Tuesday 8 April 2014

Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel: A Review

Possibly one of the most devastating books to come out about Israel in recent years, ‘Goliath’ is the new book by American journalist Max Blumenthal. Blumenthal, who earned the reputation of a critical surveyor of right-wing politics from his previous book ‘Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party’, immersed himself in Israel after the 2008-2009 Gaza war. The book chronicles contemporary Israeli society and places special emphasis on the rising younger generation of Israelis and Palestinians.
The book is a mixture of history and the contemporary, with a blend of interviews with rising starts in right-wing parties, what remains of the Israeli left, Palestinian citizens of Israel, professors, authors, journalists, dissidents, activists and many more. The impression one gets of Israeli society from the book is of a deeply insular, xenophobic, inward-looking, belligerent and highly insecure society.
It’s a society in which many associate the lessons and horrors of the Holocaust with the Palestinians. “I have got a chip on my shoulder and a click in my head, and it’s called the Holocaust”, as David Rotem, who lives on an Israeli settlement in the West Bank and a member of the Knesset for the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, told Blumenthal. Rotem, like most Israeli, never experienced the Holocaust, but uses the Holocaust to justify sponsoring anti-democratic and anti-Palestinian bills in the Knesset.

This book is a journey into the modern Israeli psyche and along the way we meet the Rabbis and youth gangs, who are trying to ‘save’ Jewish girls from falling in love with Arab men. We meet teenage refuniks, who have been to prison for refusing to do compulsory military service. We meet Palestinian members of the Knesset, who are on the verge of being outlawed. We meet African migrants, who are becoming targets of the Israeli right and we meet the right-wing activist targeting them. We meet American tourists, who attend ‘anti-terrorist’, ‘counter-insurgency’ and commando workshops in the West Bank, in a self-styled commando Disneyland.
This book has many strong point and far too many to mention, but of particular note is discussion of non-traditional violence. For those familiar with Foucault’s notion of gentrification, you will find numerous examples of this. Gentrification can be summarized as non-physical violence, for example the destruction of old neighborhoods to be replaced by modern or urban buildings and neighborhoods, which is done for ideological reasons to destroy what the old neighborhood represented. Examples in the book include the Palestinian town of Jaffa, which is south of Tel Aviv, where the old Palestinian neighborhoods are being destroyed and replaced by European structures, including the conversion of a 300-year old Mosque into Israel’s only bondage and fetish nightclub.
But with particular consequence for us in the outside world is our own complicity in the gentrification process. One particular example is the UK-owned evangelical TV station God TV, which partnered itself with the Jewish National Fund to help plant trees in the Negav desert. In order for the trees to be planted, Israel had to destroy Bedouin villages and expel the residences, and God TV helped fund the project. This shows us that what happens in Israel/Palestine is also about us.
Because of this, the book has courted some controversy, with the Nation’s Eric Alterman describing the book as “Technically accurate”, but then goes onto to attack the book and its author. Alan Dershowitz called on Bill Clinton to denounce Blumenthal’s father, who worked as a media adviser to the Clinton administration, and called on Blumenthal’s father to denounce his son. The fact that this book has caused such a commotion underlines some of the problems when it comes to discussing Israel/Palestine. But this book is essential reading because it delves deep into the society, which new reportage cannot do, and provides context to the events that take place. It also represents the experiences of many of those who have either lived or been to the country, and fundamentally, it provides insight into the trouble of peacemaking in the region.

Thursday 23 January 2014

The Meaning of Ariel Sharon

The passing of Ariel Sharon, who had been in a coma since 2006, triggered news headlines throughout the world. The 85-year old leader has been described as ‘controversial’, ‘uncompromising’, ‘man-of-peace’ and a ‘butcher’, depending on the media outlet you consume. Moving beyond both narratives of ‘man-of-peace’ and ‘the butcher’, what Ariel Sharon represents is the greatest obstacle to regional peace. Sharon represents the militaristic strand within Israel and there are many leaders in Israel who have taken from his brutish mantle. Sharon’s view can be summed up as this, ‘The Arabs’ understand only one language-force-hit them and hit them hard. It’s not a surprise that when Noam Chomsky was asked for his reaction to his death on Democracy Now he responded “There is a convention which says never speak ill of the dead. It’s rather imposing one, because (in this case) there would be nothing to say.”

