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On Sunday, Egypt held parliamentary elections which are widely known to be neither free nor fair (denunciation by the Carnegie Endowment for international peace). The elections were a demonstration of the government’s plans in advance of the 2011 elections, when long-time president Hosni Mubarak may make way for his son to rise as a successor. Unlike the media frenzy over the selection of Kim Jong-Il’s son to receive a special title, little mainstream outrage has been directed at Mubarak’s machinations. Egypt remains under its third decade of emergency rule (which ban demonstrations and some opposition parties), and is the largest non-democratic recipient of United States’ foreign aid by far. It’s also the largest undemocratic country in the Middle East, helped to remain so by our tax dollars, and military and diplomatic support. It’s the clearest sign that the alleged US policy to support democracy in the region is a joke.

In the absence of outside support, people in Egypt have made a number of challenges to this situation. One of the latest was the mid-day peaceful uprising on Sunday by residents of Balteem and Hamoul against voter fraud. Their actions were in defense of independent candidate Hamdeen Sabahy (profile). Since 1995, three of Sabahy’s voters have been killed by Egyptian riot police, while he won office in 2000 and 2005.

Blogger Baheyya has an hour-by-hour account of local resistance (h/t to The Arabist). Here are some highlights:

8:30 am. Sabahy’s representatives rush to photocopy the new certification papers required to gain access to polling stations. Early that morning at 12:30 am, Sabahy’s campaign was dumbfounded to learn of sudden new regulations for the papers, requiring that they be stamped from police precincts rather than notary publics as had been announced earlier. Certain that this is an 11th hour rule manipulation to bar Sabahy’s agents from accessing polling stations, campaign workers spend all night driving to police stations to get the necessary stamps.

9:10 am. The first reports of foul play trickle in. Candidate agents from 12 polling stations phone in that they have been kicked out of polling stations, and one says her certification papers were ripped up despite having the necessary police stamp.

1:00 pm. Sabahy’s representatives sent to Hamoul and agents of other candidates who are sympathetic to Sabahy begin to phone in reports of ballot-stuffing in favor of Abdel Ghaffar in villages surrounding Hamoul.

1:50 pm. Balteem’s main streets are lined with men congregating and sitting on the sidewalks, expressions somber and nerves frayed. A procession of cars and pickup trucks loaded with youth speed past in the direction of the highway. “They’re blockading the highway!” Spontaneously, Balteem and Borg youth decide to blockade the highway to protest what is now a certain sense of election rigging. The news travels like wildfire and some cars change route and head for the highway rather than Sabahy’s house. Frantic calls to campaign cars instructs them to make sure no women are headed to the highway, in anticipation of violence between protestors and riot police.

2-4 pm. Town youth blockade the highway with burning tires and clumps of tree branches and wooden sticks. Highway traffic comes to a standstill, with freight trucks backed up as far as the eye can see. A campaign worker says to no one in particular, “Didn’t I say that this morning was the quiet before the storm?”

4 pm. Townspeople converge on Sabahy’s courtyard and the candidate comes out to speak, standing on a pick-up truck. Livid, fiery youth and men climb on the pick-up truck and demand revenge. Sabahy struggles to control the crowd’s emotions, saying he’d rather withdraw and give up his seat than join this scandalously handpicked parliament. A fully veiled woman in black climbs on the truck and pulls the microphone from his hand, screaming, “Don’t you dare withdraw, Sabahy! Don’t you dare withdraw!”

The crowd chants, “Balteem boxes won’t leave! Balteem boxes won’t leave!” By law, counting stations for the entire district are located in Hamoul but since Hamoul was experiencing rigging, residents feared their ballots would be destroyed or disappeared en route to the counting station.

