeks but that he’s already passed a number of Israeli tests, the praise from Sharon should be equivalent to at least a B-.

Sharon’s exact words on the progress of Abbas are as follows: “I am very satisfied with what I hear is happening on the Palestinian side, and I have a serious interest in advancing the process with him.”

Of course he should be satisfied! Abbas has already deployed 3,000 Palestinian troops around Gaza to ensure no attacks could possibly be carried out against the Israeli occupying army, and has banned Palestinian civilians from carrying weapons (lest it might occur to them to defend themselves). Furthermore, in a move eerily reminiscent of the Israeli army, Abbas has even sent his bulldozers to demolish cafés, shops and kiosks in Gaza.

With friends like Abbas, do Palestinians need enemies? No wonder Sharon now says that “conditions are ripe for a historic breakthrough.” In other words, this means that by stopping attacks on Israel (for the time being), Abbas has created the ideal situation for Sharon to withdraw as painlessly as possible from Gaza – which is the only withdrawal (a partial one at that) he was planning to make in the first place, and turn his attention on the permanent settlement of the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Abbas should be careful not to forget about the people whose approval really counts now, especially in Gaza. They have also spoken, and their verdict is clear: in the local elections held this week, with a voter participation of over 80%, Hamas has achieved a stunning victory, winning nearly three times as many seats as Fatah. That’s democracy for you (be careful what you ask for, Bush). Let’s wait for their report card now; and it's a safe bet to say they'll want a bit more than empty praise from Israel.

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Unusual elections, part II: vote by logo
Friday, January 28, 2005, 01:25
Who's who on Iraq's election platform?

Since most people in Iraq have no idea who the candidates are, or where they should vote, they can technically vote for the candle, the rose, the bridge, the hand, or any other logo or symbol representing the parties. That is how most Iraqis are recognizing the lists of candidates, in a place where the battle of strange posters has overtaken the streets, and where a candidate in public is a rare sight.

Or, to make matters much simpler, Iraqis are also being invited by some to go back to a constitutional monarchy and vote for a king.

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The rise and fall of a very nasty neocon
Friday, January 28, 2005, 00:35
Rejoice: Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense, is gone. He has resigned and will probably remain in Washington (perhaps to work directly for AIPAC?), I’m afraid, but will hopefully be unable to cause any further serious damage in the immediate future.

The number 3 man at the Pentagon, Feith was one of the architects of the invasion of Iraq when he ran the Office of Special Plans, that most Orwellian of set-ups which became the US’s main “policy” center – and in effect, its main propaganda machine (for example, infamously linking Iraq to the September 11 attacks).

That was after he had created the Office of Strategic Influence, through which he tried to plant news stories with foreign media to influence policymakers.

Many will remember Feith’s link to AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), when his aide Lawrence Franklin passed information to it and to an Israeli diplomat. The fact that Feith (or Rumsfeld, for that matter) weren’t forced to resign then says a lot about this administration.

Before we start celebrating Feith’s departure, however, let us remember that every previous administration official who resigned was replaced with someone even more hawkish. The new man may have a lower public profile, but he will be as neocon and pro-Israeli as Feith ever could be.

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Unusual elections, to say the least
Thursday, January 27, 2005, 00:53
It may be a long time before it becomes another land of the free, no matter how the Bush administration spins it. So far, most candidates for Iraq’s Sunday election are too afraid to campaign, or to even reveal their candicacy, which probably means that those who vote will choose a list based on the top few candidates they know.

With so much violence (and even more looming) making the whole exercise rather pointless, even Iraqi expatriates who were supposed to turn out in droves stayed away from the registration centers. Whether inside or outside Iraq, voters are staying home, somewhat disillusioned.

Not surprisingly, many people believe that the violence is too great for any elections (fair or not) to be held, despite everything the US says.

But Allawi seconds any motion made by the US, especially when he thinks it can keep his regime in power, and is insisting they should go ahead.

Because of the fear of such a low turnout, ironic comments are being made about America's attempt to limit killing Iraqis, at least until some of the votes are in.

More voters will of course mean more legitimacy, which the election monitors, from the safety of Jordan, will be willing to vouch for.

Still, it will be difficult to call this a free and fair election, no matter how it turns out. Is it any wonder Bush did not even mention Iraq in his inauguration speech, nor the “democracy” he was bringing there? After all, no need to mention unpleasant matters when he was in the mood to party.

As soon as the parties were over, however, Bush quickly turned to Congress to request another $80 billion (on top of over $300 billion already spent on his wars), seemingly confident that it will yet again grant his every wish and allow him to play soldier a while longer.

It’s going to be a strange election, and an even stranger and long, long four years. Doubly so for Iraqis.

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Not even UNWRA can criticize Israel
Tuesday, January 25, 2005, 01:22
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNWRA, was created in 1948 after the creation of the state of Israel, to deal specifically with the problems of Palestinians under occupation and in exile as refugees. Its sole raison d’être is the well-being of the millions of Palestinians suffering from nearly 60 years of dispossession, to provide them with food, shelter, schooling and medical aid.

