18 July 2017

Holiday in style at Israel’s ‘anti-terror fantasy camps’

Middle East Eye

Just when you thought the Israelis couldn’t possibly cram any more items into an already overflowing repertoire of preposterous behaviour, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper recently ran a piece titled “Anti-terror Fantasy Camps Are Popping Up Throughout Israel and the West Bank - and Tourists Are Eating It Up”.
(And if that’s not enough preposterousness for you, Haaretz suggests you also read “Israeli army shows fake amputated limbs, paints wounds on kids for Independence Day”.)
The fantasy camp dispatch begins in the illegal Israeli settlement bloceuphemised as “the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank”, where one fine morning tourists from Hong Kong are “pretending to be Israeli army commandos” at a counter-terrorism and security training academy by the name of Caliber 3:
“As their Rambo-like trainer barks out orders, they move their assault rifles into position and, using the Hebrew word for fire, repeat after him: ‘Esh. Esh.’
"‘Louder,’ he demands. ‘I can’t hear you guys. Don’t be so politically correct.’”
While political correctness may not be part of the tour package, lots of other things are - including “a simulation of a suicide bombing in a Jerusalem marketplace, immediately followed by a stabbing attack, a live demonstration with attack dogs and a sniper tournament”.
Super-tough visitors can sign up for a more advanced itinerary entailing “an Entebbe-like hostage-rescue mission”. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

12 July 2017

The long reach of the US border

Al Jazeera English

Earlier this summer, an American friend of mine was returning home from Tunisia, where he had been conducting PhD research.
Checking in for his connecting flight in Paris, he was put on the phone with a representative of US Customs and Border Protection for questioning - since we all know France shares a border with the United States.
Upon reaching America proper, my friend was hauled off for interrogation at the airport in New York on subjects ranging from the details of his Twitter account to the issue of whether or not anyone had suggested he join an armed group in Libya.
You can pick your own moral of the story. One possibility, perhaps, is that academics that insist on showing an interest in certain parts of the world should build detention time into their travel itineraries.
Another - more broadly applicable to the general global population - is that, no matter where you are, the US border can be brought to you. READ MORE AT AL JAZEERA ENGLISH.

29 June 2017

Trump's America: Bring on the hate

Al Jazeera English

It's makeover time for America's Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programme - one of the many examples of US projects that were already bad enough before coming under the fearlessly sociopathic direction of Donald Trump.
Launched during the presidency of Barack Obama, CVE is ostensibly meant to prevent terrorist activity by encouraging the early detection of potential "radicalisation" of individuals.
In practice, it has often resulted in a socially destructive situation in which parents, teachers and other community members are expected to report young people to law enforcement for any activity that might be construed as suspicious.
As we know from recent US history, even the most mundane of activities - such as using a pressure cooker to prepare food - can be suspicious when performed by a Muslim and can even merit a visit from the FBI.
Granted, under Obama some efforts were made to advance the idea that CVE is not Islam-specific.
For instance, the FBI website still offers a ludicrous online activity called "Don't Be a Puppet" - designed for use in schools - in which anyone with nothing else to do can earn a certificate for successfully completing "the FBI's Countering Violent Extremism training".
I gave up after a few minutes, but in those few minutes I did find out that environmental activists can be violent extremists, too. READ MORE AT AL JAZEERA ENGLISH.

28 June 2017

Couscous, capitalism and neocolonialism in Tunisia

Middle East Eye

On the ferry from Europe to Tunisia in May, I met a middle-aged Tunisian man on his way home for a visit from the northern Italian city of Ancona, where he had worked in a plastic factory for the past 15 years. 

The man confessed that he had often questioned his decision to abandon his village near the Tunisian-Algerian border to seek work in Italy, where - contrary to popular belief, he declared - there was little proper food to be found. In his village, he said, his family grew everything they needed. He launched into an enthusiastic run-down of the bread-making process.

Unfortunately for my little-while friend and other global inhabitants, however, the current international economic order does not look kindly on hints of self-sufficiency or agricultural independence.

In a brand-new documentary Couscous: Seeds of Dignity by Tunisian geographer and academic Habib Ayeb, one Tunisian farmer incidentally laments: “You’ll see, in ten years we’ll import sandwiches from Italy. To make a sandwich, we’ll have to go get the flour from Italy.”

The film, which is so beautifully shot that one feels continuously tempted to photograph the screen, deals with issues relating to food sovereignty in Tunisia from the ground up - from the point of view of the small farmer, whose expertise and physical bond with the land have been rejected and violated at every turn by corporate-capitalist agricultural policies designed to wrest as gigantic a profit as possible from the human need to consume food. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.



