21 June 2016

Martyrs Never Die: Travels through South Lebanon

Excerpts from the Warscapes e-book available from Amazon

"When Amelia and I arrived to Lebanon in September 2006, having hitchhiked through Syria from Turkey, travel times in the diminutive and normally breakneck-speed nation had been prolonged considerably thanks to missing bridges and other bombed-out infrastructure. Our initial journey from north to south entailed various rides. One was from an Italian businessman in an Alfa Romeo who wanted to know if we were any of the following:
1. UN personnel.
2. CIA agents.
3. Stupid.

Next, a middle-aged Lebanese man with Jesus stickers plastered across the car ceiling wanted to know if we were missionaries. He invited us to his home just outside Beirut, where his family force-fed us French fries and fried fish while exclaiming theatrically over the dangers allegedly posed to regional peace by Hezbollah’s arsenal of Katyushas. . . .

Now, ten years later, I was back in south Lebanon for another hitchhiking trip—partly to relive the good old days, partly to gauge whether at thirty-three years of age I still had it in me. Mostly, though, I wanted to survey the changes Lebanon’s landscape had undergone over the past decade, physical and otherwise. While the “mushroom” of public support for Hezbollah has undoubtedly receded in light of events in Syria, Western and allied media reports of comprehensive dissatisfaction with the party—and of mass desertions by Hezbollah fighters—are willfully misleading. What’s more, many of the countries up in arms over Hezbollah’s participation in the conflict next door have themselves been actively involved in fanning the Syrian flames.

Returning to Lebanon in February 2016 for a weeklong expedition, I was under no illusions that hitchhiking somehow grants one access to the precise dynamics of societies, but I suspected one could sometimes learn more as a wanderer than as a journalist. . . ."

15 June 2016

Even in death, there's no place of rest for Syrians in Lebanon

Middle East Eye

In May, the father of a Syrian acquaintance of mine passed away in Beirut, where the family had fled from Aleppo shortly after the onset of war in Syria. On top of grieving and attending to his grieving mother, “Hassan” had to then sort out a location to bury his father.
It’s common knowledge that life in Lebanon is rough for Syrian refugees, who’ve had to contend with discrimination and violence, deadly winters, intermittent Syrian-specific curfews, and fluctuating and ambiguous rules - including the absurd requirement that poor refugees with no income pay money to obtain a notarised form promising that they won’t work. But death in Lebanon constitutes another headache altogether.
Inquiring at one of the main Beirut cemeteries near the Badaro area, Hassan was told by the security guard on duty that a “donation” of at least $10,000 was necessary to facilitate approval for a burial plot. If he was looking for a cheaper option, the guard said, lesser donations were accepted at the “Palestinian cemetery” next door - apparently referred to as such based on the fact that it hosts the remains of numerous Palestinian fighters from the civil war era.
A quick tour of that cemetery, however, left Hassan with the sneaking suspicion that the relative discount may have in part been a result of underhanded practices by the undertakers, such as digging up and reselling unvisited plots. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

09 June 2016

LETTER FROM ETHIOPIA

The Washington Spectator

In April, the website of the U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) announced that the United States and Ethiopia had signed a new agreement enhancing a “security partnership” in counterterrorism and other realms.
In attendance at the signing in Addis Ababa was Amanda Dory, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs, who obligingly made note of “just how progressive and strong Ethiopia is” and how “working together plays a key role in peace and security.”
Of course, the opposite argument can also be made: that American collaboration with the Ethiopian government in fact translates into enhanced insecurity for more than a few folks.
Consider, for example, the situation in the Oromia region surrounding the capital, where widespread protests have followed recent government efforts to displace an untold number of farmers as a means of courting international and domestic investors.
Five days after the announcement of the upgraded partnership with “progressive and strong” Ethiopia, a Horn of Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch reported that, “since November, state security forces have killed hundreds of protesters and arrested thousands in Oromia.”
When I visited the Oromia region in March, area residents pointed out that, while the government had for the moment shelved its land usurpation plans, this wouldn’t bring the dead people back to life.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia happens to jail more journalists than any other African country save its notoriously repressive neighbor Eritrea. Strong? Maybe. Progressive? Not so much. READ MORE AT THE WASHINGTON SPECTATOR.


