June 29, 2010

Responding to Avigdor Lieberman

Avigdor Lieberman writes: “While many claim that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is territorial, the facts suggest otherwise. Israel had no citizens, settlers or military in the West Bank until 1967, but did not enjoy one moment’s peace from our neighbors and the terrorists that they supported” (“My blueprint for a resolution,” Jerusalem Post, 23 June 2010).

Don Emmerich responds: Geez, do you think this had anything to do with the fact that 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes in 1948 and never allowed to return?

Lieberman: “There will be no so-called Palestinian right of return.

“Just as the Jewish refugees from Arab lands found a solution in Israel, so too Palestinian refugees will only be incorporated into a Palestinian state.”

Emmerich: So two wrongs make a right? Because Jews were expelled from places like Egypt and Libya, it follows that Israel has the right to prevent the 1948 refugees from returning to their homes? Given this logic, it would follow that if, say, a Catholic punched me in the face, then I would have the right to go out and punch another, different Catholic in the face. Don’t you understand that people are individuals, that one person cannot be held responsible for the crimes of another person?

Lieberman: “This [Palestinian] state needs to be demilitarized and Israel will need to retain a presence on its borders to ensure no smuggling of arms. In my opinion, these need to be our red lines.”

Emmerich: So this Palestinian “state” you’re proposing isn’t actually a state at all. In other words, you’re proposing that things remain essentially as the are, the main difference being that Palestinians are to start referring to the occupation as “statehood.” Okay, thanks for clarifying that.

Lieberman: “Those who claim that Israel must return to the socalled [sic] Green Line need to examine UN Security Council Resolution 242, the legal framework created following the 1967 war when the territories were conquered.”

Emmerich: Okay, I’ll do just that: “The Security Council…Emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East in which every State in the area can live in security…Affirms that the fulfillment of Charter principles requires the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East which should include the application of both the following principles: (i) Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict; (ii) Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force” (UN Security Council Resolution 242, 22 November 1967).

Lieberman: “The resolution purposely never called for a full withdrawal from the West Bank.”

Emmerich: But, “[e]mphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war,” the Security Council demanded the “[w]ithdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” This, of course, refers to the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank.

Lieberman: “Lord Caradon, the main drafter of the resolution, called the pre-1967 lines ‘artificial and undesirable’, another drafter, Eugene V. Rostow, US undersecretary of state for political affairs in 1967, said Israel needs to retreat only to ‘secure and recognized borders, which need not be the same as the armistice demarcation lines.’”

Emmerich: Although Caradon felt the pre-1967 borders were “unsatisfactory,” he later noted that the “overriding principle [of 242] was the ‘inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war’ and that meant that there could be no justification for annexation of territory on the Arab side of the 1967 line merely because it had been conquered in the 1967 war.” Dean Rusk, who served as the US Secretary of State at the time, later wrote that the US believed that “the Israeli border along the West Bank could be ‘rationalized,’ certain anomalies could easily be straightened out with some exchanges of territory, making a more sensible border for all parties.” He continued: “But we never contemplated any significant grant of territory to Israel as a result of the June 1967 war” (Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, 147-48).

Lieberman: “[F]or a lasting and fair solution, there needs to be an exchange of populated territories to create two largely homogeneous states, one Jewish Israeli and the other Arab Palestinian…

“In most cases there is no physical population transfer or the demolition of houses, but creating a border where none existed, according to demographics.

“Those Arabs who were in Israel will now receive Palestinian citizenship.”

Emmerich: Did you really just advocate ethnic cleansing?

Lieberman: “In most cases there is no physical population transfer or the demolition of houses…”

Emmerich: Oh, so ethnic cleansing will only occur in some cases. Well that’s sure thoughtful of you.

June 27, 2010

“Material Support” and Freedom of Speech

(Updated below)
As Hans-Hermann Hoppe has pointed out, state courts cannot be counted upon to uphold justice for the simple reason that they’re state courts. In other words, as agents of the state, they tend to rule in favor of the state and against the individual. In the same way, a court run by the Smiths would tend to rule in favor of the Smiths and against the Joneses, the Johnsons, etc. (“The Myth of National Defense,” Mises.org, 24 October 2003).

This past Monday, the US Supreme Court provided yet more evidence for Hoppe’s thesis, as it ruled that the First Amendment doesn’t actually mean what everyone with a basic understanding of the English language knows it means. In a 6-3 decision, the Court upheld a federal statute which makes it a crime to provide “material support” to terrorist groups, even when such support is undertaken to “facilitate only the lawful, nonviolent purposes of those groups.” The statute defines material support so broadly as to include, not just tangible goods like weapons and money, but also such intangible assistance as “training,” “expert advice or assistance,” “service,” and “personnel” (Holder, Attorney General, et al. v. Humanitarian Law Project et al. , No. 08-1498, 21 June 2010).

One of the plaintiffs in the case, the Humanitarian Law Project, had been teaching members of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) “how to use humanitarian and international law to peacefully resolve disputes.” Other plaintiffs had been “offer[ing] their legal expertise in negotiating peace agreements between the LTTE [Tamil Tigers] and the Sri Lankan government.” According to the statute in question, individuals providing such material support can be imprisoned for as many as fifteen years, and now the Supreme Court has ruled that this statute is perfectly constitutional.

Writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts makes a somewhat erudite and completely ridiculous argument. He claims that the statute does not ban “pure political speech.” For “plaintiffs may say anything they wish on any topic. They may speak and write freely about the PKK and LTTE, the governments of Turkey and Sri Lanka, human rights, and international law.” What the statute bans, Roberts continues, is “material support,” which “most often does not take the form of speech at all. And when it does, the statute is carefully drawn to cover only a narrow category of speech.”

So, to repeat, according to Justice Roberts, Americans don’t have the right to engage in all types of speech. We do, it turns out, have the right to engage in “pure political speech.” Oh lucky us. But there are certain types of speech, there’s a “narrow category of speech,” that we don’t have the right to engage in.