Ariel Sharon was born during The British Mandate of Palestine in 1928, and his original name was Ariel Scheinermann, but he (like most of Israel’s early leaders) Hebrewised his name later on. From a young age he was involved in Jewish militias and took up arms as a teenager. After the creation of the State of Israel, Sharon joined the newly formed Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and would later go on to lead Israel’s first paramilitary force Unit 101. However, Unit 101 and Ariel Sharon was responsible for a number of war crimes including the 1953 Qibya massacre, in-which 70 Palestinian civilians were murdered. Sharon was never punished for his role in this massacre and as his career progressed so did the massacres. The closest Sharon came to being held to account was the 1982 Lebanon invasion.      

Lebanon was in the middle of a brutal civil war and Sharon wanted Israel to directly intervene into Lebanon and smash the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and to help his Christian allies create a Christian state in Lebanon. He had a secret alliance with Bashir Al-Gemayel, who was the leader of Maronite Christian faction the Phalange (The Death Squad), the alliance meant that Phalange forces would support Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and the Israelis would support the Phalange in taking power. Sharon was Israel’s defence minister and he actively manipulated, withheld information and distorted facts to both the general public and his own cabinet. The war was ultimately a failure and after the 1982, Sabra and Shatilla massacre carried out by the Phalange with the support of Israel, a Knesset inquiry found Sharon personally responsible for the massacre and he was forced to resign. 

Sharon’s made a political come-back in 2000 following the collapse of the peace process and the Second Intifada (Palestinian uprising) began. Sharon never believed in the peace process and he wanted to eliminate Arafat and the Palestinian authority. He lay siege to the West Bank and made Palestinian lives unlivable.

 He was the first Israeli Prime Minster to oversee the creation of the Separation Wall, which divides the West Bank up, and has been ruled to be illegal under international law. The Wall is longer than the Berlin Wall. Some Western leaders’ credit Sharon for the ‘disengagement from Gaza’ in-which he evacuated Jewish settlements from Gaza.

However, removing settlements from Gaza and allowing Palestinian bodies to control the inside of Gaza was not his idea. Since the beginning of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993, Israel has tried to handover direct rule of the day to day running of Gaza. There was little economic, political and strategic incentive to keep doing this. Sharon removed settlements and Israel’s direct control inside Gaza, but maintained control of all of Gaza’s borders and set Gaza up for the siege it’s currently under. Sharon may be gone, but many of those who successes him seek to emulate him. Sharon was the living embodiment of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s ‘Iron Wall’, but the trouble with this militant brand of politics is that it has endangered Israel’s existence as a state. Israel has brutalized both the Palestinians and neighbouring Arab states for over sixty-years, and in many cases the wars between them were unnecessary and initiated by Israel. Israel has consistently stalled on real peace settlements-as can be seen with the Palestine papers.

Instead of creating a long-standing Jewish state, Sharonism and Jabontinskism, will re-enact the biblical story of Samson and lead the country down the path of self-destruction. And it is this, that will be Sharon’s real legacy.  


Tuesday 14 January 2014

3 Ways Bashar Al-Assad Uses Female Sex Appeal in Propaganda

There is an old dictum that says sex is a weapon of war. The Syrian Civil War is ongoing proof of this dictum. Very little is written about sexual and gender politics in Syria. We occasionally hear about the prevalence of rape, but not often. These stories usually (but not exclusively), involve regime soldiers or security forces abusing women suspected of being with the opposition.
As the Syrian regime attempts to disguise these crimes, the media has become a central battlefield for the regime. Syrian TV and social media are attempting to spread the message that the regime is an adamant protector of women's rights. Much media attention has been paid to the president's wife Asma al-Assad as a "beautiful, modern, westernized, liberated and uncovered" woman.   
The Syrian media consistently showcases "attractive, liberated, and uncovered" women arguing on behalf of the regime. Sex in Syria is a psychological weapon. To truly understand this, one must juxtapose the image of these "liberated women" next to the "bearded" rebels. A narrative emerges based on these contrasting images. These are three media through which the Syrian regime channels this message. 
1. Syrian Girl

