21 September 2016

Radicalised nation: Fear and hypocrisy in New York

Middle East Eye

Following the recent explosions in New York City and New Jersey - one of which injured 29 people and the other of which injured none - President Barack Obama offered a typical presidential message to the American people.
The CNN website quotes his analysis that “terrorists and violent extremists… want to inspire fear in all of us, and disrupt the way we live”. The upshot, according to Obama: “We all have a role to play as citizens in making sure that we don't succumb to that fear.”
Easier said than done, perhaps - particularly when the New York City Police Department (NYPD) had just decided to bombard mobile phone users with a mass alert from the Office of Emergency Management. The subject: the explosion suspect.
An article in The Atlantic describes the unprecedented use of the emergency system, which is usually reserved for things like apocalyptic weather patterns and abducted children:
“Just before 8 in the morning on Monday [19 September], cellphones chimed in unison across New York City. It wasn’t the sound of text messages: it was a dissonant siren, repeated six times, accompanied by a short note. ‘WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen’.”
In the business of “inspir[ing] fear in all of us”, then, state security forces seem to be giving “terrorists and violent extremists” a run for their money. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

Israel and Paraguay: Two Peas in a Counterterror Pod?

TeleSUR English

While attending the 2009 General Assembly of the Organization of American States in Honduras, then-Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon sounded the alarm: “We know that there are flights from Caracas via Damascus to Tehran.” 
Although flight routes by now have presumably been altered on account of the war in Syria, the possibility of air travel between Latin America and Iran continues to serve as one of the pillars of alleged evidence that the Islamic Republic has “penetrated” the Western Hemisphere with its usual aims of bringing destabilization and terror to the United States’ “doorstep.”
Other bits of “proof” of nefarious meddling include the fact that Iran happens to maintain various embassies and cultural centers in the region. Never mind that the Iranians are not the ones penetrating Organization of American States meetings — or that Ayalon himself proclaimed in regard to Israel’s diplomatic history: “(We) have had embassies in Latin America, more embassies here than we had in many other parts of the world, even though the distance is great.”Although flight routes by now have presumably been altered on account of the war in Syria, the possibility of air travel between Latin America and Iran continues to serve as one of the pillars of alleged evidence that the Islamic Republic has “penetrated” the Western Hemisphere with its usual aims of bringing destabilization and terror to the United States’ “doorstep.”
A few years back I paid a visit to the Iranian embassy in La Paz, Bolivia, portrayed in traditional propaganda as a terror command and control center guarded by the Quds Force, an elite division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. As of 2012, it consisted of a house with a yard and a female Bolivian receptionist. The Quds Force had managed to disguise itself as a solitary Bolivian policeman.
And while the Israelis and their backers in the U.S. insist on casting as potentially apocalyptic in nature each and every diplomatic and economic maneuver in the hemisphere by Iran and other Shia entities, Israel barges ahead with its own perfectly acceptable forms of hemispheric conquest. READ MORE AT TeleSUR ENGLISH.

20 September 2016

THE STRANGE WORLD OF THE SPECIAL TRIBUNAL FOR LEBANON

Current Affairs

“Because missiles can fly through windows, the courtroom is windowless.” So reports Ronen Bergman in “The Hezbollah Connection,” an epic 8,000-word dispatch from The New York Times Magazine last year. The courtroom in question belongs to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), a United Nations-backed entity in The Hague, Netherlands. The STL is tasked with trying in absentia five Hezbollah members accused of orchestrating the 2005 bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri along with 21 others in a massive blast in Beirut. More than a decade later, as the tribunal fumbles its way toward ostensible justice from the depths of its windowless chambers, one can’t help but begin to question how any disgruntled party in Lebanon would go about firing missiles at a Netherlands courtroom 2,000 miles away.
Earlier this year in Beirut, I spoke with members of several STL defense teams who were in town interviewing “witnesses” for the tribunal. These particular witnesses were officials from Lebanese mobile phone companies, as the prosecutors’ case is in large part based on the analysis of enormous quantities of mobile phone logs, which are said to point to the five Hezbollah men. Much of the STL’s work thus consists of the endless examination of telecom information using unproven methods of co-location and link analysis. Indeed, as lawyer Philippe Larochelle—who has since resigned from his position as co-counsel for defendant Hussein Hassan Oneissi—put it to me: it’s essentially the case that “the accused are phones.”
The trial of the phones kicked off in The Hague in January 2014, following all manner of delays and detours. In one rather lengthy detour, from 2005-2009, four Lebanese generals were imprisoned without charge thanks to a recommendation by initial UN prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who was operating on a defective theory that the generals had conspired with the Syrian government to assassinate Hariri. Once a sufficient international stink had been made over the wrongful imprisonment and the generals had finally been freed, the STL fixed its attention solely on Hezbollah.
As the New York Times sees it, the STL is “necessary simply because of Hezbollah’s unique role in Lebanon and the world: Although the group is classified by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization, it is also a popular political party in Lebanon, and therefore it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for Lebanon or any other single nation to provide an appropriate venue for its prosecution.”
But “necessary” is an odd way of describing the STL to begin with. The tribunal’s singular nature makes it an unusual international priority. For one thing, it’s expensive; some half a billion dollars had already been spent as of February 2015—with Lebanon in charge of 49 percent of the bill. This is hardly small change in a country plagued by widespread poverty and a dearth of government services. During my most recent visit to Tyre, Lebanon’s fourth-largest city (located twenty minutes from the border with Israel), the area was receiving as little as two hours of government-supplied electricity per day. A November 2014 article in Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper noted that the country had just managed to fork over $36 million “in dues” to the STL despite “financial troubles, as the [Lebanese] economy reels from the impact of a massive refugee influx from Syria and ongoing security problems.” The previous December, meanwhile, the U.S. State Department issued a press statement applauding “Lebanon’s decision to fulfill its 2013 funding obligations” to the STL and emphasizing that the United States, too, had “provided strong financial support to the Tribunal since its inception, and we will continue to do so.” READ MORE AT CURRENT AFFAIRS.