Ultimately, these efforts appear not to have saved the day. Instead it was the threat of further government violence that won. Al Ahram reported at 4:35 pm, “Police armored vehicles have stormed Balteem, in Kafr El-Sheikh, firing tear gas and live ammunition into the air.” Later, Sabahy himself convinced his supporters to stand down (again, the full day is here):

7:00 pm. Sabahy comes out and is immediately mobbed by the crowd, lifting him on their shoulders and giving him a hero’s welcome. He gives a rousing speech in which he denounces the government and several Amn al-Dawla officers by name for fixing the elections in Hamoul, and reiterates his position of withdrawing from the elections. The crowd presses him to authorize and lead a peaceful protest march to the police station to protest the rigging, but Sabahy fears security forces’ violent response and does not want injuries and casualties among his supporters, as in the past. The back-and-forth goes on for an hour that feels like an eternity, but in the end Sabahy prevails and the people are dejected, though none take matters into their own hands as some did that afternoon.

Somewhat obnoxiously, a government spokesman claimed, “The [governing] party’s careful selection of its candidates was a factor in defeating big opposition names such as Hamdeen Sabahi.” Sabahy withdrew from the race, and made these comments later: “The rigging proves that the [governing] NDP wants no opposition in parliament. With the new parliament, we will see increased restrictions on freedom of expression, including new restrictions on the media.” Whatever the wisdom of backing down (and no one should be too eager to second guess such moves when lives are at stake), residents’ willingness to take their anger to the streets are remarkable under so much pressure.

p.s. Apparently, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would like another dictatorship in Iraq, according to advice he gave to US officials (Thanks, Wikileaks).

As you probably know, Israel’s May 31 raid on the Free Gaza Movement’s flotilla of aid-bearing ships has occasioned a torrent of justifications, short video clip releases, and arguments. On the Israeli side, this began before the nine to nineteen dead activists bodies were yet cold. The narrative, remarkably, made the unarmed activists aboard the ships into a lynch mob and a terrorist ambush. In short, the Israeli government has been extremely eager to make the story fit a standard narrative in the region, one of treacherous asymmetrical warfare.

Those looking for the other side of the story had to wait out detentions and deportations, but eyewitness accounts are increasingly circulating. Both the anti-blockade activists and third-party journalists have had their ability to tell the story severely crimped by the Israeli seizure of film, memory cards, cameras, computers and other personal effects of those onboard.

The Israeli search has resulted in a remarkable remix of the goods they claim were onboard the ships, most visible in this photoset released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And here is I where I can offer my humble contribution to correcting propaganda. A well-circulated story right now involves this contention:

Israeli officers later displayed slingshots, knives and truncheons they said were found on the ship as evidence of organized resistance. Defense officials also say some activists had military-style gear such as bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles and carried large sums of cash. (AP)

The AP is simply reporting their claim, but is also giving the Israeli government the sole opportunity to create a narrative from various objects onboard. Let’s consider a very serious alternative story. Observe the following Israeli government photo:

Note, by the way, the clean, unruffled, un-shot-at state of the vests. Now read this from the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2002:

No one is more keenly aware of the risks taken by ambulance personnel than Mohammed El Hessi, a 26-year-old Palestine Red Crescent (PRCS) paramedic who was called to the scene of a gunboat attack on a security post north of Gaza City on the night of 7 March. Mohammed, who responded to the call along with three of his colleagues, would be dead today had it not been for the bullet-proof vest he was wearing. Such vests have been supplied to the PRCS by the ICRC, with the knowledge of the Israeli authorities. Mohammed suffered serious shrapnel wounds as his team attempted to retrieve two bodies. A piece of metal was subsequently found embedded in the ceramic back-plate of his vest. A second PRCS ambulance team came to the rescue and managed to evacuate the dead and wounded after more than an hour. Mohammed was rushed to a hospital in Gaza, and his life is now out of danger. During the same rescue operation, a member of an ambulance team from the local medical services was killed.

“Without a doubt, the bullet-proof vest saved his life,” said Dr Fayez Jibril, head of the PRCS’s emergency medical service in Gaza, as he examined Mohammed’s bloodstained vest the following morning. “This is where the shrapnel lodged. If it had pierced his body, it would have gone straight to his heart.”