A strange argument, one that, it should go without saying, blatantly contradicts the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” Notice that the Amendment doesn’t say that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of pure political speech” or that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of all but a narrow category of speech.” No, the Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.”

All of which means that American human rights workers should have the freedom to teach others “how to use humanitarian and international law to peacefully resolve disputes” and to provide them with “legal expertise in negotiating peace agreements.” Again: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.”

But, according to Roberts, we shouldn’t let inconvenient things like the First Amendment prevent us from determining whether something is constitutional. There are other issues to consider. For instance, he writes that providing material support “importantly helps lend legitimacy to foreign terrorist groups—legitimacy that makes it easier for those groups to persist, to recruit members, and to raise funds—all of which facilitate more terrorist attacks.” Of course, providing material support, teaching terrorists groups “how to use humanitarian and international law to peacefully resolve disputes,” can also help these groups to “use humanitarian and international law to peacefully resolve disputes,” which in turn can reduce the number of terrorist attacks.

Roberts further writes that terrorist groups could use such training “as part of a broader strategy to promote terrorism. The PKK could, for example, pursue peaceful negotiation as a means of buying time to recover from short-term setbacks, lulling opponents into complacency, and ultimately preparing for renewed attacks.” True. But then again, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, such training could also help these groups “use humanitarian and international law to peacefully resolve disputes”!!!

Roberts continues rambling on in this manner, offering up more, equally absurd, arguments, none of which, even if successful, would matter. Again, there’s that whole freedom of speech thing—which, of course, he insists Congress does not have the right to violate, even as he defends Congress’ right to violate it. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength. Prohibiting the Freedom of Speech is Upholding the Freedom of Speech. Got it?

Update, 7/5/10:A few worthwhile articles on the topic: Scott Atran and Robert Axelrod, Why We Talk to Terrorists;” Andy Carl, Ending wars peacefully just got harder;” Kay Guinane, The Supreme Court: Working for Peace Is a Prosecutable Offense.”

June 24, 2010

General McChrystal, the Afghan War, and the Story the Media Missed

It looks like our beloved corporate media has missed the big story. Again.

The big story involves General Stanley McChrystal, but it has nothing to do with his dislike of Richard Holbroke or the jokes he and his staff made about Joe Biden. While all that might be interesting (or not), the most important part of Michael Hastings’ much-talked-about Rolling Stone article has to do with McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy (“The Runaway General,” 22 June 2010).

As I’ve described in the past, COIN is essentially a hearts and minds operation, one that involves, not just killing insurgents, but also winning over the local population. In order to limit civilian casualties, and thus achieve this objective, McChrystal changed the military’s rules of engagement last year, putting numerous restrictions on American troops.

Despite these efforts, Hastings points out that NATO forces have continued killing large numbers of civilians. “In the first four months of this year,” he writes, “NATO forces killed some 90 civilians, up 76 percent from the same period in 2009.” Consequently, although the US has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in the country, the population’s “attitude toward U.S. troops ranges from intensely wary to openly hostile.”

It should be no surprise then that the US has achieved little success. Even McChrystal has admitted that the much-heralded offensive in Marja remains a “bleeding ulcer,” and the Pentagon recently announced that it had been forced to postpone its plans to overtake the Taliban-stronghold of Kandahar this summer. “If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war,” one of McChrystal’s senior advisers told Hastings, “it would become even less popular.”

It should also be no surprise that COIN has caused “an intense backlash” among American troops. As one Special Ops commando told Hastings: “Bottom line? I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.” Hastings proceeds to recount a question-and-answer session between McChrystal and some soldiers: “The session ends with no clapping, and no real resolution. McChrystal may have sold President Obama on counterinsurgency, but many of his own men aren’t buying it.”

After pointing out that “[t]he only foreign invader to have any success” in Afghanistan was Genghis Khan, and “he wasn’t hampered by things like human rights, economic development and press scrutiny,” Hastings writes that even if, “after years of bloody fighting with Afghan kids who pose no threat to the U.S. homeland,” the US succeeds, “the war will do little to shut down Al Qaeda, which has shifted its operations to Pakistan.” Hastings continues: “Dispatching 150,000 troops to build new schools, roads, mosques and water-treatment facilities around Kandahar is like trying to stop the drug war in Mexico by occupying Arkansas and building Baptist churches in Little Rock.”

But the media doesn’t want to talk about any of this. Wars. Civilians dying. US soldiers dying. All for nothing. Yawn. There’s no market for that. But when there’s gossip, when a high-ranking general makes an unsavory joke about the vice president, well now there’s a story.

June 22, 2010

Our Drones Only Kill Bad Guys, Right?

Writing in Foreign Policy, Georgetown University’s Christine Fair disputes the widely held belief that American drone strikes in Pakistan are killing large numbers of civilians. Fair writes:

The only publicly available civilian casualty figures for drone strikes in Pakistan come from their targets: the Pakistani Taliban, which report the alleged numbers to the Pakistani press, which dutifully publishes the fiction. No one has independently verified the Taliban’s reports—journalists cannot travel to FATA to confirm the deaths, and the CIA will not even acknowledge the drone program exists, much less discuss its results. But high-level Pakistani officials have conceded to me that very few civilians have been killed by drones and their innocence is often debatable. U.S. officials who are knowledgeable of the program report similar findings. In fact, since January 1 there has not been one confirmed civilian casualty from drone strikes in FATA. (“Drone Wars,” 28 May 2010)

Now Fair’s argument here fails for a number of reasons. Consider her statement that we can’t trust the Taliban’s claims because journalists haven’t been able to verify them. That seems reasonable enough, but then she claims that the number of casualties is actually quite low, her proof for this being the testimony of Pakistani and American officials. Do you see the problem here? We can’t trust the claims of Taliban because we can’t verify those claims. But we can trust the claims of Pakistani and American officials even though we can’t verify those claims either.