There are many pro-regime commentators on social media, but Mimi Al-Laham, or Syrian Girl, has caused an online sensation. She has appeared regularly on Russian Today, Press TV, and on channels in Australia. She has appeared most frequently on Alex Jones's online show and runs her own channel on YouTube. The videos she posts on YouTube receive upwards of 163,000 views. On Google, her name followed by the word "hot" returns just under 50,000 results. Mimi, who is believed to be the granddaughter of a government minister, uses her channel to promote conspiracy theories, pro-regime, and anti-opposition rhetoric.


2. Syrian Television News

BBC Arabic News's documentary "Inside Syria: Reporting for Al-Assad" involved the network sending a reporter to Al-Ikhbariyya station. The network is famous for embedding reporters in the Syrian army on the battlefront. Particularly, they send "young, attractive, and uncovered" female reporters to the front lines. In fact, while up to 60% of Syrian women wear a hijab, almost none of the female personalities on Syrian state-owned T.V. station seem to. This is no accident as the regime is demonstrating its commitment to liberalism and women's rights. A woman wearing the hijab represents the opposition to Assad and Ba'athism, according to the state's ideology. An unveiled women represents the "ideals" of Ba'athism, as it symbolizes "progress, independence and modernity."

3. Female Soldiers

There are only a handful of female soldiers in the regime's army, but this has not stopped the propaganda machine from churning out these images. Whether its Russia Today broadcasting female soldiers shouting pro-Assad slogans, or Syrian Music channels broadcasting femalesingers dressed in military overalls singing about the army, the image of the pro-regimist woman is of a fighter who will "resist" oppositionist "oppression." When juxtaposed with the image of "Al-Qaeda," opposition creates a powerful narrative. These narratives are false. The regime has committed brutal crimes against women and children. The idea behind these images is to reverse reality, and that is why they is so dangerous.   

Meet the Syrian Women who aren't Afraid to Face Assad

The image of Syria in the Western media is an overwhelmingly masculine one. We see bearded men of the oppositional rebel forces carrying guns and fighting. The entire crisis has been simplified to an armed rebellion led by extremist oppositional figure and regime forces. The civil uprising no longer exists. Women are often depicted as the passive victims of this conflict.
These assumptions are wrong. Aisha (not her real name) is from central Syria and is a committed activist, who believes that freedom, dignity and rights cannot be killed or destroyed, regardless of what the Assad's regime does. As well as, being a prominent activist and citizen journalist, her voice is important because it represents the forgotten voice of the Syrian revolution. She reminds us that while there is an armed uprising, there is still civilian opposition.     
Q: What role do female activists continue to play?
Aisha: "Women play a diverse and critical role in the struggle. We are active mainly in civil oppositional activities, which include blogging, reporting, protesting, assisting and helping the local communities in which we live. In many local oppositional committees, women are important organisers of events and in some cases help to form some of the leadership roles."
Q: What are the female activists' relationships like with the rebels?
Aisha: "Women like all Syrians have mixed relations with the rebels. Not many, but some women have joined the rebels; there are female snipers in the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Others assist the rebels in other ways, when the armed rebellion began, it was women who would go and collect information on the movements and positions of Assad's forces. Even now, when rebels liberate a village or town it's women who take them into their homes and treat their injures and feed them. This happened recently in the Christian town of Maaloula- when the rebels entered the town they told the locals, that they weren't the target, the regime was. And the local nuns invited the rebels into the church and feed and clothed them. Of course the regime later lied about what happened there."
Q: But aren't some of the rebels' violent extremists who will oppress women? Aren't you worried about the effects of violence?
Aisha: "Okay, fine. Some factions of the rebels like Islamic State in the Levant and Iraq (ISLI), but women activists have taken action against these groups. You know, in northern Syria there were towns were hard line Islamist affiliated groups took control off. And when they began imposing restrictions on women, the local women fought back and staged mass protests. The group had to back away from some of the measures because of it.
But you have to remember two things. Firstly, most oppositional groups including rebel groups are local. They are full of local guys, who fight for local issues, and women play an important role in those local committees. They cannot disregard what women want. Secondly, not all the opposition to the regime is militaristic. There is still an active civil opposition to the Assad regime. In many towns there are weekly protests against the regime still. Plus, it is not as if the regime can claim to be the protector of women's rights. They openly rape and imprison women ... in parts of Central Syria the regime soldiers look for Sunni women to kidnap and rape. Just before Homs fell to the regime a few months ago, Assad's forces kidnapped 100 women from neighbouring town and forced them to march ahead of the army as they entered oppositional areas. To get the opposition to surrender. They use this tactic. In some towns they get the women to strip naked and then march."
Q: What were your opinions on an American military strike?
Aisha: "Syrians are divided over this questions. Many Syrians supported the idea and held up signs in anti-regime protests saying 'We are against the Syrian military intervention into Syria.' Others were against. For me it depends on their intentions. But now they have cut a deal with the regime, it is clear they do not care about the Syrian people".