15 September 2016

Pulling the wool over our eyes: An Israeli right of return for... sheep?

Middle East Eye

Shortly after the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel on Palestinian land, the Israeli Knesset passed a “Law of Return” entitling any Jew anywhere in the world to settle in the new entity.
Over the decades, this handy piece of legislation has enabled an influx of ethnically chosen ones as the spaces available to Palestinians continue to shrivel.
Anyone paying attention to actual facts on the ground rather than invented histories will of course have noticed a criminal defiance of logic.
Under the Law of Return, even people with no connection whatsoever to the territory in question are granted an inalienable right of “homecoming” to a home that isn’t theirs, while Palestinians physically born on the land - and descendants of those born there - are barred from a literal return, often condemned to a life in exile with few if any rights.Anyone paying attention to actual facts on the ground rather than invented histories will of course have noticed a criminal defiance of logic.
A new layer of absurdity has recently been added to the mix via a project dreamt up by Canadian residents Gil and Jenna Lewinsky, thanks to whom a flock of more than 100 Canadian sheep is now in the process of staging its own so-called “return” to the holy land. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

07 September 2016

Sexualising occupation: The uses and abuses of Israel’s female soldiers

Middle East Eye

One major anti-highlight of the August issue of VICE magazine is a “story” titled “The Defiant Femininity of Israel’s Female Soldiers”, which consists of a series of photographs by Israeli-born Mayan Toledano, herself a veteran of Israel’s universal draft.
In the introductory paragraph, we learn that because Toledano felt “stripped of all vestiges of femininity” and individuality during her military service, she created this photo series depicting “soldiers whose girlishness and teenage boredom act as a subtle but undeniable form of protest”.
The quality and composition of the images are hardly impressive and some could even be mistaken for advertisements for facial cleanser. The girls’ “subtle” activities include buttoning their shirts, looking at their cell phones, and lying in bed.
This is the second time in less than six months that Toledano’s Israeli woman soldier pictures have appeared at VICE. Their first appearance in March included a slightly longer intro by Maayan Goldman, who gushed about how “the young subjects fail, beautifully, to conform [and] are softly glowing in their singularity”.
Goldman again contends that, “in a way, it's their girly, teenage boredom that reflects a passive, sleepy protest against violence” - but fails to explain how complicity in an advanced killing machine might amount to a protest against violence and conformity.
To be sure, the thousands of Palestinians obliterated by the Israeli army over the past few years alone would presumably find intra-army “glowing” less than newsworthy. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

30 August 2016

In Latin America, people disappear but crimes remain

Al Jazeera English

Back in 2012, in the southern Peruvian city of Ayacucho - birthplace of the Maoist guerrilla outfit Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) - I found myself carrying a small white coffin containing the remains of a man named Alejandro Aguilar.
As I recounted at the time in a blog post for the London Review of Books, Aguilar had been an itinerant wool trader and was one of the victims of a 1984 guerrilla massacre of more than 100 Peruvians.
Twenty-eight years later, his remains had been exhumed from a mass grave and were being returned to his wife and other family members, who had travelled to Ayacucho by bus from their village more than 700 km away.
I happened to be standing nearby when a hand was needed with the coffin, and thus paid my first and last respects to Aguilar before he was loaded back on to the bus for his final journey home.
There were copious tears from the family, but they assured me they were grateful to have closure at long last. READ MORE AT AL JAZEERA ENGLISH.