Who needs bulletproof vests in Gaza? No doubt people like paramedic Mohammed El Hessi. Why should we think that this vest was meant for him? Reading on in the same 2002 story:

Respect for medical personnel, ambulances and medical facilities bearing the protective red cross and red crescent emblems is compulsory under international humanitarian law. Any violation of this rule puts the safety of all medical and humanitarian workers in jeopardy. (Full article from the ICRC)

Oh, you mean these emblems? Compare them to the ones on the vest.

No matter how much the Israeli government might wish it had faced a commando team onboard the Gaza-bound flotilla, it didn’t. But it’s willing to weave a web of lies to make you think that it did. Hopefully, we can be a little less trusting of this kind of propaganda, and a little more concerned for lives like Mohammed El Hessi, the paramedic whose life was saved by a bulletproof vest with a red crescent.

The weapon used against Tristan Anderson, a high velocity tear gas round, has once again proved deadly on the West Bank. This time, on Friday, occupying Israeli soldiers attacked demonstrators, including Bassem Abu Rahme. According to demonstrators’ reports, “He participated in the weekly protest and was standing in the other side of the wall, and was shouting at the soldiers “we are in a nonviolent protest, there are kids and internationals” he couldn’t continue his scrim and was shot. He was transferred to Ramallah governmental hospital, but he was dead. The funeral will be tomorrow in the village of Bilin at 1:00 pm.”

The relative position of soldiers and protesters is clear from this photo: a recently wounded Bassem is in fluorescent yellow.

April 17, 2009: IDF fatally shoots Palestinian protester. Photo by Lazar Simeonov

April 17, 2009: IDF fatally shoots Palestinian protester. Photo by Lazar Simeonov

This was the predictable consequence of the flagrant repurposing of “less lethal” or “non-lethal” munitions to maim and kill at close range. See reporting by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

Sober, well-paid lawyers provided excuses and qualifications for our government to torture its “high-value detainees.” Key techniques summary and the full memos from the New York Times.

What happened when these techniques were applied. The Red Cross asked them and produced this confidential report. Summary and reaction by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books.

Gaza-End the BlockadeLife for one-and-a-half million people in Gaza has been getting dramatically worse in the past two years. The territory has been surrounded by walls, barbed wire, and an electrified fence. Its older residents can look across these lines towards the lands and ruined villages from which they were expelled in 1948 and 1967. Across the border, an armed conflict is asymmetrically raging. Armed Palestinian factions launch small-scale rockets at Israeli coastal cities in hopes of emulating the pressure that led to the 2002 Israeli withdrawal from occupied southern Lebanon. Meanwhile a far greater Israeli arsenal targets Gaza’s cities, and periodically pushes in with tanks, armored vehicles and soldiers who raid Palestinian homes. The most recent Israeli push—in response to the death of an Israeli student at Sapir College from rocket fire—is still in progress, although a 2-day “interval” was observed while US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the region. The impact confirmed by B’Tselem so far is:

From 27 February to the afternoon of 3 March, 106 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip. Contrary to the Chief of Staff’s contention that ninety percent were armed, at least fifty-four of the dead (twenty-five of them minors) did not take part in the hostilities. In addition, at least forty-six minors were wounded.

I’m confident you haven’t heard the names of any of these children, nor the circumstance of their deaths. Here’s B’Tselem again:

The killing of four children – ‘Ali Dardona, age 8, Muhammad Hamudah, 9, Dardona Dardona, 12, and ‘Omer Dardona – and wounding of two others while they played soccer in the street, east of the Jabalya refugee camp on 28 February. B’Tselem’s investigation indicates that Qassam rockets may have been fired earlier about 100 meters from where the children were. However, no armed Palestinians were killed or injured in the incident.