Thursday 26 December 2013

Robert Kaplan: The Reproduction of ‘Knowledge’ a critique

Robert Kaplan is one of America’s top foreign correspondent and was named one of the ‘world’s top 100 global thinkers’ by Foreign Policy Magazine. With over 30-years of journalistic experience, his books give you tremendous insight into how ‘foreign policy elites’ in the United States perceive the world. Kaplan likes to think of himself as a big thinker and big ideas man.

However, I find his works archaic, unoriginal, uneven and generally over-simplified. I picked up his book ‘Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and The Future of American Power’, which I had hoped would be full of useful insight. The basic thesis of the book is that the Indian Ocean is now the key strategic centre for global power and control and access to the Indian Ocean will determine the future of great power politics and more importantly who can be considered a ‘great power’.  He argues that the real contest in the Indian Ocean is between India and China, but other states such as Burma, Pakistan, Oman, Bangladesh and Indonesia also play a pivotal role.

The first problem I had with the book was I don’t feel I learnt about the Indian, Pakistani, Chinese or Burmese discourse on Indian Ocean power politics. Instead I learned about the American ‘foreign policy elites’ discourse on these countries and their position. Keep in mind that this book was written for that audience, and like a lot of successful writers and journalists, his works reflect the social and political prejudices of the audience. He himself comes from this audience and thus his book can be understood more in terms of reproducing knowledge with a more contemporary twist, rather than challenging and introducing new knowledge to his audience. Anyone who seeks hard-hitting critical analysis on Indian, Pakistani, Chinese or Burmese discourses are better off looking else wares.   

This problem manifests itself throughout the book and this colours everything he attempts to do. Like many Western Journalists, he cannot speak the local languages of the countries he reports from. He has a tendency to rely on English speaking elites and sub-elites to inform him on local politics. He does critique some of what they say; however there is only so much you can critique, if you are unable to speak the local languages for the simple reason that beyond them you have nothing to compare them too. Because of the more globalist rather than localist nature of his book, he is unable to provide comprehensive analysis of the countries he’s in and often resorts to sweeping generalisations in order to support the thesis of the book. There are countless examples of this and to go through all of them would be time-consuming and pointless. It will be immediately obvious to you, if you pick the book up.

His contention that borders are artificial is quite correct, however he degenerates with his ill-define notion of illogical countries. By Illogical he means states that he perceives to have no basis of existence, no ‘scientific’ or ‘empirical’ reason for being and yet they do exist. But what this distinction implies is that some states do have ‘scientific’ or ‘empirical’ reasons for being. He frequently makes unqualified statement such as Pakistan and Iraq are the most illogical states conceived and make no sense. By unqualified, I mean he offers no real explanation or definition as to what he means by this and there’s an automatic assumption that the audience should understand what he means (which of course is based on their cultural prejudices about these places). This discourse of natural and unnatural states is unfortunately a very common prejudice in western political science and international relations.            