What it is that makes Pakistani and American government officials so trustworthy isn’t clear, and Fair never tells us. She just assumes that they’re trustworthy. Notice her language. “[H]igh-level Pakistani officials have conceded to me…” Conceded to you or perhaps told you what they want you to believe? “U.S. officials who are knowledgeable of the program report similar findings.” Report similar findings or report similar propaganda?

It’s sad that someone in Fair’s position has so much faith in governments that have every reason to downplay and no reason to exaggerate the number of American-caused civilian casualties. The US, of course, has a very obvious incentive for downplaying civilian deaths, as General McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan cannot succeed amid reports that US drone strikes are killing large numbers of innocent people. Pakistan has its own reasons for downplaying civilian casualties. Aware that the population deplores the drone attacks and that it deplores the government for allowing the attacks to occur, Pakistani officials probably reason that, since they’re unable to stop the attacks, the best way to quell public outrage is to disseminate the message that the bad guys are the ones being killed.

It’s also sad that someone like Fair so blindly trust governments which have in the past so consistently lied about civilian casualties. As I documented in April, the US has an especially bad track record here, the WikiLeaks Collateral Murder video being just one example. Another, lesser known, example occurred in August 2008 when US forces bombed a memorial service in Afghanistan’s Herat Province. American officials initially claimed that the strike had killed 30 insurgents and no civilians. After an investigation by the Afghan government concluded that 90 civilians had been killed, the US revised its findings, claiming that 5 of the 30 victims were civilians. Soon thereafter, an Afghan Human Rights Commission “found that 88 people had been killed, including 20 women,” and then a UN investigation “found convincing evidence, based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, and others, that some 90 civilians were killed, including 60 children, 15 women and 15 men.” After all this, the US stated that perhaps as many as 7 civilians, but certainly no more than that, had been killed. It was only after an Afghan doctor released an eight-minute cell phone video which was taken shortly after the bombings and revealed scores of dead bodies in the targeted area that the Pentagon agreed to reopen its investigation.

But despite all this, Fair has the audacity to accept the US claim that “drone airstrikes are pre-planned, intelligence-led operations, and are usually accomplished with minimal civilian deaths.” She goes on to tell us how such strikes are “the product of meticulous planning among lawyers, intelligence officers, and others” and how the Air Force even uses a “classified algorithm” to “estimate the potential for civilian casualties based upon a variety of local data inputs.”

As neat and impressive as all that might sound, the number of civilian casualties is undoubtedly far higher than she claims. Just last month, US officials were forced to admit that a February drone strike in Afghanistan had killed 23 civilians (Dexter Filkins, “Operators of Drones Are Faulted in Afghan Deaths,” New York Times, 29 May 2010). Shortly after that attack, Carlotta Gall reported how villagers around Kandahar “described at least three instances in recent weeks when drone strikes killed farmers digging ditches or bringing goods home from the market” (“Kandahar, a Battlefield Even Before U.S. Offensive,” New York Times, 26 March 2010). To maintain, as Fair does, that the US is somehow getting right in Pakistan what after eight years it still can’t get right in Afghanistan is stretching credulity to its limits.

June 17, 2010

Chuck Colson: Evil or Just Stupid?

An open letter to Chuck Colson

Mr. Colson:

Are you evil or just stupid?

I’m not trying to be disrespectful here. I really want an answer. Are you a charlatan, one who uses Christianity for your own nefarious purposes, or are you just woefully ignorant of reality?

In a recent Breakpoint Commentary, you said some horrible things about the people living in the Gaza Strip (“Israel and Gaza,” 10 June 2010). Now, of course, lots of people say horrible things about the people of Gaza. Today, forty years after Dr. King’s tragic death, Americans seem to be as racist as ever.

But as a Christian you ought to know better. As a Christian, you claim to follow a man who told us that we have an obligation to love one another, to help the least among us. And yet you have the audacity to defend Israel’s blockade of Gaza, repeating that old lie that that the blockade’s goal is “to stop weapons from getting to Hamas,” that Israel is simply defending its own citizens.

Well answer me a question then. If Israel’s goal is to prevent arms from reaching Hamas, then why did it spend two years preventing clothes and food from entering Gaza? Why for a time did it not allow pasta to enter? Why has it prevented toys and hearing-aids from entering? If Israel’s goal is preventing arms from reaching Hamas, then why won’t it allow building materials to enter Gaza? Why won’t it allow medical equipment to enter? Why won’t it allow the parts necessary for Palestinians to maintain the Strip’s water and sanitation facilities? (“The Gaza Flotilla Massacre, cont’d,” 2 June 2010)

Just this past week, the International Red Cross declared that “[t]he whole of Gaza’s civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility. The closure therefore constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law” (“Gaza closure: not another year!” ICRC, 14 June 2010). Even the Israeli government has admitted that, far from being about security, the blockade is an act of “economic warfare” against Hamas (Sheera Frenkel, “Israeli document: Gaza blockade isn't about security,” McClatchy, 9 June 2010).

And before you defend this “economic warfare,” keep in mind that the average person in Gaza is only seventeen years old. Forty-four percent of the population is under fourteen years of age (“Gaza Strip,” CIA World Factbook). So most of those suffering in Gaza are children who never even had the opportunity to vote for Hamas.

“Christians,” you say, “have an obligation to all persecuted people, but especially the Jews.” Now this is probably the most ridiculous, racist thing I’ve heard all week, and, trust me, I’ve heard a lot of ridiculous and racist things this week. Where exactly did Jesus, or Paul for that matter, say anything that would lead you to this conclusion?

As support for your racism, you cite Genesis 12.3: “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you, I will curse.” But as you must know, Yahweh spoke those words to Abraham. Not to Abraham’s descendants, not to the modern nation-state of Israel, not to Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet, but to Abraham.

Now I don’t go to church. I’m not even sure I’m still a believer. But I do know that if there’s a god, and if this god is good, then he wouldn’t just look the other way when a nation, even a self-described Jewish nation, ravaged hundreds of thousands of innocent women and children. No, I think this sort of thing would really piss God off. And I think it’d also piss God off to see pathetic little men, men who claim to speak for him, defending such atrocities.

But maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe you’re not this evil. Maybe you’re just stupid. Tell me you’re just stupid.

Don Emmerich Jr.

June 16, 2010

Libertarianism, Property Rights, and the Israel-Palestine Conflict

A self-described libertarian recently left the following comments on one of my posts:

The idea that the Arabs have a claim to Israel is absurd. Forget religion for a sec. and look historically, Did Alexander kick the Arabs out? Did the Romans burn a Mosque or Temple, did Nebachanezzer kill Arabs over their religion, obviously not.... so unless you propose to give the land back to the yebisute or the caananite or amorite, the land is the Jews, no matter who was there in 1948.

Considering this and considering the Arab claim the land does not belong to the Jews, why are the libertarians not screaming bloody hell that the arabs dont respect property rights?...

I mean lets be fair, Israel, while a sucker...did not have to give any land back...it belongs to them rightfully.

Now this individual, whom I’ll simply refer to as X, seems like a good guy, and I agree with much of what he writes on his blog, but, as his comments reveal, he doesn’t have a libertarian view of property rights. Consequently, his view of the Israel-Palestine conflict is decidedly anti-libertarian.

In order to see why this is so, we need to understand the libertarian view of property rights. As libertarian philosopher and economist Murray Rothbard points out, this view derives from the writings of John Locke, who wrote in his Second Treatise on Government:

[E]very man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to. (Quoted in Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, 21-22)

To put it into Rothbard’s words, “every man has an absolute right to the control and ownership of his own body, and to unused land resources that he finds and transforms” (60). For instance, if I find a rock and fashion it into a knife, then I become the owner of the knife; if I come across a vacant piece of land and build a home on that land or plant a garden there, then I become the rightful owner of the land; etc.

Notice that this concept of property rights rejects what Rothbard refers to as the Columbus complex. As Rothbard explains:

Some theorists have maintained—in what we might call the “Columbus complex”—that the first discoverer of a new, unowned island or continent can rightfully own the entire area by simply asserting his claim. (In that case, Columbus, if in fact he had actually landed on the American continent—and if there had been no Indians living there—could have rightfully asserted his private “ownership” of the entire continent.) In natural fact, however, since Columbus would only have been able actually to use, to “mix his labor with,” a small part of the continent, the rest then properly continues to be unowned until the next homesteaders arrive and carve out their rightful property in parts of the continent. (47)

So, to summarize, one becomes the owner of a natural resource by finding and transforming that resource. Once one becomes the owner of a resource, he of course has the right to sell it or give it away.

But what do we do when a piece of property has been obtained through illicit means? Say, for instance, that I’m sitting on a piece of stolen land. Am I morally obligated to forfeit the land? Not necessarily. As Rothbard writes:

For that depends on two considerations: (a) whether the victim (the property owner originally aggressed against) or his heirs are clearly identifiable and can now be found; or (b) whether or not the current possessor is himself the criminal who stole the property.

So even if I’m not the one who stole the land, I’m obligated to return it to the original owner, or the owner’s heirs, if possible. And if I’m the thief, then, even if the owner or his heirs can’t be found, I have no right to keep the property. But if neither of these conditions can be met—that is, if the original owner, or his heirs, can’t be found, and if I’m not the thief—then I’m entitled to retain the property (57-58).

With this understanding of the libertarian view of property rights, we’re now able to see why X’s argument—that “the land [i.e., Palestine] is the Jews, no matter who was there in 1948”—is anti-libertarian. First of all, even though it’s true that Jews were the main inhabitants of Palestine two thousand years ago, it doesn’t follow that they transformed and thus owned every plot of land, every rock, every grain of sand. Rather, Jews owned certain plots of land, certain rocks, certain grains of sand. Therefore, it’s patently absurd to say that Arabs have no right to live in Palestine simply because some Jews owned some segments of the land two thousand years ago.

Second, a Jew would only have the right to take a piece of land from a Palestinian if that Jew could demonstrate that the piece of land in question once belonged to his ancestors, something which obviously can’t be done. Merely saying, “My ancestors once lived somewhere in this eight-thousand square mile vicinity” isn’t grounds for evicting Palestinians from their homes.

Although not essential to my argument, I feel the need to point out that Jews today can’t even prove that they descended from the Jews who originally inhabited Palestine. While this claim might seem foolish to some, as Patricia Cohen of the New York Times notes in her review of Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, “experts pretty much agree that some popular beliefs about Jewish history simply don’t hold up: there was no sudden expulsion of all Jews from Jerusalem in A.D. 70, for instance. What’s more, modern Jews owe their ancestry as much to converts from the first millennium and early Middle Ages as to the Jews of antiquity” (“Book Calls Jewish People an ‘Invention’,” 23 November 2009). Moreover, as Sand describes in his book, many Jews converted to Islam when Muslims conquered Palestine in the seventh century—which of course means that many modern Palestinians probably descended from ancient Jews.

Now I don’t write any of this to suggest that Palestine belongs to the Palestinians, not the Jews. For if we’re going to accept the libertarian view of property rights—which I do—then we must conclude that Palestine doesn’t belong to any one ethnic or political group. Rather, portions of the land belong to Palestinians, and portions of the land belong to Jews. Among other things, this means that the 1948 refugees and their descendants have the right to return to their homes. This also means that most of the Jews currently living in the land have the right to remain exactly where they are, as only a small number of Jews are living on land expropriated from Palestinians (Laila El-Haddad, “Palestinian right of return is feasible,” Al Jazeera, 31 May 2005).