The killing of Iyad and Jacqueline Muhammad Abu-Shabak, brother and sister, 16 and 17 years old, when they were watching the fighting from the window of their house east of Jabalya. According to testimonies by family members, the two were shot in the head and chest.

The killing of six-month-old Muhammad al-Bur’i, at the family’s home in the Rimal section of Gaza on 27 February, and the wounding of others, in the shelling of the nearby Interior Ministry building. The building is a civilian office building, and not a legitimate military target.

Current operations, of course, come with the full support of the U.S. government, and presidential hopefuls McCain, Clinton and Obama.

Unfortunately, missiles and invading soldiers may not be nearly as destructive as the policies of “economic warfare” (in the words of the Israeli government), which now extend to restricting, and at times cutting off, electricity and fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip. The result is a new humanitarian crisis. A joint report, The Gaza Strip: A humanitarian implosion, on the current depth of the crisis has been released by eight UK human rights and aid groups, including Oxfam and Amnesty International. According to Geoffrey Dennis, Chief Executive of CARE International UK:

Unemployment has soared and 80% of people in Gaza are now dependent on food aid compared to 63% in 2006. Water and sewage infrastructure is on the point of total collapse. Unless the blockade ends now, it will be impossible to pull Gaza back from the brink of this disaster and any hopes for peace in the region will be dashed.

Key facts in the report:

  • 80% of families in Gaza currently rely on food aid
  • 95% of Gaza’s industrial operations are suspended due to the ban on imported raw materials and the block on exports
  • 18.5% of patients seeking emergency treatment in hospitals outside Gaza in 2007 were refused permits to leave
  • Hospitals are currently experiencing power cuts lasting for 8-12 hours a day
  • 40-50 million litres of sewage continues to pour into the sea daily

“Humanitarian crisis” means daily disasters. Here’s one father’s description from the inside.

The U.S. role in the Fatah-Hamas battles of 2007 is the subject of a new Vanity Fair exposé. David Rose reports in “The Gaza Bombshell,” that the U.S. armed Fatah to expel the popularly elected Hamas government from Gaza.

In essence, the program was simple. According to State Department officials, beginning in the latter part of 2006, Rice initiated several rounds of phone calls and personal meetings with leaders of four Arab nations—Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. She asked them to bolster Fatah by providing military training and by pledging funds to buy its forces lethal weapons. The money was to be paid directly into accounts controlled by President Abbas.

Legal or not, arms shipments soon began to take place. In late December 2006, four Egyptian trucks passed through an Israeli-controlled crossing into Gaza, where their contents were handed over to Fatah. These included 2,000 Egyptian-made automatic rifles, 20,000 ammunition clips, and two million bullets.

This shipment, and arms and training that followed, were joined by the leak of a State Department-drafted “Action Plan for the Palestinian Presidency”:

The early drafts stressed the need for bolstering Fatah’s forces in order to “deter” Hamas. The “desired outcome” was to give Abbas “the capability to take the required strategic political decisions … such as dismissing the cabinet, establishing an emergency cabinet.”

Hamas read this as a call for a coup. So did Dick Cheney’s chief Middle East adviser, a neo-conservative by the name of David Wurmser:

Wurmser accuses the Bush administration of “engaging in a dirty war in an effort to provide a corrupt dictatorship [led by Abbas] with victory.” He believes that Hamas had no intention of taking Gaza until Fatah forced its hand. “It looks to me that what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen,” Wurmser says.

Hamas seized complete control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. Outsiders like myself were left to see it as mere internecine warfare. Now we have questions to ask about how our government armed one political party to oust the other, while backing the siege that keeps Gaza’s Palestinians on the edge of survival.

The morning of November 19, 2005, one Marine and 24 Iraqis were killed in the town of Haditha, in occupied Iraq.  Within hours, the Marines had claimed that the improvised explosive device that killed Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas had also killed 15 civilians, while eight “insurgents” were killed in self-defense.  This description was a lie.  None of the Iraqis, 19 of whom died in their homes, were killed by the roadside bomb.  Among the men, four were killed in a house, while five – three students, a friend and their taxi driver – were either ordered or dragged from their car before being shot on the street. A balanced investigation of the morning by the German magazine Der Spiegel is online, as is the collaborative Wikipedia article on the Haditha killings.