02 June 2016

BDS and the Eternal Holocaust

TeleSUR English

While innocently attempting to access an article on the Haaretz website the other day, I was accosted by a sequence of intrusive advertisements inviting me to “Fight BDS”—the popular boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement that aims to force an end to Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights.
Details on the Eventbrite website specified that the summit — referred to here with the title “Ambassadors Against BDS” — would be held on May 31 at the United Nations headquarters in New York, sponsored by Israel’s permanent mission to the U.N. in partnership with the usual suspects: the World Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, Hillel, and so on. In attendance would be such illustrious personalities as the Vice President of the Supreme Court of Israel and the CEO of SodaStream, which was tragically BDS-pressured into shuttering one of its factories operating in an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank.The ads featured a fabricated image of a graffito consisting of a swastika and the phrase “Jews go home!” Next to this display appeared the information that “This is not 1938”; “this is now!” A final incitement to “Fight against anti-Semitism; Fight against BDS” then materialized, with a link to “more details” about an upcoming venue for said fight: the “First International Summit at the UN against BDS.”
The choice of the word “ambassadors” is perhaps willfully misleading in the context of an anti-BDS conference at the U.N., as the casual passerby is liable to infer that international diplomats will be there on the frontlines. In fact, the term is simply one that Israel regularly uses to refer to its propagandists-in-training; indeed, one of the aims of the gathering as stated on the Eventbrite site was to “cultivate ambassadors ready to fight the battle against exclusion and delegitimization of nations and peoples.”
Never mind that BDS is fighting exactly that battle. Those “peoples” aren’t meant to be included.
It’s unsettling, to say the least, that the U.N. should lend its facilities to an initiative equating BDS with Nazism. It’s like equating symphony orchestras with terrorism; it just doesn’t add up on any plane of reality whatsoever. READ MORE AT TeleSUR ENGLISH.

01 June 2016

Venezuela's apocalypse: The media at war

Al Jazeera English

In one of the more headache-inducing video clips in recent memory, Fox Business Network presents us with its version of the current crisis in Venezuela - where economic mismanagement under the leadership of President Nicolas Maduro has converged with a drop in global oil prices to produce runaway inflation and a shortage of basic goods.
The Fox Business Network website invites us to view a "harrowing video show[ing] starving Venezuelans eating garbage [and] looting".
As anyone acquainted with the network's modus operandi might expect, the footage in question doesn’t exactly render the situation as "virtually apocalyptic" as Fox claims it is.
Fortunately, we have a whole Fox crew to interpret for us what, in fact, we are seeing. Before we get to see anything, programme host Maria Bartiromo issues a "warning [to] viewers" that "this video is very graphic".
Journalist Elizabeth MacDonald chimes in with confirmation: "Yeah, it's graphic and disturbing." READ MORE AT AL JAZEERA ENGLISH.

28 May 2016

Israel’s Gigantic Nuclear Elephant

TeleSUR English

The online version of a recent Economist magazine article comes equipped with the tantalizing headline “Israel’s atomic angst: A textile factory with a difference.” The summary reads: “One of the world’s oldest nuclear plants helped build the Jewish state’s secret nuclear arsenal.”
The magazine offers a photograph of the Dimona reactor and cupola, complete with the caption: “Tough times in the garment trade.”The textile reference is to a spontaneous alibi deployed in 1960 by an Israeli official accompanying then-U.S. Ambassador to Israel Ogden Reid on a flyover of the Negev Desert. An intensive construction operation near the town of Dimona, site of the now-aging nuclear plant, caught the inquisitive ambassador’s eye — and “textile factory” was apparently the first thing that came to the official’s mind.
And you thought The Economist couldn’t do sarcasm.
The article notes that at a conference in April, representatives of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission reported “1,537 small defects and cracks” in the reactor’s aluminum core. While the typical lifespan of such reactors is said to be 40 years, Dimona has kept on ticking for 53.
Despite having ostensibly done its time on earth, however, there doesn’t seem to be a funeral in sight for Dimona. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz explains that, “for political, scientific and economic reasons, Israel has no capability or desire to replace the core, an operation that would mean building a new reactor.” READ MORE AT TeleSUR ENGLISH.

17 May 2016

A neoliberal carnival in Brazil

Al Jazeera English

The joke on the street is that Lebanon has no president but Brazil now has a Lebanese one. 
Indeed, Lebanon's ruling elite recently surpassed its two-year anniversary of failure to select a head of state.
But as Brazil's new interim president - Lebanese descendant Michel Temer - takes over in that country, one suspects Brazilians might have been better off president-free.
Last week, legitimate Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff of the leftist Workers' Party was suspended from office to face an impeachment trial. She was replaced by Vice President Temer of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, who will probably serve out the rest of the term.
What was the great crime that occasioned Rousseff's ignoble suspension? As Washington DC-based economist Mark Weisbrot put it, "she is accused of an accounting manipulation that somewhat misrepresented the fiscal position of the government - something that prior presidents have done". READ MORE AT AL  JAZEERA ENGLISH.