Nevertheless, UNWRA is not allowed to criticize the occupier (Israel) or its main ally (the US), the two countries responsible for the suffering of Palestinians until today. Thus, Peter Hansen, UNWRA’s Danish Commissioner-General, has been forced to leave his post for daring to speak out against the abuses of Israel’s army.

In a recent conference held in East Jerusalem, Hansen did not fail to mention the suffering of Israelis: “Never forget there are two parties to the conflict and there are two peoples exercising violence against one another and it follows that there are victims on the either side too.”

Nothing Israel can really object to. But it is for stating other, indisputable facts, as he has done throughout his tenure, and as his position requires him to do, that he got the boot after Israel and American congressmen petitioned for his ousting.

“As you approach the southern end of Gaza - where Khan Yunis and Rafah have seen continued destruction, where the numbers of people who have been made homeless by bulldozers exceeds 25,000 - we have managed to re-house 8,000 of them but we are fighting a losing battle. We can not build as fast as the destruction takes place. So, Gaza is in a very, very poor state. Everybody there hopes that this conflict can end so not only their suffering can end but the deprivation of a dignified human life after decades.”

If UNWRA can't say this, who on earth can?

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So long, Bill
Tuesday, January 25, 2005, 00:39
According to a British scientist who apparently had nothing better to do, as reported in that very British tabloid The Daily Mail (which really has nothing better to do), today, January 24, was supposed to be the most depressing day of the year.

But there is one major flaw in this calculation, as it did not account for this being William Safire’s last day as an op-ed columnist in The New York Times. Still, we had to bear four of his columns today, one of which describes one of his “winner” columns on Israel's security as follows:

Some of us backed Ariel Sharon and Israeli realists for a generation, while State Department "evenhandedness" was all thumbs in failing to come to grips with Arafat's aim of conquest. In the future, if Palestinians confront their terrorist minority and get realistic about borders, Israel will relocate some of its settlers, forcibly if necessary, to secure the peace settlement.

If Safire gets realistic about facts and sticks to his language columns, which are quite good, sparing us his preaching about Middle East affairs and his accounts of one-on-ones with his buddy Ariel Sharon, I think this calls for a celebration.

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Bush is still sowing his seeds in Iraq
Monday, January 24, 2005, 02:29
Those who still don’t feel nauseated by George W. Bush’s use of the word “liberty” - which he mentioned 15 times during his inauguration speech (only second to “freedom” which he said 27 times) - will be pleased to know that in order to help bring “democracy” (mentioned only once) to Iraq (not mentioned at all), American forces are currently engaged in the largest military operation since the invasion of Iraq, codenamed (don’t laugh now, this is serious) “Operation Seeds of Liberty.”

Presumably, this operation is part of the “great efforts” John Negroponte, US “ambassador” to Iraq, said were being made as he acknowledged the serious problems ahead of next weekend’s elections.

But Condoleezza Rice is not worried: “The Iraqis will be just fine,” she said on Sunday. After all, as her boss explained to the world on January 20,

“America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains …

(these men were detained in Mosul by US forces)

… or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, …

(these women bow their heads as US forces search their home in Mosul)

… or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.”

(this girl in Tal Afar screams after her parents were shot dead by US soldiers, as she and her siblings were in the back seat of the car).

No Siree. As Bush said, “America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies.”

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Imperial ascendancy and ostrich diplomacy
Thursday, January 20, 2005, 02:46
Bush says he feels the weight of history, which is perhaps why his inauguration will be the most expensive in history, and which The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall describes as “a thoroughly imperial event, scripted down to the last detail.”

But while the emperor holds court in Washington, the real weight of history is being felt in Iraq, where the descent into hell keeps accelerating. I used to reserve the term of “ostrich diplomacy” for Arab regimes, which excel at sticking their heads in the sand, ignoring their surroundings and thinking others see exactly what they are seeing. But once more, Arab regimes and Bush find themselves with much in common.

Bush sees neither his critics nor the problems he has caused, but Steve Benson sure does.

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Help, Rice wants to seize the “opportunity” in the Middle East!
Thursday, January 20, 2005, 02:20
At her (un)official crowning as Bush’s queen of “diplomacy” (diplomacy being a very relative term in the Bush administration), Condoleezza Rice threatened to solve the Middle East conflict, although she made it clear that real peace was up to the parties themselves! God help us all.

If you haven’t been following the region’s history, please be informed that the real problem there, according to Rice, is the lack of democracy – not the Israeli occupation. Therefore, Palestinians have nothing to worry about now that they’ve decided to become democratic: “The establishment of a Palestinian democracy will help to bring an end to the conflict in the Holy Land,” said Rice.

Well whaddaya know, it turns out that was all there is to it. Of course, Mahmoud Abbas has been doing his best over the past couple of days to be as democratic as possible, having fired dozens of Arafat’s advisors and promising to deploy Palestinian security forces to prevent attacks on Israel, for which he was thanked by an Israeli promise not to invade Gaza for the time being.