21 June 2017

Colombia and the Business of Peace

The Washington Spectator

Hitchhiking across Colombia in 2009, my friend Amelia and I received a particularly memorable ride from an upbeat truck driver who careened in carefree fashion along cliffside curves while we—perched one on top of the other on the metal fixture that served as the passenger seat—endeavored to remain upright and thereby maintain some semblance of order in the universe.
The soundtrack that accompanied the experience consisted of a cassette tape with approximately four songs, one of them a catchy tune with the refrain “Yo no voy a morir”—I will not die—one of the few reassuring features of that precarious journey.
For many in Colombia, of course, Yo no voy a morir is wishful thinking, given that violent death has been a staple of the Colombian landscape for over half a century. As of the onset last year of the peace process between the Colombian government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Latin America’s longest-running civil war had left some quarter of a million people dead and displaced millions more.
But the government and the guerrillas aren’t the only parties to the conflict, which has also been sustained by ruthless paramilitary outfits that were supposedly disbanded a decade ago and yet managed almost simultaneously to reincarnate themselves.
Over the years, paramilitary exploits have included homicidal activity to facilitate the profitable extraction of local resources and homicidal collaboration with state security forces. Their funding was derived, notoriously, via bribes from multinational companies like Chiquita Brands, which was convicted in 2007 for bankrolling terrorism through its in-country operations.
Now, despite the exuberant international clamor over the prospect of peace in Colombia, the paramilitary threat has far from subsided. As usual, optimists appear to have jumped the gun. According to a short documentary released in April by Colombia-based video journalist Toby Muse, no fewer than 130 social activists had been killed in the country over the previous 15 months. “As the [FARC] rebels lay down their weapons,” Muse explains, “mafias and so-called paramilitaries are trying to take over the zones left behind.” There’s little room for justice in the mix. READ MORE AT THE WASHINGTON SPECTATOR.

13 June 2017

How not to write about Beirut

Middle East Eye

For journalists, travel writers, and anyone else looking to make a buck off of Orientalist cliche, the Lebanese capital of Beirut - pardon, the erstwhile “Paris of the Middle East” - is a one-stop shop.
There are plenty of more refined sociocultural observations to be made beyond Beirut’s usual accolades as magical meeting point between East and West, phoenix rising from the ashes, and progressive oasis of cosmopolitanism in an oppressive and conflict-ridden region.
The New York Post informs us that Beirut is “a city where women in heels shimmy on tabletops”. For the Telegraph, it’s a place where “skinny girls in hot pants and crop-tops gyrate… to thumping beats, upending bottles of vodka into the mouths of the bare-chested men dancing beside them”.
VICE, in its own typically obsessive pursuit of sensational non-insight, reports on the mind-blowing existence of Beirut bars that “offer coke-fuelled benders down the street from Hezbollah headquarters”, while the New York Times once again brings up the matter of female footwear: “Women with Louis Vuitton handbags are forever extracting their spike heels from the cracks” in the boardwalk at Zaitunay Bay, the city’s “luxury playground”.
Never mind that shimmying on tabletops and the like is not an option for Lebanese folks of various religious persuasions, in addition to being financially prohibitive in a country where the poverty rate in certain areas exceeds 60 percent. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

30 May 2017

The Tunisia emergency: From Arab Spring ideal to military poster child

Middle East Eye

In a now-signature move, the government of Tunisia on 16 May again extended the state of emergency that has been in place since a series of deadly attacks carried out by Islamic State (IS) in 2015.
The Los Angeles Times explains that Tunisia’s emergency law “gives the government stepped-up powers to deal with suspected terrorists but also curtails to a degree the rights of ordinary citizens”, such as freedom of assembly.
For many Tunisians, the Times notes, the state of emergency “harks back to days when authorities acted with impunity to quell any dissent”.
In Tunisia and beyond, of course, counter-terrorism has long been a convenient excuse for dismantling basic freedoms.
Take the United States, for example, where the war on terror has done wonders in definitively obliterating all sorts of liberties - from privacy to freedom of the press to the right to exist as an Arab-American without being spied on by law enforcement and otherwise have one’s existence criminalised.
Meanwhile, the rights and privileges of the arms industry have only increased, as the US continues to wage both overt and covert war around the globe and to dutifully stock the arsenals of an array of unsavoury allies. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

