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.

04 May 2016

Spain: A non-governmental organisation?

Al Jazeera English

During a visit to Barcelona in December just after Spain’s general elections, I walked past a signboard outside a restaurant displaying the following quip in Spanish: "If the Spaniards were dinosaurs, we'd have voted for the meteorite."
The implication, of course, was that by regularly voting for destructive political formations Spaniards were facilitating their own doom.
The metaphorical meteorite in this case was the incumbent right-wing Popular Party (PP), which has in recent years presided over punitive austerity measures and rampant corruption. Spain's industry minister recently resigned after the Panama Papers revealed problematic offshore investments.
Unemployment in Spain is currently more than 20 percent, and youth unemployment is even higher. The effects of the economic crisis have also been acutely felt by the victims of mass home evictions; in 2012, the Associated Press reported that 500 such operations were being carried out per day across the country. The eviction epidemic was widely linked to a spike in suicides. READ MORE AT AL JAZEERA ENGLISH.

28 April 2016

Occupation vacations: Settlement tourism in Israel

Middle East Eye

For years, the Tel Aviv-based Shurat HaDin - also known as the Israel Law Centre - has organised tours to Israel while continuing its day-to-day activities of “fighting terrorism and safeguarding Jewish rights worldwide”.
Billed as the “Ultimate Mission to Israel,” the weeklong excursion packages offer five-star accommodation, luxury bus transportation, and a cell phone for each participant. The cost: a mere $3,150 (not including airfare), plus an obligatory donation of between $600 and $5,000 per person.
The itinerary, which promises a “dynamic and intensive… exploration of Israel’s struggle for survival and security in the Middle East,” includes the following items: “briefings by Mossad officials and commanders of the Shin Bet”; “a trial of Hamas terrorists in an IDF military court”; “tours of the Lebanese & Syrian front-line military positions and the Gaza border checkpoints”; a “meeting [with] Israel’s Arab agents who infiltrate the terrorist groups and provide real-time intelligence”; and a tour of “the controversial Security Fence and IDF military bases.”
Of course, such an ultimate mission as this may not cater to the needs of every traveller. For those tourists who might prefer a focus on wine, artisanal cheese and extremist West Bank settlers, there are also plenty of vacation options.
A recent Washington Post article titled “Tourism is the new front in Israeli settlers’ battle for legitimacy” describes how settlements are deploying “zealous hospitality” as a means of fighting back against international criticism of their illegal status. A proliferation of boutique wineries and bed and breakfasts has accompanied the growth of settlement tourism; the article explains: “In this campaign, wine tastings are a new weapon against a two-state solution. Holiday chalets are new facts on the ground.”
Unfortunately, Palestinians are lacking in similar opportunities to forge their own very profitable facts on the ground - as there’s not really a market these days for holidays in which, for example, your kids are massacred by Israeli missile while playing football on the beach. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

27 April 2016

Gardening in Africa with The New York Times' Thomas Friedman

TeleSUR English

Africa is not a frequent destination of New York Times foreign affairs columnist and corporate globalization fiend Thomas Friedman, despite his unlimited travel budget and what amounts to a free pass to write whatever he wants whether it makes sense or not.
When he does manage to get over to Africa, of course, he produces some important insights.
Back in 2009, for example, he descended upon Botswana to report that neither his BlackBerry, wireless laptop, or satellite phone functioned in the Okavango Delta. One hundred twenty-one words of that particular column were devoted to a description of a leopard eating an antelope in a tree.
This month, a return trip to the continent has thus far produced two articles, predictably titled “Out of Africa” and “Out of Africa, Part II.”
The first one is datelined Agadez, Niger, which Friedman describes as the “main launching pad for migrants out of West Africa.” According to our tour guide’s calculations, “between 9,000 and 10,000 men” are launched in the direction of Libya each month.
The second dispatch is from the remote village of Ndiamaguene, Senegal, which we’re told constitutes “the headwaters of the immigration flood now flowing from Africa to Europe via Libya.” Citing a near-total absence of young and middle-aged men in the town, Friedman explains that “they’ve all hit the road” in search of economic relief because Ndiamaguene’s “climate-hammered farmlands can no longer sustain them.”
He continues:
“This trend is repeating itself all across West Africa, which is why every month thousands of men try to migrate to Europe by boat, bus, foot or plane. Meanwhile, refugees fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are doing the same. Together, these two flows pose a huge challenge for the future of Europe.”
Never mind that the Iraqi and Afghan “flows” happen to be fleeing wars overzealously championed by none other than Friedman himself. Perhaps Europe can bill him for damages.
Meanwhile, Friedman concludes his foray into the West African plight with this prescription: “Gardens or walls? It’s really not a choice. We have to help [the Africans] fix their gardens because no walls will keep them home.”
Leaving aside the fact that the word “gardens” appears nowhere else in his two-part series and that it’s thus a bit unclear as to how we arrived at this particular choice, let’s take the metaphor and run with it—for just long enough to point out that the garden solution is fundamentally irreconcilable with the economic system Friedman and his ilk have devoted their lives to promoting. READ MORE AT TeleSUR ENGLISH.