How pleasant for Madam Secretary. But those who had been expecting a more conciliatory Rice – at least for appearance’s sake at the beginning of her mandate – may have been taken aback by her menacing attitude towards Syria when she said that "it is fair to say that the Syrian government is behaving in a way that could unfortunately lead to long-term bad relations with the United States."

So what else is new? At least, it didn’t make it to the new “outposts of tyranny” group, which is the most original term White House speechwriters could come up with since “axis of evil.”

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Pentagon: Ares or Eros?
Tuesday, January 18, 2005, 13:03
Ever wonder why the strangest and most unlikely conspiracy theories come out about America, especially in the Arab world? It’s because the initial rumours often take root from a real story, and then continue to take a life of their own. I wonder how the following story will develop – but it’s bad enough, and ridiculous enough, as it is: in 1994, the Pentagon actually toyed with the idea of developing a potent chemical affecting human conduct – namely a strong aphrodisiac to cause homosexual behavior within enemy units.

Granted, it may have affected their discipline, but one can’t help but ask, tongue-in-cheek perhaps, how an aphrodisiac (regardless of its intended victim) was going to lower their morale. If the Pentagon were a Greek god, it would certainly be Ares, the god of war. Could it now be turning into Eros, the god of love? It’s difficult to decide which scenario is the scariest.

Another brilliant idea, which was surprisingly rejected, involved using chemicals that could be sprayed on enemy positions to attract stinging and biting bugs, rodents and larger animals.

Last but not least, the Air Force Research Laboratory (courtesy of American tax dollars, folks) thought of creating “severe and lasting halitosis” (bad breath, in plain English) to help sniff out fighters trying to blend in with civilians. Who was going to be the unfortunate American soldier charged with enemy identification? And how would have non-combatants with bad breath of their own been able to protest their innocence?

Maybe we shouldn’t make too much fun of such American plans. After all, according to Captain Dan McSweeney of the Marine Corps, the US military is merely committed to developing less-than-lethal weapons which are consistent with international treaties, offering soldiers “a greater range of options in dealing with increasingly complex operational environments.” Well how very law-abiding of the US.

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Déjà vu: Israel, PA and PLO agree to crush Palestinian resistance
Tuesday, January 18, 2005, 04:28
More “breaking news” since yesterday on issues which are not even news at all: Ariel Sharon has decreed that the Israeli army now has free rein to crack down on Palestinian militants. When did they ever have contrary orders? When did they even have restrictions? Still, to ensure that no soldier would hesitate or suffer a pang of conscience, Sharon has instructed his army to crush militants by taking action “without restrictions, I emphasize, without restrictions.”

Simultaneously, in the first real act of cooperation between the two men of peace, Mahmoud Abbas has also ordered that Palestinian security forces prevent attacks on Israel (also, presumably, by any means possible).

Even the PLO, which includes Fatah, and which is considered by most Palestinians - and by a majority of countries around the world - to be the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, has also demanded that “all military acts that harm our national interests” be halted.

If this is how Sharon and Abbas cooperate when they are technically not speaking, imagine what they can achieve when they begin plotting together. In fact, the US even seemed to take a secondary role in the affair, needlessly parroting the demands – a bit late – and calling on Abbas to take “aggressive steps” to stop attacks by militants - which he had already agreed to do.

Sadly, in the midst of this exemplary teamwork, nobody thought of requesting (let alone demanding) that Israel – at the very least – leave Palestinian civilians alone, and refrain from bombing them, killing them, wounding them, jailing them, or rendering them homeless.

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In American justice, victims’ origin seems to matter
Monday, January 17, 2005, 02:10
The first trial of the infamous Abu Ghraib torturers is over, and the remorseless, smiling Charles Graner has been sentenced to 10 years in prison. While this is only the first case related to Abu Ghraib, and other officers should follow (ideally including Donald Rumsfeld, who should pay the biggest price of all), there are already reports of many Iraqis said to be angry about the perceived leniency of the sentence.

This may be because they haven’t heard yet that a much shorter sentence was handed by a US court for an even bigger crime. It seems incredible, but the American soldier who cold-bloodedly killed a severely wounded Iraqi teenager – claiming it was a “mercy killing” – was himself sentenced to one year in jail.

It gets even worse. Sgt Tracy Perkins, the American soldier who forced two Iraqi men to their death, off a ledge onto the Tigris river, in Samarra, has had his conviction reduced from “involuntary manslaughter” to “assault” and his sentence was a mere 6 months in a military prison.

In contrast, a man who sexually assaulted two women in the United States (and who was responsible for five rapes in England) has just been jailed for 150 years.

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Crimes against humanity’s collective memory
Saturday, January 15, 2005, 14:28
One of the seven wonders of the ancient world has been irreparably spoiled by the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. A report from the British Museum, to be published on Monday, details the shocking damage done to Babylon, city of King Hammurabi’s first code of law (1792 to 1750 BC) and King Nebuchadnezzar’s hanging gardens (604 to 562 BC).