June 13, 2010

Yes, There Really Is a Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza

Writing in National Review, Clifford May suggests that there isn’t a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, his evidence for this being:

Palestinians already are the largest per capita recipients of foreign aid in the world. Israel itself delivers as much as 15,000 tons of aid to Gazans every week. More comes from the U.S. and Europe via the United Nations, which has a massive relief operation in Gaza…

A Washington Post reporter in Gaza last week noted that “grocery stores are stocked wall-to-wall with everything from fresh Israeli yogurts and hummus to Cocoa Puffs. Pharmacies look as well-supplied as a typical Rite Aid in the United States.” (“Beyond Bigotry,” National Review, 10 June 2010)

Of course, the availability of Cocoa Puffs notwithstanding, it’s undeniable that there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. According to the World Health Organization, 55% of Gazans are unemployed, 80% live in poverty, 61% of households suffer from food insecurity, 66% of infants have anemia, and 10% of children under the age of five are “chronically or acutely undersized” (Health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan, 14 May 2010; Socio-Economic and Food Security Survey Report in the Gaza Strip, World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization, November 2009).

Part of the problem, as the Post’s Janine Zacharia points out, is not that grocery stores in Gaza are barren but that Palestinians there have no means by which to rebuild their infrastructure (“In Gaza, a complex, dysfunctional way of life,” 3 June 2010). According to a recent UN report, “restrictions on the import of cement make impossible the reconstruction of some 12,000 Palestinian homes damaged or destroyed by Israeli military operations in recent years, as well as a further 20,000 homes needed to accommodate natural population growth in the Gaza Strip.” The report further notes that the UN Relief Works Agency “needs to build 100 schools in Gaza to cope with population growth” (Impending Assistance: Challenges to Meeting the Humanitarian Needs of Palestinians, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs occupied Palestinian territory, May 2010).

According to the World Health Organization, Palestinians have been unable to rebuild the 15 hospitals and 41 primary health care facilities that were destroyed during Operation Cast Lead. “The continuing Israeli blockade, ” WHO notes, “combined with the restrictions imposed on the imports of building materials and the rationing of medicines and medical appliances and equipment have led to a deterioration in the living conditions and the health situation of all segments of society in the Gaza Strip.” Restrictions on fuel, electricity, and spare parts needed to maintain water and sanitation facilities have led to a host of other problems.

(Although Israeli officials have claimed that they ban cement from entering Gaza to prevent Hamas from building bunkers, UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness claims that UNRWA has previously “shown that we can get supplies in and ensure the integrity of the aid pipeline. We have shown that we can do that without Hamas stealing it or them building bunkers or using anything or trying to smuggle in weapons” [“Seizing ‘Freedom’,” Cross Talk, Russia Today, 2 June 2010] [h/t Norman Finkelstein.)

Another part of the problem, as Zacharia notes, is that, although “Gaza has long been poor, the economy has completely crumbled over the past three years.” Again, 55% of the population is unemployed, 80% lives in poverty. So while the grocery stores might be jammed full of Cocoa Puffs, many have trouble providing their loved ones with the essentials.

May acknowledges that Gaza has a hurting economy, but he places the blame for this on Hamas:

The reporter [Zacharia] added…that Gaza has become “a mini-welfare state.” That indicates that what is needed is not relief but development—not shiploads of free food but paying jobs. And that, in turn, requires investment in factories, businesses, and agriculture. Gaza lacks such investment because it is ruled by Hamas, which, again, is at war with Israel. Hamas leaders reject any and all steps that might lead to peace.

Now I’m not about to defend Hamas, an oppressive organization that has murdered Israeli civilians, but neither am I going to allow May to absolve Israel from its responsibility here. Even if we accept May’s claim that “Hamas leaders reject any and all steps that might lead to peace,” the fact remains that Israel, not Hamas, has banned nearly all exports from Gaza. As the UN notes:

Even if manufacturers were able to overcome the import restrictions, many sectors’ were dependent on the ability to export their products; for example, previous goods regularly exported from Gaza included 76 percent of all Gaza-manufactured furniture products, 90 percent of garments and 20 percent of all food products. As a result [of the blockade], 95 percent of the industrial establishments, or 3,750 establishments, were forced to shut down and the remaining five percent were forced to reduce their level of activity [emphasis added].

The ban on exports has resulted in saturation of the local market with previously exported items (strawberries, cherry tomatoes green peppers and cut flowers) pushing their prices down and reducing the income of 5,000 farmers and 10,000 farm laborers. As a result of the saturation in the market of previously exported agricultural products some farmers have resorted to feeding their livestock with these products. (Locked In: The Humanitarian Impact of Two Years of Blockade on the Gaza Strip, OCHAoPt, August 2009)

Israel has devastated Gaza’s economy in other ways, as well. For instance, by increasing its “buffer zone,” Israel has cut off farmers and herders from 29% of the Strip’s arable land. Israel has also ravaged Gaza’s fishing industry: since Operation Cast Lead, “Israeli naval forces have restricted the access of Palestinian fishing boats to three nm offshore; in practice, access is often restricted to as little as two nm, which results in dramatically reduced catch (i.e. by 47%) and consequently the opportunity of making any profit” (Farming without Land, Fishing without Water: Gaza Agriculture Sector Struggles to Survive, OCHAoPt, May 2010).

Failing to acknowledge any of this, May tells us that Israel must inspect cargo going into Gaza “in order to reduce the number of missiles, explosives, and other weapons Hamas receives.” But of course very few people object to Israel’s efforts to prevent arms from entering Gaza. What people object to is Israel’s refusal to allow an adequate number of humanitarian goods and rebuilding materials from entering Gaza, as well as its refusal to allow Palestinian businessmen to export goods. It’s really not so complicated.

June 8, 2010

The Afghan War and the Meaning of Insanity

In his “Initial Assessment” last August, General Stanley McChrystal warned that “the overall situation [in Afghanistan] is deteriorating. We face not only a resilient and growing insurgency; there is also a crisis of confidence among Afghans—in both their government and the international community—that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents” (“COMISAF Initial Assessment,” Washington Post, 21 September 2009).