Largely because the bedrooms of the 15 women and children who were killed that morning were recorded on video, and because that video made it into the American press, the marines involved are now on trial. One of them has turned state’s evidence, testifying that that not only did he shoot civilians of the orders of a superior officer, but he then proceeded to desecrate their freshly killed bodies. Meanwhile, apartheid rules of evidence are governing both the trial and the American press coverage. Iraqi eyewitness testimony and the conclusions of the medical examiner are being essentially discounted as either pleas for compensation money, or subject to nationalist bias.  The Marines are being held to a standard based on rules of engagement, rather than morality or law. Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, who “responded instinctively, assaulting into the room and emptying his pistol” into the house where four men were killed, was recommended for exoneration by the Marines on the grounds that,  “Whether this was a brave act of combat against the enemy or tragedy of misperception born out of conducting combat with an enemy that hides among innocents, LCpl Sharratt’s actions were in accord with the rules of engagement.”

You can expect that the assumption that any Military Aged Male in Iraq is an insurgent (see Juan Cole on the Rules of Engagement) will be upheld, or at least that any marine testifies that he thought such a person was armed will be backed up. this is especially chilling given the story of the men in the taxi (quoting Der Spiegel):

They were driving eastward into the morning sun, and the driver was probably momentarily blinded by the glare. By the time they had registered the scene unfolding in front of them, it was too late. What they saw signaled imminent danger: a wrecked Humvee, clouds of smoke, soldiers with drawn weapons. Normally they would have turned around immediately. But the soldiers motioned for them to stop. Anyone who attempted to continue driving at that point would come under fire. Those are the rules in Injun Country.

The Iraqis stopped. The Marines approached, signaling to the driver to turn off the engine. The Iraqis got out of the car. Up until this point, the various pieces of testimony coincide. The men and the vehicle had to be searched for weapons and explosives. When no weapons were found, it was clear that the five men posed no immediate danger. They were told to sit down with their hands behind their heads.

At some point the five men were shot.

The “Rules of Engagement” permit any Marine to kill without warning in the event of danger. This is especially applicable when it comes to so-called MAMs, or Military Age Males. Who were these five men? Were they scouts who had been sent to investigate how successful the attack had been?

The Marines must have known how unlikely this was. Only one man, not five, would have been needed to survey the scene. He would have hidden first or would have come from the River Road, on a motorcycle.

Did the five men try to run away? That was the way the accused Marines described it. Possible, but also unlikely. Most of all, it is unlikely that all five Iraqis would have pursued the same suicidal impulse. Besides, the Marines could have shot the Iraqis in the legs to prevent them from running away. However one paints the scenario, the key issue is that the men were unarmed.

Can these men get justice? A recent Editor & Publisher apology to Sharatt makes MAM status into a full explanation:

Unlike Sharratt, who was accused of killing three men who were between the ages of 24 and 41, Tatum is accused of killing women and children as young as 4 years old and as elderly as 76 years old.

For his part, Tatum is arguing “women and children can hurt you, too.” To make the entire situation more bleak, the man with the final decision on prosecution is none other than Lt. Gen. James Mattis, infamous for the following quote:

“You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually, it’s a lot of fun to fight. You know, it’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right upfront with you, I like brawling.”

Mattis has just pronounced Sharatt “innocent” and exonerated Capt. Randy Stone for failures in reporting the incident (more on those here).  On Stone, Mattis stated yesterday, “his attentiveness to training the Marines in the law of war and rules of engagement and willingness to share their hardship to better appreciate the challenges facing them are notable. By patrolling alongside the infantrymen in his Battalion, he helped them embrace the imperative of ethical behavior in combat.”

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