I watched on a television report yesterday the sorry evidence of how military tanks completely crushed the original brick surface of Babylon’s great processional route, how gasoline leaking from trucks, cars and tanks damaged several layers of soil, how several acres of the archaeological site were levelled and covered with imported gravel, and how the original archaeological material was taken to fill sandbags.

The American and the British governments are really shameless, petty criminals (The Guardian calls their actions "cultural vandalism"). Their troops watched, impassive (and perhaps even encouragingly), as Iraq’s invaluable museums were looted in front of their very eyes days after the invasion (while tanks and soldiers guarded the Oil Ministry and oil fields), but did not bother to preserve the legacy that does not even belong to them – it belongs to the whole of humanity.

It seems to me that the Anglo-American understanding of “history” is often limited to the last couple hundred years, possibly a bit longer for the British who remember as far back as the early days of their brutal colonialism.

When we moved to our current London residence and installed a satellite dish on the roof, the local authority ordered us to remove it and install it in another place, where it couldn’t be seen from the main street. And that’s how we learned, to our great surprise, that we lived in a “conservation area.” Rows after rows of nearly identical Victorian, Georgian and Edwardian dwellings are apparently much more important that Babylonian marvels of architecture and art. Can’t we simply preserve both?

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Crime and punishment in Palestine
Friday, January 14, 2005, 22:56
Don’t ever use Bush as a matchmaker; the honeymoon between his latest lovebirds is already over. After Palestinian militants attacked an Israeli checkpoint last night, killing 6 Israelis, Sharon “stopped talking” to Abbas and cut off all communication with the Palestinian Authority.

Too bad Abbas didn’t call off the honeymoon himself earlier in the week, when Israeli soldiers shot dead a 23-year old Palestinian driving his pregnant wife to the hospital.

Or when Israel murdered 7 children as they picked strawberries, a few days before the Palestinian election. That was when Israel was supposedly helping! The Israeli army even had the nerve to claim that some of the victims (aged 11 to 17) were Hamas activists.

The tragedy of these small children’s brutal killing was completely sidelined by most media (shame on them!), but Haaretz’s Gideon Levy, as usual, has enough moral outrage to put his colleagues to shame. This is how he describes the killings:

“The lives of 12 children and teenagers, out playing early last Tuesday morning in the family strawberry plot, were cut short all of a sudden. Seven of them were killed, four will remain without limbs, severely disabled for the rest of their lives. That's what one Israel Defense Forces shell can do. Not one child emerged whole from this lethal incident.”

The rest of the media was too busy being outraged by Abbas when he dared refer to Israel as the “Zionist enemy” after that incident (and for which he dutifully apologized), giving his statement thousands of column inches that should have been used to decry the murder of children. How ironic that Israelis now consider the perfectly accurate description of “Zionist” as an insult. Or did they object to being called an enemy?

While not speaking to Sharon should be considered a reward, Israel is certainly punishing all Palestinians, as usual, whenever militants strike. Having kindly postponed the usual immediate and completely over-proportionate military “retaliatory” strikes, Israel has simply decided to seal off Gaza, and cut off all food supplies. As far as the Israelis are concerned, clearly, let them starve.

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A day in the life of Palestinians under Israeli occupation
Friday, January 14, 2005, 01:02
First, Israelis regularly bomb and kill Palestinians under occupation:

Israelis systematically destroy Palestinian homes:

Then they throw stun grenades on those who dare to protest:

And they arrest even their youth:

International leaders (such as Javier Solana) come and observe the damage, but don’t do anything about it:

However, many still dare to call the wall and the creeping annexation of Palestinian territory a “separation fence”:

Meanwhile, Bush calls Abbas to congratulate him on his victory and his pragmatism:

And encourages the two smiling men of peace to meet again to "negotiate" a final settlement (while remembering "facts on the ground"):

The prime minister of Britain, the country originally responsible for this whole mess, is humiliated once more by both Bush and Sharon (who ridiculed his “peace conference”) and continues to keep his mouth shut.

And so go the days in the life of Palestinians under Israeli occupation ... day in, day out, decade in, decade out.

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Voting rights for most current Iraqis … and for some former Iraqis
Thursday, January 13, 2005, 23:17
One would have thought that the so-called Iraqi elections couldn’t get any more weird, and any more wrong. But with the US, you never know when new bright ideas might pop up; now, Haaretz was the first to report that Iraq’s Out-of-Country Voting Program (based conveniently in Amman) has just announced that Israelis of Iraqi descent can vote in the Iraqi elections.

So if you’re even remotely connected to Iraq, no matter where you live abroad, you are very welcome to exercise your “democratic privilege.” For instance, as he was born in Iraq, former Israeli Defense Minister and current Infrastructure Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, can vote for Iraq’s assembly and thus influence the permanent constitution.

If only the Israelis had been that democratically-minded with the millions of Palestinians (or those of Palestinian descent) who were not allowed to vote in Sunday’s election, but I digress.