This dire diagnosis notwithstanding, McChrystal contended that the situation could be reversed and the war still won. In order to accomplish this, he argued that the US needed to win over the Afghan people. As he wrote:

The people of Afghanistan represent many things in this conflict—an audience, an actor, and a source of leverage—but above all, they are the objective. The population can also be a source of strength and intelligence and provide resistance to the insurgency. Alternatively, they can often change sides and provide tacit or real support to the insurgents.

Noting that a “foreign army alone cannot beat an insurgency,” McChrystal went on to argue that coalition forces needed to help the Afghan government “win the support of the people.”

Well here we are now, nine months later, and I think it’s safe to say that McChrystal’s “new approach” isn’t working. The main reason is that coalition forces continue killing large numbers of Afghan civilians, something that’s inevitable in this type of war. According to NATO’s own numbers, “[d]eaths of Afghan civilians by NATO troops have more than doubled this year” (Paul Wiseman, “NATO strikes killing more Afghan civilians,” USA Today, 16 April 2010) (h/t Antiwar.com). Needless to say, such killings serve to inflame large segments of the population, giving many an incentive to “change sides and provide tacit or real support to the insurgents.” As Richard A. Oppel reports:

Many of the detainees at the military prison at Bagram Air Base joined the insurgency after the shootings of people they knew, said the senior NATO enlisted man in Afghanistan, Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Hall.

“There are stories after stories about how these people are turned into insurgents,” Sergeant Major Hall told troops during the videoconference. “Every time there is an escalation of force we are finding that innocents are being killed.” (“Tighter Rules Fail to Stem Deaths of Innocent Afghans at Checkpoints,” New York Times, 26 March 2010)

Although the Taliban has been responsible for the majority of civilian deaths, a recent Pentagon report concluded that “insurgents can exploit and manipulate” civilian casualties “to their advantage, while U.S. and international forces are held accountable by the Afghan population for all incidents” (Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, April 2010). As US Army Col. Wayne Shanks noted earlier in the year: “When the Taliban blow up a bunch of people, you don’t see a lot of protest. But when we screw up and accidentally kill somebody, you get riots in the streets” (David Wood, “Taliban Cause Most Civilian Deaths, but U.S. Gets the Blame,” Politics Daily, 15 January 2010).

Given all this, it should come as no surprise that, according to the above Pentagon report, in March, only “29% of Afghans had a ‘very good’ or ‘good’ opinion of ISAF [NATO’s International Security Assistance Force] with an additional 34% reporting a ‘neutral’ rating.” And I wouldn’t be surprised if the real numbers here are actually lower. As Juan Cole said about a December 2009 poll, the tenor of which likely applies here:

This poll seems to me likely to represent the views of the 58 percent of the population who are not Pashtuns, and maybe half of the Pashtuns. You can’t really do scientific polling in a war zone, and these results would not hold for Helmad, Qandahar, and Nangarhar, I’m betting. Some 20 percent of Afghanistan is under the rule of insurgent groups, including the Taliban, and the poll was certainly not carried out in those districts. (6 Allied Troops Killed in Afghanistan; Poll Shows Afghans Upbeat,” Informed Comment, 12 January 2010)

The Afghan government has also done little to win over the people. According to Transparency International, which annually “measures the perceived level of public-sector corruption in 180 countries and territories around the world,” Afghanistan is currently the second most corrupt government on earth, behind only Somalia (“Corruption Perceptions Index 2009,” Transparency International). Of course, none of this should be shocking to those who follow the news, as headlines such as the following can be found on a weekly basis:

According to the above Pentagon report, “more than 83% [of Afghans] reported that corruption affects their daily life.” It’s no surprise then that “the population” doesn’t support the Afghan government in any of the country’s 121 “Key Terrain and Area of Interest districts.” Meanwhile, the population supports the Taliban in 8 key districts. While the population “sympathizes with” the Afghan government in 29 key districts (that is, in 24% of these districts), the population sympathizes with the Taliban in 40 districts (33%).

And yet the United States, with its sights now on Kandahar, marches forward. Reminds me of that oft-repeated definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

June 2, 2010

The Gaza Flotilla Massacre, cont’d: More Pirate Propaganda

While many throughout the world continue mourning those who were murdered by Israeli commandos/pirates Monday morning, Alan Dershowitz is busy doing what Alan Dershowitz does best, defending the murderers. Writing in The Huffington Post, Dershowtiz argues that “Israel acted within its rights,” the reason for this being that it is legal, or so he claims, to enforce a blockade in international waters “[i]f there is no doubt that the offending ships have made a firm determination to break the blockade” (“Israel’s Actions Were Entirely Lawful Though Probably Unwise,” 1 June 2010).

Now even if we accept Dershowitz’s general claim here about international law, it goes without saying that it is never legal to enforce an illegal blockade, neither in international waters nor anywhere else. Dershowitz, of course, contends that Israel’s blockade of Gaza is perfectly legal. Noting that Hamas continued engaging “in acts of warfare against Israel” after Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza, he writes:

These acts of warfare featured anti-personnel rockets, nearly 10,000 of them, directed at Israeli civilians. This was not only an act of warfare, it was a war crime. Israel responded to the rockets by declaring a blockade, the purpose of which was to assure that no rockets, or other material that could be used for making war against Israeli civilians, was permitted into Gaza. Israel allowed humanitarian aid through its checkpoints. Egypt as well participated in the blockade. There was never a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, merely a shortage of certain goods that would end if the rocket attacks ended.

Now I wouldn’t be surprised if Alan Dershowitz’s nose grew a few inches when he wrote those last few sentences, for there’s absolutely no truth in them. If Israel imposed the blockade to prevent rockets from entering Gaza, then it’s difficult to understand why it has prevented humanitarian items from entering Gaza, items which could not possibly pose a threat to Israeli citizens. For instance, in March 2009, The Independent reported that Israel was preventing Gazans from receiving pasta, chickpeas, hearing aids, paper, school notebooks, cooking gas, freezer appliances, generators, and water pumps (Anne Penketh, “The pasta, paper and hearing aids that could threaten Israeli security,” 2 March 2009). In July 2009, the UN reported that Israel had banned “books, paper for textbooks, crayons, light bulbs, candles, matches, musical instruments, clothing, shoes, mattresses, bed sheets, blankets, tea, coffee, chocolate and nuts” (OPT: Commissioner-General’s speech at the Centre for International Relations, Warsaw, UN Relief and Works Agency, 2 July 2009).