28 May 2017

The United States of insanity

Al Jazeera English

Since the ascent to power of US President Donald Trump, two discussion topics have become increasingly popular: whether or not the man is insane and whether or not it's appropriate to talk about whether or not the man is insane.
While many psychiatrists, mental health workers and media figures have abided by the idea that it is unethical to publicly debate the head of state's mental soundness, others view the taboo as reckless.
In an interview with The Independent, for example, Yale University's Dr Bandy Lee cited Trump's "taunting of North Korea" and spontaneous bombing of Syria as indications that his "instability, unpredictability and impulsivity … point to dangerousness due to mental impairment."
In February, The New York Times ran a letter to the editor signed by 35 mental health professionals concerned that Trump's "words and behaviour suggest a profound inability to empathise".
Such traits, the authors note, cause people to "distort reality to suit their psychological state, attacking facts and those who convey them".
This diagnosis would appear to be pretty spot-on, as anyone can tell from a quick glance at the president's Twitter account.
But while Trump's unregulated comportment tends to endow him with an aura of singularly unhinged dangerousness, it's worth recalling that his presidential predecessors weren't exactly racking up any points in the empathy department. READ MORE AT AL JAZEERA ENGLISH.

27 May 2017

Power for Capital’s Sake

Jacobin

Nearly two decades before George W. Bush appointed Henry Kissinger to lead the 9/11 commission — a post from which he resigned following complaints about his conflicts of interest — the former secretary of state chaired another group investigating important national security issues: The National Bipartisan Commission on Central America.
Formed in 1983 under President Ronald Reagan, the twelve-member gang issued its report in early 1984 on the “profound crisis” gripping the neighboring region, where right-wing governments and paramilitaries were waging war on leftist movements, indigenous people, and anyone else in their way.
Kissinger certainly possessed the qualifications to spearhead this operation, which Foreign Affairs described as “attempt[ing] to create a bipartisan consensus for what is basically current Administration policy toward Central America — only more so.”
Never one to pass up a good war with the old red menace, Kissinger presumably welcomed the opportunity since the dirty war in Argentina — which he had personally green-lit — had just concluded, leaving tens of thousands of victims in its wake.
In their lengthy report, the commission members professed a moral obligation to help Central America wrest itself from its dire circumstances. But they based their recommendations on something besides altruism. While the commissioners acknowledged that, in many cases, legitimate and homegrown grievances — colonial and more recent forms of oppression, widespread denial of basic rights, and extreme socioeconomic disparity — fueled popular support for leftist insurgencies, the real threat came from outside: the Soviet-Cuban axis was “seek[ing] expansion of influence through exploitation of misery.”
The report paints the “hostile powers” and “aggressive external forces” infiltrating the hemisphere as an existential danger. “Outside forces have intervened to exacerbate the area’s troubles.” “Cuba and the Soviet Union are investing heavily in efforts to expand their footholds.” “The intrusion of aggressive outside powers . . . is a serious threat to the United States.” “The crisis is on our doorstep.”
Never mind that neither Cuba nor the Soviet Union mined Nicaragua’s harbors— the United States did that in 1983, following the Sandinista revolution — or that Cuba is already located not only within the hemisphere in question but also within Latin America. Anyway, the Soviets probably put it there. READ MORE AT JACOBIN.

25 May 2017

Something is rotten in the state of Tunisia

Middle East Eye 

An hour or so after arriving in the southern Tunisian coastal city of Gabes, my throat was overtaken by an unfamiliar agitation, causing me to assume that I had either suddenly acquired asthma or inadvertently swallowed a swarm of mosquitoes.
I apologised to my companions for disrupting our stroll along the promenade with graceless coughing convulsions. Habib Ayeb - a Tunisian academic and documentary filmmaker based at the University of Paris VIII in France - quickly debunked my auto-diagnosis. “It’s the pollution.”
Gabes, which boasts the world’s only coastal oasis, unfortunately also has several other distinguishing characteristics, including comprehensive contamination.
Since the 1970s, the city has hosted an industrial zone that presently comprises phosphate refineries and other poisonous for-export operations primarily under the command of the state-owned Tunisian Chemical Group. The area has now attained the distinction of being Tunisia’s cancer capital and a general hub for human and animal afflictions.
Of course, the powers-that-be do their best to obscure this obvious cause-and-effect sequence. After all, what connection could ecosystemic malaise and rampant illness possibly have to “clouds of rotten-smelling yellow gas” emitted from smokestacks and tonnes of radioactive waste dumped into the sea?
As often happens these days in the face of existential concerns, the trusty narrative of “development” is trotted out. Factories mean jobs, so the story goes, and are thus necessary for survival - never mind if you can’t breathe. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.