The point is, you can now vote if you are from Tel Aviv, but not if you are from Fallujah, or any one of the wretched cities ravaged by the American occupation. For most Iraqis in the so-called Sunni Triangle, there will be no such thing. Unless they move to Israel of course, and then go vote in Jordan.

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Damascus and Moscow's missile "myth"
Thursday, January 13, 2005, 21:11
Should a country whose sovereignty has been violated repeatedly by the neighbor which has occupied its land for 38 years be allowed to defend itself? God forbid, if the neighbor in question is Israel, which believes international law does not apply to it!

Israel has struck within Syria at least three times in the 15 months, but as far as the US is concerned, Syria is evidently doomed to remain incapable of defending itself, and to let its Foreign Ministry repeat the same embarrassing and feeble promise that “we reserve the right to retaliate at a later stage.” Much later, perhaps.

Upon hearing that Russia was even thinking of selling surface-to-air missiles to Syria, Israel launched a campaign to stop the weapons sale.

Israel also had the nerve to say that such a sale would “disrupt regional stability” - seriously! Sure enough, right on cue, the Bush administration (wag the dog?) rushed to make its judgment on the case: the US reminded the world (and Russia) that Syria “sponsors terrorism.” Well look who’s talking.

Russia and Syria denied the pending sale, calling news reports a “myth.” There may still be time, before the upcoming Syrian president’s visit to Moscow on January 24, to cook the story , but there is little doubt about which country will get its way in the end, and which are the only countries allowed to "defend" themselves.

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How Fatah tried - and failed - to get high voter turnout
Wednesday, January 12, 2005, 21:20
I mentioned on Monday how Palestinian voter turnout figures were being kept quiet, but that around 45% was the accepted number. When the 7 PM closing time was delayed for a couple of hours on Sunday, we all knew what this meant: it meant the 30% turnout recorded around midday by most Arab media had not really risen significantly, and the time had come for Fatah, the PLO and the PA (all of which are evolving increasingly into an amorphous entity) needed to start bringing more people.

Amira Hass writes about this in Haaretz today, recounting the organized transports we all imagined would happen, and the circumventions of electoral laws that Fatah did not hesitate to make.

“Shortly before the time balloting was originally to be concluded and two hours before the newly scheduled time, masses of people began to arrive. Most were transported in pickup trucks and taxis, and none bothered to hide the fact that the hurried drivers were Fatah activists.

It was difficult to hide the fact that the election commission was operating under pressure from Fatah and that the ruling party had reasons to feel pressured. Its main rival, Hamas, which had called for an election boycott, would be able to make political hay out of a low turnout, claiming that those who did not vote were obeying its orders, that it has a large following in the public and that Fatah's policies under Abu Mazen do not represent the majority. But the way that was chosen - to circumvent and violate the rules as laid down by the Palestinian Legislative Council in the law - harmed Fatah, stained the election commission and strengthened Hamas' old claims that its political opponent would never allow fair elections that accurately reflect the public's loyalties.

Absurdly, the ruckus of the last two hours did not dramatically increase the number of voters.”

Hass’s acute observation on Palestinians’ political perceptions is the key point of her article:

“Palestinian society is supremely political. So the abstention was also very political. It proves that the Palestinian public is not suffering from the illusion about who really rules over its life. It is not Abu Mazen, or Fatah, but the Israeli government and its emissary, the army. At no point on election day was it possible to forget that.”

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Allawi is now openly bribing journalists
Wednesday, January 12, 2005, 21:04
How can one possibly make fun of a story that is so ridiculous to begin with? For those who haven’t heard yet, maybe just reporting the fact is enough. Yesterday, according to the Financial Times and other media that picked up on the story, Allawi’s campaign alliance distributed money to journalists - $100 a piece – to ensure coverage of its press conferences.

The media may not be free in Iraq, but at least the current Iraqi regime is taking care of journalists’ livelihood. Al Jazeera couldn’t benefit from this of course, having been banned from Iraq since August for not supporting the American occupation enough. (I thought it had brought itself back into favor, however, when Al Jazeera’s presenters started referring to the American occupation force as “multinational forces.” Not enough, apparently.)

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Veni, but not vidi any WMDs (and definitely not vici)
Wednesday, January 12, 2005, 12:33
When big projects are completed, celebrations are usually in order. Not this project through; it died quietly, its instigator waiting for the opportunity to declare it finished while no-one was looking. That’s because it was a failed project, and the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is officially over.

Could someone please tell Tony Blair? Nearly two years after Bush and his shoulder-to-shoulder buddy invaded Iraq, no biological, chemical or nuclear weapons were found. That was very disappointing to Bush, but the White House had until now been reluctant to call off the hunt, holding out the possibility that weapons were moved out of Iraq before the war or are well hidden somewhere inside the country. Too bad the “intelligence” finds that possibility very small, but hey, there’s always a chance that Saddam (who we all know enjoyed excellent relations with all his neighbors) could have moved his WMDs of mythical proportions to any country on Iraq’s border, without anyone or even a satellite noticing. Keep tuned, the Anglo-American project may yet spread wings and fly across the borders.