13 May 2016

KILLING A SHADOW

Current Affairs
Today, May 13, Israel received a very slightly belated birthday present. Hezbollah announced that Mustafa Amine Badreddine, one of the organization’s top commanders, had been killed in Syria earlier this week.
Throughout the day, blame for the killing was intermittently directed at Israel. Haaretz claimed that “[i]nitial reports blamed Israel for the attack, but signs show that Israel was not responsible for Badreddine’s death.” Al Jazeera reported that the Israeli military had declined to comment on Hezbollah’s allegations concerning its guilt. The Guardian diplomatically put it like this: “Leading Hezbollah commander and key Israel target killed in Syria.”
“Key Israel target,” of course, translates into joint U.S.-Israeli nemesis. According to the sages of the U.S. State Department, Badreddine belonged to that exclusive club known as the Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs). The designation formerly included Badreddine’s brother-in-law Imad Mughniyah—assassinated in a collaborative CIA-Mossad operation in Damascus in 2008—as well as Samir Kuntar, victim of an Israeli airstrike on Syria in December. Badreddine was rumored to have been the target of a previous Israeli airstrike that killed Mughniyah’s son, among others.
Compounding his SDGT status, Badreddine is one of five Hezbollah members currently being tried in absentia in The Hague by a bizarre, United Nations-backed entity called the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)—incidentally the subject of my article for the forthcoming edition of Current Affairs.
The tribunal was created with the ostensible purpose of bringing to justice the murderers of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, killed along with 21 others in a massive blast in 2005. Ever since the groundwork was laid for the judicial operation, however, its rather transparent goals have oscillated between sticking it to Syria, sticking it to Hezbollah, and sticking it to Hezbollah and Syria.
The STL is blazing all sorts of trails. In addition to being the first international trial in absentia since Nuremberg, the court advertises itself on its official website as “the first tribunal of its kind to deal with terrorism as a distinct crime.” Terrorism is defined in part as “something liable to create a public danger”—in other words, pretty much everything Israel has ever done in the country, unless you regard massacres of civilians and the saturation of Lebanese territory with unexploded cluster munitions as public safety maneuvers. READ MORE AT CURRENT AFFAIRS.

Volunterrorism in Israel?

Middle East Eye

On a trip to Amsterdam a few years ago, my mother had the misfortune to encounter another American tourist, of 70-some years of age, who was apparently not content to sit back and enjoy her holiday and instead insisted on trying to recruit people to volunteer on Israeli army bases.
Having recently taken part in a programme organised by the American outfit Volunteers for Israel (VFI), the woman swore it was the opportunity of a lifetime: free room and board, a worthy cause - and you didn’t even have to be Jewish!
My mother chased her off but kept the slip of paper on which the woman had written the VFI website as well as that of its Israeli partner Sar-El, the National Project for Volunteers for Israel, which places international volunteers on bases and oversees their activities.
VFI advertises itself as a “nonprofit, non-political, non-sectarian organisation” - although it’s a bit difficult to think of anything more political and sectarian than material support for a Zionist military dedicated to ethnic cleansing and frequent massacres of civilians.
The website explains that the program started in 1982 “during the first war with Lebanon, when Israeli farmers in the [occupied] Golan Heights faced the prospect of losing their crops".
The cause of the agricultural predicament: “Most able-bodied men and women were called up for army reserve.” The solution: bring in volunteers from the US to “harvest crops and save the economy". The result: “More than 600 volunteers responded immediately, and the crops were saved.”
Plus, the experience was “so personally rewarding and successful” that it spawned a whole volunteer enterprise. The Sar-El website notes that as of 2010 the project had “brought in over 132,000 volunteers".
Meanwhile, the Golan crops may have been saved, but the same couldn’t be said for some 20,000 victims of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, the great majority of them civilians. It bears mentioning, too, that this was not in fact the “first war” on that country - the able-bodied men and women of the Israeli armed forces having performed a similar routine four years earlier, albeit with a lower casualty count. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

12 May 2016

Israel: 68 Years Old and as Backward as It Gets

TeleSUR English

On a flight from Turkey to the United States last year, I was seated behind a young man from Ramallah who, having finally completed an arduous hoop-jumping process, was en route to see his Palestinian wife in a suburb of Houston. Accompanying him was a gigantic binder stuffed with documents. 
As the young man did not read English, he ceded his customs declaration form to me to fill out. All went smoothly until we got to numbers five and seven on the form, which were, respectively, “Passport issued by (country)” and “Country of Residence.”
For the first one we went with “Palestinian Authority.” For the second, we were instructed by an elderly Palestinian resident of Jordan sitting down the aisle to put “West Bank,” which he insisted was the proper response. In the end, West Bank it was—and I crossed my fingers that the immigration official on duty was at least somewhat human.
To be sure, the West Banker was luckier than many Palestinians in that he was able to travel at all—albeit not conveniently—as opposed to languishing in the open-air prison of the Gaza Strip or in refugee camps in Lebanon, where conditions aren’t much better.
Surviving members of the first wave of Palestinian refugees to Lebanon have now clocked 68 years in the country but are still denied citizenship and attendant liberties, including the right to work most jobs. READ MORE AT TeleSUR ENGLISH.