26 August 2016

Honduras and Israel: A New Special Relationship

TeleSUR English

In the aftermath of the 2009 coup in Honduras, I had the opportunity to interview deposed President Manuel Zelaya, who, having been kindly escorted in his pajamas to Costa Rica by the Honduran military, had then resurfaced in Tegucigalpa and taken refuge in the embassy of Brazil. The interview took place via an intermediary inside the embassy, who conveyed my questions to Zelaya.
One topic we touched on was a comment the left-leaning Zelaya had made concerning “Israeli mercenaries” operating in Honduras. This had unleashed a predictable hullabaloo in international media, with commentators tripping over each other to portray the besieged leader as an anti-Semite extraordinaire on some sort of permanent acid trip.
In my write-up of the interview, which was published in an insignificant publication, I happened to point out that Israeli mercenaries weren’t exactly foreign to the Central American landscape. When the piece came out, the publisher of another insignificant publication—to which I had contributed some anti-coup articles—threw a fit. How dare I bring the Israelis into it; I would alienate all of Washington!
Now that the coup has restored Honduras to its rightful position as glorious hub of right-wing extremism, it’s even easier to bring the Israelis in. And current Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández knows it.In my write-up of the interview, which was published in an insignificant publication, I happened to point out that Israeli mercenaries weren’t exactly foreign to the Central American landscape. When the piece came out, the publisher of another insignificant publication—to which I had contributed some anti-coup articles—threw a fit. How dare I bring the Israelis into it; I would alienate all of Washington!
He’s currently pushing the country’s Congress to approve a military cooperation agreement with Israel that he swears is “fundamental to the growth of the Honduran nation.” READ MORE AT TeleSUR ENGLISH.

22 August 2016

Disappearing the disappeared in Lebanon

Middle East Eye

On 30 August, the International Day of the Disappeared will once again be observed.
In Lebanon, where an estimated 17,000 persons are still missing on account of the “civil” war that ravaged the country - with plenty of outside help - from 1975 until 1990, it will mark yet another year of unanswered questions for family members of the victims.
Earlier this year, I spoke with one such family member: a silver-haired man named Abed, whose younger brother, Ahmad, joined the PLO in 1983 at the age of 17 and then promptly disappeared.
Over pineapple juice in the garden of his home in the tiny south Lebanese village of Maaroub, Abed recounted the decades of futile searches for Ahmad.
During one period, the family was strung along by an enterprising fellow involved in a missing persons scam industry; in exchange for several hefty payments, he produced what he claimed was an official paper from a prison in Aleppo, Syria, confirming that Ahmad was being held there.  
An eventual visit to the jail by a Lebanese politician destroyed that myth. Reports that Ahmad had been spotted at Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh Prison also proved unfounded and the family continued to allow for the possibility that he had been delivered into the hands of either the Syrians or the Israelis by some sympathetic Lebanese formation. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

10 August 2016

Can a new UN leader change the Middle East?

Middle East Eye

As the hour draws near for the changing of the UN guard - the selection of a new secretary general - many observers have signed up to the campaign for a female leader to take the organisation’s reins for the first time in its more than 70 year history.
There are several women among the current candidates to replace Ban Ki-moon whose 10-year term expires in December, although none has done particularly well in straw polls.
But while men should certainly not continue to dominate the international scene for the rest of eternity, there’s also the question of what any individual - regardless of gender - can bring to the UN in terms of organisational change.
In the Middle East, for one, the odds of charting a new course are slim to none.
Let’s inspect one Middle Eastern country whose experience with UN operations has spanned various decades and secretaries general: Lebanon, the host of UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

07 August 2016

Security for a Post-Human World

TeleSUR English

Last summer, I received an email invitation to a terrorism conference in Tehran—the only problem being that the email was addressed not to me but to the former head of the Pakistani military. (I eventually finagled my own invitation, as well, and was able to attend as myself.)
This summer, a new addition was added to my arsenal of misdirected correspondence with the arrival to my inbox of an email bearing the subject line “Northwestern University startup - Indoor security drone.”
The email continued: “Of course, a guard still must be on site in case a human presence is required, but we believe the new technology can fundamentally change indoor security. Since you're the expert, I wanted to ask for your thoughts on how an indoor drone could be used.”In the message, the founder of a robotics startup at Northwestern University in Illinois informed me that “we're making an indoor autonomous security drone to help security guards patrol by collecting video, images, and 3D maps remotely.”
When I responded with a request to find out for whom, exactly, the dispatch had been intended, the young man wrote back: “Honestly, I used [digital services marketplace] Fiverr to purchase a $5 gig from a Bangladeshi guy who said he’d help me find a contact list of people in the security industry. He gave me a list of 11,000 contacts in a few hours.”
Ah, the wonders of technology. We can only hope that the actual production of the drones will be conducted in just as professional a fashion.
As for the notion that the devices might “fundamentally change indoor security,” there are presumably no truly revolutionary changes in store given the already existing landscape of mechanized hyper-surveillance in the United States—characterized by ubiquitous security cameras and other installations ostensibly meant to safeguard law and order.
Granted, most Americans have not yet progressed to that special level of familiarity with drones that certain blessed populations of the earth enjoy.
In the Gaza Strip, for example, the buzz of Israeli drones overhead is an acoustic mainstay of everyday life — and essentially a means of continuously terrorizing the inhabitants of the besieged coastal enclave. READ MORE AT TeleSUR ENGLISH.