To claim that “[t]here was never a humanitarian crisis in Gaza” is beyond absurd. As a recent report by the World Health Organization stated:

Mrs Karen Abu Zaid, former UNRWA Commissioner General, declared that the system of closures that the Gaza Strip has been subjected to is unprecedented anywhere in the world in terms of its scope and the humanitarian consequences for those living there. Confining one and a half million people within the borders of the Gaza Strip—thus fundamentally restricting their quality of life by reducing food, medicines, fuel supplies and other life-saving essentials—and provoking extreme anger, fear and poverty among Palestinians by means of air raids, incursions, targeted assassinations and other military operations, amount to a sustained war to annihilate the civilian population. Consequently all aspects of life have been compromised, as the majority of Palestinians are forbidden either to leave or to enter the Gaza Strip. (Health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan, 14 May 2010)

As a result of the blockade, 55% of Gazans are unemployed, 80% live in poverty, 61% of households suffer from food insecurity, 66% of infants have anemia, and 10% of children under the age of five are “chronically or acutely undersized.” (Food insecurity statistic from Socio-Economic and Food Security Survey Report in the Gaza Strip, World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization, November 2009; other statistics from WHO.) Furthermore:

  • Because Gazans lack the parts needed to maintain their water and sanitation plants, many plants have been forced to shut down, which has caused “large quantities of untreated sewage water to be discharged into the sea, thereby polluting sea water, fish and beaches.” Consequently, 12% of the population has “no access to safe drinking-water.”
  • Israel has restricted the Strip’s electricity supply so severely that families and health facilities “suffer from power cuts for eight to 12 hours a day or more.” This “puts immense pressure on the already crumbling electricity system in the Gaza Strip, affecting the infrastructure for drinking-water and the sewage system, and disrupting the provision of health care for civilians in the Gaza Strip.”
  • This electricity shortage, along with Israel’s refusal to allow an adequate amount of fuel into the Strip, has forced doctors to stop performing certain types of surgeries and has forced them to shut down several “oxygen-generating stations.” X-ray machines are now “running at 50% capacity,” and kidney patients have experienced increased suffering “owing to disruption and stoppage of dialysis units because of power outages.” There’s also been a “compromised validity and viability of blood and plasma supplies, which can be damaged when power outages last more than two hours.”
  • All of this has “created an ever-increasing need for treatment abroad, mainly in Egypt, Israel and the West Bank. However, authorizations to cross the border for medical treatment are occasioning increased hardship. The Israeli authorities either refuse to issue such authorizations ‘for security reasons’ or issue them after long delays. This attitude has exacerbated health conditions and led to many avoidable deaths among Palestinian patients.”

Equally absurd is Dershowitz’s claim that Israel would end the blockade if Hamas just stopped firing rockets. In the past, Israel has continued the blockade even during times when Hamas has stopped rocket attacks. In June 2008, for instance, Egypt brokered a six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. “According to Egyptian sources involved in the process,” the ceasefire “provided for an immediate cessation of hostile activities; a limited increase in the amount of goods entering Gaza after three days; and, after ten days, the opening of the crossings for all products except materials used in the manufacture of projectiles and explosives” (Ending the Gaza War, International Crisis Group, 5 January 2009).

The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, a decidedly right-winged group with close ties to the Israeli government, notes that “Hamas was careful to maintain the ceasefire and its operatives were not involved in rocket attacks. At the same time, the movement tried to enforce the terms of the arrangement on the other terrorist organizations and to prevent them from violating it.” Consequently, the number of rockets fired into Israel drastically fell: before the ceasefire, militants were firing an average of 49 rockets per week (January 1-June 18); once the ceasefire went into effect, this number fell to less than 1 per week (June 19-October 31) (The Six Months of the Lull Arrangement, December 2008; Escalation in the Gaza Strip: the IDF operated inside the Gaza Strip near the security fence to prevent the abduction of soldiers, 5 November 2008). Rocket attacks continued on November 4, when Israeli forces renewed hostilities by entering Gaza and killing six Hamas militants (James Hider, “Six die in Israeli attack over Hamas ‘tunnel under border to kidnap soldier’,” Times, 6 November 2008).

And yet Israel failed to honor the ceasefire agreement, refusing to open “the crossings for all products except materials used in the manufacture of projectiles and explosives.” Although it slightly eased the blockade, allowing the daily number of truckloads of goods entering Gaza to rise from 62 (January-May) to 116 (July-October), this still fell far short of the nearly 600 daily truckloads entering Gaza before the blockade began (Gaza Crossings Online Database, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs occupied Palestinian territory; Locked In: The Humanitarian Impact of Two Years of Blockade on the Gaza Strip,” OCHA, August 2009).

So, in conclusion, Israel’s blockade of Gaza has nothing to do with protecting Israeli citizens. Rather, Israel, in violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, is inflicting collective punishment on the Gazan people. As Amnesty International noted in a January report, although Israel claims that the blockade is “a response to attacks from Palestinian armed groups, in particular the indiscriminate rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel,” “by restricting the food, medical supplies, educational equipment, and building materials allowed into Gaza, the Israeli authorities are collectively punishing the entire population of Gaza, the majority of whom are children, rather than targeting those responsible for carrying out rocket or other attacks” (Suffocating: The Gaza Strip Under Israeli Blockade, January 2010).

* * * * *

Correction: I originally wrote that 34% of Palestinians living in Gaza are food insecure. It turns out that this is the percentage of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank combined who are food insecure. According to the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization, 61% of households in Gaza suffer from food insecurity.