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The Rapture Index
Wednesday, January 12, 2005, 01:52
A dear (American) friend of mine insisted I read (sending it twice, lest I forget) the fascinating and truly astonishing speech Bill Moyers gave in December on receiving the Harvard Medical School’s Global Environment Citizen Award.

Bill Moyers is a veteran and highly respected journalist who retired in December, aged 70, saying: "I'm going out telling the story that I think is the biggest story of our time: how the right-wing media has become a partisan propaganda arm of the Republican National Committee. We have an ideological press that's interested in the election of Republicans, and a mainstream press that's interested in the bottom line. Therefore, we don't have a vigilant, independent press whose interest is the American people."

(More of Moyers' excellent observations on the state of journalism can be read in the speech he gave in September 2004 to the Society of Professional Journalists conference, where he also mentions the rapture index.)

You must read his December speech in full to understand how belief in the rapture index influences the thought process of millions of Americans, and how it molds their views on Israel, the confrontation with Islam and even the catastrophes unleashed by Mother Nature – all of which makes perfect sense to them and which fulfill a biblical prophecy.

In the meantime, here is a very informative extract.

“In this past election several million good and decent citizens went to the polls believing in the rapture index. That's right - the rapture index. Google it and you will find that the best-selling books in America today are the twelve volumes of the left-behind series written by the Christian fundamentalist and religious right warrior, Timothy LaHaye. These true believers subscribe to a fantastical theology concocted in the 19th century by a couple of immigrant preachers who took disparate passages from the Bible and wove them into a narrative that has captivated the imagination of millions of Americans.

Its outline is rather simple, if bizarre (the British writer George Monbiot recently did a brilliant dissection of it and I am indebted to him for adding to my own understanding): once Israel has occupied the rest of its 'biblical lands,' legions of the anti-Christ will attack it, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. As the Jews who have not been converted are burned, the messiah will return for the rapture. True believers will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to heaven, where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts, and frogs during the several years of tribulation that follow.

I'm not making this up. Like Monbiot, I've read the literature. I've reported on these people, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious, and polite as they tell you they feel called to help bring the rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That's why they have declared solidarity with Israel and the Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and volunteers. It's why the invasion of Iraq for them was a warm-up act, predicted in the Book of Revelation where four angels 'which are bound in the great river Euphrates will be released to slay the third part of man.' A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed - an essential conflagration on the road to redemption. The last time I Googled it, the rapture index stood at 144-just one point below the critical threshold when the whole thing will blow, the son of God will return, the righteous will enter heaven, and sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire.”

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Abu Ghraib prisoners were treated like “cheerleaders”
Wednesday, January 12, 2005, 01:13
The Daily Telegraph reports that Charles Graner, who with his pregnant partner Lynndie England formed the infamous, smiling American couple who held Iraqi prisoners on leashes and heaped them, naked, in a human pyramid while they held their thumbs up for the photographer, is on trial in Texas this week. Judging by the defense his lawyer, Guy Womack, offered on the opening day of the court martial, it’s a fair bet that remorse and regret are not on the agenda.

The human pyramid of naked Iraqi prisoners was no more harmful than the choreography displays by American high-school cheerleaders, according to Womack, who asked: “Don’t cheerleaders all over America form pyramids six to eight times a year? Is that torture?”

Perish the thought. As for the tethers used to bind the prisoners, Womack explained that they were a legitimate method of control. After all, he said, “a tether is a valid control to be used in corrections. You’ve probably been at a mall or airport and seen children on tethers – they’re not being abused.”

Well now that you put it that way, of course, it’s a wonder Iraqis were incensed by the photographs taken in Abu Ghraib. How over-sensitive of them.

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Where are the fundraisers for the Iraqi dead?
Tuesday, January 11, 2005, 23:57
That’s what Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) would like to know, and he does have a point. His op-ed in The Guardian today certainly does not make light of the human tragedy caused by the tsunami, but he wonders about the inconsistency in public generosity, asking why “nobody is making this sort of fuss about all the people killed in Iraq, and yet it’s a human catastrophe of comparable dimensions.”

Of course, the Lancet journal’s findings (reported, as well as The Economist’s endorsement of the method used, in this blog in October) that 100,000 Iraqis had been killed were ridiculed by the White House and Downing Street, who accused them of using an extrapolation method rather than a detailed body count. Jones reminds us that a detailed body count “is the one thing the US military will not allow anyone to do.”

Even if the number of deaths is discounted, surely neither Bush nor Blair can deny the appalling conditions in Iraq today, where hundreds of thousands of people (not to say millions) are without proper food, clean water, electricity … or even gasoline!

Jones blames most of the media - rightly - for having fallen into line, and asks frustratingly:

“Why aren't our TV companies and newspapers running fundraisers to help Iraqis whose lives have been wrecked by the invasion? Why aren't they screaming with outrage at the man-made tsunami that we have created in the Middle East?”