19 April 2016

From a Jersey tax haven to Tunisia's island of discontent

Middle East Eye

KERKENNAH, Tunisia - On the Tunisian island of Kerkennah, 90 minutes by ferry from the city of Sfax, all appears calm for the moment - save, perhaps, for the disproportionate presence of gun-toting soldiers cruising around in military vehicles.
Ask island residents about the events of recent weeks, however, and you’ll be offered horror stories of tear gas wantonly launched at protesters by Tunisian security forces who were reportedly shipped over in large quantities from the mainland to deal with the unrest.
The immediate cause of the protests, which commenced in early April, was widespread disillusionment with Petrofac, a self-defined “oilfield service company, supporting clients across the oil and gas asset lifecycle”. Registered in the English Channel island of Jersey (renowned for its tax haven status), Petrofac inserted itself into the Tunisian scene in 2007 and conducts operations at the Chergui gas field concession on Kerkennah in cooperation with Tunisia’s national oil company.
According to islanders I spoke with, Petrofac’s contributions to human and other lifecycles in the area have been less than stellar. A number of the protesters were unemployed university graduates displeased with what they view as the company’s insufficient provision of jobs and resources for the local community. Other common complaints - denied, obviously, by Petrofac - include an increase in pollution and attendant negative side effects on marine life, upon which Kerkennah has traditionally depended for sustenance.
Of course, anti-Petrofac agitation is merely symptomatic of much deeper problems, and protests quickly escalated. Tied up in public discontent are Tunisia-wide allegations of a lack of transparency regarding state revenues from corporate operations, which many suspect are being unjustly funneled away from host communities that are already suffering from economic malaise. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

18 April 2016

MY POLICE STATE VACATION

Current Affairs
In the customs line at Tashkent International Airport, a digital screen positioned above the X-ray machine informs visitors to Uzbekistan of items that are prohibited in the interest of peace and security. Narcotics are first, followed by materials encouraging religious extremism, fundamentalism, or separatism. When I recently visited the Central Asian nation, memorably referred to by pizza magnate and former Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain as “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan,” I was carrying none of the above.
I was, however, slightly concerned that my profession itself might not be on the list of state-approved activities—as suggested, perhaps, by the fact that said state plays host to the world’s two longest imprisoned journalists.
Fortunately, not being Uzbek myself meant I’d be spared the rehabilitative services the government reserves for its in-house opposition. Even among torture-states, Uzbekistan has achieved some impressive levels of brutality. Treatments have ranged from having suspected dissidents boiled to death to freezing them in icy cells to simple “asphyxiation with a gas mask,” as the U.S. State Department noted in 2001, shortly before it appointed Uzbekistan one of its key BFFs in the War on Terror.
But I wasn’t in Uzbekistan for journalistic purposes; I would not be investigating its various unbecoming practices, such as the forced labor in its cotton fields or its forced sterilization of women. Nor, curious as I may have been, did I intend to look into the story of permanent president Islam Karimov’s daughter Gulnara, a Harvard University alumna whose career as a diplomat-cum-pop diva-cum-fashion designer-cum-racketeer has for the moment ended in house arrest.
Instead, my itinerary centered around viewing pretty monuments and drinking cheap vodka, and I didn’t want this disrupted by any official misreading of my intentions. For that reason I had exercised borderline paranoia when applying for my letter of invitation (LOI) from the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs back in August—a document that would supposedly facilitate my acquisition of an Uzbek visa. Required to provide a letter from my employer as part of the LOI application process, I tasked my mother with fabricating a temporary identity for me as a client services and marketing liaison in the innocuous business of rental property management in Spain. (Having failed to adequately rehearse this exotic new title, I subsequently went with the deer-in-headlights option whenever any Uzbek asked what my job was.) READ MORE AT CURRENT AFFAIRS.