June 1, 2010

There’s No Whitewashing This: Israel’s Attack of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla

Israel’s attack of the Gaza Freedom flotilla is an atrocity that cannot be whitewashed. The Israeli Foreign Ministry and its many propagandists have tried to spin the attack; they’ve told us how those poor pistol-toting IDF soldiers were simply trying to defend themselves, how they were attacked by a bloodthirsty mob wanting to lynch them, etc., etc., but none of it is sticking. Like Israel’s 2008-2009 assault on Gaza, this is an atrocity that the propagandists simply cannot spin. The entire world saw what happened. The entire world knows that Israel committed an evil for which there is no defense.

To review. Since June 2007, Israel has imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip, allowing just a trickle of humanitarian goods to enter the area. If you go to the website of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, you’ll read about the “[m]illions of dollars worth of international food aid” that “continually flows through the Israeli humanitarian apparatus” (“Behind the Headlines: The Israeli humanitarian lifeline to Gaza,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 25 May 2010). But this is propaganda, pure and simple. Yes, Israel allows some goods to enter Gaza, but it obviously doesn’t allow in enough to meet the area’s needs. Before the blockade, nearly 600 truckloads of goods were entering Gaza each day; today the number is around 100 (Locked In: The Humanitarian Impact of Two Years of Blockade on the Gaza Strip,” Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs occupied Palestinian territory, August 2009).

Consequently, Gaza continues to experience what can only be described as a humanitarian catastrophe. Here are a few examples from two recent UN reports:

  • “As of June 2009, a total of 46% of agricultural land in the Gaza Strip was assessed to be inaccessible or out of production owing to destruction of lands during ‘Cast Lead’ and inaccessible areas lying within the ‘security buffer zone.’ Only a limited percentage of this land has been rehabilitated due to the blockade that restricts the import of materials and equipment for rehabilitation and access to damaged areas.”
  • “Since January 2009, fishers’ access to fishing grounds has been further restricted to 3 nautical miles (nm) from the shore. This has resulted in a depletion of catches and revenues. In Gaza, the majority of profits from fishing come from sardines, however, schools of sardine pass beyond the 3 nm mark and sardine catches are down 72%. Adult fish are mostly found beyond the 3 nm limit and therefore fishing within the current zone rapidly depletes new generations of fish, with severe implications for fish life-cycles and therefore long-term fishing livelihoods” (Farming without Land, Fishing without Water: Gaza Agriculture Sector Struggles to Survive, OCHAoPt, May 2010)
  • “[R]estrictions on the import of cement make impossible the reconstruction of some 12,000 Palestinian homes damaged or destroyed by Israeli military operations in recent years, as well as a further 20,000 homes needed to accommodate natural population growth in the Gaza Strip. In the same vein, UNRWA needs to build 100 schools in Gaza to cope with population growth; the number of students in UNRVWA schools by the start of the coming academic year will have increased by 15,000 above the classroom capacity since the start of the blockade in 2007; 15 schools are needed immediately.”
  • “[A] new poverty survey conducted by UNRWA showed that the number of Palestine refugees completely unable to secure access to food and lacking the means to purchase even the most basic items, such as soap, school stationary and safe drinking water, has tripled since the imposition of the blockade in June 2007” (Impending Assistance: Challenges to Meeting the Humanitarian Needs of Palestinians, OCHAoPt, May 2010).

In response to this, the Free Gaza Movement recently organized a flotilla of eight boats to sail to Gaza to break the blockade and deliver several tons of humanitarian items, including cement, generators, water purification equipment, school notebooks, prefabricated homes, crayons, pens, pencils, footballs, basketballs, and an assortment of medical equipment, including CAT scanners, wheelchairs, and crutches (Harriet Sherwood, “Gaza aid flotilla to set sail for confrontation with Israel,” Guardian, 25 May 2010).

But Israel wasn’t about to let a bunch of peace activists diminish its “deterrence capacity,” so Saturday night, the Israeli Navy intercepted six of the flotilla’s boats and forbade them from continuing to Gaza. Unable to stop the largest boat, the Turkish Mavi Marmara, the Navy requested assistance. Israeli military helicopters soon surrounded the Mavi Marmara and commandos then rappelled down onto it. After that, Israeli officials claim that the soldiers “were attacked with clubs, metal rods and knives.” Although the exact chronology of events is still fuzzy, it’s clear that Israeli commandos, at one point or another, opened fire and ended up killing at least nine activists (Isabel Kershner, “Deadly Israeli Raid Draws Condemnation,” New York Times, 31 May 2010).

According to Israeli officials, “two violent activists” stole pistols from some of commandos “and apparently opened fire on the soldiers as evident [sic] by the empty pistol magazines. As a result of this life-threatening and violent activity, naval forces first employed riot dispersal means, followed by live fire” (“IDF forces met with pre-planned violence when attempting to board flotilla,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 31 May 2010). But this account is contradicted by some of the ship’s passengers, who “said the troops opened fire as soon as they stormed the convoy.” Moreover, a reporter traveling with the activists “said that a white surrender flag was raised from the ship and there was no live fire coming from the passengers” (“Israel attacks Gaza aid fleet,” Al Jazeera English, 31 May 2010).

Whatever the case, it’s important to keep a couple things in mind. First, the ship didn’t contain Scud missiles or nuclear warheads intended for Hamas—but humanitarian goods, things like cement, school notebooks, crayons, wheelchairs, and crutches. Second, the incident took place in international waters. “Israeli Military spokeswoman, Avital Leibovich, confirmed that the attack took place in international waters, saying: ‘This happened in waters outside of Israeli territory, but we have the right to defend ourselves’” (ibid.). So Israeli soldiers had no right whatsoever to board the ship, and the activists had every right to defend themselves, just as each of us would have the right to defend ourselves if someone intruded into one of our homes.

Like I said, there’s no whitewashing what happened. The propagandists will keep trying, and consequently they’ll keep making asses of themselves. Because the facts speak for themselves.

I’ll be writing more about this in the next day or so.