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Fallujah, City of Ghosts
Tuesday, January 11, 2005, 23:16
Iraqi doctor Ali Fadhil had been in Fallujah just before the US launched an assault on the city in November 2004. He came back to find that Fallujah had become a city of ghosts, writing chillingly in The Guardian today about what he saw, to accompany the disturbing documentary he filmed and which was shown tonight on Britain’s Channel 4. (You can watch an extract of the film on the link on the article's page.)

I have just watched the shocking footage, most of which is described quite faithfully in the article. While the writing cannot begin to project the horror of what has happened, Fadhil summarizes the alarming consequences very well:

“It is clear that by completely destroying this Sunni city, with the help of a mostly Shia National Guard, the US military has fanned the seeds of a civil war that is definitely coming. If there are elections now and the Shia win, that war is certain. The people I spoke to had no plans to vote. No one I met in those five days had a ballot paper.”

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Change, hope and peace in Palestine?
Tuesday, January 11, 2005, 00:57
The new buzzwords in the media are change, hope and peace, all of which the Palestinians apparently voted for yesterday. Did they really?

In fact, those who voted (a minority if we consider that only about 45% bothered to cast their ballots, although figures about voter turnout have been mostly kept from the media) voted for more of the same, and voted for the institutions of Fatah, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. Basically, this means more of the same.

In the best case scenario, Abbas will stick by international law (at the very least) and not relinquish any Palestinian rights – which means the self-congratulatory comments in the US, Europe, Israel and their allies are hasty, as they will quickly turn on him. In the worst case scenario, Abbas will be tempted to slip into a Geneva Accord-style agreement, giving concessions on issues such as the right of return or settlements in the West Bank – something the majority of Palestinians have not given him a mandate to do.

Call it what you like, but this election was neither historic nor did it bring anything new. Rather, it was a mere, poorer copy of 1996, with a candidate who has none of Arafat’s genuine popularity (at the time) or perceived credentials as a fighter for his nation. The only similarities to Arafat that Abbas can truly claim are not in his favor - namely corruption, cronyism, and blatant incompetence, which he shares with all the Fatah and PLO leaders today. Add to that Abbas’ eagerness to achieve what Arafat couldn’t – possibly at any cost, in spite of his recent “patriotic” statements.

The “pragmatist” and “moderate” so courted by the media is careful (like his predecessor) to adopt different tones depending on his audience, and unfortunately also adopted the ridiculous habit his boss had of repeating sentences – something he couldn’t wait to demonstrate in his hasty victory speech.

This doesn’t bother Bush at all, who quickly invited Abbas to the White House. High-profile visitors, including John Kerry, also rushed to congratulate their new friend and praise the “free and fair election.” Free and fair? Well, up to a certain extent, and nearly as free as the 1996 election had been, but only as far as free and fair elections can be held under a brutal military occupation.

We should be very wary about the buzz around the election of Abbas, and the multitude of (well-meaning?) pieces in the media about the new hopes for peace. This presupposes that the only impediment to peace had been Yasser Arafat, and completely ignores the actions and statements of Israel’s extremist government. Even worse, if this buzz takes the latter into account, it means that the only hope allowed for Palestinians is the hope for a remote semblance of normalcy, under an Israeli occupation of varying degrees, in tidbits of land too small to even form a mini-state.

As for the millions of refugees spread around the globe, hope springs eternal.

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A tragedy that concerns us all
Monday, December 27, 2004, 00:53
Wringing our hands and sighing as we watch the images of devastation from Indonesia to the Maldives brings no comfort to anyone, least of all those who need it most. Action, not speeches and promises, is urgently needed, and nobody has phrased it better than The Daily Star of Lebanon.

In its editorial on Monday, the paper declares that we cannot be detached spectators, and that it is our moral and historical obligation to assist South and Southeast Asia. While this would be the normal thing to do anyway, to help fellow human beings, The Daily Star reminds us that the Middle East (particularly the Gulf, might I add) owes much of its development to the hard work and dedication of the millions of Indians, Sri Lankans, Indonesians, Malaysians, Bangladeshis, Thais and others from that region.

With the current high oil prices and revenues, oil-producing countries could easily disburse billions in aid without making a dent in their budgets. Let's hope that they, and the richest industrialized countries, are quick to act.

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Money talks, and freedom walks (away)
Saturday, December 25, 2004, 12:04
The irony of this incident is so great that making analogies seems futile, and so pathetic that merely calling it shameful sounds lame. In fact, it is such an obviously flawed decision that the culprits didn't even bother denying it or pretending it was a misunderstanding.

After having quoted (ad nauseam) from the UNDP's Arab Human Development reports to pretend it was concerned with the lack of democracy in the region, and after an absurdly vain effort in Morocco two weeks ago to feign interest in the liberalization process, the US has successfully blackmailed the United Nations, once again, into ignoring the sorry state of Arab governance.

For daring to criticize the US and Israel, the authors of this third and last report have been forced to relinquish their association with UNDP and to publish (three months late) the report through their own means. (If they knew what freedom of speech really meant, they would have immediately posted it - and the pressure they were subject to - on the Internet.) Had the UNDP dared to displease the mighty Bush, the US would have withdrawn $100 million from the humanitarian organization.