The other example of these unqualified and yet crucial statements he makes is about democracy. He correctly, points out that Americans only understand democracy in terms of the legalistic and functionalities. But they tend to disregard ‘informal democracy’ which is less reliant of legal functionalities and more on the practise of power. This is an interesting critique, however, he does not expand on this thesis and the rest of the time when he speaks about democracy it’s unclear what he understands democracy to be. Again the assumption here is that you ‘should know’ what he means, but the highly problematic nature of this assumption makes the book archaic.

He has one long chapter on Pakistan and focuses on two provinces, Sind and Baluchistan, both very interesting, complex and important subjects. However, he does not explore the complex social dynamics of these two places. He does talk about Baluchi and Sindi separatists, which is very much welcome as they are not discussed enough. But he again does not explore the details of these movements and their social dynamics; he talks to one or two English speaking Baluchi activists and one or two Sindhi activists and takes much of what these two say at face value. He makes no real attempt (at least that can be detected in the book) to talk to a wide range of activist nor does he go into the streets and speak to non-activist peoples in these regions. The rest of the chapter he spends his time listing the many failing of the Pakistani state, which is fair enough as they are pretty numerous, he then concludes in the ten-years he has been visiting the country he has seen no ‘progress’ and that Pakistan is a ‘semi-failing state’.  He could find no basis for the existence of Pakistan.
My own position (which I may expand upon in a later post) is that the Pakistani state does not fare well and looks failed when compared to Sweden. It fails to live up to the ideals of the western enlightenment and their notions of state. However, the Pakistani state needs to be judged in relative terms to the region it’s in, and not only to western philosophical ideas about the state. Next to India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan the Pakistani state does not fare too badly. Scholars like Anatol Lieven, would locate Pakistan in the ‘South Asian’ model of state-formation and classes Pakistan to be average and not failed. There is an enormous discrepancy between India and Pakistan in terms of the economy and private sector, but in terms of the state they are more evenly matched. I will expand on this notion further in a later post.

But back to Kaplan’s book. After leaving Pakistan we are treated to numerous chapters on India, but again much of the same problem exist here too. He spends most of the book with a few English speaking elites and he spoke briefly to some NGO and charity workers. But the bulk of his talks were with Indian military leaders and strategic analysts. He had an extensive interview with Narendra Modi, who is a member of the BJP, and was blamed for the massacre of Muslims in the 2002 Gujarat riots. The BJP are right-wing Hindu nationalist who are famed for their extreme anti-Muslim hatred. It’s perfectly reasonable to interview Mr Modi and try and understand him and Kaplan does an interesting job of revealing his complex character. But there is a discrepancy here, while he rightly tries to explore the complex nature of Hindu far-right politics, he does not do the same for Islamists and often use the term pejoratively (negatively) as if they are a void with no social context.

He also discusses some of India’s ‘internal’ problem with Kashmir and other places, but interestingly, he does not do what he did in Pakistan. He did not speak to a single activist or anyone from these areas and he would make unqualified categorical statements. When he does discuss some of India’s ‘internal’ problem he only discusses them in passing and keep’s ‘re-assuring’ the reader that India is a democracy. He consistently adds this statement ‘India is a democracy’, but does not give an explanation of how democratic India can overcome these ‘internal’ troubles. He also spends a number of long chapters discussing India, which stands in contrast to his chapter on other countries.

He had a very short chapter on Bangladesh, which was quite frankly, not worth reading because he did not say very much. The same problem exists for his chapters on Sri Lanka, Zanzibar and others. Even China did not get the treatment it deserved, but what I found perplexing, is that while he spoke of ethnic division in other places. There was little reference to this with India and China and was like he was sub-consciously suggesting that these two places were homogenous. It not ethnic division it’s diversity type of argument.

He seems to like Indonesia, but he suggests that Islamism was little threat in Indonesia because of the ‘plurality’ of Islam and its tolerance in Indonesia. This was in contrast to the ‘Islam’ in the Middle East, which was singular and almost Wahabbi-like.

These are some of the major flaws in the book and because they are so numerous this book misses for me. However, it’s an important read if you wish to understand how ‘foreign policy elites’ think about the world. I would give it three stars out of ten.