The report, titled "Towards Consolidating Freedom in the Arab World," should have been welcomed with open arms by a government that has gone so far (read waged a war) to spread "freedom and democracy" in the region, and that has used the UNDP's findings to launch the very short-lived Greater Middle East Initiative.

One can understand why Egypt and other Arab countries would feel queasy about subjects such as the inheritance of power. Obviously, there was never going to be a real report on freedom in the Arab world that would have satisfied a single ruler. Ever obligingly, Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League (and a former Egyptian Foreign Minister) had the nerve to declare that the report "includes serious elements and others that need correcting."

Some things certainly do need correcting, beginning with an Arab League that should work for its people, and not its rulers, and a superpower that should practice what it preaches, and stand by its own supposed values. The UNDP's report, I'm sure, will have already been as meek as those already "critical" of Arab regimes have been, but even that was too much if it included criticism of Israel.

In the end, one major conclusion can be reached: if the US allows Arab rulers to continue with their blatant abuses, it is mainly (and inexplicably) for the sake of Israel and oil.

That's a far cry from God and country, and all the values for which Bush was supposedly elected.

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Christmas in the land of conviviality
Saturday, December 25, 2004, 11:31
Sometimes, it seems that the more happens in the Middle East, the less there is a point in drawing attention to it. There has been more violence, more ridiculous statements, more futile demonstrations of power (or weakness), and more helplessness, but not much is new.

The hiatus on the blog, however, was more due to travel (and a vicious virus), and it is from one of the oldest cities in the world that I have been following the events of the last ten days. Like their compatriots and neighbors, Damascenes are worried about events in the region, but seem momentarily more concerned with how they will spend the holidays and where they will welcome the New Year.

Sights, sounds and smells of conviviality abound, and it is simply a delight to observe the fusion of people of all religions and backgrounds hustling and bustling in the streets, the only indication of their faith being the occasional veils or crucifixes (or what French law would call ostentatious signs) that catch one's eye during a stroll through the old streets of Damascus, passing churches and mosques while humming along to "Jingle Bells", "White Christmas" or "Petit Papa Noel" blaring from cheerfully decorated shops and cafes.

After an extended taste of this relaxed atmosphere, turning on the news is a cruel reminder of the realities of life around us; for most people in the region, 'tis perhaps not really the season to be jolly.

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Iraqi trials are the first act of the election show
Wednesday, December 15, 2004, 16:57
When even dodgy Iraqis are complaining that Iyad Allawi might be rushing the trials of the former members of Saddam Hussein’s regime, how much confidence can anyone have in their validity? Salem Chalabi, Ahmad’s nephew (and Ahmad’s “partner in crime”), was once the director of that special tribunal, before being ousted spectacularly by Allawi’s buddies in an open grab for influence. No big loss, and there are no saints here, but the man does have a (self-serving) point.

How convenient to get the trials going just as the “election” campaign is starting, and (coincidentally) one year after the capture of Saddam, when things are much, much worse in Iraq. It is a perfect way, or so Allawi’s circle believes, to get Iraqis all riled up again and to try to get their attention away from the violence and the miserable futility of this election. But no matter how riveting these trials may become, it is difficult to forget about the real situation surrounding most people in Iraq. In addition to all the misery, believe it or not, Iraqis are now queuing for gasoline!

Of course, Allawi will not be including himself with the defendants; his days as an instrument of Saddam’s brutality for many years, when he used his base in London to snoop and intimidate fellow countrymen, have been all forgotten by the American patrons.

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Israel responds to Syrian peace overtures with car bomb
Tuesday, December 14, 2004, 00:58
One doesn’t need to wait for confirmation (from Israel or others) that today’s car bomb in Syria’s capital was an Israeli action; Israel has a long history of assassinating (or attempting to assassinate) Palestinians all over the world, and did so again in September, in the Yarmouk refugee camp outside Damascus.

Israel is constantly condemning Palestinian militants for either targeting civilians directly, or for carrying actions within civilian areas – making it sound as if the roughly 3,500 Palestinians who died in the last four years alone were all armed militants, even though most independent observers confirm that the overwhelming majority were civilians.

Still, how does Israel explain the car bomb that went off this afternoon in the midst of Damascus, in the Sheikh Saad neighborhood of Mezzeh which is bursting with people, shops and offices? In such a busy area, it is astounding that nobody got killed or hurt badly. The Palestinian militant who was apparently targeted escaped, with his wife and children who could have also been killed.

How can anyone believe Israel’s claims that it is serious about peace? With every Syrian peace overture, offering even more concessions than most people think possible (or want), Israel has reacted with disdain, questioning Syria’s sincerity in requesting that peace negotiations started in 1991 resume.

This latest assassination attempt demonstrates once more that Israel is not interested in a real peace – neither with the Palestinians, nor with Syria. Maybe it’s time to stop conceding and start demanding the application of international law; UNSC Resolution 242 is crystal-clear and would be the logical first step.

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